Wire writer David Simon among recipients of "genius" grants

CHICAGO (Reuters) - The creator of the acclaimed TV series “The Wire,” a stone carver, and a scientist working to rescue threatened bees were among 23 recipients of $500,000 “genius” grants awarded by a U.S. charity on Tuesday.

Chicago’s John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation announced its annual list of some two dozen scientists, scholars, artists and musicians surprised with the no-strings-attached stipends to be paid over five years.

“I was absolutely flabbergasted. I was bowled over,” said stone carver Nicholas Benson, 46, a third-generation stone carver and calligrapher from Newport, Rhode Island.

Benson, who makes his living carving gravestones and other commissions, including the Martin Luther King monument on the Mall in Washington, D.C., said the windfall will free him up to pursue dreams of making art.

“I don’t have a lot of time to work on my own projects. I think I’m going to do that,” he said, adding a small portion of the money will go to fix up his century-old Victorian home and buy a celebratory dinner.

There have been 827 recipients of the cash awards since the grants were initiated in 1981. They quickly became known as “genius” grants. Nominations for the awards are submitted anonymously and recipients are not told they are being considered for the prizes.

“These are women and men improving, protecting, and making our world a better place for us all. This program was designed for such people -- designed to provide an extra measure of freedom, visibility, and opportunity,” Daniel Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program, said in a statement.

Among the 10 female and 13 male fellows this year was David Simon, 50, the former Baltimore Sun crime reporter and co-creator, writer and producer of the critically acclaimed TV series “Homicide: Life on the Street” and “The Wire,” set in Baltimore, and the current HBO series “Treme,” set in New Orleans.

“With the nuance and scope of novels, Simon’s recent series have explored the constraints that poverty, corruption and broken social systems place on the lives of a compelling cast of characters, each vividly realized with complicated motives, frailties, and strengths,” the foundation said in summarizing Simon’s work.

Other winners included quantum astrophysicist Nergis Mavalvala, jazz pianist Jason Moran, marine biologist Kelly Benoit-Bird, theater director David Cromer, type designer Matthew Carter, animator of biological subjects Drew Berry, sign language linguist Carol Padden, marble sculptor Elizabeth Turk, computer security scientist Dawn Song, entomologist Marla Spivak, fiction writer Yiyun Li, and high school science teacher Amir Abo-Shaeer.

Abo-Shaeer, 38, has created a unique curriculum that integrates applied physics, engineering and robotics at Dos Pueblos Engineering Academy, a public school in Goleta, California.

“I really do love my work with the students. It’s exciting, challenging, and fun, and every day is different,” Abo-Shaeer, an advocate for public education, said in an e-mail.

“I plan to use the money to continue working toward my goals for the academy and for spreading the idea of project-based physics.”

Bee expert Marla Spivak, 55, is working on breeding bees that are resistant to the parasitic mites that are killing bee colonies. The bees’ fate is important for key vegetable, nut and fruit crops that rely on bees for pollination.

“I’ve a couple of big visions. I’ve been trying to figure out ways to fund them. They all have to do with helping bees and beekeepers,” Spivak said in a phone interview.

Editing by Stacey Joyce