Twenty creative people will be given enough money for at least five years so they can sit and think, follow will-o'-the-wisps down dark tunnels of inquiry, finish projects that may have no commercial value, change careers or simply do nothing.

The 20 -- including Philip Curtin, a Johns Hopkins University professor of African history -- have just received telephone calls out of the blue from the MacArthur Foundation to tell them they will receive annual awards ranging from $24,000 to $60,000. Eighteen of them will receive the awards for five years; two will be paid for the rest of their lives.

"The essence of the program," said J. Roderick MacArthur, chairman of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and son of the founders of the award, "is betting on individuals and their potential, rather than playing it safe on well-defined projects that other people find more comfortable to fund. Some of the great breakthroughs of civilization have been made by the dogged explorer who couldn't possibly define in advance precisely where he was going. We believe in this risk."

The awards surprised, not to say astounded, the winners. They had no way of knowing they were being considered.

No one can apply for the grants. The fellows are suggested by 100 secret nominators and chosen by a jury of 13. The basic grant is for $24,000 with an additional $800 for each year of age up to 66. MacArthur said, "They're selected for exceptional talent, originality, self-direction and promise for the future."

The awards are notable for having no strings atached. The recipients can use the money any way they like, without applying, reporting, publishing or fitting into any specific program.

Two award winners, named MacArthur Prize Fellow Laureates, will receive $60,000 for the rest of their lives. Shelomo Dov Goitein, an 82-year-old historian specializing in medieval Mediterranean history who lives in Princeton, N.J., has written on the common history of Jews and Arabs. Ralph Manheim, 75, a translator of French and German, whose first published work was the translation of Adolf Hitler's "Mein Kampf," also won acclaim for his translations of early works by Gunter Grass. Manheim lives in Paris.

Curtin, 60, who was expected to return to Baltimore this week from a vacation in Mexico, is Herbert Baxter Adams professor of history at Johns Hopkins. He has published four books on African studies and specializes in trade diaspora and epidemiology and will receive $55,200 annually.

Some 50 fields of study are represented by the 80 winners since the program's inception in 1980.

This year's fellows include four writes (novelist, poet, translator, screenwriter/filmmaker), two mathematicians, and one each of such diverse fields as artificial (computer) intelligence, philosophy, archeology, rare books, typography and psychology. Seven are from the East, five from the Midwest, two from the West and one from the South; three are foreign born; the birthplaces of two are unknown. Two of the winners are women. The ages are from 25 to 82; eight are 39 or younger.

Peter Sellars, who is currently working on a Broadway-bound production of George and Ira Gershwin's "Funny Face," is -- at 25 -- the second youngest award winner in the program. His annual award is $27,200.

The foundation was established by billionaire John MacArthur, who died in January 1978 after making a fortune in the insurance business. His firm was the Bankers Life and Casualty Co. The foundation's assets amount to $930 million.

The other fellows and their annual awards are:

* R. Steven Berry, 51, chemist/energy researcher, Chicago, $48,000.

* William Durham, 33, biological anthropologist, Palo Alto, Calif., $33,600.

* Bradley Efron, 44, statistician, Palo Alto, Calif., $42,400.

* David Felton, 34, anatomist/neurobiologist, Indianapolis, $34,400.

* Ramon Gutierrez, 31, Latin-American historian, San Diego, $32,000.

* Bela Julesz, 54, experimental psychologist engaged in research on artificial intelligence, Murray Hill, N.J., $50,400.

* William Kennedy, 55, writer, Averill Park, N.J., $51,200.

* Leszek Kolakowski, 55, philosopher and historian off philosophy, Chicago, $51,200.

* Brad Leithauser, 298 Lawyer/poet, Kyoto, Japan, $30,400.

* Lawrence Levine, 49, American historian, Berkeley, Calif., $46,400.

* Charles Peskin, 36, mathematician/physiologist, Hartsdale, N.Y., $36,000.

* Julia Robinson, 63, mathematician, Berkeley, Calif., $57,600.

* John Sayles, 32, writer/filmmaker, Hoboken, N.J., $32,800.

* Adrian Wilson, 59, typographer and rare book specialist, San Francisco, $54,400.

* Irene Winter, 42, art historian and arrcheologist, Boston, $40,800.

* Mark Wrighton, 33, chemist, Cambridge, Mass., $33,600.