A Civil Rights Lawyer and a Harvard Mathematician Just Won MacArthur ‘Genius’ Grants

Lawyer Mary Bonauto and Harvard mathematician Jacob Lurie will receive $625,000 to spend as they please.

Mary Bonauto

Attorney Mary Bonauto at Cambridge City Hall. Credit: Associated Press

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation awarded 12 men and 9 women with MacArthur “genius” grants on Wednesday. Among them were Mary Bonauto, a civil rights lawyer with the Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders in Boston, and Jacob Lurie, a Harvard mathematician.

Every year the MacArthur Foundation calls up 20 to 25 people and makes their day by giving them $650,000 over five years to spend as they please. The grants are awarded annually to innovators and creative people at institutions that remain committed to building a more “just, verdant, and peaceful world,” according to the foundation’s website. The requirement for winning is that recipients be “geniuses” at what they do. Naturally, then, people who live and work in Boston are usually well represented among the winners.

Mary Bonauto is a lawyer credited with much of the legal progress of the gay marriage movement. Bonauto and the Boston-based GLAD filed the suit that resulted in the legalization of same-sex marriage in Massachusetts back in 2004. According to a 2013 New York Times profile:

She prompted Vermont to create civil unions in 2000, won the 2003 case that made Massachusetts the first state to legalize same-sex marriage and last year persuaded a federal appeals court that the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to gay couples, is unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, Harvard’s Jacob Lurie won his grant for “creating a conceptual foundation for derived algebraic geometry,” the MacArthur Foundation writes. Maybe you skipped “derived algebraic geometry” class back in high school, but “at an oversimplified level,” the committee writes, it means that he is “transforming algebraic geometry to derived algebraic geometry—replacing the role of sets by topological spaces—making it applicable to other areas in new ways.” …  And that right there is why you’re not a MacArthur genius.

The committee continues:

His ideas and methods are altering a range of fields, including higher category theory, topology, and geometry, while also influencing more distant fields such as representation theory and number theory.

Lurie and Bonauto were joined this year by a range of academics and creatives from around the country including Vermont-based graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, playwright Samuel Hunter, and University of New Hampshire mathematician Yitang Zhang.