His name is Carl Haber, and today he is $625,000 richer — a recipient of one of those envy-inducing MacArthur fellowships, popularly dubbed genius grants. He is among two dozen scientists, scholars, artists and civic-minded people to reap the windfalls, announced Wednesday by the MacArthur Foundation.
Since 2000 the award has been a mere $500,000; it was increased this year in part to reflect inflation, the foundation said. As happens every year, some recipients are relatively well known, others obscure, and they always say they never saw it coming.
“It is shocking. It doesn’t really seem real,” says Haber, whose optical scanning restoration method, developed at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, has unlocked fragile recording media developed by Bell, Thomas Edison and other audio pioneers. (Haber’s equipment is set up at the Library of Congress, among other locales.)
The beauty of the MacArthur announcement is that it helps the public discover people like Haber, recognized for their exceptional talent and creativity. Or Margaret Stock, 51, a retired Army lieutenant colonel in Anchorage, Alaska, whose law practice focuses on the hurdles immigrants face in the military.
“In wartime, the U.S. has historically recruited anybody and turned them into citizens,” she says. “We have made it harder and harder for talented immigrants to join the military.”
Her expertise and advocacy have helped shape policy at the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security. She prompted, for example, the Naturalization at Basic Training Initiative.
“Immigration enhances our national security if it’s done right,” Stock says. “We need to be thinking of people as assets, not liabilities.”
Another recipient who sits at the center of social policy debates is Jeffrey Brenner, 44, a primary-care doctor who heads a nonprofit coalition in Camden, N.J., that strives to streamline and improve health services for the poor.
“Every ER and hospital visit is a failure until proven otherwise,” says Brenner, whose group uses community teams of nurses and social workers to track people’s care. “The system now is heavily dependent on doing unnecessary things to people. . . . We cut, scan, zap and hospitalize in stunning and unprecedented numbers.”
This year’s class of fellows also includes the acclaimed choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, 45, of the American Ballet Theater. And there’s the short-story writer and novelist Karen Russell (“Swamplandia”).
Living for the moment in a Brooklyn sublet, Russell, 32, says she could use the dough: “The day after I learned about this, I had to get an emergency root canal, and I don’t have dental insurance,” she says. “And this was a bill that would have sunk me into a depression.”