News & Politics

David Byrne and Jeff Koons Among the Brainiacs at the 2nd Annual American Ingenuity Awards (Photos)

The gala, hosted by Smithsonian magazine, honored nine innovators.

Smart people, all in a row. The presenters and honorees at the American Ingenuity Awards, hosted by Smithsonian magazine Tuesday night at the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph by Carol Ross Joynt.

The American Ingenuity Awards gala on Tuesday was just another innovative, unusual, and memorable night out with those ingenious folks from Smithsonian magazine. Where else would guests paint their dinner, a scientific honoree swallow his own invention, and another attendee ask everyone to stand up, turn around, and pose a question to someone else?

Handing out the evening’s nine awards were two Nobel laureates, an astrophysicist, musician David Byrne, and artist Jeff Koons. The host was outgoing NPR White House correspondent Ari Shapiro, who had three words to sum up the occasion: “Electricity. Kite. YOLO.”

Words were the driving force of the program, which was essentially three hours of back-to-back speeches. Rather than being tedious it played like a succession of master classes, with the National Portrait Gallery’s Kogod Courtyard as the classroom. Remarkably for a Washington dinner, the 250 or so invitation-only guests remained seated and attentive from the first presentation to the last. Wayne Clough, the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, said the concept was simple: “Find the great; get them all in the same room for an inspiring evening.” He also praised the location: “This beautiful 1836 Greek Revival building we’re in was originally home to our first patent office, and was called a ‘temple to innovation.’”

Smithsonian magazine editor in chief Michael Caruso, who created the Ingenuity Awards last year, chose to invoke President Abraham Lincoln and the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, “the greatest speech in American history.” He called Lincoln “one of our most cutting-edge presidents,” and “our first electronic president,” because he used the telegraph to send short messages, often of 140 characters or less. Caruso made clear he was not saying Lincoln created Twitter—“we all know Al Gore invented that”—but he did give him credit for being an early adapter and for exploiting the innovation of telegraph, or “T-mail.”

Shapiro, in one of his last public appearances in Washington before heading to his new assignment in London, gave a tutorial on the timeliness of the awards, but with a caveat. “There’s something that strikes me as almost mercurially defiant about having these awards celebrating ingenuity at this moment in Washington, DC,” he said. He derided “partisan fighting,” which, he said, means fewer resources to promote innovation and less funding for education and training programs, resulting in “very real problems” of low measures for literacy, problem solving, and math. “In this city that sometimes seems unable to deal with even the most basic problems,” he said, “let’s pause tonight and appreciate this opportunity, celebrating people who are moving immovable objects and breaking through impenetrable walls.”

The honorees included mechanical engineer Adam Steltzner, a self-described former “wannabe rock-and-roll star,” whose personal aesthetic is “hipster Elvis” and who devised the technology that enabled the Curiosity rover to land on Mars. In accepting the technology award he told the story of his journey from “college reject” to a prominent role at NASA’s jet propulsion laboratory.

Stanford University professor Caroline Hoxby received the education award for targeting and helping talented students from poor families to find colleges. Another Stanford professor, historian Caroline Winterer, won the historical scholarship award for innovative studies of Benjamin Franklin.

Developmental biologist Michael Skinner received the natural science award for identifying how exposure to man-made chemicals can be passed through generations. Dave Eggers and Mimi Lok, both San Francisco-based writers, received the social progress award for creating the Voice of Witness project to highlight the individual stories of people suffering human rights distress throughout the world.

All the honorees more or less wowed the audience, and their presentations coincided with the themed first, second, third, and dessert courses of the dinner. The second course of seared halibut, titled “A Blank Canvas,” came with three pots of sauces and a paint brush for applying the sauces to the fish. There was a “Red Planet” course and a “Mom’s Meatloaf,” too.

The presentations that got the most attention, though, included John Rogers, a materials scientist whose specialty is biodegradable devices. He calls one of his inventions “transient electronics,” which aid in medicine, and just for fun he popped one into his mouth while onstage. A few minutes later he pointed to his stomach. “The device I ate earlier is about here and about to dissolve,” he said, “and by tomorrow it will be gone.”

Los Angeles-based artist Doug Aitken is known to Washingtonians for his 2012 video installation “Song 1” that played on the exterior of the Smithsonian’s Hirshhorn Museum. He’s done it again with “Mirror,” a new permanent piece projected onto the exterior of the Seattle Art Museum. After Koons presented him with the visual arts award, Aitken said he didn’t want to make a long acceptance speech but he did want everyone to get up out of their chairs, turn around, find the person behind them, and ask a question. While it was a bit amusingly awkward, as questions on demand at a dinner party can be tough, it did get everyone up on their feet for a minute.

The audacity of youth was represented by Saumil Bandyopadhyay, now an 18-year-old freshman at MIT, who invented an infrared radiation detector at 15. Attending the dinner with his parents, Bandyopadhyay tossed around “nanotechnology” and “quantum mechanics” as if they were the routine fields of study of most college freshmen. (Though maybe they are for freshmen at MIT.)

Byrne, who ambled onstage in a white shirt, white bucks, signature white hair, and trousers held up with suspenders, was the closing act, there not to perform but to introduce the evening’s last honoree: the performing arts winner and his friend and occasional collaborator St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark). “Wow,” the Talking Heads cofounder began his loopy, charming remarks. Gesturing with his hands and looking around the room, he talked about the need for musicians to “push the boundaries” but also “stay connected” with audiences and listeners. “We don’t want to abandon you. We don’t want to make something that’s so difficult you can’t listen to it,” he said. Then he amended his words: “Sometimes that’s okay, too.” Talk of creating innovative music prompted him suddenly to clasp his hands together, grin broadly, and laugh. “This whole thing is really exciting!” he said.

There were other moments of humor, as well. Michael Caruso called out Jeff Koons, who in addition to live-tweeting the event, creating the cover for Lady Gaga’s latest album, and designing the striking American Ingenuity award, also recently scored a notable sale at Christie’s of one of his sculptures, “Balloon Dog.” Caruso announced, “Just last week Jeff broke the record for the highest price ever paid for a work by a living artist, $58.4 million dollars. So, Jeff, you’re picking up the bar tab later on.”