Science is the engine that runs the modern world. The evidence is all around us to see—not least in the very fact that you are reading these words right now on the screen in front of you.
Science has given us not just computers, the Internet, video games, computer-generated imagery (CGI), and the like, but also electrical power, modern manufacturing methods, the internal combustion engine (leading to trains, automobiles, airplanes, and spaceships), the telephone, television, atomic energy (and weapons!), lasers, robots, new diagnostic techniques like X-rays and genetic assays, novel and effective surgical methods and medicines to cure deadly diseases, and much, much more.
Science does not merely drive the modern world; it has created it.
Yet even this list does not exhaust the magnificent accomplishments of modern science. Some might say that the most important achievement of science is not any of the practical inventions it has led to, but the more profound insight we now have into the world itself, and our place in it. Whatever gaps there may be in the details, we now have in hand a master narrative of the history of the entire universe from the Big Bang, to the origin of the chemical elements in the stars, to the emergence of living systems (admittedly, still a major mystery), to our own human ancestry.
We now think in terms, not just of the here and the now (like the other animals), but of time scales from the origin of the universe in the past (some 14 billion years ago) to the most distant imaginable future—and of distances in space from the farthest reaches of the universe visible through orbiting telescopes (measured in billions of light years) down to the shortest distances visible through modern scanning electron microscopes (the picometer scale).
We do not pause often enough to reflect quietly on these truly awe-inspiring accomplishments. They represent a monument to the human mind and spirit that stands like a soaring peak equal in height to the greatest works of the finest novelists, poets, composers, and painters down through the ages.
Science has not merely created the material world all around us; it has created the image of the world that we all now inhabit in our own heads.
Yet, what is “science”? It is just the result of the combined efforts of the multitudes of individual human beings—more than 5 million strong worldwide, according to one recent estimate—whom we call “scientists.” So, who exactly are these unusual people?
As Thomas S. Kuhn famously pointed out in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), most scientists are engaged most of the time in what he called “normal science,” meaning they mostly follow up on the innovative ideas of others. Only a relative handful of scientists ever break new ground. The ones who do are the real makers of the modern world and of the master narrative of our time.
The immortal work of these great scientists has assured their place in the history books. You know their names: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Harvey, Newton, Darwin, Pasteur, Maxwell, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Pauli, Dirac, Pauling, Feynman.
Entering a list like that takes time. It is not easy for historians to accurately gauge the historical importance of their contemporaries. To assess with any assurance whether scientific work—just like the work of great creative artists—is of the very first importance requires the passage of many years.
In the meantime, we have provided a list of 50 remarkable individuals who are alive today, and who in our judgment stand the best chance of being remembered for their path-breaking contributions to science—contributions both to the material world around us and also to the mental world we live within.
So, read this article and get to know the amazing men and women who are busy today creating the future.
And don’t forget to marvel!