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MacArthur Fellows 2010

October 5, 2010

The MacArthur Foundation "Genius Grants" for 2010 were just announced,[1-2] and there were quite a few scientists represented, most of whom were from the universities at which you would expect such things. Actually, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, well known to public television fans for their largess, would prefer that people didn't call these "Genius Grants." Their preferred phrase refers to the recipients as "MacArthur Fellows."

In any case, this is a big thing. Each fellow gets an unrestricted grant of half a million dollars. An artist getting such a payout is free to pursue her art, but what does a practicing scientist do with the monetary equivalent of a Nobel Prize? A tenured professor could take a year's sabbatical to write a book, with enough money left over to buy copies for all his friends.

I wrote about the 2008 MacArthur Fellows in a previous article (Genius Grants, September 25, 2008). In that article I listed alphabetically some familiar past recipients of these fellowships:
• J. Roger Angel (1996), an astronomer who designs innovative telescopes.
• Timothy Berners-Lee (1998), the computer scientist who invented the World Wide Web.
• Mitchell J. Feigenbaum (1984), a mathematical physicist who became interested in chaos theory and discovered the Feigenbaum constants.
• Margaret Joan Geller (1990), an astrophysicist and co-discoverer of the Great Wall.
• Paul Ginsparg (2002) a physicist who started the arXiv physics preprint archive.
• Claire Gmachl (2005), an optical engineer known for the development of quantum cascade lasers and novel optical devices.
• John J. Hopfield (1983) a physicist best known for the Hopfield Neural Network.
• Julia Robinson (1983), a mathematician known for her work on Hilbert's Tenth Problem, which involves Diophantine equations.
• Richard M. Stallman (1990), a computer scientist who started the free software movement. He created the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation.
• Andrew J. Wiles (1997), a mathematician who proved Fermat's Last Theorem.
• Frank Wilczek (1982), a physicist who elucidated some properties of the strong nuclear force. Wilczek shared the 2004 Nobel Prize in Physics.
• Edward Witten (1982), a physicist working on String Theory. Witten was awarded the Fields Medal, the mathematics equivalent of a Nobel Prize, in 1990.
• Stephen Wolfram (1981), a computer scientist and physicist famous for his work on cellular automata and creation of the Mathematica computer program. Wolfram is also the author of the controversial book, "A New Kind of Science."

Joining these are the following scientists who are 2010 Fellows:
• Amir Abo-Shaeer (Age: 38), a Physics Teacher at the Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (Goleta, CA), for "inspiring and preparing public high school students for careers in science and mathematics through an innovative curriculum that integrates applied physics, engineering, and robotics."
• Kelly Benoit-Bird (Age: 34), a Marine Biologist at Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR), for "using sophisticated acoustic engineering technology to explore the previously invisible behavior of ocean creatures and address long-unanswered questions about the structure and behavior of food chains."
• Drew Berry (Age: 40), a Biomedical Animator at the Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (Melbourne, Australia), for "enhancing our under-standing of a wide range of biological processes and systems by synthesizing data from a variety of fields into scientifically accurate, aesthetically rich visualizations."
• Carlos D. Bustamante (Age: 30), a Population Geneticist at the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA), for "mining DNA sequence data to address fundamental questions about the mechanisms of evolution, the complex origins of human genetic diversity, and patterns of population migration."
• John Dabiri (Age: 30), a Biophysicist at the California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA), for "investigating the hydrodynamics of jellyfish propulsion, which has profound implications for our understanding of evolutionary adaptation and such related issues in fluid dynamics as blood flow in the human heart."
• Michal Lipson (Age: 40), an Optical Physicist at Cornell University (Ithaca, NY), for "working at the intersection of fundamental photonics and nanofabrication engineering to design silicon-based photonic circuits that are paving the way for practical optical computing devices."
• Nergis Mavalvala (Age: 42), a Quantum Astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA), for "linking optics, condensed matter, and quantum mechanics in research that enhances our ability to detect and quantify gravitational radiation."
• Dawn Song (Age: 35), a Computer Security Specialist at the University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA), for "exploring the deep interactions among software, hardware, and networks to increase the stability of computer systems vulnerable to remote attack or interference."
• Marla Spivak (Age: 55), an Entomologist at the University of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN), for "protecting one of the world's most important pollinators, the honey bee, from decimation by disease while making important contributions to our understanding of bee biology."
For those of you who think women are underrepresented in science, this list has four men and five women.

