Among New MacArthur 'Geniuses': Marine Biologist, Type Designer, TV Show Creator : The Two-Way This year's class of MacArthur Fellows, recipients of unrestricted $500,000 awards, include Matthew Carter, a type designer; Kelly Benoit-Bird, a marine biologist; and David Simon, the creator of "The Wire"
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Among New MacArthur 'Geniuses': Marine Biologist, Type Designer, TV Show Creator

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Among New MacArthur 'Geniuses': Marine Biologist, Type Designer, TV Show Creator

Among New MacArthur 'Geniuses': Marine Biologist, Type Designer, TV Show Creator

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Twenty-three new MacArthur fellows were named today. Each will receive half a million dollars, no strings attached. The MacArthurs recognize the winners' creative and original work and their potential to do great things in the future.

SIEGEL: This year's recipients include a sign language linguist.

BLOCK: A public high school physics teacher.

SIEGEL: An entomologist working on honeybee populations.

BLOCK: A stone carver.

SIEGEL: And an indigenous language preservationist.

BLOCK: We're going to hear from three other MacArthur recipients now, beginning with Kelly Benoit-Bird. She's a marine biologist at Oregon State University, 34 years old. Kelly Benoit-Bird, congratulations on the MacArthur.

Professor KELLY BENOIT-BIRD (Biological Oceanography, Oregon State University): Thank you.

BLOCK: And you, I understand, specialize in using underwater sound to study sea life. What do you do?

Prof. BENOIT-BIRD: Well, I'm interested in how animals interact in the ocean. And unfortunately, we can't see beneath the surface of the water, and even if we get ourselves below the surface, we don't see very far. So instead, we use sonar, sound techniques, to bounce sound off the animals and look at how they're distributed in space and how they're moving and what their behavior is to look how these animals interact and what the consequences of those interactions are.

BLOCK: And being on the water is where you feel most at home?

Prof. BENOIT-BIRD: I would say sometimes. I definitely get seasick, as do most oceanographers.

BLOCK: Oh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Prof. BENOIT-BIRD: So there are times when that's not the most fun place to be, but watching the data come in and being up at 3:00 in the morning, realizing that you're the only one in the world to know something about an animal or a place in the ocean is a pretty exciting place to be.

BLOCK: Is there one moment, one striking thing that's happened to you on the water that crystallized for you this is why I became a marine biologist?

Prof. BENOIT-BIRD: For most people, that kind of moment happens when you're in graduate school, and that was certainly the case for me. I probably wouldn't be here if it hadn't happened that early in my career, where we were out in the water trying to understand the feeding ecology of spinner dolphins, and they feed on this little tiny lanternfish that come up at night. And for the first time, we were able to see that they were feeding in groups and working together to herd their prey, which is something we hadn't really thought was a part of their behavior. And it was just an amazing moment to see that happening and realize it in real time.

BLOCK: Well, half a million dollars from the MacArthur Foundation, not too shabby.

Prof. BENOIT-BIRD: Well, that help you do. It will definitely give me opportunities to explore risky parts of my research that I haven't been able to pursue before and really gives me the gift of time to do those things without any strings.

BLOCK: Well, have fun with that. Congratulations.

Prof. BENOIT-BIRD: Thank you.

BLOCK: Kelly Benoit-Bird is associate professor of biological oceanography at Oregon State University.

SIEGEL: MacArthur fellowships generally go to specialists who are used to toiling in obscurity. It's not the case for one man on the list this year. David Simon, the writer-producer behind several acclaimed television series, including "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire."

(Soundbite of music)

SIEGEL: David Simon joins me now and congratulations on this.

Mr. DAVID SIMON (Writer and Producer, "Homicide: Life on the Streets" and "The Wire"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: As we just heard from a fellow recipient, a marine biologist, a stone carver is also on the list, an entomologist. What was your reaction to being on the list with those people?

Mr. SIMON: A mild degree of shame, actually, I have to say. I mean, I'm elated. It's a very good thing for me in terms of the currency of the work, you know, but I do - I have to say, I looked down the list. I come to like Ms. Spivak, the entomologist.

