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Sloan Foundation programmer to receive honorary book award


NEW YORK — If you're a fan of "Hidden Figures" and Margot Lee Shetterly's story of three black female mathematicians' contributions to the space program, you should thank in part the efforts of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

"We made a grant to Margot Lee Shetterly when she was unknown," said Doron Weber, a vice-president and program director at the foundation and a winner this year of an honorary National Book Award. "First I had to find out if it was true, because it was such an amazing story. And the question after that was whether she had the chops to do it because she had never done a book before. She did, and she wrote a beautiful book."

On Tuesday, the National Book Foundation announced that Weber will be presented the Literarian Award during the National Books Award ceremony and benefit dinner on Nov. 14. The prize, to be presented by Shetterly, is given for "outstanding service to the American literary community." Previous recipients include Maya Angelou, James Patterson and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

"At the National Book Foundation, we believe that the scope of literature is expansive; that it can and should open up entirely new worlds to its readers," Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, said in a statement. "Doron Weber is that principle in action. Firmly committed to the marriage of science and art, Weber has spent his career working to meet readers where they are, connecting them in creative ways to new ideas and modes of thinking."

Shetterly said in a statement that Weber was an "early and enthusiastic supporter" of "Hidden Figures" and praised the award as a "chance to shine a light on his work and to thank him and the Sloan Foundation for ensuring that science remains a part of our public life and our national conversation."

The Sloan Foundation was established in 1934 and is known for its support of education and science research. But for decades it has provided grants to a wide range of nonfiction titles through the program Weber oversees, the Public Understanding of Science, Technology and Economics, which has a mission to "bridge the 'two cultures' of science and the humanities to educate and engage the public."

In 2004, the Sloan Foundation received the National Science Board's Public Service Award "for its innovative use of traditional media — books, radio, public television — and its pioneering efforts in theatre and commercial television and films to advance public understanding of science and technology."

Besides "Hidden Figures," the basis for the acclaimed film of the same name, books supported by the foundation include Dava Sobel's bestselling "Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love," Richard Rhodes' "Energy: A Human History" and Max Boot's "War Made New." The Sloan Foundation also has backed movies such as "The Man Who Knew Infinity" and "The Imitation Game" and theatrical productions such as Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen" and David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize-winning "Proof."

On Tuesday, the foundation praised the 63-year-old Weber for his "commitment to the accessibility of scientific histories and information, ensuring the availability of in-depth, significant stories that are intelligible to a broad readership."

During a recent telephone interview with The Associated Press, Weber said grants usually average around $50,000. He is an author himself, of the memoir of "Immortal Bird: A Family Memoir," and says books are essential as resources and as "springboards."

"Books are the place where the deepest kind of work is done," he said. "They uncover new knowledge and information and people can use that to develop into documentaries, plays, films and all kinds of other forms."

Hillel Italie, The Associated Press

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