ITHACA, N.Y. -- Paul Ginsparg, professor of physics and computing and information science at Cornell University, has been named a 2002 fellow of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. He will receive a no-strings-attached grant of $500,000 over the next five years.
Ginsparg is probably best-known as the creator of an online system for distributing scientific research results -- known by scientists around the world as "arXiv.org" -- which bypasses the conventional avenues of scientific publication. As a theoretical physicist, he has made substantial contributions in quantum field theory, string theory, conformal field theory and quantum gravity.
"Ginsparg has deliberately transformed the way physics gets done, challenging conventional standards for review and communication of research and thereby changing the speed and mode of dissemination of scientific advances," the foundation said in announcing the award.
The MacArthur awards, popularly known as "genius awards," are intended to encourage innovation. "We are committed to nurturing those who are a source of new knowledge and ideas, have the courage to challenge inherited orthodoxies and to take intellectual, scientific and cultural risks," Jonathan F. Fanton, president of the foundation, said in announcing this year's awards. Ginsparg is one of 24 recipients this year. The list includes scientists, artists, writers and musicians, among them three other scientists who are Cornell alumni.
"We worked very hard to bring Paul Ginsparg to Cornell," said Cornell President Hunter Rawlings. "I believe information science will be an increasingly important part of scholarship not only in the sciences but also the humanities. His work already has become an important part of our digital library initiative, and his innovative spirit has enriched two departments. Paul earned his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1981, and we are very happy that he returned to this campus. This award is richly deserved."
Robert Constable, Cornell dean for computing and information science, said, "Paul is a brilliant scientist and a visionary. He has had a major impact on Cornell's emerging information science program, and I think of him not only as a physicist but as one of the first of a new kind of scientist, an information scientist. He joins a distinguished group at Cornell of this new breed."
"I think it's particularly appropriate that this award comes this year at Cornell because I've frequently likened myself to Dr. Frankenstein," Ginsparg remarked, referring to the fact that the university is engaged in a communitywide book project, a discussion of Mary Shelley's classic novel. "Here I used high technology to release this little monster."
Eleven years ago, while working at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, Ginsparg launched a computer-based system for distributing "preprints" of scientific papers, working in his spare time on surplus equipment. Last year Ginsparg joined the Cornell faculty and moved the arXiv to a server at Cornell, maintained by the Cornell University Library. The service is now located at http://arXiv.org and is supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the Cornell University Library. "arXiv" is pronounces like "archive." The X represents the Greek letter chi.
The arXiv now contains nearly 210,000 articles in physics, mathematics and computer science, with almost 3,000 new submissions coming in each month. Over 15 million text articles a year are downloaded. Unlike articles submitted to professional journals, papers submitted to the archive are immediately available online, at no cost to the user. Also unlike articles submitted to professional journals, postings to arXiv.org are not peer-reviewed. Except for some rudimentary screening for inappropriate off-topic submissions, almost anyone can post almost anything. It's up to the reader to decide what is worthwhile.
While many conventional scientific publishers are doing similar things today, Ginsparg said, the arXiv still has an "extraordinary conceptual difference" and is vastly less expensive than conventional publishing. Whereas the cost of distributing an article in a conventional scientific journal can run from around $2,000 to $20,000, it costs from $1 to $5 to distribute an article through the arXiv, he said.
Los Alamos was the perfect place to develop the arXiv, Ginsparg added, noting that he probably could not have done it if he had had academic responsibilities. But the move to Cornell, where members of the university's Digital Library Group are taking over routine administration of the arXiv, is freeing him to try new things.
His Cornell professorship is a joint appointment in the Department of Physics and the newly created Faculty of Computing and Information Science, an interdisciplinary unit created in recognition of the fact that computing and information science have become part of almost every academic discipline. Ginsparg has joined the new Information Science Laboratory to do research on distributed network resources, using ideas drawn from the arXiv experience. "The way researchers acquire information that they need is completely transformed from a decade ago. Our basic assumption is that we're only scratching the surface of the iceberg," he said, deliberately mixing metaphors to emphasize the magnitude of the unknown. He is also a member of the Cornell University Library Board and is becoming interested in problems that go beyond the digital library initiative.
In physics he is moving from string theory to statistical mechanics. But, "I never end up doing what I claim I'm going to do anyway," he pointed out. "Regardless of what I tell you I'm going to do, there will be this gigantic detour, and it will develop into something totally different."
Ginsparg will teach courses in both physics and information science.
A policy of the MacArthur Foundation is that recipients may use the money in any way they choose. It requires no specific projects and expects no reports. As to how he will use the grant, "I don't really know yet," Ginsparg said. "When I was doing this early on and it was new and controversial, that was the fun part. Now these awards come in and so it's clearly time to do something new and creative."
He is already working on plans to expand the arXiv to other scientific disciplines. "The reason it worked in physics is that I'm a physicist and I know how physics works," he said. "Cornell is a place where you can imagine this interdisciplinary discussion taking place. Where I come in is not to do the things that are obvious."
Ginsparg received his undergraduate degree from Harvard University in 1977 and his Ph.D. from Cornell in 1981. He was a junior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows (1981-84) and a Sloan Foundation Fellow (1986-90). He served on the faculty of Harvard from 1984 to 1990 and on the research staff of the Los Alamos National Laboratory from 1990 to 2001. In 1998 he was awarded the Physics, Astronomy and Math Award from the Special Libraries Association, and in 2000 he was elected a fellow of the American Physical Society.
The three Cornell alumni who were named 2002 MacArthur fellows are:
• Erik Mueggler, 40, associate professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. After receiving a B.A. from Cornell in 1987 and an M.A. (1990) and Ph.D. (1996) from Johns Hopkins University, he joined the Department of Anthropology at Michigan in 1996. His research, the MacArthur Foundation said in its announcement, produces "new and persuasive conclusions about the distinctive relationship between China's minorities and the State, offering a model for future ethnography in China and elsewhere." He has received numerous grants and fellowships for his research and is the author of The Age of Wild Ghosts (2001).
• Sendhil Mullainathan, associate professor of economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who at 29 is the youngest of this year's 24 fellows. He received a bachelor's degree from Cornell in 1993 and since 1998 has been on the faculty of the Department of Economics at MIT. He has served as a consultant for the Harvard Institute for International Development and is currently a faculty research fellow in labor and corporate finance at the National Bureau of Economic Research. The foundation announcement said his "empirical methodology and theoretical inquiries consistently reveal new perspectives from which to consider traditional questions in economics. ... he invigorates the discipline with fresh and unconventional inquiries into important issues."
• Daniela Rus, 39, associate professor of computer science and cognitive neuroscience at Dartmouth College and director of the Dartmouth Robotics Laboratory, which she founded in 1994. She earned her M.S. in 1990 and her Ph.D. in 1992 from Cornell.
She also co-founded and co-directs the Dartmouth Transportable Agents Laboratory and received an NSF Career Award in 1996. Her research includes practical implementation of self-reconfigurable robots, the foundation announcement said, adding, "She has demonstrated a capacity to move effortlessly among the most challenging issues in the theory and application of computer science and robotics."
John Hopcroft, Cornell professor of computer science, was her thesis adviser at Cornell, and recalls, "She was a fantastic student, self-motivated, very bright. She did some very original and creative work on gripping objects with a robotic arm. I knew she would be successful with whatever she did, but this is terrific."