A Call to Geniuses


Two years ago, I received a call. The person on the other end of the line asked if I was Jim Collins and if I was alone. For a moment, I thought I was receiving an obscene phone call.

The caller then told me I had been selected as a MacArthur fellow. I laughed, convinced this was another well-orchestrated prank by one of my former college roommates. The caller tried to reassure me, and eventually gave me a number to call to confirm the award. The number had a Chicago area code, the home of the MacArthur Foundation. Maybe this was legit.

In 2003, Jim Collins became the first bioengineer to become a MacArthur fellow, and he wrote about the experience in a Times column in 2005. It’s a short and funny read about how his friends and family treated him after he was deemed a genius, which was basically: made fun of him.

This year’s fellows include fiction writer Junot Díaz, photographer An-My Lê, and young economist Raj Chetty, whose work is mostly known for showing how good teachers affect how much we earn as adults (see this study here on kindergarten teachers, and this controversial study about teachers and standardized test scores). I’m interested in seeing how Chetty will use his $500,000 prize.

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