Everyone is influenced by the accomplishments, thoughts, and beliefs of the generations that preceded them. As Sir Isaac Newton stated: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” The following is a list of the top 10 modern scientists who have influenced my perceptions, ideas, and thoughts regarding the universe and our species' place within it.
As an adult, I have always been obsessed with origins: the origins of our universe, galaxy, planet, life and species. So it is no surprise that big history expert David Christian makes this list. Big History is the multi-disciplinary study of the past 13.7 billion years in order to understand the history of the Cosmos, Earth, Life and Humanity. In an attempt to ensure the children of the 21st century have a deep understanding of our place within the universe, he has combined efforts with Bill Gates to start the Big History Project. This project aims to bring big history to life for high school students. He is also a successful author who wrote one of my favourite books, Maps of Time: An Introductory to Big History (2005).
Stephen Hawking has become a cultural icon for our generation. His story is inspirational and his work is even more so. Hawking is not the most accessible science writer, but his grasp of the most extreme environments in our universe is unparalleled. While I was just starting to express an interest in the universe, Hawking was able to give me the most detailed and accurate description of objects like black holes, worm holes and quasars. His most famous work A Brief History of Time (1988) will always be remembered as a personal classic.
There are a few major concepts throughout my academic career that have become central to my understanding of our species. Matt Ridley, an evolutionary biologist, has expounded brilliantly on two of them: nature/nurture divide and evolving prosperity. In his 2003 book Nature via Nurture: Genes, Experience, & What Makes Us Human, Ridley successfully destroys the nature/nurture dichotomy but was also able to build a real case for properly understanding their intimate and interconnected effects on our species both individually and collectively. In his 2010 book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, Ridley does a fantastic job of elucidating not only why it is rational to be optimistic about the future, but also why romanticizing the past is so dangerous. He is one of the most talented science writers of our generation and I’m sure he will be a constant source of inspiration in the future.
When I first started reading Jane Goodall’s works, she left me in a state of awe and wonder. Her story, her journey and her insight into what our closest relatives could tell us about our species inspired me to follow a career path into primatology. She is famous as the “woman who redefined man,” but it is her perseverance, spirit, and heart that have made her a scientist worthy of international acclaim she currently receives. Her most famous works, In the Shadow of Man (1971) and Through a Window (1990) are books that will be remembered as 20th century science classics, and they certainly altered the way I saw both humans and life on this planet.
Whereas Jane Goodall is someone who inspired me as a primatologist, Jonathan Marks is someone who shaped my perspective on what it means to be a biological anthropologist, and more broadly, an anthropologist. He is one of the few scientists who has taken the time to completely understand both the biological sciences and the social sciences, and has found a way to integrate knowledge from both. In essence, Mark’s philosophy is what attracted me to biological anthropology in the first place because it is so effective at explaining some of the most difficult and problematic concepts in human history (e.g., race, religion, objectivity, knowledge, creation, etc.). All of these ideas were explored brilliantly in What It Means to be 98% Chimpanzee (2002) and Why I Am Not a Scientist (2009).
What would this list be without one of the most recognizable and likeable scientists today? Neil deGrasse Tyson has undoubtedly become a cultural icon for his work as a science communicator. His insatiable desire for knowledge and his unbounded enthusiasm for all things science is as infectious as it is informative. Tyson has a completely unique way of seeing the world that is not restricted to just a lab or a classroom. He brings science wherever he goes and can make scientific understanding relevant in almost any setting or environment. Whether he is tweeting from a baseball game or answering questions about the size of the Universe, Tyson is enthralling and insightful. His recent work focused on ensuring that we continue exploring space makes him the rightful heir to Carl Sagan.
If you looked up the word academic or scholar in a dictionary, Jared Diamond’s picture should be there. He has professionally studied everything from biophysics to evolutionary ecology and everything in between. During the last few decades of his career, he has published three of the most influential books in modern science (i.e., The Third Chimpanzee (1992), Guns, Germs and Steel (1997), Collapse (2005)). He completely changed the way we understand the human development of the past 100,000 years. His most famous work, Guns, Germs and Steel may be my favourite book of all time (and is definitely in the top 3), because it provided a framework for understanding the development of civilization. For anyone wanting to understand the biggest questions related to development and progress, I would recommend starting here.
In recent years, Richard Dawkins has become known as the world's most recognizable atheist and outspoken critic of religion. Although his philosophy regarding religion has deeply influenced my own beliefs, Dawkins had his greatest impact on me with his writings on the evolution of life. I have never read a book by someone with a greater understanding of the history of life on this planet and with a better way of communicating very difficult concepts in astonishing and intriguing ways. His books The Selfish Gene (1976), The Extended Phenotype (1982), Climbing Mount Improbable (1998), The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) and The Greatest Show On Earth (2009) will be remembered for generations as a few of the greatest books on the evolution of life that have ever been written.
There are certain thinkers that define a generation because they successfully answer the biggest question of the time. In my mind, Ray Kurzweil is one of those thinkers. He has been called the heir to Thomas Edison because of his accomplishments as an inventor. However, for me the book The Singularity Is Near (2004) will always define Kurzweil because it forever changed my perspective on the future within a few days. For those who believe the concept of the technological singularity, Kurzweil has become somewhat of a modern day prophet. His predictions of technological innovation over the last few decades have been unbelievably accurate lending considerable support to the idea that we should listen to what his predictions for the next few decades will be, regardless of how much they would change our species and universe.
Carl Sagan was a science popularizer and communicator who changed the way the public understood their relationship to the rest of the universe. To me, his astronomical insight was jaw dropping, but that is not what makes him the most influential person academically in my life. He has shaped the way I understand the universe because of the way he situated our species within the context of astronomical thought. He used astronomy and big history and applied it to contemporary global decision making. Using the macrocosmic scale and applying it to the microcosm of our existence was a completely transformative way of thinking and infinitely useful (and humbling). If all politicians, scientists and great thinkers did this there would be no limit to what our species could accomplish. I believe that he was a thinker who was literally decades, and even possibly a century before his time. Luckily, his words and wisdom will live on for as long as our species exists.
Other suggested readings not mentioned above:
Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan (1985)
Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan (1994)
The Demon-Hauned World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (1996)
Unweaving the Rainbow by Richard Dawkins (1998)
The Age of Spiritual Machines by Ray Kurzweil (2000)
A Devil's Chaplain by Richard Dawkins (2003)
On The Shoulders of Giants by Stephen Hawking (2003)
Origins: Fourteen Billion Years of Cosmic Evolution by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2004)
Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (2008)
Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe by Jane Goodall (2010)
The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (2011)
Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2012)
The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (2012)
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