Two MacArthur Geniuses

By Johna Till Johnson

I don’t normally pay a lot of attention to the MacArthur Genius awards. The name alone annoys me, because it’s simultaneously elitist and undefined.  What makes artist X a “genius” while her peers are merely “talented”? And how can we be sure that out of all the talented people in the universe, the committee has miraculously selected the 12, or 20, that are talented enough to be considered geniuses?

But I do like the notion of awarding creative people a big chunk of change—this year, it was $625,000 over a period of five years—with no constraints. And I also think it’s cool that the awards are so broad-ranging. They go to poets, activists, artists, musicians… and even the occasional scientist, mathematician, or engineer.

Which brings me to this year’s awards. I was overjoyed to see the award given to two people in particular.  One was Craig Gentry, a cryptography researcher at IBM’s T. J. Watson research center, who’s done groundbreaking work in the area of homomorphic encryption.

Craig Gentry

Craig Gentry

Homomorphic encryption is, in some respects, the holy grail of encryption, because it enables machines to process encrypted data without ever decrypting it. That doesn’t sound like much, but consider: Today, if your email is stored on Google’s servers, it’s fully accessible to Google (which has been known to turn it over to the NSA).

It’s fully accessible because you need Google to do useful things for you (like sort the mail into folders). With homomorphic encryption, you could keep your mail entirely encrypted without giving up any of the functionality (such as folder-sorting). But Google would have no idea what you named your folders, or what was in your email—and the NSA couldn’t read it, either.

Now imagine that instead of ordinary email, we’re talking about medical or financial records—and you can see the benefit.

The issue at the moment is that the computational horsepower required to make homomorphic encryption is immense, so only starting to become practical in real-world applications. But Craig was among the first to show it was theoretically possible. And he did it incredibly elegantly, using a Zeno’s-paradox-like approach that started with “somewhat homomorphic” encryption that iteratively refined itself to become “fully homomorphic”.

And there’s one other thing I like about Craig: He writes really, really well. His Stanford University PhD thesis, which you can find here, is a joy to read. I don’t mind ploughing through dense scientific papers—but I really appreciate it when someone writes gracefully and well.

Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang

Another one of this year’s “geniuses” is Yitang Zhang, who is a number theorist at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. Yitang (who I’ve read goes by “Tom”) recently proved the “bounded gaps” conjecture about prime numbers.

Slate’s Jordan Ellenberg (who’s a mathematics professor at the University of Wisconsin) does a much better job explaining what this is and why it matters than I could do. I urge you to read his writeup here.

Suffice it to say that Tom cracked a really, really hard problem in one of the most demanding areas of mathematics. And he’s apparently a really nice, funny, down-to-earth guy, as described in this University of New Hampshire Magazine article.

But that’s not all: Tom is 57—and has done much of his most creative work in the past 10 years (ie from his late 40s onwards).

Mathematics is a field as notorious as gymnastics or ballet for having a youthful peak–the joke among mathematicians is that anyone over 30 is washed up. Gauss, one of the most famous mathematicians ever, did his most significant work by the age of 22—a fact pointed out by my overly gleeful number theory professor when I was 21 or so.

So it’s great to see someone not only doing great things, but doing them at the relatively “advanced” age of 57.

I’m sure the other 19 MacArthur Fellows have done equally great work in their fields. But seeing the awards go to these two made me happy—and I wanted to share my joy with you!

19 responses to “Two MacArthur Geniuses

  1. I love great brains too. Thanks for highlighting these geniuses! So cool!


  2. I heard about this on NPR this afternoon. I listened with half an ear because my darn ‘tire pressure’ light would not go off even though I just had the tire pressure adjusted! The only one I remember them interviewing was the gal who had done brain research. This award both baffles and amazes me.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      My understanding is that your friends and colleagues nominate you, and the committee sorts through the nominations based on the number of the folks who independently nominate you, and the kind of impact it seems you’ve done. I’m just so happy to see computer science and mathematics get their due!


  3. I am impressed by the sheer cleverness of those selected for MacArthur grants… Collectively they are very impressive. I was sharing an article about one of last year’s winners – Carl Haber who figured out how to restore early analog recordings using digital imaging. Impressive. Thanks for bringing these two to my attention. I am forwarding this on to the math teacher on my team – we teach gifted 8th graders! Have a great week and thank you for passing along the good news.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Oh, wonderful news about passing along to the math teacher on your team! Tom just sounds like the best guy…and hopefully it can get your 8th graders a bit more excited about math!