SIEGEL: Uh-hmm.

Mr. SIMON: And everything I've read in the last two years about, like, bees disappearing is terrifying. And so that she got the award, I'm thinking, if you ever run out and the bees aren't saved yet, you know, call the TV writer because he's probably got some cash laying around he didn't need, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SIMON: But the recognition itself is very good currency for going in and convincing folks in Hollywood that there other kinds of stories that television is capable of, but it does feel a little bit second tier, if you will.

SIEGEL: On the other hand, trying to do high-quality work in American television has a certain missionary quality to it, don't you think?

Mr. SIMON: Yeah. On the other hand, I am well paid. It's a recession-proof industry. HBO has been very good about tolerating these shows that don't draw the most dramatic Nielsen ratings or a lot of Emmy Awards or any of that other stuff that is industry currency.

SIEGEL: Does it change your plans at all? Are there things you might consider doing now that you wouldnt (unintelligible)?

Mr. SIMON: Well, I'm thinking of passing some of the money, I think appropriately enough, through to some relevant charities for things that matter to me. But taking them at their word as to what they want me to do with it, looking forward, I'm looking at projects that probably don't have a lot of commercial appeal, maybe not even in television, because I used to be a prose writer and a journalist, that might need help, where the projects going to proceed on spec and, you know, the need to hire researchers or hold on to writers while we're looking for a green light on something.

SIEGEL: Well, David Simon, again, congratulations and thanks for talking with us.

Mr. SIMON: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Writer-producer David Simon of "Homicide: Life on the Street" and "The Wire" and one of this year's MacArthur grant recipients.

BLOCK: And finally, to a man whose work intersects all of our daily lives, safe to say. Matthew Carter is a typeface designer, the creator of some 60 font families. And he joins us from Cambridge, Massachusetts. Congratulations, Mr. Carter.

Mr. MATTHEW CARTER (Typeface Designer): Thank you.

BLOCK: Well, among the font families that you've created is one that we use here - it's our font of choice on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED - Verdana. Thank you for that.

Mr. CARTER: Well, you're most welcome.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: I'm glad you found some use for it.

BLOCK: It's a clean, no-nonsense font. And tell us the names of some of the others because our listeners will know these for sure.

Mr. CARTER: Well, there's another one that you might find on your computer along with Verdana, which is Georgia. That was also designed for Microsoft at more or less at the same time. I did the face that's still used in some of the U.S. phonebooks called Bell Centennial. That was done back in the late '70s. I have a face called Miller, which is used in quite a lot of newspapers and magazines. Galliard, which is a book face that's been around quite a long time.

BLOCK: What's the difference do you think, designing type for a screen now, maybe a very tiny little screen, as opposed to creating type for the printed page?

Mr. CARTER: Well, there are some differences and the most important one I supposed is that the resolution of computer monitors, the screens, is relatively coarse compared to what you see printed out on paper. So when you're working for the screen, you're always wrestling with the fact that you don't really have as much information as you would like to render the letter forms at small sizes and so on. So there's a certain amount of care and skill required in getting letter forms to maintain their legibility on the screen.

BLOCK: Well, at 72 years old, you are really the elder statesman of this group of MacArthur fellows, aren't you?

Mr. CARTER: Apparently. I said this to Mr. Sopholo(ph) when I got the call. You know, I said aren't I a bit old for this? And he said...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARTER: ...he said, well, it's true most of the MacArthur awards go to people in their 30s and 40s and so on. But he said, you know, we do give them to people in their 60s and 70s and 80s, I think, he said, as well. Theres something very nice at the age when, you know, a lot of people have retired, but I haven't, I'm still working, to be told, you know, more is expected of you, carry on, do some more. And so thats very good for the morale, very motivating, I find.

BLOCK: Well, Matthew Carter, congratulations again and all the best to you.

Mr. CARTER: Thank you so much. Bye-bye.

BLOCK: That's typeface designer Matthew Carter. We also heard from writer and producer David Simon and marine biologist Kelly Benoit-Bird, all recipients of this year's MacArthur fellowships.

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