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 (UPDATE: Hawking died on March 14, 2018)
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: