BERKELEY -- A UC Berkeley astrophysicist has received a big boost as he reaches for the cosmos.

Physics professor Eliot Quataert will get up to $1 million from the Simons Foundation to study anything he wants.

The no-strings grant, similar to the MacArthur Foundation's "genius" awards, will allow Quataert, a 39-year-old Oakland resident, to explore his specialty, space mysteries such as black holes and gas clouds.

The foundation will pay $100,000 per year for at least five years and decide whether to extend the grant another five years. Quataert, a theoretical physicist, said he is looking forward to exploring problems he has never investigated before.

It can be difficult for a researcher to get money to study a new subject, he said this week.

"I think that's something that's not adequately appreciated about research. It's better to have four ideas that don't pan out and one really good idea than it is to have five pretty good ideas."

The Simons grants, awarded for the first time this year, are like the MacArthur grants in that the 21 recipients nationwide had no idea they had even been nominated before receiving congratulatory emails. Quataert said some confusion followed the message.

"At first, I was not sure what to make of it," he said. "This really came completely out of the blue."

The awards were publicly announced in an advertisement in Tuesday's New York Times.


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Simons Foundation leaders declined to answer questions about the awards. In a written statement, the foundation noted Quataert's "exceptional contributions to our understanding of quasars, active galactic nuclei and galaxy clusters."

Quataert said he plans to spend part of the money on graduate students and postdoctoral researchers and powerful computers to help with his calculations.

The foundation also will pay $10,000 a year to the physics department and $22,000 more to UC Berkeley to cover costs associated with Quataert's research.

Matt Krupnick covers higher education. Contact him at 510-208-6488. Follow him at Twitter.com/MattKrupnick.