West Philadelphia professor wins $500,000 ‘genius’ grant

A West Philadelphia professor has been awarded a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant.

Jacob Soll, 42, is something of a maverick scholar who teaches political history at Rutgers University-Camden. He is one of 22 recipients this year of the prestigious award that comes with a half-million dollar prize from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation..

Soll looks under the forgotten stones of history to link the politics of Machiavelli to Enlightenment-era scientists to the current financial meltdown.

“MacArthur people seem to have been following me for a really long time and knew everything about me–which was flattering and little creepy,” said Soll at home in his book-choked study. “They knew everything. They got it right–I had a secret mission to redefine how we study politics and political liberty.”

Soll studies libraries–not just what is in them, but how the information organized inside them can unlock political wisdom. His novel cross-disciplinary approach has not found much traction in traditional academic circles.

“What happens is you get certain people who do one kind of history, that’s the only kind of history they do,” said Soll. “If you try to tackle their questions with all these different tools, they get very sensitive that their turf–which they defend, and which is their business and their livelihood–is getting redefined away from them. It’s a rough and tumble business. It was rough when Newton did it, and he crushed the people that messed with his paradigm. He was not a fun guy, Isaac Newton.”

Soll says the MacArthur grant will help legitimize his work. As for the money, it will go a long way on an extended sabbatical to explore the great libraries of Europe. Plus a little R&R.

“I really, honestly do want to go to a Greek island for many months–bring all my books shipped there in a little seaplane,” said Soll. “I want just to see the fishermen and my kids, and I want to watch sunsets and read.”

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