Three 'Genius' Award Winners, and Their Plans A new crop of 25 recipients of the 2006 MacArthur Fellowships -- the so-called genius grants --has been named. The list includes author and illustrator David Macaulay, oceanographer and biologist Edith Widder and jazz violinist Regina Carter. Robert Siegel talks to three recipients about how they'll use the money in their work.
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Three 'Genius' Award Winners, and Their Plans

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Three 'Genius' Award Winners, and Their Plans

Three 'Genius' Award Winners, and Their Plans

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Another year, another 25 MacArthur Fellowships awarded. These are the so-called genius grants, a half a million dollars given to people of extraordinary achievement in the sciences, arts and humanities. You don't apply for them and if you win one there are no strings attached. We're going to hear from three of this year's MacArthur Fellows.

First, David Macaulay. His books illustrate complex systems, like the interior of a cathedral, a pyramid, a skyscraper or a castle. He calls himself an explainer and an entertainer.

Mr. DAVID MACAULAY (MacArthur Fellow): I'm a perpetual student. And I'm lucky enough to have found a career for myself in which I can remain a student and then use what I learn to pass on as a teacher.

SIEGEL: Very often you're using the skills of the architectural draftsman, and I wonder how those skills are holding up in the era of CD-ROMs, the Internet and the computer generally.

Mr. MACAULAY: You know, it's a way - studying architecture taught me how to think a certain way, which isn't particularly for me impacted by the computer or technology or any of that sort of stuff. I learned in studying architecture how to sort of dismantle complicated problems, how to identify problems that you could actually solve. And then I put the solutions together in some kind of sequence to come up with a large response, which ultimately is in the form of a book.

But drawing was always a big part of that for me. Drawing is my way of understanding how things work. You can't do that on the computer. I mean whatever happens on the computer, it is not drawing. It's not an attempt to sort of understand things three dimensionally and to understand the intricacies of how things go together and they interrelate.

SIEGEL: It's a style of learning that you have.

Mr. MACAULAY: It's a style of learning.

SIEGEL: It would be bad news for anyone who can't draw to think that we have to draw to learn.

Mr. MACAULAY: Well, see everybody can draw, but not everybody's going to make fine art. It's a discipline that should be taught as writing is taught. It's a discipline. And it isn't about necessarily even expressing yourself. It's just about learning to really concentrate on something. Learning to really look and ask questions, hard questions. That's to me what drawing is about. And sometimes you make something that stands on its own.

SIEGEL: Does being named a MacArthur Fellow and receiving the grant that comes with it - does it permit you to continue doing precisely what it is you intended to do or does it permit you to change course a little bit?

Mr. MACAULAY: Well, it does both. But I think in the short term it's going permit me to continue to precisely what I am doing. I'm in the middle of a big project right now on the human body and how it works. And, you know, unfortunately, I started this project six years ago with a nice healthy advance that was supposed to get me through a four year project.

So in the short term, I have to say the MacArthur grant is a tremendous boost. Because if, you know, the mortgage bill and the oil truck pull up at the same time I don't have to worry about it.

SIEGEL: They've bailed you out is what you're saying.

Mr. MACAULAY: They've bailed me out. And for another seven months they've made it possible for me to concentrate exclusively on systems and cells and not worry about the checkbook. And then after that, that other question of well, what's next can really be happily entertained.

SIEGEL: That's author and MacArthur Fellow David Macaulay.

Our second winner is Edith Widder. She is a deep sea diver and a biologist who is fascinated with creatures that shine underwater. She's invented devices to monitor underwater conditions and she's formed an organization that helps to protect the oceans. She says she has been fascinated by the ocean since she was a kid.

Ms. EDITH WIDDER (MacArthur Fellow): Actually, though, the real hook for me was many years later when I got to make a dive in a submersible, a diving suit actually. And turned out the lights and saw what is unquestionably the most spectacular light show on the planet. All of these animals that can make light just the way fireflies do on land, but they're everywhere in the ocean. And I just wanted to learn more about it.

