Mandolinist Chris Thile, Novelist Junot Díaz Among 2012 MacArthur 'Geniuses'

Oct 1, 2012
Originally published on October 2, 2012 6:14 pm

The mandolinist Chris Thile, better known for his work with the bluegrass band Nickel Creek, and the novelist Junot Díaz, who won a Pulitzer for his novel The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, are among those awarded 2012 "genius" grants from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

The 23 MacArthur fellows will receive $500,000 over the next five years. They are allowed to do whatever they wish with the money, whether that's continue their work or change fields.

The 2012 honorees come from a wide-array of fields — they're historians and scientists and one of them is a stringed-instrument bow maker.

All Things Considered's Melissa Block spoke to geochemist Terry Plank, one of the recipients. She told Melissa that her entire life, she's been a geologist and that her ultimate goal is to get to the bottom of why some volcanoes have more violent eruptions than others.

"What I really want to put together is where the volcano starts," she said. So she studies the amount of water — which fuels eruptions — in volcanoes and she's almost at a point where she can put a theory together.

Melissa also spoke to Dylan C. Penningroth, a historian at Northwestern University. Penningroth told her that his work takes him to county courthouses in four states and the District of Columbia, where he combs through old archives trying to piece together the legal life of black African American slaves and their descendants.

His theory, he said, is that "mundane legal action" changed black America.

Full disclosure: This blogger is a fan of the work of both Díaz and Thile. One good place to start on Díaz is the excerpt of his new book, This Is How You Lose Her, that NPR Books published.

NPR Music has an "artist page" for Thile, but perhaps more magical is a Tiny Desk performance recorded back in November of 2011. Here's Thile with fellow string players Yo-Yo Ma, Edgar Meyer and Stuart Duncan:

Here are the rest of the recipients and their biographies, according to the Associated Press:

Natalia Almada, 37, of Mexico City: "Documentary filmmaker who captures complex and nuanced views of Mexican history, politics and culture."

Uta Barth, 54, of Los Angeles: "Conceptual photographer who explores the nature of vision and the difference between seen reality and how a camera records it."

Claire Chase, 34, of Brooklyn: "Arts entrepreneur who engages audiences in the appreciation of contemporary classical music and opens new avenues of artistic expression through her International Contemporary Ensemble."

Raj Chetty, 33, of Cambridge: "Economist at Harvard University who studies how policy decisions affect real-world behavior."

Maria Chudnovsky, 35, of New York: "Mathematician at Columbia University whose work is deepening the connections between graph theory and other major branches of mathematics, such as linear programming and geometry."

Eric Coleman, 47, of Denver: "Geriatrician at University of Colorado School of Medicine who is improving health care by focusing on patient transitions from hospitals to homes and care facilities."

David Finkel, 56, of Washington, D.C.: "Washington Post journalist whose long-form newswriting has transformed readers' understanding of military service and sacrifice."

Olivier Guyon, 36 of Tucson, Arizona: "Optical physicist and astronomer at University of Arizona who designs telescopes and other astronomical instrumentation that play a critical role in the search for Earth-like planets outside this solar system."

Elissa Hallem, 34 of Los Angeles: "Neurobiologist at University of California, Los Angeles, who explores the physiology and behavioral consequences of odor detection in invertebrates and identifies interventions that may eventually reduce the scourge of parasitic infections in humans."

An-My Le, 52, of Annandale-on-Hudson, New York: "Photographer at Bard College who approaches the subjects of war and landscape from new perspectives to create images rich with layers of meaning."

Sarkis Mazmanian, 39, of Pasadena, Calif.: "Medical microbiologist at the California Institute of Technology who studies the role intestinal bacteria may play in a broad range of human diseases."

Dinaw Mengestu, 34, of Washington, D.C.: "Writer whose novels and nonfiction pieces enrich understanding of the little-explored world of the African diaspora in America."

