MacArthur "Genius Grants" Show Midlife's Creative Possibilities
The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation just named the 2010 MacArthur Fellows, who will each receive $500,000 in "no strings" support over the next five years. The awards generally go to people who are creative enough to look for game-changing scientific or social solutions to the world's problems, or to push the envelope of artistic expression.
This year's list of 23 winners says a lot about the foundation's faith in the creative potential of midlife, midcareer people in their 40s and older. The average age of the recipients is 43, and five of them are 50 or older.
The most familiar boomer name on the list is journalist and author-turned-television-producer David Simon (pictured above). A former reporter for the Baltimore Sun, Simon's nonfiction book about Baltimore detectives inspired the 1990s TV series Homicide: Life on the Street, which gets my vote as the best cop show ever. He's gone on to write and produce the HBO series The Corner and The Wire. His current HBO project, Treme, explores the struggles of characters in post-Katrina New Orleans.
In a Washington Post article on the awards, the famously volatile Simon confesses that when he received a voice-mail message last week from an attorney who wanted to discuss "a personal matter," he was nonplussed by the thought that he was being hit with a lawsuit or a subpoena. Instead, he was shocked to learn that he was a MacArthur recipient--and embarrassed when he compared himself to past awardees. "The majority of them are involved in endeavors that are very tangible--efforts to combat poverty or economic disparities, or improve the environment." His own journalistic and fictional TV storytelling, he says, seemed "a bit secondary or off-point" by comparison. (Personally, I think he's being too self-effacing, but we'll allow him that.)
The Post article also highlights another boomer awardee, 55-year-old Carol Padden, a hearing-disabled linguist who is an associate dean at the University of California-San Diego. Padden studies the structure, evolution and social context of sign languages--that is, how they develop, differ from spoken language and from each other, and what those differences mean. She's discovered, for example, that sign languages tend to evolve rapidly, and quickly develop complex grammatical structures, which calls into question long-held theories about natural language processing. Padden's work ultimately may help hearing-disabled people to interact more successfully with the hearing world, and vice-versa.
Other 50-and-over winners include:
- Matthew Carter, 72, a master typeface designer who has invented many of the world's most commonly-used digital fonts
- Annette Gordon-Reed, 51, a Harvard Law School race-relations historian
- Marla Spivak, 55, a University of Minnesota etymologist who is working to save the mysteriously vanishing honey bees that pollinate a third of the U.S. food supply
Those 40-and-over include:
- Nicholas Benson, 46, a Rhode Island-based stone carver
- Drew Berry, 40, an Australian medical animator
- David Cromer, 45, a New York theater director
- Shannon Lee Dawdy, 43, a University of Chicago anthropologist
- Jessie Little Doe Baird, 46, a Massachusetts linguist working to preserve indigenous Native American languages
- Michal Lipson, 40, A Cornell University optical physicist
- Nergis Mavalvala, 42, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology quantum astrophysicist
- Jorge Pardo, 47, an installation artist from Los Angeles
- Elizabeth Turk, 48, a sculptor from Atlanta
You can browse the complete list of 2010 winners here.
While people commonly refer to the MacArthur awards as "genius grants," the foundation says that the awards aren't based on abstract intellectual prowess as much as "the ability to transcend traditional boundaries, willingness to take risks, persistence in the face of personal and conceptual obstacles, [and] capacity to synthesize disparate ideas and approaches."
Past awardees have included climate scientist Peter Huybers; investigative journalist Charles Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity; and Milwaukee urban farmer Will Allen, who also was the subject of a recent SecondAct profile.
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