From the Mysterium: 3 Bay Area Scientists win MacArthur grants

A Berkeley physicist who rescues ancient recordings through technology and two Stanford professors studying the effects of climate change are among 24 exceptional innovators from around the nation named Tuesday as this year's MacArthur Fellows.

The no-strings fellowships come with $625,000 cash to be paid out over five years and to be used for whatever strikes the recipients' fancy.

For Carl Haber, a senior scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, that fancy will be digging deeper into the kind of work he's done for the past decade, which led to the astonishing reproduction of the world's oldest known recording of a human voice – a man singing "Clair de Lune" from 1860.

Haber, 54, and his colleagues did the reproduction through a preservation method they created called IRENE – Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise Etc. – and with the MacArthur grant he believes he can fine-tune the technique to go on a preservation binge unlike any known before.

The 1860 reproduction involved creating an intricate visual image of a French recording etched onto paper blackened with soot, and then "playing" the recording digitally. The same method was used to reproduce the only known sample of Alexander Graham Bell's voice, a recording on a wax-coated disc that captured him saying his name and "hear my voice" in his thick Scottish brogue.

"This grant is a big shot in the arm for our research," said Haber. "It will let us go into even more new directions, let us incorporate new measuring techniques, new parts, and look at other collections."

Haber, who lives in Berkeley and is married with two children, said the computerized pictures he and his team reproduce of wax cylinders and the like are "digital images of very, very high resolution – like, if your camera does 5 megapixels, this is in gigapixels."

They've done preservation work for the Library of Congress, among other agencies, reproducing sound from objects considered hopeless, such as broken records and decayed shellac discs.

The other two local MacArthur recipients are Stanford Professors C. Kevin Boyce, an environmental scientist, and David Lobell, an agricultural ecologist.

Boyce, 39, studies climate change and specializes in comparing extinct plant fossils with modern ecosystems to help determine what problems might arise in the future as conditions transform.

"I have no idea what I will do with the money, but I do know it will help me in my studies," said Boyce, who lives in Palo Alto with his wife and three children.

Lobell, 34, studies weather, agricultural practices, land use and natural resources to try to predict how climate change might affect worldwide crop production. His research projects span the globe, from Africa to Asia, and he hopes the MacArthur funding will free him up for more field work rather than grant-writing.

"It's definitely a cool award to win," said Lobell, who lives at Stanford. "That much I've concluded."

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation annually picks about two dozen fellows who demonstrate exceptional creativity in any of a wide range of disciplines from art to science, and could use the funding to expand their pursuits. Individuals cannot nominate themselves.

Other recipients this year include author Donald Antrim of Columbia University in New York, medieval historian Robin Fleming of Boston College, and immigration lawyer Margaret Stock of Alaska.

Grant winners

The following 24 fellows will each receive $625,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation:

Kyle Abraham: 36, New York. Choreographer and dancer.

Donald Antrim: 55, New York. Teaches writing at Columbia University.

Phil Baran: 36, La Jolla, San Diego County. Organic chemist at Scripps Research Institute.

C. Kevin Boyce: 39, Palo Alto. Paleobotanist at Stanford University.

Jeffrey Brenner: 44, Camden, N.J. Physician who founded a health care delivery model.

Colin Camerer: 53, Pasadena. Behavioral economist at the California Institute of Technology.

Jeremy Denk: 43, New York. Writer and concert pianist.

Angela Duckworth: 43, Philadelphia. Research psychologist, University of Pennsylvania.

Craig Fennie: 40, Ithaca, N.Y. Materials scientist at Cornell University.

Robin Fleming: 57, Chestnut Hill, Mass. Medieval historian at Boston College.

Carl Haber: 54, Berkeley. Experimental physicist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

Vijay Iyer: 41, New York. Jazz pianist, composer, bandleader and writer.

Dina Katabi: 42, Cambridge, Mass. Computer scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Julie Livingston: 46, New Brunswick, N.J. Medical historian at Rutgers University.

David Lobell: 34, Agricultural ecologist at Stanford University.

Tarell McCraney: 32, Chicago. Playwright at Steppenwolf Theater Company.

Susan Murphy: 55, Ann Arbor, Mich. Statistician at the University of Michigan.

Sheila Nirenberg: New York. Neuroscientist at Weill Cornell Medical College.

Alexei Ratmansky: 45, New York. Choreographer and artist-in-residence at the American Ballet Theatre.

Ana Maria Rey: 36, Boulder, Colo. Theoretical physicist at the University of Colorado.

Karen Russell: 32, New York. Fiction writer and author of the novel "Swamplandia."

Sara Seager: 42, Cambridge, Mass. Astrophysicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Margaret Stock: 51, Anchorage, Alaska. Immigration attorney.

Carrie Mae Weems: 60, Syracuse, N.Y. Photographer and video artist.

-By Kevin Fagan
San Francisco Chronicle