Two University of Maryland scholars—a literary scholar and a computer scientist—have been named 2019 Guggenheim Fellows, chosen on the basis of prior achievement and exceptional promise.
Mohammad T. Hajiaghayi, the Jack and Rita G. Minker Professor of Computer Science, and Gerard Passannante, associate professor of English, were among the 168 scholars, artists and writers chosen this year from a group of almost 3,000 applicants. They join a long list of past UMD Guggenheim Fellows that includes groundbreaking historian of slavery Ira Berlin, a Distinguished University Professor; physicist Michael E. Fisher, a Distinguished University Professor and Regents Professor who received two Guggenheim Fellowships (1970 & 1979); professor of theatre Heather S. Nathans; quantum chemist, Millard Alexander, a Distinguished University Professor; and engineer/physicist Katepalli Sreenivasan.
Awarded by the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, the fellowships are primarily awarded to those in the creative arts and humanities. These awards recognize those “who have demonstrated exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts," and provide grants of six to 12 months so recipients can freely pursue their work.
Hajiaghayi is one of 13 2019 awardees whose work is based in the natural sciences. He will receive $50,000 over 12 months to continue his research on algorithms for big graphs and game theory. Hajiaghayi’s algorithms—which are used by companies like Google and Amazon—analyze data sets with trillions of connections while accounting for user objectives and incentives.
“I want to keep working on solving real-world problems essentially,” Hajiaghayi says. “These technology companies will help me do that because they have huge datasets that you can’t find anywhere else.”
His algorithms also help process large datasets on devices with a limited amount of fast memory—a smartphone or tablet, for example—or devices that are connected to a relatively slow external data source.
In 2016 Hajiaghayi was a part of a team of computer scientists from the University of Maryland, Stanford University and Microsoft Research that was the first to solve a game theory scenario known as “Colonel Blotto” that had vexed researchers for nearly a century.
Passannante studies European literature and culture from the 14th to the 18th century—from the verses of the poet Petrarch to the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He is especially interested in how ideas travel. His recent honors include both the new Guggenheim Fellowship and an American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) Fellowship to support his research on how contemporary ideas about scale, or the relative size or extent of something, have roots in ancient and early modern arguments about the order of the universe. In his project, "God is in the Detail," Passannante will explore a variety of literary and philosophical discussions of scale—for example, ancient arguments about cosmic order, Hamlet’s musings on infinity, the discovery of calculus and the bodies of insects as seen through a microscope.
"It's about the history of the strategies we have for confirming that the world is secure and orderly—that 'everything’s fine'—in spite of what experience might say to the contrary," says Passannante. "It’s about finding evidence of order in the very smallest of things."
The phrase "God is in the detail" suggests that the divine is evident in even the smallest of things. Passannante chose it as the title of his project because it speaks to how questions of scale are caught up in questions about the order of the universe. He sees similar patterns emerging in contemporary thought, especially discussions of global warming.
"We live in a moment of profound ecological crisis, but we are dismayingly good at reassuring ourselves by finding order in small things," he said. "I want to create a historical lens through which to see our own practices of interpretation in another light."
The inspiration for Passannante's Guggenheim and ACLS project came while writing his recently published second book, "Catastrophizing: Materialism and the Making of Disaster," which traces the literary and philosophical history of catastrophizing, or imagining the worst. The book touches on everything from Leonardo da Vinci's musings on the destructive forces of nature to the doomsday predictions of Renaissance astrologers.
"I was struck by the way ideas about scale were connected to ideas about the nature of God," he says. "I wanted to understand how and why people argued historically that God is present in even the smallest of things and how they translated this claim into a feeling."
Established in 1925, the Guggenheim Memorial foundation has awarded more than $360 million to over 18,000 people. Hajiaghayi, Passannate and the other 2019 fellows will be honored next month at a reception in New York City.