2 local academics are new MacArthur genius fellows

“Genius” isn’t a term that should be thrown around lightly, but in the case of Carl Haber and David Lobell, two local Jewish scientists, it’s an accurate description. They are among 24 scholars, academics, artists and inventors honored last week with $625,000 fellowships from the MacArthur Foundation, better known as “genius grants.”

Carl Haber

Haber, 54, a senior scientist in the physics department at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was honored for his work in audio preservation. For the past decade, Haber has been repurposing photographic scanning methods used for measuring radiation particles to restore delicate or damaged audio recordings from as far back as the 1860s.

He and his team of researchers extracted audio from wax, tinfoil and other long-defunct recording formats that no longer have available playback methods; as a result, among other remarkable discoveries, Haber and his team are likely the first people in the 21st century to have heard the voice of Alexander Graham Bell. The Smithsonian and the Library of Congress are both cataloging Haber’s restorations and providing funding for his research.

David Lobell

His first spark of inspiration came in 2002. “I was driving on 880, listening to the radio, and there was this report on KQED about the Library of Congress and their collection of historic sound recordings, and how some of them were really delicate and on the verge of deteriorating,” says Haber. His mind flashed to the precise photographic technology he was using in the lab to measure radiation particles. “I basically just went, ‘Maybe you could do the same kind of measurements on sound recordings,’” he recalls. Within a year, he and his team had proof that they could.

Haber said he plans to use the no-strings-attached grant money to help install the recovery technology in more locations around the world (there’s already a machine at the Library of Congress and one in India; another is being installed in New England).

“I’d like to see this technology made more accessible to a wide range of people, to help build and preserve these [sound] collections around the world … so it can be up to the public and the research community to decide what the significance of these cultural materials are,” he said.

Lobell, 35, an associate professor of environmental earth system science at Stanford University, was honored by the MacArthur Foundation for “unearthing richly informative but often underutilized sources of data to investigate the impact of climate change on crop production and global food security.”

In layman’s terms, Lobell is passionate about addressing global hunger while developing ways to lessen the impact of global warming on agriculture, with a focus on wheat, rice and corn — crops on which much of the world relies and which are “among the most sensitive to climate change,” says Lobell, who was a postdoctoral fellow at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory from 2005 to 2007. Adaptation could mean developing new irrigation systems that will thrive in different climates, seeds that are more tolerant of drought or heat, and more.

Lobell also serves as the associate director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment at Stanford, and has been involved in putting together the next report from the U.N. International Panel on Climate Change, due out in March.

Lobell, who lives at Stanford with his wife and two young sons, says the stipend will allow him to “think more creatively” about where to go next with his research, which will likely involve travel.

“Taking sabbaticals will allow me to meet and mix with more people around the world, get different perspectives on this work, which is often where new ideas come from,” he said. While he’s not religiously observant, Lobell, who grew up in New York, credits his Jewish background for some of his scientific curiosity.

“There was always an encouragement of challenging things [in my family], a healthy amount of irreverence,” he says. “I was never the most respectful child, but I think that pays off when you get older — you don’t hesitate to question convention.”

By the way, adds Lobell, he celebrated his award with a pastrami sandwich.

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.