It's time for those 'genius' fellows

The Baltimore Sun

It's one of my favorite days of the year, the announcement of the MacArthur "genius" grants.

With its mix of brains and bucks, the annual awarding of the grants is something like Powerball for the deserving. If it's not quite a mega-millions payout, getting $500,000 plus the label of "genius" seems like the perfect comeback to that old taunt, "If you're so smart, why aren't you rich?"

"The thing it really did," said Ellen Silbergeld, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who won a grant in 1993, "is give you a sense of empowerment and daring. It gives you this sense of freedom."

The first thing Silbergeld, a renowned toxicologist, did with the grant - $290,000 her year - was fund her research in mercury exposure among gold miners in Brazil. That, and buy a harpsichord.

"Someone who had been awarded a MacArthur told me, whatever you do with this money, you have to do something you never would have done. It was Sidney Wolfe," she said, referring to the outspoken public health activist. "As soon as he said it, I knew what I wanted to do - buy a harpsichord. He was absolutely right."

Funding important research and a heart's desire seems entirely in keeping with the spirit of the genius grants.

Actually, the "genius" label is something the media has tagged on the awards over the years; the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation eschews the term, saying it makes the award seem limited to intellect rather than the more encompassing "exceptional creativity" that serves as its guiding principle.

This year's 24 fellows boast the MacArthur's now trademark mix of the super-intelligent (two nanotechnologists and a neuroroboticist) and the coolly artistic (a Mississippi Delta bluesman and the portraitist who incorporates found objects in his work), the thinkers whose specialties speak to concerns of the moment (the psychologist who uses Homer's Iliad and Odyssey to treat war vets) and, as always, someone who works to preserve an indigenous culture (the director of a museum devoted to the Alutiiq tribe of Kodiak, Alaska).

With its secretive nomination and selection process, the MacArthur grants are enveloped in a certain mystique. The grant somehow seems less politically suspect than other awards because you can't apply or lobby for it - it has to find you. You even have to wait for the foundation to ask you to serve as one of the hundreds of nominators allowed to suggest possible grant winners, and it's probably easier to get into Skull and Bones than to join the 12-member selection committee that makes the final recommendations.

There's also a certain sense of cool - in addition to the usual complement of certifiable geniuses such as the Baltimore-born physicist Edward Witten and novelist Thomas Pynchon, the MacArthur winners tend to include unusual choices: a blacksmith (Tom Joyce of Santa Fe, N.M.), a clown (Bill Irwin) and sculptors of sound (the uni-named Trimpin) and light (James Turrell).

Maybe after 26 years and what is now 756 "geniuses," it was inevitable, but oddball choices have seemed fewer and farther between in recent years. (I think they missed the boat on the late Paul Darmafall, the so-called Baltimore Glassman, who made weird but beguiling mosaics of broken glass and found pieces of wood.) Even the artists in the group tend not to be toiling in some obscure backwoods, but in New York, and often have as many university degrees as the scientists. If there's one criticism of the awards that doesn't come off as sour grapes, it's that they tend to reward the established rather than up-and-coming.

Still, reading through each year's recipients is like reading through the most interesting dinner party guest list. This year, you can imagine the spider-silk biologist sitting next to the short-story writer and ending up as a character in his next work. Or maybe the spider-silk biologist would be a better seat mate for the co-founder of the Squid Labs technology company. Would you put the Chinese modern dancer next to the forensics anthropologist or the environmental geographer - or maybe play it safe and go with the classical singer? Maybe the playwright could sit next to the medieval historian, or the bee behaviorist?

Or maybe not. Silbergeld said she once went to a gathering of MacArthur fellows - and once was enough. "I didn't like it at all - it seemed like a bunch of people standing around trying to see who was the smartest," she said. It was organized by one of the recipients and not the foundation, which Silbergeld said truly gives you the grant with no strings attached or expecting anything in return. "They don't want reports," she said. "They don't want to hear from you."

This year's recipients from Maryland - Johns Hopkins public health researcher Lisa Cooper and University of Maryland geographer Ruth DeFries - join a pretty distinguished local group. If our area hasn't dominated the awards (a crunching of the MacArthur bios that the online magazine Slate did in 2000 found that New York and the San Francisco Bay area tend to produce the most "geniuses," while Harvard, Stanford and Berkeley get the bragging rights among university professors), we make it up in quality.

Among previous local winners are writer Taylor Branch, who was a third of the way into his now-completed civil rights trilogy when he won it in 1991; all sorts of Hopkins professors, from Silbergeld to Brad Leithauser, who is joining the writing seminars faculty in January; to psychologist Kay Redfield Jamison; and new BSO music director Marin Alsop, whose award came in 2005 just after her appointment to the symphony.

If you include those who were born or raised in Baltimore, you have poet Adrienne Rich, dancer Martha Clarke, writer and performer Anna Deavere Smith, pharmaceutical entrepreneur Victoria Hale, and Michael Massing, the co-founder of the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Now that actually does seem like it could be a great dinner party.


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