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Mandolinist, neurosurgeon among winners of 2012 "Genius" grants

By Chris Francescani

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A bluegrass musician and a pediatric surgeon were among 23 of the world's most creative and original thinkers to be awarded no-strings-attached $500,000 "genius" grants this year, a U.S. charitable organization said on Monday.

Also among the 2012 MacArthur Foundation fellows are a celebrated fiction writer, a Washington Post reporter and a Boston man who makes some of the finest violin bows the modern world has ever seen.

Since the program was initiated in 1981, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has provided grants to hundreds of "fellows," with the aim of providing scientists, scholars, artists, activists and others with the means and freedom to pursue their creativity wherever it leads.

Anonymous nominators and selection committees decide who gets the grants, and recipients usually do not know they are even being considered unless they win. The grant is made over a five-year period and can be used however the winners see fit.

Each year's list of MacArthur fellows is comprised of a rich mosaic of achievement across a variety of specialized fields. Among the 2012 grant winners are:

* Fiction writer Junot Diaz, 43, whose groundbreaking novel ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" was described by the New York Times as "so original it can only be described as Mario Vargas Llosa meets ‘Star Trek' meets David Foster Wallace meets Kanye West."

* Mexican documentary filmmaker Natalia Almada, 37, whose work, according to the foundation, captures the "complex and nuanced views of Mexican history, politics and culture in insightful and poetic works that affirm the potency of documentary film as both an art form and a tool for social change."

* Mandolinist and composer Chris Thile, 31, of New York, a groundbreaking master of bluegrass who has composed mandolin concertos, and recorded with a range of artists including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, Dolly Parton, Jack White and the band Bela Fleck.

* Astronomer and physicist Olivier Guyon, 36, who designs telescopes that "play a critical role in the search for Earth-like planets outside our solar system," according to the foundation.

* Journalist David Finkel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post writer who reported from Iraq and won plaudits for his coverage of U.S. efforts to forge democracy in the most lawless corners of Yemen.

* Columbia University mathematician Maria Chudnovsky, 35, who is "investigating the fundamental principles of graph theory…and other major branches of mathematics."

* Bow maker Benoit Rolland, whose experimentation with new designs and materials to create bows for the violin, viola and cello rivals "the quality of prized nineteen century bows and meets the artistic demands of today's musicians."

* Boston Children's Hospital pediatric neurosurgeon Benjamin Warf, 54, who according to the foundation is "revolutionizing the treatment of intracranial diseases in very young children."

(Reporting By Chris Francescani; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Todd Eastham)

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