Maurice Lim Miller, 66, of Oakland: "Social services innovator who designs projects that reward and track self-sufficiency among residents of low-income neighborhoods in Oakland, San Francisco and Boston."

Dylan C. Penningroth, 41, of Evanston, Illi.: "Historian at Northwestern University who is unearthing evidence from scattered archives to shed light on shifting concepts of property ownership and kinship among African American slaves and their descendants."

Terry Plank, 48, of New York: "Geochemist at Columbia University who probes the usually invisible but remarkably powerful thermal and chemical forces deep below the Earth's crust that drive the motion of tectonic plate collisions."

Laura Poitras, 48, of New York: "Documentary filmmaker revealing the consequences of military conflict abroad in documentaries that portray the lives and intimate experiences of families and communities largely inaccessible to the American media."

Nancy Rabalais, 62, Chauvin, La.: "Marine ecologist at the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium who documents the environmental and economic consequences of dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico."

Benoit Rolland, 58, of Boston: "Stringed-instrument bow maker who experiments with new designs and materials to create violin, viola and cello bows that rival prized 19th century bows and meet the artistic demands of today's musicians."

Daniel Spielman, 42, of New Haven, Connecticut: "Computer scientist at Yale University who connects theoretical and applied computing to resolve issues in code optimization theory with real-world implications."

Melody Swartz, 43, of Lausanne, Switzerland: "Bioengineer who enhances understanding of the dynamic processes of tissue vascularization and immune responses to tumor invasion using concepts and methods from biophysics, cell culture, molecular genetics, engineering and immunology."

Benjamin Warf, 54, of Boston: "Pediatric neurosurgeon at Children's Hospital of Boston who is revolutionizing treatment of hydrocephalus and other intra-cranial diseases in young children and advancing standards of and access to health care in both the developed and poorest regions of the world."

Note: NPR is among the organizations that the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation supports.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block.

The MacArthur Foundation has announced 23 winners of this year's fellowships, often called the Genius Grants. Among them, 31-year-old mandolin whiz Chris Thile, fiction writer Junot Diaz. There's a physicist who builds telescopes and a neurobiologist who studies roundworms' sense of smell.

We're going to talk now with two other winners, starting with geochemist Terry Plank. She studies volcanic eruptions and what makes some more explosive than others.

TERRY PLANK: Volcanoes explode for a few reasons. It depends on the temperature and how sticky the magma is. And the other thing is, is the gas content and then how the magma arises rapidly or slowly. We know these general parameters but there's really no grand theory for what causes some volcanoes to be more explosive than others.

BLOCK: When you think back to huge volcanic eruptions in history, say Krakatau or Vesuvius, is there one that you really wish you could've been there for, maybe not at the heart of the explosion but there right after it to see what happened?

PLANK: Oh, I guess I wouldn't want to be there when it's erupting.


PLANK: What I'd really like to do is take a field trip at depth, to sort of march down the subduction zone, way deeper than we can drill or see, 60 miles down where the tectonic plate is doing its damage. And that's where I'd really like to be during an eruption, is to see where it all starts.

BLOCK: How did you start getting interested in volcanoes?

PLANK: You know, most people figure out geology by accident in college. They walk into in an Earth Science class and get excited about, you know, volcanoes or earthquakes or climate change or doing something outside. I didn't do that. I've actually always been a geologist.

I was born, literally, in a rock quarry. That's where our house was. There were cliffs - just all around. My parents are both chemists. It's always been a part of my life to have a mineral collection and to look at map rocks since I've been outside. Maybe it's some great lack of imagination but I've always been a geologist.

BLOCK: Is there one impending volcanic eruption that we should be worried about, that we may not be thinking as much about as we should?

PLANK: Probably in the U.S., the most dangerous volcano is Mount Rainier, outside Seattle. There is big parts of Seattle and Tacoma that are actually built on the deposits of previous eruptions, so that's always bad. There's tons of ice on top of Mount Rainier. When it erupts, and it will, it will launch large mudflows that potentially can wipe out large portions of Seattle and Tacoma.

