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MacArthur confers “genius” awards for playful math and practical art

From left, Jacob Lurie PhD ’04, and Rick Lowe, a Mel King Community Fellow at MIT.
From left, Jacob Lurie PhD ’04, and Rick Lowe, a Mel King Community Fellow at MIT.
Photos courtesy of the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

A mathematician and an artist with MIT connections were among the 21 lucky recipients a few weeks ago of a surprise phone call from the MacArthur Foundation. They had been selected, through a secret nomination process, as MacArthur “Genius” Fellows — receiving $625K with no strings attached, plus a rush of prestige and validation when the official announcement came on September 17.

Jacob Lurie PhD ’04, a former MIT associate professor who is now on the mathematics faculty at Harvard University, was recognized for creating a conceptual foundation for derived algebraic geometry. “At an oversimplified level,” the MacArthur website helpfully supplies, “he is transforming algebraic geometry to derived algebraic geometry — replacing the role of sets by topological spaces — making it applicable to other areas in new ways.” Lurie is now training young theorists in his mathematical vision, and he also hopes to inspire a sense of excitement about math in high school students and college undergraduates.

“Mathematics is a giant playground filled with all kinds of toys that the human mind can play with,” Lurie says in a video on his MacArthur profile, “but many of these toys have very long operating manuals.”

Another honoree, Rick Lowe, a 2014 Mel King Community Fellow at MIT’s Community Innovators Lab, received the MacArthur not for his original vocation as a painter, but for his two decades improving communities through public art. In 1993, he founded Project Row Houses, which transformed a block and a half of run-down buildings in Houston’s historically significant and culturally charged Third Ward neighborhood into an arts venue and community center. Lowe has also spearheaded arts-driven redevelopment projects in North Dallas, New Orleans, and Los Angeles.

See Lowe’s MacArthur profile, and listen to a public radio interview in which he describes his vision for energizing urban neighborhoods through art.

A third MacArthur grantee this year, Ai-jen Poo, also has a history with MIT: She was a fellow at the Community Innovators Lab in 2013. As director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, she is helping to transform the landscape of working conditions and labor standards for the estimated 1–2 million people employed in the United States as housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers for the elderly or disabled.

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