Shoulders of Giants

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.

10. David Christian (Big Historian)

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).

“We, as extremely complex creatures, desperately need to know this story, of how the universe creates complexity, despite the second law [of thermodynamics].”

9. Stephen Hawking (Theoretical Physicist)

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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.

“God not only plays dice, He also sometimes throws the dice where they cannot be seen.”

8. Matt Ridley (Evolutionary Biologist)

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.

“In my lifetime the average per capita income, of the average person on the planet in real terms adjusted for inflation has trebled, lifespan is up by 30% in my lifetime, child mortality is down by two/thirds, per capita food production is up by a third. And all this at a time when the population has doubled […] how did we become the only species that becomes more prosperous as it becomes more populous?”

7. Jane Goodall (Primatologist)

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.

“I sometimes think that the chimps are expressing a feeling of awe, which must be very similar to that experience by early people when they worshipped water and the sun, things they didn’t understand.”

5. Jonathan Marks (Biological Anthropologist)

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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).

“If we know that there are gradients, not boundaries; that human variation is patterned locally, not transcontinentally; that the extremes are not the purest representatives of anything, but simply the most divergent; that populations are invariably mixed with their neighbours, and in the last half-millennium with people from far away; and that clustering populations into larger units is a cultural act that values some differences as important and submerges others – then race evaporates as a natural unit.”

5. Neil deGrasse Tyson (Astrophysicist)

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.

“I am driven by two main philosophies, know more today about the world than I knew yesterday. And lessen the suffering of others. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.”

4. Jared Diamond (Environmental Historian and Evolutionary Anthropologist)

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.

“I’ve always been interested in a lot of things, and a lot of things at the same time, and I always tried to explain them to myself. I ask a lot of questions.”

3. Richard Dawkins (Evolutionary Biologist)

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.

“The fact that life evolved out of nearly nothing, some 10 billion years after the universe evolved out of literally nothing, is a fact so staggering that I would be mad to attempt words to do it justice.”

2. Ray Kurzweil (Futurist)

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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.

“Machines will follow a path that mirrors the evolution of humans. Ultimately, however, self-aware, self-improving machines will evolve beyond human’s ability to control or even understand them.”

1. Carl Sagan (Astronomer)

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.

“Our remote descendants, safely arrayed on many worlds through the solar system and beyond will be unified by their common heritage, by their regard for their home planet and by the knowledge that whatever other life may be, the only humans in all the universe come from Earth. They will gaze up and strain to find the pale blue dot in their skies. They will marvel at how vulnerable the repository of our raw potential once was. How perilous our infancy. How humble our beginnings. How many rivers we had to cross before we found our way.”

Other suggested readings not mentioned above:

The Columbian Exchange: Biological and Cultural Consequences of 1492 by Alfred Crosby (1972)

Orientalism by Edward Said (1979)

Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God by Carl Sagan (1985)

Hyperspace by Michio Kaku (1994)

Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space by Carl Sagan (1994)

History of God by Karen Armstrong (1994)

The Demon-Hauned World: Science as a Candle in the Dark by Carl Sagan (1996)

The Age of Extremes by Eric Hobsbawm (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)

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson (2004)

Endless Forms Most Beautiful by Sean Carroll (2006)

The Living Cosmos: Our Search for Life in the Universe by Chris Impey (2007)

The Stuff of Thought by Steven Pinker (2007)

History of the Ancient World by Susan Wise Bauer (2007)

Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku (2008)

The Wayfinders by Wade Davis (2009)

The Fourth Part of the World by Toby Lester (2009)

Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5 Billion Year History of the Human Body by Neil Shuban (2009)

Jane Goodall: 50 Years at Gombe by Jane Goodall (2010)

The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker (2011)

Big History and the Future of Humanity by Fred Spier (2011)

Evolution: The First Four Billion Years ed. by Michael Ruse and Joseph Travis (2011)

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (2011)

Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier by Neil deGrasse Tyson (2012)

Wild Cultures: A Comparison of Chimpanzee and Human Cultures by Christophe Boesch (2012)

The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking (2012)

Lone Survivors: How We Came To Be The Only Humans On Earth by Chris Stringer (2012)

About Cadell Last
I am a science educator, freelance science writer, and founder of The Advanced Apes based in Toronto, Ontario. In the past my academic research focused on the evolution, ecology, and behaviour of non-human primates (i.e., chimpanzees, gorillas, ring-tailed lemurs). Currently, my official blog, The Ratchet, can be found via The Advanced Apes and Svbtle. I enjoy exploring recent research in human evolutionary sciences, as well as biology, ecology, astronomy, physics, and computer science. My work has been featured in Scientific American, American Humanist, Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, and Jane Goodall Institute of Canada. I am also exploring science popularization in new mediums in collaboration with PBS Digital Studios with an animated YouTube channel. You can contact me on Twitter (@cadelllast) or via email: cadell.last@gmail.com

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