SIEGEL: When you take people down in a submersible, is there any particular submarine sight that you hope you get to see because it's the greatest thing to see when you're underwater?

Ms. WIDDER: Well, just two years ago I got the experience of diving in the northern part of the Gulf of Mexico at an amazing place called the Brine Pool, which is so strange and spectacular, it's really hard to make people understand what you're seeing. It's a lake under the ocean.

And it has a coastline with mussels around it and you can slosh the water in the brine and see waves actually lap up on the shore. And then you keep reminding yourself that you're actually looking at the water underwater and you see a hagfish or something swim up through the water, down through the interface and into the brine.

This is part of what's driving me, is this feeling like there's so much yet to be discovered in the oceans and we're destroying it before we even know what's in it.

SIEGEL: Well, the MacArthur Foundation honors and makes grants to people whose achievements are very remarkable and I just wonder whether when you think about what it is about your own involvement in your field that has made you so remarkable, is it a particular kind of energy or insight or obsession or what would you say?

Ms. WIDDER: Oh, I expect it's a combination of those things. Definitely obsession and having to do some rather innovative development in order to study this unusual phenomenon. And now I think it's also my passion for our new organization and my hope that the Ocean Research and Conservation Association can become one of the nation's leading marine conservation organizations.

SIEGEL: You've done innovative things in part because you both helped to frame a question about bioluminescence and then also to work on the answer, to try to clarify the answer to that question.

Ms. WIDDER: Right. And that's the most fun to me about science.

SIEGEL: Finding new questions?

Ms. WIDDER: And solving them and working with a team of engineers and scientists to solve them.

SIEGEL: Well, that first experience in the submersible changed your career orientation. Does the MacArthur grant change it again or does it permit you to continue in the same direction you've been in?

Ms. WIDDER: I think the change for me was trying to develop this new approach to marine conservation. And the MacArthur award is going to be wonderful for helping to make that happen.

SIEGEL: Marine biologist Edith Widder.

Our third 2006 MacArthur Fellow is a musician. Regina Carter plays jazz violin. Her latest CD is I'll Be Seeing You: A Sentimental Journey. The music draws on Motown, swing, bebop, folk and other forms of music. She cites a surprising source of inspiration when she was growing up - the Lawrence Welk Show.

Ms. REGINA CARTER (MacArthur Fellow): It seemed like a very corny show, but still I enjoyed some of the groups that came on. It was really entertaining, a variety show. And that's kind of where I was exposed to the accordion, which I always thought was also a very corny instrument. But in doing this record, I felt like I had to include the accordion and I have a new respect and love for the instrument.

SIEGEL: What does the MacArthur Fellowship allow you to do, do you think?

Ms. CARTER: Well, there's some projects that I started and want to finish. And also I'm really interested in going back to school and I had been researching who could help me go back to school for music therapy, which is something I'm really interested in helping children that have issues or children that are terminally ill but using music. And music is such a powerful tool.

I love playing and getting the response from the audience. But I get something even greater when I see the power of the music helping to either heal someone or helping someone to be able to understand or function, whereas they might not be able to function in what we call, quote, unquote, "normal circumstances."

SIEGEL: Well, this was a big surprise, the news from MacArthur?

Ms. CARTER: It was a huge surprise. In fact when I got the phone call, I had just been awake about a half an hour and this gentleman started explaining that I had received this award and I made him hang up. I said, give me your name and I'm going to call the MacArthur Foundation. I called and I looked them up online and made sure the number was right and called back and he definitely worked there. I'm still pretty much in shock.

(Soundbite of song, "Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess")

SIEGEL: That's Regina Carter, who says that this piece, Ravel's Pavane for a Dead Princess, is one that she frequently plays in performance. It reminds her of her mother. We also heard from 2006 MacArthur Fellows David Macaulay and Edith Widder.

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