Annals of Improbable Research Online (December 26, 2001)

Who Is Most Likely to Be Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship?

Eric Schulman
Alexandria, Virginia
Arbocultural consultant Peter Yau.

1. Introduction
    The MacArthur Fellowship or genius grant is one of the most prestigous awards in America. Since the program began in 1981, The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation has awarded fellowships to 611 people "of outstanding talent to pursue their own creative, intellectual, and professional inclinations." The current compensation is $500,000 over five years with no strings attached, which is a major reason why the awards are so sought after.
    Applications for the Fellowship are neither solocited nor accepted by the Foundation. Instead, anonymous nominators from many fields nominate several hundred candidates per year. Between 20 and 40 awards are made each year to American citizens or residents. Because of the prestigous (and lucrative!) nature of the awards and the confidential nature of the selection process, speculation abounds about potential nominees and their liklihood of obtaining MacArthur Fellowships.
    In this paper we attempt to relieve some of the mystery by presenting our analysis of the distribution of MacArthur Fellowship awards over the past 21 years.

2. Methods
    We determined the number of MacArthur Fellows as a function of first and last name. Last names shared by two or more Fellows and first names shared by three or more Fellows are listed in Table 1. This table also includes the number of people in the United States with those names in 1990 (the approximate midpoint of the MacArthur Fellowship program so far) and measures of the relative frequency of MacArthur Fellows with those names. The derivation of these measures is left as an exercise for the reader.
    For comparison, we also included the most common last name ("Smith") and the most common female first name ("Mary") in the United States in 1990. The most common male first name ("James") was already included since seven Jameses have been awarded MacArther Fellowships.

Table 1: Number of MacArthur Fellows as a Function of First and Last Name

3. Results
    Although five MacArthur Fellows have each had the last name Wilson and Williams, people with those last names are not actually the most likely to receive fellowships because of the large number of Wilsons and Williamses (Williami?) in the general population. The most likely winners have Yau for a last name, and in fact one out of every 622 Yaus in the United States has been awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.
    Similarly, although 25 MacArthur Fellows have been named John, the most likely winners have Peter as a first name. Peters are 9.67 times more likely than the average person to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship.

4. Discussion
    Because the most likely MacArthur Fellowship winners have Yau as a last name and Peter as a first name, Peter Yau is the most likely person to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. We estimate that he has a 1 in 1350 chance to be selected during any year in which he is a U.S. resident. Mary Smith, on the other hand, has only a one in 400 million chance per year of being awarded a Fellowship.

5. Conclusion
    Arbocultural consultant Peter Yau is the most likely person to be awarded a MacArthur Fellowship, should he decide to become a U.S. resident. Congratulations, Dr. Yau! Management and marketing professor Mary Smith, on the other hand, is not a likely winner. Sorry, Dr. Smith.