Genius

The MacArthur “genius” grants this year went to — as always — some awesomely creative people. It’s exciting to see this award given to those you already admire because it’s $500k in absolutely no-strings-attached cash; they’ll be able to do a lot more of the good stuff they’re already doing.

One recipient is Jad Abumrad, of the show Radiolab. If you’re not already listening to the show it’d be a disservice to just say it’s a radio show about science. A better take comes from Ira Glass in this appreciation of Radiolab:

Take the opening of their show on the mathematics of random chance, stochasticity. The first aesthetic choice Jad and Robert make is that they don’t say you’re about to listen to a show about math or science. They don’t use the word stochasticity. They know those things would be a serious turn off for lots of people. In doing this, Jad and Robert sidestep most of the conventions of a normal science show – hell, of most normal broadcast journalism.

Or try the recent short episode “Damn It, Basal Ganglia.”

Another recipient is author/journalist Peter Hessler. He’s written three books on China: Country Driving (which I haven’t gotten to yet) which was preceded by Oracle Bones and River Town, his first book. The best thing about these books is that they convey (as nothing else I’ve read has) the incredible pace of change in China. Hessler picks and chooses stories and builds them into a narrative arc that would make a novelist weep for joy. In this post-MacArthur interview Hessler says his next step is to learn Arabic in Egypt and write about the Middle East. This bodes well for fans of long-form journalism.

So who will win it next year, or in years to come? MacArthur’s tend to go to folks who are decently well-known within their own field, not for being the best at a traditional discipline but for pushing the boundaries of that field in some way. My picks for people who might win in the next 10 years include:

  • Jonah Lehrer, science writer extraordinaire. (Proust was a Neuroscientist, How We Decide, blog).
  • Sheri Fink (MD/PhD) is a journalist currently working for ProPublica. She won a Pulitzer recently for her reporting on deaths at a hospital following Hurricane Katrina, but I think her best work today is still her first and only book, War Hospital, which tells the story of the people (and half dozen doctors) trapped in the Srebrenica enclave during the Bosnian War. It’s incredibly under-appreciated.
  • Siddharta Mukherjee, obviously.
  • Honorable mention: David McCandless of Information is Beautiful (if he just moved to the US he’d be eligible…)

Who else do you think — or hope — might win?

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09 2011

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