'Genius Grant' Winners Keep It Simple On Tuesday, 25 people won this year's MacArthur awards, also known as "genius grants." Two of them — a neurobiologist who investigates smell and a sound artist who builds instruments — discuss how they find novel solutions.
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'Genius Grant' Winners Keep It Simple

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'Genius Grant' Winners Keep It Simple

'Genius Grant' Winners Keep It Simple

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block. It would be a burden, we think, to be tagged with the label of genius. Not such a burden to get half a million dollars with no strings attached. Well, 25 winners of this year's McArthur Awards, which have come to be known as genius grants, are considering that new reality. The winners were announced today. They're chosen for their creativity and their efforts to - as the foundation puts it - make our world a better place. We're going to hear from two of the winners now.

In a moment, a sound artist who creates hybrid instruments out of turntables, strings, even waves and fire. But first, to a neurobiologist who's trying to unlock some of the mysteries of our sense of smell. Rachel Wilson teaches and does research at Harvard Medical School. I asked her why she's so enamored of this particular sense.

D: You know, olfaction is a sense that has intrigued people for a long time, including writers and artists. Something that's interesting about olfaction is that it seems to have a very intimate connection with the sense of emotion and memory. It's also interesting to think about the fact that we can perceive many different molecules in the air, but we do this by way of a very limited number of receptors. So our perception of an odor must consist of the combination of receptors that are activated. And my lab is interested, in part, in how this kind of combination code is decoded by the brain.

BLOCK: And this is, I think, the part that is taking you deep into the mind of a fruit fly.

D: We study the sense of smell in fruit flies, which sounds a little wacky, especially when you think about the fact that the brain of this organism is only about the size of a poppy seed.

BLOCK: And give me a sense of what you're doing in the lab with these fruit flies in trying to figure out how they're sensing smell.

D: We're monitoring electrical activity from individual brain calls. And meanwhile, we're puffing different odors on the fly - odors, sometimes, that smell like different fruits, or that represent pheromones for the fly. And we're looking at how an individual brain cell responds to different odors. A cell will show a particular tuning. That is, it will respond to one odor and not the other. And we're comparing the tuning of different groups of cells at different levels in the olfactory system. As information passes from sensory cells that are actually contacting odors deep into the brain, there must be a series of computations that are going on, processing events. We want to know what is going on there and how it happens.

BLOCK: I feel like I almost understand that.


D: It's not rocket science. It's only brain science.


BLOCK: Have you found that there's one scent, one smell that the flies respond to more than others?

D: They really like the smell of ripe mangoes, I'll tell you that.

BLOCK: Really?

D: Yeah.

BLOCK: I like that smell, too. It's something I have in common with a fruit fly.

D: It's an attractive odor. That's right. That's right.

BLOCK: Do you have a sense of where this research might lead? Are there pathways from scent and smell into other areas, other senses that you might be finding out about?

D: One thing that we'd really like to do is to compare the very first processing steps or computations that occur in the olfactory system with very early processing steps that happen in other sensory modalities. An application of our research is in the development of artificial noses. These are devices that are designed to detect and discriminate between large numbers of odor molecules in the air around you.

Artificial noses are exciting because they have a lot of potential applications in environmental protection and also in medical diagnosis. For example, lung cancer patients seem to have a characteristic sort of fingerprint of odors in their breath that can be detected by a machine, not so well by a doctor.

BLOCK: Wow, fascinating, and all going back to the fruit fly at some level?

D: That's right. Well, sometimes the simplest creatures give us some of the greatest insights.

BLOCK: Well, Rachel, again, congratulations.

D: Thank you very much.

BLOCK: That's neurobiologist Rachel Wilson of Harvard Medical School. And now to another of this year's McArthur winners: multimedia artist, composer and a builder, Walter Kitundu. He joins us from San Francisco. Pretty exciting week, I guess.

NORRIS: Yeah. It's been a thrilling week.

BLOCK: I can imagine. Well, let's start by listening to one of your compositions on an instrument that you created called the Blue Steel String 1200 Phonoharp. Here's a bit.


BLOCK: Can you explain for us a bit how the Phonoharp works?

NORRIS: The Phonoharp actually uses the propensity of the turntable to pick up vibration. Like, many people for years have been trying to isolate the turntable from vibration precisely because it's so good at picking it up. So I've turned that on its head a bit. And when I pluck the strings of the Phonoharp, the vibrations are actually varied into the body of the turntable, and they're amplified by the cartridge.

BLOCK: I've seen pictures of this. It's a little hard to describe, but you have a turntable in a big case. There are strings in different configurations depending on the different instruments that you've created, and you're using them both to pluck, sometimes to bow, and also you're getting percussive effects.

NORRIS: Yeah, because the instruments are so sensitive, you can play them as percussive instruments as well as melodic instruments. And some of them are inspired by traditional instruments like the Japanese koto or the West African cora. But some of them just spring from my imagination. And I build them and try to - I find out what they sound like after they're built.

BLOCK: I'm going to listen to another song, and this one is on the Phonocora. It's just beautiful. Let's take a listen.


BLOCK: And a really different sound here, Walter. And we're hearing there a little scratching on the turntable, sort of a hip-hop influence coming in.

NORRIS: Yeah, definitely. The hip-hop influence is there. And the sound that I'm scratching is actually a Japanese Shakuhachi flute, a bamboo flute, and the instrument is the West African cora-inspired Phonocora.

BLOCK: You know, I'm curious. You were born and raised in Tanzania. Were you always a kid who was putting things together, taking them apart?

NORRIS: I was always a kid who was taking things apart.


BLOCK: I see.

NORRIS: And the putting things together came a bit later. And, you know, I've blown up a couple of turntables in the process of trying to make them into new things, but those have all been great learning processes. I call it trial and terror.


BLOCK: I see. Well, I guess you have a little more money to spend on some replacements now.

NORRIS: Yeah, that's true. Well, but at the same time, I really like going to flea markets and finding things and adaptively reuse them, you know, creatively reuse them. And I find that if you limit your palette and you limit your tools, you have to think more creatively about how to use them, and sometimes that leads to novel solutions.

BLOCK: Well, Walter, congratulations again on the McArthur.

NORRIS: Thank you so much.

BLOCK: That's sound artist Walter Kitundu in San Francisco. We also heard from neurobiologist Rachel Wilson in Boston, two of this year's 25 winners of McArthur grants. If you're wondering how old they are, they are 35 and 34, respectively.


BLOCK: And to hear and see but unfortunately, not smell more of the work of these genius award winners, go to npr.org.

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