Renaissance Technologies President James Simons on Nov. 13, 2008. (Kevin Wolf/Associated Press)

This post has been updated.

Twenty-one mathematicians, theoretical physicists and theoretical computer scientists have been awarded more than $500,000 each in grants. The awards were announced Tuesday.

Scientists from a handful of top-tier universities, including Harvard, MIT, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of California Berkeley were awarded the grant, notification for which entirely surprised the recipients. Much like the MacArthur fellowship, nicknamed the “genius grant,” the Simons Foundation awardees were not aware that they were being considered for the sizable award.

Recipients will receive $120,000 a year in direct costs for five years with a single opportunity for renewal. According to Berkeley mathematics Professor David Eisenbud, who runs the program, the Simons Foundation anticipates announcing new recipients every one to two years.

The goal of the award is to support “outstanding scientists in their most productive years” and enable them to “undertake long-term study of fundamental questions.”

Simons is a private foundation based in New York and started by mathematician and Renaissance Technologies founder James Simons and his wife, Marilyn. According to Forbes, as of March 2012, Simons’s estimated net worth was $10.7 billion. Simons serves as chairman of the foundation while his wife serves as president.

According to 2010 tax filings, the foundation has assets of approximately $1.9 billion. It made a $60 million grant to Berkeley in May to create the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing.

The Simons Investigators awards have no strings attached, allowing recipients to use the funds to forward their research however they like.

Update 1:45 p.m.: In an e-mail exchange Wednesday, theoretical astrophysicist, Berkeley professor and newly minted Simons Investigator Eliot Quatart said the award was “wonderful” and, indeed, “came completely out of the blue.”

“It took me several minutes, and several readings of the e-mail and the attachments, to decide that it was real,” wrote Quateart. But once he had determined that it was not a hoax, he was “thrilled” and “immediately called my wife and we arranged to go out to dinner that evening to celebrate.”

Quateart looks forward to continuing his research, which covers “a range of different problems in astrophysics,” including the evolution of the universe and the behavior of gas spiraling into black holes. The “critical” funding, wrote Quateart, will provide him with the “freedom and flexibility to think about any problem that interests me. My goal is to do just that.”

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