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McArthur Grants

October 4, 2002

During an otherwise enjoyable afternoon meeting at Amicas, my companion suddenly knitted his brow. He remembered something.

“They announced the MacArthur genius grants today,” he said. “Neither of us was on the list.”

“Not again!”

We commiserated silently.

“One young woman makes room-sized installations entirely out of beads,” he said. I could hear the animus-turned-resignation in his voice. He photographs with an old, labor-intensive technology. Perhaps he felt a grudging respect; her masterwork took five years to assemble.

But she’s only 33. I looked at the list. Of 24 MacArthur Fellows named this year, 14 are younger than me, but all were younger than my friend. Statistically, at least, I still have a chance.

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation chooses 20-40 recipients per year for what are commonly called “genius grants” — $500,000 over five years, with no restrictions — intended to be intellectual “venture capital.”

Here’s the tally this year: 10 scientists; two each of novelists, artists, musicians; and one historian, journalist, policy maker, economist, choreographer, literary scholar, film maker, and urban archivist.

I found some future reading here. The intellectual historian Ann Blair studies early European efforts to classify knowledge. One of her books examines in detail the commonplace book of a Renaissance scholar (see this column from May 25, 2001 for a discussion of commonplace books).

Physicist Paul Ginsparg bears a striking resemblance to Salida’s own Paul Byars. He is an accomplished physicist, but the grant recognizes his experimental system for disseminating research results on the Internet, bypassing traditional peer review processes.

This happens to be one of the trends in publishing that worries me. Peer review may be cumbersome and slow, and I’m sure it has happened that novel ideas were ignored by intellectually entrenched curmudgeons, but peer review is an effective method for verifying scientific claims.

You may remember the fuss about cold fusion in 1989. Those scientists went to the press first. Too bad.

I was delighted to see two novelists listed. The library has one book by Colson Whitehead, “The intuitionist,” which I’ve noticed because the title reminds me of a book I liked: “The alienist.”

The other novelist is Karen Hesse, a noted children’s author. We have five of her titles. I’ve noticed these, too, because of their historical settings and some timely titles: “Out of the dust” and “Come on, rain!”

A 39-year-old professor from University of Colorado-Boulder is a computational linguist who studies both computer algorithms and human language to improve computer processing of natural language. Dude, I hope he chills about the dough and gets himself a phat ride.

The youngest recipient is 29-year-old Sendhil Mullainathan, an economist at M.I.T. I looked for some of his journal articles, because he hasn’t published any books of his work yet. I found nine hits in a database available through the library — EBSCO Business Source Premier.

His research is summed up as revealing “how limits on knowledge, willpower, and self-interest affect economic behavior.” It’s not as obvious as it seems.

There are many thousands of hard-working, talented people for each of these winners. Just think of the fascinating people you know in Salida alone. When you read about these winners and think about this ratio, you can’t help but feel good about the future.

I think students should read about the winners. If nothing else, they will get a glimpse at “careers your guidance counselor never told you about.”

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