Every year since 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has been awarding a large chunk of change ($625,000) to a handful of brainiacs to spend anyway they want. This year’s class of 21 winners brings the overall number of recipients to more than 900.
So what is considered genius? The foundation looks to support, “creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant and peaceful world.”
This year’s youngest winner is 32-year-old Danielle Bassett, a physicist from the Department of Bioengineering at the University of Pennsylvania who uses tools from network science and complex systems theory to “enhance our understanding of connectivity and organizational principles in the human brain.”
This year’s oldest recipient is 71-year-old Pamela O. Long, an independent historian of science and technology who is, as the foundation notes, “rewriting the history of science, demonstrating how technologies and crafts are deeply enmeshed in the broader cultural fabric.” Her current work is a cultural history of engineering in 16th-century Rome. She is looking at the connection between ancient texts and artifacts and the development of innovative approaches to engineering problems like flood control.
Also among the winners is a cartoonist and graphic memoirist, Alison Bechdel, who uses words and illustrations to explore the complexities of family. Another winning artist, Rick Lowe, has worked to transform a neglected neighborhood in Houston into a visionary, evolving public art project. There’s a materials scientist, a playwright, two poets and a lawyer — even a labor organizer, Ai-jen Poo, who is bringing awareness of the value of home-based care work and is changing the landscape of working conditions for domestic and private-household workers.
And what would a collection of geniuses be without a numbers guru? Mathematician Yitang Zhang was selected for his landmark achievement in analytic number theory, the so-called bounded prime gap. The theory, according to the foundation's bio of the mathematician, "essentially establishes that the difference in spacing between two consecutive prime numbers is, infinitely often, bounded by a fixed number.” (And if you had to read that sentence twice to wrap your head around the concept, check out Slate's helpful explainer of why this breakthrough matters.)
Bios of all of the winners can be found at the MacArthur Foundation website, but we’ll leave you with one more, simply because he comes from the world of music. Alto saxophonist and composer Steve Coleman was found worthy of the grant for his technical virtuosity and engagement with international musical traditions and styles that are, “expanding the expressive and formal possibilities of spontaneous composition.” You can see some of his playing and hear about his work in the video below:
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