MacArthur Foundation awards 24 ‘genius grants’

September 25, 2013

“Hear my voice: Alexander Graham Bell.”

You can listen to a ghostly 1885 recording of Bell reciting his name with a sonorous Scottish inflection thanks to a California physicist who found a way to extract sound from wax-on-cardboard discs, among other long-defunct audio formats held by the Smithsonian.

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.”

Instead, she floated through the procedure shiny-eyed with relief and joy: “I was still flying high. I think the dentist’s products were superfluous.”

The fellowships, which began in 1981, are not meant  to reward past work, the foundation says, but to encourage future creative development. They come unencumbered. No research, publication or
lecture-giving required.

Basically you could just recline in your easy chair as an esteemed Doctor of Thinkology, if you so desire, and MacArthur “does not evaluate recipients’ creativity,” it says, during the five-year term during which the money is doled out in quarterly installments.

Russell says the money will help her out with her next novel — a “fantastical re-imagining” that involves a “government-funded documentary” shot during the Depression, when the Farm Security Administration sent photographers (Dorothea Lange, et al.) to document poverty. She wanted to go to Nebraska for research and now can afford to.

Many recipients say the money allows them to push their work in any direction, without financial worries. That includes video artist and photographer Carrie Mae Weems, 60.

“My work doesn’t sell very much, and I thought I was maybe barking up the wrong tree,” she says. “To have this means I can do this with a certain type of freedom.”

Her goal now is to move beyond short films to make a full feature: “I have never had the chutzpah, stamina or time to do a feature,” she says. “I am not in the world of film. I don’t have the same kind of contacts. I am not in Los Angeles, I’m in Syracuse, New York.”

Jazz pianist and composer Vijay Iyeris another recipient working a narrow artistic niche: “The business of making hit records is not the business we’re in,” the 41-year-old New Yorker says. “I don’t even see it as a business.”

It is “something larger,” he says. “In a way it’s not about success.”

Iyer performs regularly, and his work aims to help broaden the cultural conversation. Consider Iyer’s latest recording, “Holding It Down: The Veterans’ Dream Project,” which sets harrowing yet poetic recollections of returned warriors against haunting violin and piano scores.

“It was a club, the good ole boys’ system,” recites Lynn Harris, a former Air Force sergeant who controlled drones over Afghanistan from a base in Las Vegas. “And they said, Lynn, pull the trigger. And they said, Lynn, hit that target. And they would say, Lynn, are you hot? Bombs away!”

Iyer, through stories from Harris and other veterans, is making a contribution to posterity.

In a way, Bell was after that too.

“This record has been made by Alexander Graham Bell in the presence of Dr. Chichester A. Bell [his cousin] — on the 15th of April 1885 at the Volta Laboratory, 1221 Connecticut Avenue, Washington, D. C.

“In witness whereof — hear my voice: Alexander Graham Bell.”

In that whole snippet , you can detect the unwavering pride and authority in the man’s voice. A true genius at work. An inspiration for geniuses to come.

Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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