  4. Fascinating reading and all the better for your writing.


  5. How utterly refreshing to read some great, really positive news about human intellectual creativity instead of all the mainstream horror relentlessly issuing forth from the regular news outlets. Thank you for brightening my Thursday morning.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      You’re most welcome! And if you want MORE good news (can you stand it?) they both seem to be really nice, down-to-earth, friendly, likeable guys.

      One of the stories about Tom Zhang is that he apparently worked as an accountant for a chain of Subway stores after graduation, and once or twice stepped behind the counter to help make sandwiches. That was before he started at UNH.

      I just love it when the good guys win one, for a change…


      • You are so right, the truth is good guys do win sometimes and that needs to be broadcasted LOUD and CLEAR – my 20 year old student, veggie daughter (Geophysics) is a great fan of Subway I shall be delighted to pass on that story!!


  6. Since I have a BS in Mathematics, am currently living in NH (for the last 25 years) and am a man whose age is getting up there yet still has a long list of things I’d like to accomplish, I also think it’s great to see Yitang Zhang on the list.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Me too! And I hope you accomplish your list, and more. By the way, here’s an inspiring quote about challenging math problems: One of Zhang’s colleagues used to see him prowling the campus and ask, “How’s it going?”

      But as the colleague put it: “But when you’re working on hard problems, most of the time you’re stuck—so you don’t want to ask too often.”

      Great perspective: If your problem is truly hard, most of the time you’re stuck. And that’s OK! Being stuck doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you’ve chosen an important problem.


  7. wünsch eine schöne Zeit ;-)


  8. Thanks for a fascinating post Johna. It gave me a glimpse into research and developments I don’t usually think about. Here’s to a future where homomorphic encryption, or something similar, is readily available! And I, too, particularly appreciated your comments about Yitang Zhang. They are a welcome counterpoint to my other reading this morning which was an article from the Atlantic by Ezekiel Emanual. In his rather bleak description of the ageing process he cites research that suggests most people’s creative contributions peak before they are forty. I guess he’d argue that Yitang Zhang was an outlier. Me, I like to think my best years lie ahead; that we are all capable of learning and growing and contributing till the end. So yay to Yitang Zhang, and to you for bringing him to my attention.


    • Johna Till Johnson

      Hi Jill,

      Thanks for posting! While I love the Atlantic, I’m going to take issue with the article (despite not having read it!) :-).

      I think conventional wisdom on the topic of creativity is wrong (even when it’s supposedly backed up by science). The theory I subscribe to originated with Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman, who was wildly creative until the end of his life.

      Feynman’s theory is basically that people are at their most creative during a critical window when they know enough about a field to make a contribution, but before they know so much that they start getting into a rut.

      Specifically, he believed that most folks are most creative roughly 5-10 years into a field, when they’ve learned the framework and challenges, but don’t yet have a fixed set of mental patterns. After another 5-10 years, they’ve managed to get themselves into thought patterns that ultimately become limiting.

      His solution was to change fields regularly–not only within physics, but from physics to biology, and even outside science into art and music. He felt that such regular change made him even MORE creative than the typical practitioner, because he brought the “mental toolkit” and problem-solving techniques from one field to another.

      If Feynman was right–and as I said, I believe he was–he and Zhang aren’t outliers, they’re pioneers, and what they do, anyone can.

      The barrier, of course, is that a lot of people like to relax and enjoy their laurels. And in particular, they hate the awkwardness and embarrassment of starting over at the beginning in a new field (nobody wants to be the “newbie”). That’s why most careers seem to have a “creativity limit” at about age 40–because people have reached a certain level of success and don’t want to exchange that for starting at the bottom.

      While there’s nothing wrong with that, if your goal is to stay meaningfully creative until you’re 90 (or more) you need to be willing to look silly and make mistakes.

      So yes, your best years probably DO lie ahead… if you’re willing to spend them differently than you’ve spent your past years!


  9. Johna, thank-you! Skill development relies, in part, on habituation. But I hadn’t thought about how that impacted on creativity across the life span before. I’m going to a creativity workshop this morning – I expect I might be sharing this conversation there!


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