Calif. physicist one of 24 MacArthur 'genius grant' recipients

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A California physicist who figured out how to use light to retrieve sound from fragile archival recording media was one of 24 people to receive a $625,000 "genius grant" from the Chicago-based John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation for 2013.

The eclectic group of grant recipients includes scientists, artists, historians, writers, a lawyer, a statistician and a photographer. 

MacArthur grant recipients can spend the money however they like, for seeing things others haven't, asking questions others haven't asked and finding new solutions to old problems.

The awards, given annually since 1981, are doled out over a five-year period. This year's class brings the number of recipients to nearly 900, and also will be given the largest amount ever — $125,000 more than last year. Shrouded in secrecy, the selection process involves anonymous nominators and selectors who make final recommendations to the foundation's Board of Directors.

New life for old recordings

A National Public Radio report about the Library of Congress worrying about damaging old recordings just by playing them sparked the imagination of Carl Haber, a 54-year-old experimental physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California

He began to think how one could use precision optical measuring techniques employed in particle research to try to pull sounds from fragile or crumbling cylinders as well as discs and tinfoil.

"Using scientific cameras and measurement tools that just use light, we create essentially a picture ... and then write a program where the computer analyzes the image and calculates mathematically how the needle would move rather than use the needle," he said.

VIDEO: See the restoration process in action

The result: Bringing alive the voices of the dead, from Alexander Graham Bell's voice from the 1800s to a Native American language that fell silent with the last of its possessors. The thousands of recordings from bygone eras around the world are of "great value to anthropologists, the study of folklore, national culture," he said.

But there's more to it, as Haber found out when he heard Bell respond to a small mistake made during the recording.

"To hear someone caught off guard, you are actually seeing the humanity of these people," Haber said.

Haber spoke to KPCC's Shirley Jahad in October 2012 about his method and recovering the sound of an archival recording made by Thomas Edison. You can listen to the Edison recordings below, and you can listen to Jahad's interview with Haber below that.

AUDIO: Hear Thomas Edison's talking tin foil for the first time since 1878. 

Other California winners

Haber was not the only Californian to get a grant. Other Golden State residents included the following:

  • Phil Baran, 36, La Jolla, Calif. Organic chemist at Scripps Research Institute who invents ways to recreate natural products with potential pharmaceutical uses.
  • C. Kevin Boyce, 39, Stanford, Calif. Paleobotanist at Stanford University who looks at links between ancient plants and today's ecosystems.
  •  Colin Camerer, 53, Pasadena, Calif. Behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology whose pioneering research has challenged assumptions in traditional economic models. (Hear Camerer's interview on Take Two)
  • David Lobell, 34, Stanford, Calif. Agricultural ecologist at Stanford University who has investigated the impact of climate change on crop production and food security around the world. (Hear Lobell's interview on AirTalk)

Helping poor patients

Another winner was Jeffrey Brenner, a doctor and founder of the organization that dispatches medical professionals to the doors of the desperately poor residents of Camden, N.J.

The 44-year-old created the Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers as a means to find and track the poorest patients with the most complex medical issues. Those patients are visited wherever they are — at home, in shelters — and escorted to doctor's appointments.          

The MacArthur grant "is an acknowledgment that we are headed in the right direction," Brenner said.

"We cut, scan, zap and hospitalize [patients]," said Brenner, whose group is now working with 10 communities to develop similar systems. "But we forget we need to take care of them."

Humanity behind the history

Robin Fleming's work has been to show the humanity of nations passed over in history books. A Medieval historian at Boston College, she has focused on Great Britain after the fall of the Roman Empire, starting in the 5th century, by analyzing things like coins, pots and even tooth enamel found in settlements and cemeteries to create a picture of their lives.

What she discovered was the people of the time were so determined to carry on the ways of those who came before, they went to cemeteries to dig up artifacts that would help them do that — including containers that held cremated remains.

"They knock[ed] the ash out, give them a wash and put them on the table," Fleming, 57, said.

With an eye to a more contemporary, but just as forgotten, issue, attorney Margaret Stock focuses on military personnel and their families who she says are victimized by the nation's immigration laws.

After Sept. 11, as politicians asked the nation to take care of those fighting for their country, Stock was getting call after call, hearing things like a soldier begging her to stop immigration officials from deporting his wife to Mexico.

"He's on the tarmac ... about to be deployed and says his wife took a wrong turn into a construction zone, was picked up by immigration, they had her in jail and were trying to deport her." said Stock, who lives in Anchorage, Alaska. "The pain that's being caused right now is tremendous."           

To help, Stock created the American Immigration Lawyers Association MAP program, which puts volunteer attorneys across the nation with military families that need help.

Buying time for work

Recipients of the grants say the money will only aid their work, giving them time to research and time off from figuring out how to pay for it.

Fiction writer Karen Russell worked at a veterinarian clinic part-time while writing the acclaimed novel "Swamplandia." Her grant money buys her time.

"Just the idea of having a stretch of time where you can commit your time wholeheartedly to a project, nobody gets that," the New York City resident said.

For Stock, her thousands of dollars will mean one thing: People will be seeing more of her.

"This is going to let me advocate more," she said.

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