Skeptic Gets Her Just Desserts

Would you call the cops if Ed McMahon rolled up to your door in his prize truck? What about if the MacArthur Foundation called you a genius? When a publicist from the foundation telephoned Jillian Banfield on 17 June to tell her she'd been selected as a MacArthur fellow--and would be getting $290,000--the 39-year-old mineralogist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, thought it was a hoax. Then he asked for her Social Security number and told her not to tell anyone the news. "I thought this has got to be a scam," says Banfield, who explores soil weathering and how microbes alter rock chemistry.

She looked at the MacArthur Web site, but the names of this year's genius crop hadn't been posted yet. Then she called AT&T to try to track the publicist's number. The phone company urged her to cancel her credit cards and call the police, warning that someone with her Social Security number could easily raid her bank account. Before taking those drastic steps, however, Banfield was able at last to reach the publicist, who directed her to a secret Web site listing the winners. Banfield became a believer--but she still insists her award "doesn't make any sense."

Lightning actually struck twice in Madison this year. Also receiving one of the 5-year, no-strings-attached awards--which acknowledge outstanding "creativity"--is a colleague and friend of Banfield's, chemist Laura Kiessling, 38.

Of 32 fellows announced on 23 June for awards ranging from $200,000 to $375,000, 11 are scientists. They include chemist Carolyn R. Bertozzi, 32, of the University of California, Berkeley; molecular biologist David Hillis, 40, of the University of Texas, Austin; Harvard theoretical physicist Juan Maldacena, 30; anthropologist Dennis Albert Moore, 54, of the Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi, Bélem-Para, Brazil; AT&T computer scientist Peter Shor, 39; theoretical physicist Eva Silverstein, 28, of Stanford Linear Accelerator Center; chemist and environmentalist Wilma Subra, 55, of New Iberia, Louisiana; mathematician and software developer Jeffrey R. Weeks, 42, of Canton, New York; and linguistics professor Ofelia Zepeda, 45, of the University of Arizona, Tucson. Don't believe us? Check out www.macfdn.org.

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