'Genius' award given to anthro professor

    Professor Guillermo Algaze, chair of the UCSD anthropology department, was awarded the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship on Oct. 5 for his groundbreaking research on the development of early cities. The fellowship comes with a $500,000 grant over the next five years.

    Courtesy of UCSD
    Guillermo Algaze

    “”My first reaction was that this is a bloody joke and this is not a nice joke to do, thank you very much,”” Algaze said. “”My second reaction was that I was expecting the bald guy from Candid Camera to walk in. I mean, the guy [from the foundation] called, and I said ŒI’m busy now’ [and hung up the phone] because I was in the middle of a meeting. I had no idea this was happening.””

    MacArthur Fellowships, also known as “”Genius Fellowships,”” are given by the MacArthur Foundation to between 20 and 25 recipients who, in the words of the foundation, “”show exceptional merit and promise of continued creative work.””

    Traditionally, the award has gone to a wide variety of pursuits, with this year’s recipients ranging from blacksmiths to biophysicists.

    “”The 24 new fellows for 2003 are men and women between the ages of 22 and 63 engaged in vastly different areas of work.”” said Daniel J. Socolow, director of the MacArthur Fellows Program.

    What they share in common, however, is that each is highly focused, tenacious and creative. As in past years, these fellows are not only very good at what they do, their work is distinctively bold and original.””

    Algaze is the 13th scholar connected to UCSD and the seventh current faculty member to win the award since 1983.

    “”The money is nice, but even more importantly, it was a really strong vote of confidence in the stuff I was doing,”” said former award winner Edwin Hutchins, a cognitive science professor. “”At the time, I was doing stuff that wasn’t in the mainstream of my field and it was really important to me for the MacArthur Foundation to recognize what I was doing. It really gave me the courage to go forward.””

    Music professor and 2002 award recipient George Lewis concurred.

    “”I think that the last year has given me increased clarity and self-assurance about new possibilities,”” Lewis said. “”[As a result of the award], I find myself trying out more unusual ideas and moving into new areas.””

    In recent years, Algaze has made key insights into the development of the world’s earliest cities in Mesopotamia, located where southern Iraq and southeastern Turkey are today. Through archeological work in Turkey and Iraq, he discovered that different cities influenced each other to a much greater degree than previously believed and that ancient cities bore many similarities to modern cities.

    “”Guillermo took one of the first global perspectives by looking at how colonialization and the growth of large-scale interconnected ancient economies worked together to promote culture change,”” Tom Levy, a professor of anthropology and judaic studies, said. “”In many respects, over the past decade, Guillermo’s work has helped to set a major part of the agenda for exploring the rise of the earliest civilizations.””

    Despite winning the award, Algaze insists that others deserved the award more.

    “”Deep down, I really think there are some people more capable ‹ at least in my field I know a few more capable people ‹ that should have gotten it instead of me,”” he said.

    In addition to doing research, Algaze’s enthusiasm for his work has also infected many UCSD students over the decade he has taught here.

    Sixth College freshman Geoffrey Gregory, a member of Algaze’s Culture, Art and Technology class, described Algaze’s teaching style as enthusiastic.

    “”He’s one of those professors who knows so much about the material that he just can’t wait to get it out to his students,”” Gregory said. “”He’s also a really nice guy and practically begs students to make use of office hours.””

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