BLOCK: But the time scale we're talking about here, though, can we get some comfort there?


PLANK: Well, it could wake up tomorrow. No, it's dormant to some degree but it's had eruptions in the past few hundred years. It will erupt again.

BLOCK: Well, thanks for alarming all of our listeners in Seattle...


PLANK: Wait - let me cover that up.


PLANK: Volcanoes usually do awake and we know - unlike earthquakes, which are inherently unpredictable, volcanoes erupt with lots of warning signs.

BLOCK: Well, Terry Plank, thanks so much for talking to us and congratulations.

PLANK: Thank you.

BLOCK: That's geochemist Terry Plank, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Columbia University.

And now, we'll meet historian Dylan Penningroth, who studies property ownership among slaves and their descendents after Emancipation. Professor Penningroth, welcome to the program.


BLOCK: And congratulations on the MacArthur. Your studies sort of seem counterintuitive. I mean, these were enslaved people who were considered property, yet also owned property. Explain the work that you do.

PENNINGROTH: Well, I started by looking at exactly that conundrum. I knew from other scholars that there were some slaves who managed to own property somehow. And so, I wanted to figure out how was it they were able to do it, even though they themselves were property. And the answer turned out to be not so much in the law itself, but in the ways that plantations were organized, in the assumptions that masters made about what slaves could and could not do.

BLOCK: And what could they do?

PENNINGROTH: What they did is they earned small things - cows, corn, chickens. And in order to demonstrate their claims of ownership, they displayed them in places where both they and their masters and passersby could see them. And this turns out to be one of the central concepts in property law, which is notice.

And so, I'm trying to figure out how African-Americans talked about law, how they used law when they could to pursue their own interests.

BLOCK: What are you finding out about the period after Emancipation among the descendents of slaves?

PENNINGROTH: Well, one of the things that I'm finding out is that law is everywhere. You know, when you buy a car, law is there. Even when you click those little OK buttons in Microsoft Word Updates. But when we think about African-Americans dealings with law in, say, 1900, we tend to focus on certain kinds of law - the perversion of the criminal justice system, legalized segregation and especially the denial of voting rights. And we tend to assume that African-Americans would avoid Southern courts especially.

It turns out that if you look at what people were doing in local courts, things look really different. There were actually a lot of African-Americans in local courts. And they were mostly doing routine, mundane stuff. They were incorporating churches. They were mortgaging farms, getting divorces, writing wills. But that mundane legal activity changed black America. That's sort of my argument.

It made possible, for example, the black church. It made possible the rise of the black farmer. In short, it turned second-class citizenship into something really meaningful.

BLOCK: And all this was happening in a period of an immense amount of violence directed toward African-Americans.

PENNINGROTH: Absolutely. It cannot be overstated how oppressive, how aggressive the legal system was and the violence that was directed at black people. It cannot be denied. And so, one of the things that I have to figure out is how could all of that be going on at the same time that black people are coming into these same local courthouses and doing the things that I see them doing.

BLOCK: We just heard from Terry Plank, whose work on volcanoes takes her to islands and volcanic landscapes all over the world. Your work sounds like it takes you to courthouses and to libraries, and maybe basement document files, all sorts of things like that.

PENNINGROTH: Absolutely, that's what I do. I drive around in my car to county courthouses in four states and the District of Columbia. And I go in, I try to say hello to the county clerk, make friends, and I ask if they have any records from that period. And in many cases they do. It's an incredible treasure trove. Things are stored in the attic, in the basement, sometimes there's not a working light bulb. It's not always the best conditions but it really is a revelation to walk in and see what is there.

BLOCK: That's Dylan Penningroth, historian at Northwestern University and one of this year's MacArthur winners. Professor Penningroth, thanks so much.


BLOCK: Elsewhere in today's program, we hear from one more MacArthur winner, documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras. Each fellow receives half a million dollars, no strings attached.


CORNISH: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.