Originally published on thebestschools.org. See the full list of “The 50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today.”
From biotechnology and digital media to sustainable energy and cloud computing, almost everything today is somehow affected—and sometimes entirely reshaped—by scientific and technological advances.
By science in this article we mean the natural and engineering sciences (we thus exclude pure mathematics as well as the social sciences). Thus, in this article, we focus on scientists in the biological, medical, and physical sciences as well as those concerned with technology and especially computers.
As a society, we have come to take the fruits of science for granted, such as our use of computers, our access to running water and electricity, and our dependence on various forms of transportation and communication. But all such benefits follow from the discoveries and inventions of scientists as they pursue deep insights into the workings of nature and its materials.
This article focuses on the 50 most influential scientists alive today and their profound contributions to science. These are scientists who have invented the Internet and fiber optics, challenged AIDS and cancer, developed new drugs, and in general made crucial advances in medicine, genetics, astronomy, ecology, physics, and computer programming.
In referring to the scientists on this list as “influential,” this article attempts to gauge their influence on science as such. In other words, the scientists listed here are influential because of the groundbreaking scientific work they have done and its impact on the world.
Some scientists are enormously influential as popularizers or culture critics or public intellectuals. In this respect, figures like Richard Dawkins and Lawrence Krauss, or Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould a generation back, come to mind. The scientists on this list, however, are here because of their preeminence as scientists doing science.
The scientists described here are all creative and brilliant. Many of them are also unusual and interesting—colorful personalities that it would be a pleasure to know!
48. Edward O. Wilson
Edward O. Wilson is a biologist and naturalist. His specialty is myrmecology—the study of ants—on which he is considered to be the world’s leading authority. He was for many years the Joseph Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology for the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Upon his retirement in 1996, he assumed the titles of Professor Emeritus and Honorary Curator in Entomology.
Wilson is also famous for his many popular books on evolutionary biology, for his advocacy of environmental causes (specially preserving biodiversity), and for his efforts to advance the secular humanist worldview. He is a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry.
Wilson first tried to enlist in the United States Army, but he failed his Army medical examination due to his impaired eyesight. He completed his undergraduate education and later completed his PhD in biology at Harvard University.
In 1975, Wilson entered the public eye through the controversy surrounding publication of his Sociobiology: The New Synthesis, a highly ambitious and equally controversial work on the genetic basis of cooperative or “social” behavior in ants and other species, including humans.
In 1990, Wilson and co-author Bert Hölldobler published The Ants , a magisterial synthesis of Wilson’s life’s work on ant taxonomy, biology,and behavior. He and Hölldobler subsequently published several popular books on ants.
In addition to his work in myrmecology, Wilson has also authored a number of best-selling popular works on various aspects of biology and the philosophy of science, including On Human Nature, Biophilia and Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. The latter was another controversial work which argued that the natural sciences are destined to replace the social sciences and even the humanities.
Wilson, who was raised in Alabama as a Southern Baptist, adheres to the philosophy of scientific humanism, which he sees as “the only worldview compatible with science’s growing knowledge of the real world and the laws of nature.” He argues that it is best suited to improve the human condition.
Wilson has long taken a special interest in preserving endangered species. In 2005, he assisted in establishing a nonprofit, the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation, devoted to achieving this goal.
Wilson has been honored with countless awards, including the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year in 1999, Time magazine’s 25 Most Influential People in America in 1995, and the Pulitzer Prize for The Ants in 1991.