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MacArthur 'Genius' Grants Honor Humanities and Sciences

Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran is among 23 fellows receiving $500,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (file photo)
Jazz pianist and composer Jason Moran is among 23 fellows receiving $500,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (file photo)

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its 2010 "Genius" Fellowships on Wednesday.  Each of this year's 23 fellows will be given $500,000 over five years to use as they see fit.  Our correspondent spoke with several of the winners about their work.

The recipients of this year's MacArthur Fellowships represent an array of interests - including anthropology, sign language linguistics, quantum astrophysics, jazz improvisation and sculpture.

According to the MacArthur Foundation, which awards what it calls "genius grants," the recipients are "talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits, and a marked capacity for self-direction."

Self-direction was a necessity for Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard University, whose controversial book "The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family," won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize in History and the 2008 National Book Award for non-fiction.  The book chronicles the relationship between Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence and America's third president, and Sally Hemings, his African American slave, whom the book alleges bore several of his children.

Gordon-Reed says the MacArthur money will help pay expenses for her current research.

"I think my work is about the complexity of America's past," she said. "America was never just a white nation.  It was a nation of white people, black people, [and] Native American people.  And my work shows that by incorporating the stories of all people into the telling of American origins.  It is a new way of looking at history, and through the life of Jefferson, a person who is a seminal figure in American history."

It is a changing China and its impact on everyday life that fascinates MacArthur Fellow Yiyun Li, a fiction writer who has received near-universal acclaim for her books "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" and "The Vagrants," and whose newest work, "Gold Boy, Emerald Girl," was published this month.

"I am not interested in statistics," she said. "I am interested in individual stories.  When you write fiction, when you write about human beings, you are interested in their inner world and their inner world changes much more slowly than the outside world.  So I think storytelling allows you to go deeper, if not broader."

Animals living in the sea are the focus for MacArthur Fellow John Dabiri, an aeronautics professor at the California Institute of Technology.  

"We study jellyfish, [and] how they swim from an engineering perspective, trying to understand what makes them efficient, how they are able to swim quickly and maneuverability," said Dabiri. "And then we take those ideas and try to apply them to various technologies.  The most direct connection is with underwater vehicles.  But we have also done work on wind energy inspired by what we have learned from the animals, and also doing things like trying to develop more effective ways to diagnose heart failure on the basis of what we know about the swirling current that jellyfish make when they swim."

How will Dabiri spend his half-million dollar MacArthur fellowship?

"I am going to have to pray on that one," he said. "The immediate thing will certainly be swim lessons.  The running joke is that I cannot swim.  And it is odd for someone who studies jellyfish not to able to [swim].  So that should get me a good set of lessons and we will take it from there."  

While turning ideas into reality often is a group effort, it is the spirit of individual creativity that the MacArthur Foundation celebrates and supports.

According to the Foundation, fellows can be counted on to use their awards to "find or make something new or to connect the seemingly unconnected in significant ways."  In that sense, all Americans might benefit.

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