Skip to content ↓

Wisdom wins MacArthur grant

Professor Jack Wisdom, who has gained an international reputation for his theories and work on chaotic processes in the planetary system, found a welcome bit of chaos in his own life last week.

A telephone call from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation in Chicago notified Professor Wisdom, 41, that he would receive a $260,000 no-strings-attached grant over five years as one of 20 new MacArthur Prize Fellows.

Dr. Wisdom, professor of planetary sciences in the Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, is the tenth person connected with MIT to have won one of the awards, often referred to as "genius grants," since the program was begun in 1981.

Contacted in his office by Tech Talk shortly after he was notified on Wednesday (June 8), he said he expected to "celebrate a little tonight."

Dr. Wisdom and his wife, Cecile, live in Arlington and have four children, with a fifth on the way.

The MacArthur Fellowships range from $235,000 to $375,000, or $45,000 to $75,000 annually, depending on the age of the recipient. Along with the five-year stipend, the Fellows are offered full health insurance. Recipients are free to use the money as they wish.

"The creative person is at the heart of a society's capacity to improve the human condition." said Adele Simmons, MacArthur Foundation president. "By supporting these Fellows, highly talented individuals working in a wide range of fields, the Foundation means to honor creative persons everywhere."

Names of potential fellows are proposed to the Foundation by a group of more than 100 designated nominators in a variety of professions who serve anonymously for one year.

The new Fellows include seven women and 13 men, in fields ranging from agriculture to dance, communications, poetry and the movements of the solar system, which is Dr. Wisdom's specialty.

The MacArthur Foundation described Dr. Wisdom as "a physicist who has significantly advanced the understanding of solar system dynamics. Introducing new methods to the study of dynamical problems, he has obtained important and widely cited results that create new insights into order and predictability in the laws of nature."

Professor Wisdom's research flies in the face of 17th century notions of the solar system as immutable celestial clockwork with motions predictable, at least in principle, indefinitely into the future. His work proves that many solar system phenomena are celestial manifestations of "chaos"-a new field of mathematical study with applications to fields as diverse as chemistry, fluid mechanics, biological systems and meteorology.

Using novel algorithms and fast computers, Dr. Wisdom and his colleagues have explored hitherto unknown realms of chaotic dynamical behavior of moons and planets. They have revealed wildly tumbling moons and chaotic orbits in the asteroid belt that explain the origin of meteorites.

Several years ago an asteroid was named after Dr. Wisdom-it is now Asteroid Wisdom-in recognition of his achievements in the astronomical world.

Professor Wisdom was one of the first to use the theory of chaotic processes in planetary dynamics. By following the evolution of a large number of asteroid orbits over millions of years, he discovered that the boundaries of the famous Kirkwood gaps-they were discovered more than 100 years ago, but have remained unexplained-coincided with the boundaries of the region of chaotic orbits. He proved that the clearing of the gaps is a consequence of mechanics-with no need to appeal to special phenomena such as collisions between asteroids.

More recently, Dr. Wisdom and Professor Gerald J. Sussman of the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science collaborated to demonstrate that the solar system, based on a model developed from their calculations, is chaotic in a mathematical sense.

Professor Wisdom received a BS in physics from Rice University in 1976 and a PhD from the California Institute of Technology in 1981. Following postdoctoral work at the University of California at Santa Barbara and the Observatoire de Nice in France, he came to MIT as a research scientist in 1984 and joined the faculty in 1985.

Dr. Wisdom won the American Astronomical Society's Harold Urey Prize in 1986 and Helen B. Warner Prize in 1987. He was selected as a Presidential Young Investigator in 1988. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

A version of this article appeared in the June 15, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 36).

Related Topics

More MIT News