Vol. 6, No.1
An astrophysicist in the Zanvyl Krieger School of Arts and Sciences and an alumna of the school's Writing Seminars program were honored this fall with MacArthur Fellowships, the so-called "genius grants."
In September, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded "no-strings attached" $500,000 grants to Adam Riess, professor of physics and astronomy, and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, a Nigerian writer who published her first novel while she was a student at Hopkins.
Riess, 38, was recognized for his leadership in discovering that dark energy, a mysterious and still-unexplained force, is driving the universe to expand at an ever-faster rate, overcoming the effects of gravity. He was lead author on a paper published in 1998 by one of two competing groups of scientists that made the discovery; his innovative approach involved comparisons of the "redshift" of rare Type Ia supernovas spotted at varying distances from Earth in the farthest reaches of space. He has shared two of cosmology's most prestigious prizes—the 2006 Shaw Prize and the Peter Gruber Foundation's 2007 Cosmology Prize—for this discovery. This fall he was elected into the 2008 class of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
"Adam Riess' work has done nothing less than revolutionize—in ways we would have thought impossible—our entire understanding of the past and future of space and time," says Adam Falk, James B. Knapp Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences. "His discovery of the acceleration of the expansion of the universe was one of the great discoveries of the 20th century, and it has completely reoriented not one but two fields, cosmology and high-energy physics, for the coming 21st century. Adam's scientific vision and courage are a source of enormous pride for all of us in Arts and Sciences."
Riess graduated in 1992 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a master's degree in 1994 and a PhD in 1996 from Harvard University. He has been on the Johns Hopkins faculty since 2006 and is also an astronomer at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
"It is a tremendous honor to be recognized by the MacArthur Fellowship," Riess says. "I am very fortunate to work with talented people and with one of the most advanced scientific tools in the Hubble Space Telescope."
MacArthur Fellowships provide financial support over five years for the work of individuals selected for their creativity, originality, and potential to make important future contributions, the foundation said. A total of 781 MacArthur Fellows have been named since the program began in 1981. Winners do not apply for the grants, and they may not even be aware that their names have been suggested by the foundation's cadre of anonymous nominators.
Adichie, whose work has been compared to that of Chinua Achebe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez and described by reviewers as lyrical, masterful, and vivid, received an MA from Arts and Sciences in 2004.
Her most recent book, Half of a Yellow Sun (Knopf, 2006), is the story of a university professor and his mistress and is set against the backdrop of the Nigerian civil war (1967–70), which followed the establishment of the Republic of Biafra. The war caused the death of hundreds of thousands of people, including Adichie's two grandfathers. The book provides an unflinching account of war, but it's also quite beautiful. "It's often talked about as a book about war, but for me it's an intense love story," Adichie told The Baltimore Sun. "A lot of stories in the book are based on real stories, and they actually did happen to people."
Her short stories have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Granta, and Prospect, and her work has been recognized with the Orange Prize for Fiction, an O. Henry Award, and the Commonwealth Writers' Prize, among others.
Adichie's first novel, Purple Hibiscus (Algonquin Books, 2003), is told from the perspective of Kambili, a Nigerian girl who struggles for independence from her overbearing father. In a 2003 Johns Hopkins Magazine interview, Adichie said that she wanted to give voice to the people, the politics, and the culture of her homeland. "I do think it's time people read about Nigeria and Africa. It has been neglected too long—not just neglected, it has also been misrepresented. People either view Africa as a backdrop for famine or AIDS. That's not what Africa is about. People in Africa are regular, ordinary people who are crying and laughing. They're people."
Born in Abba in southeast Nigeria, Adichie grew up in the university town of Nsukka. She came to the United States in 1997 at the age of 19 and earned a BA in communication from Eastern Connecticut State University in 2001. She was a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University and earned an MA in African studies from Yale University in 2008.
Adichie divides her time between Nigeria and Columbia, Md. She is currently working on her third novel and has said she will use the $500,000 MacArthur grant to help her complete the book. "I'm looking at the prize as a well-paid job that will allow me to write the book I want to write, without worrying about earning a living for five years," she told The Baltimore Sun.
The two Arts and Sciences winners are joined by Peter Pronovost, professor of anesthesiology, surgery, and critical care in the School of Medicine, as members of this year's MacArthur class. (For more on Pronovost and his work, see "Focused Intent.")