Laypeople often refer to the prestigious MacArthur fellowships as "genius grants," but the Chicago-based foundation that awards them avoids the colloquialism because it "connotes a singular characteristic of intellectual prowess," its website says. "The people we seek express many other important qualities."
Besides, "genius" isn't particularly easy to define. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a genius is a "very smart or talented person: a person who has a level of talent or intelligence that is very rare or remarkable." But it's also a person who's "very good at doing something" and someone with "great natural ability" – though French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir challenged that last definition when she opined, "One is not born a genius, one becomes a genius."
Even psychologist Lewis Terman's famous Genetic Study of Genius, a long-term analysis of gifted children that started in the 1920s, opened the door to ambiguity. Two children tested to partake in the study didn't meet the IQ requirement, but they did go on to win the Nobel Prize in physics. As of about a decade ago, none of the other children had won the award, a former Terman study director told Stanford Magazine in 2000.
The MacArthur Foundation, for its part, awards $625,000 (U.S.) grants to exceptionally creative people who meet decidedly undefinable criteria – the body's own 2012-2013 program review calls the selection process "layered" and says the requirements are "difficult to describe and inclusive of a range of intangible variables."
For the former PhD supervisor of one of this year's winners, though, the blueprint to a fellowship is nuanced but not totally indescribable. It's not enough just to be creative, he said, a person must also have the discipline and motivation to discard the ideas that don't work and to capitalize hugely on the ones that do.
"What makes a genius is someone who is creative and thinks outside the box," said Harvard astronomy professor Dimitar Sasselov, who collaborated with MacArthur fellow astrophysicist Sara Seager in the late 1990s.
"What makes a MacArthur fellow is a person who is creative and thinks outside the box, but who has also put that into real accomplishments. … If their creativity is of no consequence to anybody else, then they're not a MacArthur fellow – they could be a genius, but they're not a MacArthur fellow."