Trying not to offend: You just never know who's lurking around

ALICE STEINBACH

June 18, 1992|By ALICE STEINBACH

Another year, another group of MacArthur Foundation awards, and still no "Genius Grant" for me.

I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed when the list of MacArthur winners was announced this week and my name -- yet again -- wasn't on it.

After all, it's been 11 years since they started handing out these coveted, no-strings-attached cash awards to "creative thinkers." And, although I never expected to be included in the first batch of recipients, quite frankly I'm a bit ticked off at being passed over once again.

It's not that I think my creative thinking is better than anybody else's creative thinking. No, what's so annoying is that now I'm in the position of having to be nice to everyone I meet for another year.

You see, you never know when someone is going to turn out to be one of the MacArthur Foundation's "secret nominators." And while I'm reluctant to go into great detail about these "secret nominators" -- since such knowledge could change your life, as it did mine -- you might as well know the whole truth.

OK, so here's the deal about how MacArthur fellows are chosen: Candidates for the awards are selected by a large group of anonymous nominators who work in secret for the foundation. They are responsible for ferreting out the people whose names ultimately will be turned over to the MacArthur Awards selection committee.

No one knows who these nominators are. Nor who sits on the selection committee. I mean, it could be anyone.

And therein lies the problem.

True story: I was standing at the supermarket meat counter the other day -- patiently waiting for them to call out my number -- when a woman with no ticket just came up and pushed ahead of me. And not only that -- she then asked me to move my cart out of the way so she could get a better look at the ground chuck.

Naturally, I was furious. But just as I was about to excoriate her for being a pushy creep with no class, I had a chilling thought: What if this jerk was one of the MacArthur Foundation's secret nominators?

Like I'm going to stand there screaming at her and then she's going to turn around and nominate me for a "Genius Grant"? Get real.

So I said nothing.

It happened to me again yesterday. In the "No Smoking" section of a train going to Washington. Man sits down next to me. Proceeds to light up a Kool. Inhales. Exhales. Smoke gets in my eyes.

I tell him nicely: "This is a no smoking car."

He says: "If you don't like it, move."

Smoke starts coming out of my ears. Am about to tell smoking man where he can go when, Wham! -- the MacArthur scenario stops me dead in my tracks. Again. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this guy was the real thing: a secret MacArthur nominator put on that train to test me.

I held my tongue.

But, look, you don't have to take my word for this. Take the word of the World's Smartest Guy, physicist Edward Witten. He was awarded a MacArthur grant in 1982, when he was 30.

I interviewed him the day after he learned the news, and Dr. Witten -- who patiently spelled out the word "quark" for me over the phone -- said he was "quite startled" by the news. And that he had no idea he was in the running nor any clue as to who had recommended him.

Which proves my point: It could have been the woman in the supermarket. Or the man on the train.

You know, remembering my conversation with Ed Witten -- I call him Ed now -- leads me to conclude that it's easier to win a MacArthur grant if you're a scientist than it is if you're, say, a newspaper writer.

For example, in looking over the interview I did with Dr. Ed, I find this quote from one of the MacArthur Foundation officials about his selection: "There is the feeling that he really is going to come up with something very important."

Excuse me, but I find it really annoying that in the science category they are willing to pick people who might come up with, say, a toaster oven that doesn't burn toast. Or who might come up with a unified quantum field theory that explains everything.

Which, by the way, Ed Witten did.

On the other hand I don't see them giving out no-strings-attached cash awards to, say, newspaper writers who might come up with a very important story somewhere down the line.

Not that I'm complaining. I wouldn't want any secret nominators to read this and think I'm complaining. No way. What I'm doing is: creative thinking.

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