The Silversmith Who Won a MacArthur Genius Award

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The number of people who work with physical materials of any kind has dwindled. Most of us -- including the list of MacArthur grant recipients -- are information workers. Our product is a new way of thinking about the world or strategies for defeating a disease or a new way of understanding the mind. I, personally, wouldn't want to work with my hands every day, but I'm jealous of people with the cast of mind to do so.

So, I note with great pleasure that a silversmith, Ubaldo Vitali of Maplewood, New Jersey, won one of the coveted awards, which gives you a half a million dollars to do with as you please. Vitali both creates new silver pieces and restores old ones. "I am a silversmith. I am a conservator/restorer of metal work. I am an art historian," Vitali said. "All those things combined together." Trained in art history and sculpture, his family has been working silver for generations.


Time was, metallurgy was a very important science. Knowing how to extract and control metal was paramount for utilitarian and decorative purposes. Then came the explosion of synthetic materials in the middle of the 20th century. I think we lost the feeling that Civilization Depended on Metal. Plastics replaced metal for many uses and allowed new types of products to be created, which made old metal ones obsolete. By weight, an average car is now just 63 percent steel and iron.

But let's not get crazy here. Metallurgy is still awesome -- and bordering on alchemy. We start with rocks, apply heat, chemistry, and intelligence and end up with this:

tureen.jpg

Image: Tureen for "Risotto alla Pescatore" by Ubaldo Vitali. Housed in the Smithsonian.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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