The geniuses

The MacArthur Foundation released its list of “Genius” grant recipients yesterday, and my first thought was, “Will I recognize any of these names?”

Luckily I did — there are a couple of winners who’ve impressed me for a while with their work.

Roland Fryer, an economist from Harvard (pictured), has written an extraordinary number of thoughtful, insightful papers on education, race, and poverty in America. He’s even smart enough to change his mind. A few years ago, he believed strongly that financial incentives for test scores and grades would improve student performance. He changed his beliefs after conducting a study that showed evidence that incentivizing educational inputs, such as reading, worked far better than incentivizing educational outputs, such as test scores. Even if the math in his papers turns you off, his life story is pretty incredible — he persistently overcame dozens of obstacles and long odds to become a tenure-track professor at Harvard by age 27.

Shwetak Patel is another fascinating winner. He builds sensors that provide real-time measurements of building data relating to energy use, efficiency, and  health. But what makes his innovations stand out from the field is their use of advanced technology to make installation remarkably easy. As his biography notes,

Patel’s distinctive approach leverages existing infrastructure — such as gas lines, electrical wiring, plumbing, and ventilation ducts — and requires only a minimal number of small, wirelessly connected sensors attached to the central hookup of each of these utility sources. When coupled with a machine learning algorithm that analyzes patterns of activity and the signature noise produced by each appliance, the sensors enable users to measure and disaggregate their energy and water consumption and to detect inefficiencies more effectively.

While at Oberlin College, I worked with John Petersen and his team from the Dorm Energy Project and Lucid Design Group.  John has been a pioneer for delivering energy use feedback in engaging, interactive formats, and it’s great that the field is getting some recognition.

Speaking of Oberlin, the most famous MacArthur recipient this year is probably Jad Abumrad, one of the brilliant hosts of RadioLab, making him the 8th MacArthur fellow from my alma mater.  It’s exciting to see the range of diverse careers recognized by this year’s MacArthur class.