Two Caltech researchers, two Los Angeles artists and a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer at the Getty Trust are among 24 people who received this year's so-called genius grants awarded by the MacArthur Foundation.
Three other Californians also received the awards, the state thereby accounting for a full third of the recipients. Each of the 24 fellows will receive $500,000 over the next five years to use any way they want--no strings attached.
The awards are meant to nurture young researchers who have already shown promise by taking intellectual, scientific or cultural risks.
"It just floored me" when the foundation called, said Caltech atmospheric chemist Paul Wennberg. "I had no advance warning at all. I took the afternoon off and took the family to the Long Beach Aquarium."
Wennberg, 40, has devised new ways to measure the concentration of pollutants and other important chemicals in the atmosphere.
Wennberg's measurements show that chlorofluorocarbons produce more damage in the lower regions of the atmosphere than previously believed. They also show that a proposed fleet of supersonic transports, or SSTs, would do less damage than scientists had earlier predicted.
The magnitude of the prize "hasn't really sunk in yet," said cosmologist Charles Steidel, the other Caltech winner. "Everyone is asking me what my plans are for it, but I don't really have a good answer yet."
Steidel, 39, is known for developing new ways to locate and identify the most distant galaxies in the universe, which are also the youngest. By studying those young galaxies, researchers hope to understand how the universe was created and evolved into its present form.
Deciding how to spend the money will require a lot of creative thinking, Steidel said. "It would be a shame to use money with no strings attached in the same way that you use money with lots of strings attached," he said.
Five MacArthur fellows now work at Caltech, an unprecedented concentration.
At 60, Jack Miles, senior advisor to the president of the J. Paul Getty Trust, is the oldest of this year's MacArthur fellows, and thus was perhaps most surprised by the award.
"I had a strong impression that they were prejudiced in favor of people under 45," he said. "For that reason alone, I thought it was not going to happen."
Trained as a Jesuit and with a doctorate in Near Eastern languages and literature, Miles has been an editor and critic all his career, including a 10-year stint as The Times' book editor.
His Pulitzer Prize-winning book "God: A Biography" examines the evolution of the character of God as though he were a figure in a work of literature. His recent book, "Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God," treats the Jesus of the New Testament in the same fashion.
The second book, he said, "was more daring and more risky than the first, and one reviewers wrestled with more." In fact, some praised it highly and others were scathing. "I console myself that the first book won the Pulitzer, but the second is the one that won the MacArthur."
Miles said the award will allow him to pursue projects that he had thought were beyond his time and means, focusing on two major themes: the role of religion in addressing the current terrorism crisis, and the world's environmental problems.
Liza Lou, 33, who lives and works in Ventura County and Topanga Canyon, said the award "just came out of nowhere."
Lou is best known for her work with thousands of glass beads, such as two life-size sculptures, "Kitchen" and "Back Yard," that appeared at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 1998. Because the pieces took so long to construct, Lou had to take all kinds of jobs, such as waiting tables, selling prom dresses and taking commissions on other work, while building them.
The award money, she said, will allow her to pursue her ideas without having to take commissions. "If I jump into a large work, I don't have to spend a year raising the money," she said. "It couldn't have come at a better time."
Lou's work now involves performance art and sculpture based on wood panels. Her most recent sculptures will make up a show called "Testimony" at New York's Deitch Projects opening Oct. 12. The pieces refer obliquely toward her upbringing in a Pentacostal Christian family. "I was raised seeing visions and miracles and stuff ... speaking in tongues. I've gotten exhausted talking about beads," she said.
Artist Toba Khedoori, 37, works with oil paints and pencil on paper that she coats with wax. A native of Australia who comes from an Iraqi family, Khedoori's work is described as cool, elegant minimalism. The Village Voice likened her images of windows and horizons to "the big, empty spaces of Ed Ruscha [without the irony]
George Lewis, 50, has had a protean career as a jazz trombonist, experimental composer, professor and inquirer into the nature and possibilities of improvisation. He has done pioneering work using computers as partners in the give-and-take of improvised music-making.