06/13/2000 07:00:00

Two Caltech faculty named MacArthur Fellows

PASADENA—The California Institute of Technology has two new faculty geniuses, and each has been awarded $500,000 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to prove it.

Erik Winfree, an assistant professor of computer science and computation and neural systems, and Hideo Mabuchi, an assistant professor of physics, both received word last week that they are among the 25 new MacArthur Fellows in the program often referred to as the "Genius Grants." The awards are presented each year to individuals chosen for their exceptional creativity, accomplishments, and potential—no strings attached.

Mabuchi, a specialist in quantum optics, says he was surprised by the phone call and is not yet sure exactly what he'll do with the money.

"I may try to incorporate creativity into the type of science education we normally do at Caltech," he said. "Physics usually builds technical skills, so I would like to see if something could be done to encourage creative skills."

Mabuchi's research primarily explores the details of how microscopic quantum systems interact with macroscopic measurement and control devices used in the lab. This is an important avenue of work for future electronic devices, because as those devices become increasingly smaller, designers will find it more necessary to take quantum effects into consideration.

"Microelectronic devices are coming down to the size where you have to understand the physics very carefully," he said.

Winfree said he felt a "sense of freedom" when he received word of the award. Winfree's research emphasis is the emerging field of biomolecular computing, and he has been especially interested in DNA computing.

"I might, if I am lucky, be able to augment our understanding and imagination of computation in the molecular world," he said of his goals as a scientist. "The understanding of algorithms will serve as a key to understanding the behavior of complex systems such as the biological cell. The question is how to make this transfer of concepts concrete and useful.

"Thus, if my brief moment in the limelight is good for anything, I would like to champion—as others have before me—the notion that computer science is not just about computers. It is the study of processes that generate organization, wherever you find them: algorithms are a fundamental part of nature."

Winfree and Mabuchi, along with the other 23 winners this year, were nominated by an anonymous panel and then selected by a 13-member committee, also serving anonymously. The Fellows are required neither to submit specific projects to the foundation, nor to report on how the money is used.

An important underpinning of the program is the foundation's confidence that the Fellows are best able to decide how to use the money in furthering their work.