Offered to established professionals who demonstrate exceptional capacity in their respective fields, the Guggenheim Fellowships are well-respected prizes in both academia and the arts. Award recipients—be they novelists or historians, filmmakers or mathematicians—are given grants for six to 12 months in order to freely explore their creative pursuits. This year, of the 180 awards that were distributed in the United States and Canada competition, 10 were given to members of the Columbia University community. We spoke to some of the recipients to see what they’ll be doing with all that free time.
From the cozy armchairs of collegiate faculty lounges to, well, collegiate faculty lounges on other campuses, people have long wrestled with the problem of originality: how do you decide whether someone has said something new? With his Guggenheim Fellowship in hand, Columbia professor Pierre Force will give an early-modern spin to this classic question. As he explains: “Looking for ‘originality’ in the modern sense of the term in early modern authors is anachronistic. ... On the one hand, the modern notion of originality does not adequately capture what early modern authors were aiming at; on the other hand, early modern authors did see novelty as highly desirable. Now, if ‘saying something new’ is not a synonym for ‘being original,’ what did it mean to say something new?” Force intends to publish the results of his study soon in an as-yet untitled book, but his research interests don’t end there: the former chair of the French department at Columbia is also interested in literature and eloquence, the history of hermeneutics, the philosophy of history, and French classicism and its reception. After publishing, he’ll embark on a different project altogether: “a micro-history of an indoor ball court (jeu de paume) located in a small town in the French Pyrenees in the context of a broader study of jeu de paume in early modern France.”
Think your term paper for last semester’s anthropology seminar was lengthy? Nick Turse—who recently graduated from Columbia with a Ph.D in sociomedical sciences—wrote a dissertation on U.S. war crimes during the Vietnam War that was over 1,000 pages long. Published in periodicals like The Nation, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, Turse has written on topics as varied as the military-entertainment complex and economic abuse and domestic violence during the global financial meltdown. But armed with funds from the Guggenheim Foundation, Turse will be returning to the subject that occupied his time here: atrocities committed during the Vietnam War. While it may share the same title as his dissertation, “Kill Anything That Moves,” the book manuscript in progress is a radically different project. As Turse explains, it “focuses a great deal more attention specifically on civilian suffering and the widespread devastation of Vietnam as a result of the ‘American War,’ as the Vietnamese call it.” The book also draws from entirely different sources. Turse reflects that “since my dissertation was written primarily from U.S. records, there was a real dearth of Vietnamese voices. ... The Vietnamese were mostly nameless, faceless, voiceless victims.” To rectify that dilemma, Turse spent months with his wife, photojournalist Tam Turse, interviewing witnesses of U.S. war crimes to provide a richer depiction of the conflict. While working on his book, Turse will also be a fellow at NYU’s Center for the United States and the Cold War.
At the end of a weaving narrative that incorporates the birth of philosophy, art, and mathematics, professor Shou-Wu Zhang comes to an elegant conclusion about his lifelong research interest: “Art is a part of mathematics. I do it because it is beautiful.” Sparked by an early interest in Goldbach’s Conjecture (a theory that states that every even integer greater than two can be written as the sum of two prime numbers), Zhang’s decades-long passion for number theory and arithmetical algebraic geometry has landed him a tenured position in Columbia’s mathematics department. He’s currently puzzling over the Birch and Swinnerton-Dyer conjecture, which posits that there’s a simple way to tell if an equation defining an elliptical curve over rational numbers has either a finite or infinite number of solutions. For non-math majors, that translates to a $1 million prize from the Clay Mathematics Institute, which has a dedicated $7-million prize fund for any mathematician who can solve one of seven famously unsolved math problems. Zhang plans to use his Fellowship funds to take leave next semester to refine and publish articles he conceived of in 2005. Despite his plans to confer with colleagues in Asia and Europe, his devoted graduate students shouldn’t worry. “It’s not like I’m going to an island to write a novel,” he says. “I’ll be around.”