How Does a Genius Spend $500,000?

11/22/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

What does a genius do with $500,000?

On Tuesday, the MacArthur Foundation announces the 2009 recipients of the MacArthur Fellowship, otherwise known as the "genius grant." Each year, about twenty or so innovative thinkers, artists, scientists, doctors and musicians are chosen for outstanding work in their respective fields. In addition to the accolades and increase in credibility, there's the not so insignificant detail of a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 paid to the chosen ones, distributed in quarterly installments over five years.

Not being a genius, and, in fact, being rather shallow and self-centered at times, I've asked myself how I would spend that money. Which leads to a much more interesting query: how do geniuses spend $500,000? Do they invest in underperforming foos-ball teams? Or, are they, like, smart about it?

I asked -- and this is what they said.

My organization, GeoHazards International, works in developing countries to promote earthquake safety in the most vulnerable communities. And I thought it would be so neat to introduce my kids to what the rest of the world is like. I wanted them to see India, Central Asia and Turkey. So when I got the fellowship, my wife and I decided that she would take a leave of absence, home school them, and we would take the family and travel the world where I work. It was our year on the road.

For GeoHazards International, our annual budget is something like a million dollars. So, actually, the $500,000, after deductions, spread out over five years, wasn't so significant. Let's say if I were a poet and all I needed was a pencil, I could go to some cave and then write for five years. Then, the money would be a huge thing.

-- Brian Tucker, Seismologist (2001)

We took some nice vacations, which we might not have done. We went to Hilton Head -- nothing too extravagant. Mainly, I used it to buy a house when we moved to MIT. It's not a huge house, but it's a nice house.

--Peter Shor, Computer Scientist (1999)

We primarily used it for our kids' education. They are young, so it's toward their future college. A little bit went for research but my lab is very well funded. And then a little bit went to travel for a trip to Wyoming. My wife and I are fortunate that we have jobs that we love to do and that pay us well.

-- Jim Collins, Bioengineer (2003)

It gave us the money to use leverage to set up a center for short wavelength science and engineering. We are developing technologies that form the basis of microscopes that function at the very limits of resolution, space and time.

You want to follow your dreams. When you are lying on your deathbed, it's not the things you do but it's the things you don't do that you regret. And the MacArthur gives you the means to do that.

And my husband and I also helped our parents do some needed things for their houses and such.

--Margaret Murnane, Optical Physicist (2000)

I put it back into the farm, and some of the programs we provide, bringing food to low-income communities. Basically, I want to feed the world.

-- Cheryl Rogowski, Farmer (2004)

It's not all spent! I'm about halfway through my fellowship, so I still have half of the money yet to come. At this time, my main financial obligations are centered on the fact that I have three kids in college at one time. So, the fellowship has meant I've gone less into debt than I otherwise would have.

The biggest impact of the fellowship was to have me imagine new possibilities for my work of getting Silicon Valley more engaged in helping global society. Here's a partial list of new things I've been doing: Working hard on my book; International trips to Tamil Nadu (India), Ecuador, Japan, Europe and so on; Got a really good digital SLR camera and lenses, and have been taking lots of pictures of people I've met and places I've been; And, my local public radio station was having a pledge drive when the fellowship was announced, and challenged me to give some of it to the pledge drive (cheeky, but public radio needs to be cheeky)! As a long-time annual supporter of the station, I stepped up and provided a $1000 matching challenge grant for that drive.

The Fellowship money didn't pay for all of these new things, but it was the catalyst for most of this.

--Jim Fruchterman, Technologist (2006)

Some on a research trip to the ancient Silk Road, some on a grand piano, some on the down payment of my house. But what the fellowship also brought along was the recognition by colleagues and peers. And, most importantly, the encouragement for what I have done and the courage for [what] I will be doing.

--Bright Sheng, Composer (2001)

As a civil rights lawyer, I felt very strongly that the money should be shared because the work of fighting for basic rights and developing a vision and a strategy for achieving a more just world are collaborative efforts, you are best at it when you are part of a team. So the first thing I did was donate a portion of the money to a number of organizations that work for racial and economic justice in the Asian American and other communities.

The other thing the money did is it gave my husband the push to leave the private sector and become a public interest lawyer, too. When you get a $25,000 check with no strings attached every quarter for 5 years, it frees you to make big decisions that can change the course of your life.

Finally, I set up education accounts for our daughters, so they can go to college without worrying about paying for it and without being restricted by debt from following their dreams.

--Julie A. Su, Civil Right Lawyer (2001)

First, I took a year off, and negotiated for a reduced teaching load for the duration of the award. Our son was approaching college age; so we did not have to look at taking out loans, an enormous relief as I am keenly debt-averse. The rest was earmarked by the feds.

Many people think poets don't live in the same economy; that we can live indefinitely under the radar or that we are supposed to live marginally. The poets I know are also full-time employees, parents and taxpayers; people with illnesses and disabilities, and individuals beset with longings for travel or further study or opportunities for experience.

The first time I won an award was $10,000 from the NEA. I thought I was nouveau riche. I quit my job and moved to Mexico. In my mid-fifties this was not an option.

--C.D. Wright, Poet (2004)