The 10 greatest living scientists in the world today

The most influential contemporary scientists and their accomplishments.


Ranking the world’s greatest contemporary scientists may be a no-win proposition, with inevitable questions about how to evaluate one’s contribution over another. How does a discovery in one field measure up to a discovery in a different one? And what about Richard Dawkins, where is he on this list? All reasonable questions, but ultimately we need to start the discussion somewhere. So here’s a debatable list of top ten scientists from around the world who have made a great impact on our life (but not in order of the magnitude of their achievements because that just might be an unscientific exercise):

1. Timothy Berners-Lee 

It would be hard to argue against the guy who invented a little something called “the world wide web” being on this list. Timothy Berners-Lee is a British computer scientist, knighted by the Queen Elizabeth II for his pioneering work. He is especially famous for his proposal to share information by using the technology of hypertext, the cornerstone of the world wide web. Berners-Lee also made the world’s first website in 1991.

 

Sir Tim Berners-Lee inventor of the World Wide Web arrives at Guildhall to receive an Honorary Freedom of the City of London award on September 24, 2014 in London, England. (Photo by Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images)

2. Stephen Hawking

Arguably the world’s most famous living scientist, Stephen Hawking is known for his landmark contributions to our understanding of the big bang, black holes, and relativity. He is also renowned for his work as a science popularizer, writing the best-selling book “A Brief History of Time”.

The British theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Hawking is acclaimed for his ideas on gravitational singularity theorems in the framework of general relativity, and the theoretical prediction that black holes emit radiation, dubbed “Hawking radiation.” 

Hawking’s remarkable accomplishments are also an inspiration for people living with disabilities as he has suffered paralyzing amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) from early in his life.

Stephen Hawking and Yuri Milner host press conference to announce Breakthrough Starshot, a new space exploration initiative, at One World Observatory on April 12, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Bryan Bedder/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize Foundation)

3. Jane Goodall

Jane Goodall is a British primatologist, known as the world’s foremost expert on chimpanzees. She has studied social and family interactions with wild chimps for over 55 years. Her revolutionary work showed that chimpanzees, and not only humans, can learn to make and use tools. She also made pioneering observations on the violent nature of chimpanzees, finding some to hunt and eat smaller monkeys.

 Founder of the Jane Goodall Institute, Goodall is a tireless advocate for conservation, biodiversity and other environmental causes.

 

Jane Goodall, the world's foremost authority on chimpanzees, communicates with chimpanzee Nana, 06 June 2004 at the zoo of Magdeburg (eastern Germany). (Photo credit: JENS SCHLUETER/AFP/Getty Images)

4. Alan Guth

An American theoretical physicist and cosmologist, Guth developed the theory of cosmic inflation. Winner of the Fundamental Physics Prize and the Kavli Prize, Guth came up with groundbreaking ideas in inflationary theory, discovering why the cosmos is as large as it is.

Credit: Breakthrough Prize.

5. Ashoke Sen

An Indian theoretical physicist, Ashoke Sen won numerous international awards for his work including the Fundamental Prize in Physics in 2012. He has made significant contributions in string theory, with field-changing research. 


Physicists Ashoke Sen and Sumathi Rao attend the 2017 Breakthrough Prize at NASA Ames Research Center on December 4, 2016 in Mountain View, California. (Photo by Kimberly White/Getty Images for Breakthrough Prize).

Want to learn string theory with Ashoke Sen? Check out this lecture:

6. James Watson

James Watson is an American molecular biologist and geneticist, known as the co-discoverer of the double helix structure of the DNA in 1953 - a fact for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize.

Check out this TED talk with James Watson about how he and his research partner Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA:

7. Tu Youyou

Tu Youyou became the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize in 2015 for her work in creating an anti-malaria drug that saved millions of lives in Asia and Africa. She relied on traditional Chinese medicine in her discovery of artemisinin and dihydroartemisinin, which have helped significantly improve the health of people living in tropical climates. 

Tu Youyou, the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel prize for medicine, delivers a speech at a symposium organized by China's National Health and Family Planning Commission (NHFPC) and other departments in Beijing on October 8, 2015. (Photo credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images)

8. Noam Chomsky

U.S. linguist and firebrand political activist, Noam Chomsky has influenced the world in many fields. Described as "the father of modern linguistics," Chomsky is also one of the founders of the field of cognitive science. While writing over a 100 books and leading a broad intellectual life, Chomsky is known as an outspoken critic of American foreign policy.

US linguist, philosopher and political activist, Noam Chomsky addresses a press conference in the southern German city of Stuttgart on March 23, 2010. (Photo credit: SASCHA SCHUERMANN/AFP/Getty Images)

9. Shinya Yamanaka

Yamanaka is a Japanese Nobel Prize-winning stem cell researcher. He received the prize in 2012 for his co-discovery that existing cells of the body can be converted to stem cells. He also received the 2013 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences, worth $3 million.

Nobel Prize Medicine laureate Shinya Yamanaka of Japan speaks during a press conference on December 6, 2012 at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden. (Photo credit: BERTIL ENEVAG ERICSON / SCANPIX/AFP/Getty Images)

10. Elizabeth Blackburn

An Australian-American molecular biologist, Blackburn won the Nobel Prize in 2009 for her research on anti-aging, in particular on the benefits of lengthening telomeres - a structure capping and protecting chromosomes. Blackburn co-discovered an enzyme called telomerase that replenishes the telomere.


The 2009 Nobel laureate in medicine Elizabeth H. Blackburn of USA speaks during a joint news conference held by the Nobel Foundation at the Karolinska Institute on December 6, 2009, in Stockholm.  (Photo credit: HENRIKSSON/AFP/Getty Images)

Want to learn about telomeres from Professor Blackburn? Check out this lecture:

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Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
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The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.


How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

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Image: NASA
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To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."