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Los Alamos chemist named MacArthur recipient

Los Alamos National Laboratory chemist My Hang Huynh was chosen Tuesday as one of two dozen 2007 winners of what are popularly known as “genius grants” from the MacArthur Foundation.

Each MacArthur fellow will receive $500,000 over the next five years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. They can use the money however they wish.

Huynh, 45, an inorganic chemist for Los Alamos’ high explosives science and technology group, said the fellowship was “completely a surprise to me.” She said she hadn’t even heard about the foundation before a representative called to say she’d been chosen.

The award “gives me complete freedom to work in whatever area I choose,” said Huynh, who currently is on leave from the lab. “It is a perfect opportunity for me to continue my professional career.”

She has been working in the development of “green primary explosives” research that could improve the safety of miners and military workers as well as air bag design.

Primary explosives, the small charges used to set off larger explosives, for centuries have been lead- and mercury-based. That poses health hazards to users and releases environmental contaminants.

Huynh and her team have been developing primary explosives that are safer to produce and handle, and because they do not use lead or mercury, they don’t pose the same environmental problems.

Another MacArthur recipient, medieval historian Jay Rubenstein of the University of Tennessee Knoxville, taught at the University of New Mexico for seven years, until spring 2006.

Rubenstein’s research focuses on accounts of the crusades; his essays on the literature of the crusades examine how the events effected Europe’s political, religious and literary culture.

Rubenstein, 40, who is spending the academic year in Paris doing research under a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship, said the MacArthur Foundation arranged for a friend to tell him she would call when she passed through Paris. But when the call came last week, it was from the foundation.

“As soon as the caller identified himself, I knew enough of the MacArthur lure to be able to think, ‘Good Lord, I must have actually won one,'” Rubenstein said in an e-mail to The Associated Press on Tuesday.

The nomination and selection processes are secret, so he does not know why he was nominated or by whom.

He also said the foundation was “very clear that they do not embrace the popular title of ‘the genius prize.'”

One MacArthur representative simply told him, “We’re betting on you,” he said.

He’s currently working on a draft of a book about the First Crusade, which he hopes to have completed by the end of the academic year.

“When I started this project it was, as it were, a pre 9-11 topic,” Rubenstein said. “To draw exact parallels between the medieval crusade and either the current war on terror or the Islamic jihadist movements would be simple-minded and misleading. But there are obvious lessons and cautionary tales to be drawn.”

He said he’ll take his time choosing his next project.

“Thanks to the MacArthur, I have the luxury of being careful and of thinking big,” he said.

–Associated Press

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