For Hopkins Astronomer And 24 Others, The Stars Align

By Richard Leiby
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Adam Riess is a man of science, a professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University who has measured the accelerating expansion of the universe. He knows more than most people about Einstein's cosmological constant and Type 1a supernovae.

But a phone call last week brought him right down to Earth: "I felt jiggly all over," he said.

Jiggly? Is that like giggly?

"I felt giggly, too," he allowed.

The caller was from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, informing Riess that he had just been awarded a half-million bucks to spend however he wanted. Free money in hard times: Who wouldn't go all jiggly? Plus, it happened to be the second big haul for the 38-year-old scientist: A couple of years ago Riess shared the $1 million Shaw Prize, endowed by a Hong Kong philanthropist, with two other researchers.

Foundation President Jonathan Fanton says it's "the nicest time of year," when he and other staff members get to make the calls announcing showers of cash from MacArthur -- 781 fellows have been picked since 1981, counting the 25 whose names were announced today at 12:01 a.m. Sometimes recipients drop the phone, he said. They stammer in disbelief. They exult with delight.

When placing calls to unsuspecting scientists, scholars, artists, writers and musicians, the MacArthur people never get to say, "Congratulations, you're a genius!" That word is banned at the foundation. Fanton is quick to point out that the awards, though commonly called "genius grants," are actually prizes for "creative ability."

Riess gained notice, according to the foundation, because his "observations are taking us to the edges of the universe, telling the story of both its beginning and its end." Said the professor: "I'm definitely not a genius. I see myself more as a pesky inquisitor of nature."

Another Hopkins professor, Peter Pronovost, a critical care physician, won the award for his work to reduce bloodstream infections and deaths caused by catheters used in intensive-care units. He's not just studying data but applying clinical solutions to an ironic tragedy: "You go to the hospital, and you come out sicker. Why the hell should we accept that?" he said.

Pronovost, 43, got word of the windfall while in Washington last week to speak to a conference of academic medical colleges about how to improve focus on patient safety. He took the call in a hallway and had to suppress his desire to shout the news to fellow doctors. The MacArthur money comes with no strings attached, but the foundation insists that recipients share the excitement with only one person until the media-embargoed recipient list goes public.

Nigerian-born novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- whose most recent book is "Half of a Yellow Sun" -- took the call in Lagos last Monday. It was her 31st birthday. "It's very exciting," she said, still chortling at week's end. "I really appreciate the recognition. "

And the $500,000?

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