MacArthur Foundation

A look at the highly mobile lives of MacArthur "Genius Grant" winners.

From a 32-year-old neurophysicist to a 71-year-old tech historian, the MacArthur Fellows class of 2014 are a typically diverse lot. Like most of their compatriots, these "Genius Grant" winners were born all over the map. And if they're anything like their fellow fellows—or creative forces from across history—they're following a career arc that's taking them to a few specific city clusters.

Since 1981, the MacArthur Foundation has given millions to artists, scientists, writers, philosophers, and others who have shown some exceptional talent or moved the culture forward in an appreciable way. You may have already met the 2014 Fellows, a group that includes feminist graphic artist Alison Bechdel, Texas housing advocate John Henneberger, and prime-number mathematician Yitang Zhang.

At a glance, none of these figures has anything to do with the other—except in expressing genius, I suppose. But a closer look at all 897 Genius Grant winners through history shows that they have a lot of things in common.

Birthplace is not one of them.  

(MacArthur Foundation)

A great many MacArthur Geniuses were born in the United States (701). The other 195 come largely from the U.K. (25), Canada (16), Germany (14), and China (13), as well as from 60 other nations. (All grantees must be citizens or residents of the U.S. to be considered.) Most of the grant winners born in the U.S. were born in the same places where most Americans are born, populous states such as California, Texas, Illinois, and the states that make up the Northeast.

The data compiled by the MacArthur Foundation—which the organization released for the first time this year—shows that geniuses are highly mobile. Of the 701 grant winners born in the U.S., some 79 percent of them had moved to a different state by the time they received their award.

(MacArthur Foundation)

That's quite a bit of movement compared with the non-genius American population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau data, only about 30 percent of the general population and 42 percent of the college-educated U.S. population live outside the state where they were born.

It's largely research money driving the migration of Geniuses, reports the MacArthur Foundation, citing a 2012 report from Nature. That helps to explain how so many grant winners born in the Midwest wind up on the coasts. (A Science report from last month on 150,000 notable individuals finds that it's always been this way, going back to Dresden and Nuremberg in the days of Albrecht Dürer.)

So here's where Geniuses wind up living in the U.S.: Alaska, New Mexico, and Vermont.

(MacArthur Foundation)

You read that right: Even though this map clearly shows more than half of the Genius Grant winners found themselves in either New York or California at the time they won the grant, if you adjust the numbers for population, there are more MacArthur Fellows living in the relative quietude offered by Alaska, New Mexico, and Vermont, per capita, than in the bustle of America's biggest cities. Maybe these Geniuses are onto something.

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