The 2012 MacArthur Fellows

The MacArthur Foundation has announced the names of the 2012 MacArthur Fellows! This year’s group is a pretty exciting bunch. I was interested to see the number of folks on the list working at the edge of art, science and culture, including Uta Barth and Maurice Lim Miller. The two fellows that interest me the most, mainly based on their area of expertise, are Maria Chudnovsky and Sarkis Mazmanian.

Dr. Chudnovsky is a professor of operations research and mathematics at Columbia University and studies graph theory. I’ve seen a lot of very interesting papers in the past few years where the specific tractability of analysis that you get with graphs has been used to elucidate phenomena from failovers on communications networks to growth dynamics in social media. Dr. Chudnovsky’s work is fundamental in connecting the specifics of graph theory to other branches of analysis.

Dr. Mazmanian is a professor of biology at CalTech. Regular readers of this blog and my Google+ stream will understand why I’m excited about this guy. His area of study is the interaction between host organisms and their beneficial microbial symbiotes. This area of research and the underlying premise that at least in humans, we can treat our bodies as an ecosystem rather than an organism promises to shape medical research outcomes for the next half-century.

I’m grateful to Ed Darrell for breaking the news when I was sound asleep!

What kinds of geniuses are we developing?

I just re-read Jonah Lehrer’s Wired article about geniuses. Still particularly struck by the call-out quote: “The US is good at generating geniuses. The problem is that they’re all athletes.”

Since I tend to follow Nobel Prizes, Wolf Prizes, and MacArthur Grants rather than the NCAA Final Four, I can intuitively grasp this. What does it say to our children when we obsess more over a basketball tournament than we do about who is going to get a MacArthur Grant? I’m not going to make dire predictions about the shallowness of our culture or use catchphrases like “dumbing-down” or anything else that might make me appear to be older and more crochety than I really am.

What I will say instead is that children reflect the values they see exhibited, and while it may take a genius to discover quantum dots or self-assembly, it certainly does not take any special genius to appreciate these concepts and to dream about what they might mean and how they might be applied.