Who is considered a genius today? The British newspaper, The Daily Telegraph, published a list of living geniuses in 2007.[3] The list was developed from a multitude of nominations, and the nominees were scored by a panel of "creativity and innovation" experts against criteria such as intellectual power and cultural importance. Here are the top eleven names from that list. I went one more than ten to include Grigori Perelman, whom I wrote about in a previous article (Grigori Perelman, July 6, 2010).
• Albert Hoffman, Swiss chemist and discoverer of LSD.
• Timothy Berners-Lee, British computer scientist and a MacArthur Fellow.
• George Soros, American businessman and philanthropist.
• Matt Groening, American satirist and creator of many animated series.
• Nelson Mandela, South African politician and diplomat.
• Frederick Sanger, British chemist and recipient of two Nobel Prizes in chemistry.
• Dario Fo, Italian Writer, Dramatist and Nobel Prize winner.
• Stephen Hawking, British physicist and retired Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University.
• Oscar Niemeyer, Brazilian architect and "artist with reinforced concrete."
• Philip Glass, One of my favorite American composers.
• Grigori Perelman, Russian mathematician and eccentric in the tradition of Paul Erdos.
Ludwig Wittgenstein (1910)

Ludwig Wittgenstein (1910).

If we consider all historical geniuses, Albert Einstein is the first person usually called to mind. I'm somewhat partial to Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein wrote about the philosophy of science. His writing was sparse, in the form of "sound bites," long before these had run rampant in the media. An example is the following from his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:
"The world is the totality of facts, not things."
Of course, it's best to resort to a little argumentum ad auctoritatem and quote Bertrand Russell's assessment of Wittgenstein as
"... a perfect example of genius - passionate, profound, intense, and dominating."


  1. 23 New MacArthur Fellows Announced, MacArthur Foundation Press Release, September 28, 2010.
  2. MacArthur Fellows Program: Meet the 2010 Fellows, MacArthur Foundation, September 28, 2010.
  3. Top 100 living geniuses, Telegraph(UK), October 28, 2007.

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Linked Keywords: MacArthur Foundation; public television; Nobel Prize; sabbatical; J. Roger Angel; Timothy Berners-Lee; Mitchell J. Feigenbaum; chaos theory; Feigenbaum constants; Margaret Joan Geller; Great Wall; Paul Ginsparg; arXiv; Claire Gmachl; quantum cascade lasers; John J. Hopfield; Hopfield Neural Network; Julia Robinson; Hilbert's Tenth Problem; Diophantine equations; Richard M. Stallman; GNU Project; Free Software Foundation; Andrew J. Wiles; Fermat's Last Theorem; Frank Wilczek; strong nuclear force; Nobel Prize in Physics; Edward Witten; String Theory; Fields Medal; Stephen Wolfram; cellular automata; Mathematica; A New Kind of Science; Amir Abo-Shaeer; Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy (Goleta, CA); Kelly Benoit-Bird; Oregon State University (Corvallis, OR); Drew Berry; Walter & Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (Melbourne, Australia); Carlos D. Bustamante; California Institute of Technology (Pasadena, CA); John Dabiri; Michal Lipson; Cornell University (Ithaca, NY); Nergis Mavalvala; Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Cambridge, MA); Dawn Song; University of California, Berkeley (Berkeley, CA); Marla Spivak; University of Minnesota (St. Paul, MN); The Daily Telegraph; Albert Hoffman; LSD; George Soros; Matt Groening; Nelson Mandela; Frederick Sanger; Dario Fo; Stephen Hawking; Oscar Niemeyer; reinfored concrete; Philip Glass; Grigori Perelman; Paul Erdos; Albert Einstein; Ludwig Wittgenstein; Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus; argumentum ad auctoritatem; Bertrand Russell.