This Week in Genius

1222284492Lots of people in Boston are smarter than you. Here are some of them.
(Ed’s note: This week in “This Week in Genius” is special. With the MacArthur Foundation awarding its grants, we’ve got real geniuses to herald, people! Here are mini-profiles of two of them.)

Banishing Batteries

Marin Soljačić speaks fast, his thoughts pile up so quickly that his mouth has trouble catching up. It’s no wonder then that this MIT physics prof can tackle complex topics like nanophotonics (the study of light on a miniscule scale) and knows enough to prefer the visible and near-infrared spectrums to other electromagnetic phenomena (I’m guessing the attraction isn’t to rainbows). And that ain’t all. He hopes one day you’ll never have to plug in your cell phone or iPod again.

He has invented a process for transmitting power “wirelessly.” In much the way your laptop picks up the internet from thin air, your future laptop may draw power from a nearby transmitter without the need for a cable. But it’s more than an easier life the MIT prof is after.

“[Over the last eight years] our society became very dependent on batteries. In the United States alone, 3 billion batteries are purchased every year. Every single one of them eventually makes it to the landfill. So that creates a substantial environmental problem,” says Soljačić. “And you know this wireless power could potentially, at least to some extent, reduce our dependence in this society on batteries.”

Soljačić received news of his big win last week while driving to pick up his son from school. The caller advised him to pull his car off the road before delivering the shocking news.

“You know I remember [the caller] was saying some stuff [after telling me I had won], asking me some questions about my biography, but I honestly don’t know what he said,” Soljačić says. “I just totally spaced out.”

“I did manage to pick up my son. I remembered that.”

The Genius of the Rope Bridge

As an undergraduate at Cornell, John Ochsendorf followed an unorthodox passion. Bored by the restrictiveness of a simple engineering degree, he branched out into archeology and history. His studies of historic structures have taken him to European cathedrals and Incan rope bridges in the Andes. Fifteen years later this interdisciplinary curiosity has paid off.

“What could we possibly learn from [Incan rope] bridges?” asks the MIT architecture prof. “The fact that these bridges have survived for so long is [due to] the communities involved in the bridges…and this type of community involvement in infrastructure is something that engineers could learn from.”

It’s safe to say he wasn’t brought in to consult on the Big Dig. But Boston’s buildings are plenty interesting in their own rights. Ochsendorf is finishing a book about a little-known Spanish architect/engineer named Guastavino, who built nearly 100 structures throughout the city—including the Boston Public Library. There will be an exhibition there in 2010.

Despite the recent accolades, Ochsendorf has remained grounded. “I wouldn’t call it a ‘genius grant’ because I’m definitely not a genius,” says Ochsendorf. Plans for the prize money are equally humble. Aside from funding more research around his lab, his wife will get a nice dinner out and his daughter a new pair of shoes.

“I just wish everybody could have the feeling I’ve had [since winning],” he says. “It’s really been incredible.”

Conor O’Toole