A physicist who extracted the first-ever recorded tune, an ecologist who revealed that climate change is hurting crops and a botanist who studies how ancient plants altered our world are among the Bay Area recipients of this year's MacArthur Foundation "genius grants."
The awards, announced Wednesday by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, were given to 24 recipients, including audio preservationist Carl Haber of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory; and agricultural ecologist David Lobell and paleobotanist C. Kevin Boyce, both of Stanford. The $625,000 gift gives each recipient unfettered freedom to pursue creativity.
"It is unbelievable. It's still sinking in," said Haber, of Berkeley who created high-resolution optical scans bringing to life an 1860 recording of "Au Clair de la Lune," as well as the voices of Alexander Graham Bell and long-gone Native Americans.
Even for extraordinarily creative researchers such as Haber, Lobell and Boyce, conventional funding tends to support research with a practical outcome. Funding agencies are reluctant to support experimental and high-risk work that might lead to a dead end -- or a breakthrough.
"Grant agencies expect a return on investment ... for research that we often already know the answer to," said Boyce, 39, a resident of Palo Alto. "This encourages us to think more creatively," he said.
He was eating lunch on the Stanford campus with a colleague when he excused himself to take a call from the foundation. "It was a very long call," he said, laughing.
This year's MacArthur recipients are a mix of the little known and world renowned, representing a broad cross section of the arts, economics and science. They range in age from 32 to 60 and work in settings as different as rural Alaska and inner-city Manhattan.
The award, which this year was boosted from the previous $500,000, comes in five annual payments, with no strings attached. Winners don't need to tell anyone how they'll spend the money. There are no reporting requirements.
The MacArthur award has been bestowed on 873 other MacArthur Fellows since the program began in 1981. It is given to individuals with a track record of achievement -- and the potential for even more significant contributions in the future.
The Bay Area always claims a disproportionate share of grants -- historically, about one-sixth of all recipients live here.
The foundation honored:
To read about the other 2013 fellows, go to http://www.macfound.org/fellows/class/2013.
Contact Lisa M. Krieger at 650-492-4098.