Author Junot Diaz, one of Newsweek's "New Faces of 1996," has been named winner of the 1998 Eugene McDermott Award by the Council for the Arts at MIT (CAMIT). In addition, the Council awarded the 1998 Gyorgy Kepes Fellowship Prize to Alan Lightman, the John E. Burchard Professor of Science and Writing in MIT's Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies and author of the acclaimed Einstein’s Dreams.
The awards were presented on Thursday and Friday, Oct. 22-23 at the Council's 26th annual meeting, which focused on writing.
Named in memory of Eugene McDermott, a benefactor to the Institute in education and the arts, the $5,000 McDermott Award is given annually to an artist "for the highest level of achievement in the visual, literary or performing arts, whose work the Council believes to be underappreciated."
The Kepes Prize is named for Institute Professor Emeritus Gyorgy Kepes, founder of MIT's Center for Advanced Visual Studies, who is celebrated internationally for his work exploring the relationship between art and science, and art and the environment. The $2,500 award is given annually to a member of the MIT community "whose creative work reflects the vision and values of Gyorgy Kepes" and "who has demonstrated excellence in the creative arts."
Mr. Diaz, born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, emigrated to the United States when he was seven. He graduated from Rutgers University and received the MFA from Cornell University. His 1996 collection of short stories, Drown, was called "stunning - a front-line report on the ambivalent promise of the American dream" by the San Francisco Chronicle, while Newsweek wrote, "Talent this big will always make noise” Diaz has the dispassionate eye of a journalist and the tongue of a poet." The Quarterly Black Review wrote, "Hard and unsentimental on the outside, emotive on the inside, Diaz weaves his readers through lives and characters found in his native Dominican Republic and in urban Nueva Jersey, his transitional homeland." Drown was a nominee for the 1997 Quality Paperback 'New Voices' Award.'
Mr. Diaz is currently assistant professor at Syracuse University, teaching creative writing. He will work with MIT students and faculty as part of a future residency.
Professor Lightman, a physicist and novelist acclaimed by the New York Times as "equally at home in the realm of human passions and in the rarefied world of atoms and equations," is author of the best-selling Einstein's Dreams (1993) and Good Benito (1995). Dr. Lightman headed the Program in Writing and Humanistic Studies from 1991-97 and is a senior lecturer in the Department of Physics.
He holds the AB in physics from Princeton University (1970) and the MS (1973) and PhD (1974), both in theoretical physics, from the California Institute of Technology. His scientific research is in theoretical astrophysics and he has authored two widely used textbooks.
Professor Lightman's essays on the human side of science, collected in two books, have appeared in many publications, including the New Yorker, the New York Times, Harper's and Science '86. He is a fellow both of the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1996 he was elected a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and won the 1996 American Institute of Physics Andrew Gemant Award for linking science to the humanities.
Professor Lightman donated the Kepes Prize money to the MIT Arts Scholars Program, developed and funded by CAMIT to encourage greater interaction among MIT undergraduates who are active in the arts and to foster a sense of community among them.
The Council for the Arts at MIT is a volunteer organization of MIT alumni/ae and friends founded in 1972 to foster the visual, literary, and performing arts at the Institute. The Council provides support for many performances, exhibitions, arts facilities and co-curricular programs at MIT through its unique Grants Program and standing committees.
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on October 28, 1998.