Emily Thompson: Winner of the MacArthur Genius Grant

Historians in the News

The news came Monday that Shaler native Emily Thompson won a MacArthur Genius Grant for her research into the history of sound. Is it too soon for us to share a little of the credit?

By "us," I mean you readers who were living in this area during Dr. Thompson's formative years. I wasn't. I grew up in the Midwest and, like Dr. Thompson, graduated from high school in 1980, but I've spent the 25 years since then clearly not working my way toward a $500,000 genius grant.

So perhaps it's a good idea to ponder what the Shaler area and the North Hills in general contributed to the molding of an honored scholar. The Web site for University of California at San Diego describes Dr. Thompson as a historian of "technology in the United States in the early twentieth century." Here's where we could go for the easy joke and say that if the technology in question was widespread in the early 20th-century, then it would have been cutting edge in the Pittsburgh region in the 1960s.

But let's not go for the easy -- OK, lame -- jokes, especially when fame and fortune are at stake. There are plenty of parents out there financing their children's endless pursuit of higher education who would like to figure out how someone managed to turn the "history of sound" into a half-million-dollar prize. Perhaps it began with the sounds of Shaler.

Please rest assured that I'm not making fun of Dr. Thompson's field of endeavor. As a classical musician by training, I think it's pretty cool, really, to contemplate what life used to sound like and how people responded to new noises like car engines and jazz. Imagine a time when people drove up and down McKnight Road, whether by Model T or horse and buggy, without passing a pulsating, four-wheeled sound studio capable of causing other drivers' hearing loss!

We can only daydream about those days, and frankly my attention span is exactly suited to such shallowness of thought, but a scholar uses such observations as the launching pad to greatness.

Was the Shaler North Hills Library Dr. Thompson's incubator? Ground was broken for the library on Pearl Harbor day -- Dec. 7, 1941 -- so a young scholar of the 1970s could have been nurtured there. Back in those days, before desk-top computers and the rapid-fire typing of instant-messaging teens, the only sound in libraries was the occasional hubbub of voices -- people actually talking to one another -- and the librarians' mythic shushing. Against this near-silent backdrop, every noise pops.

But Dr. Thompson, reached by phone Monday in San Diego, said, "I wasn't really a scholar growing up." ...

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