When we think of genius, what springs to mind?
Is it the clichéd image of a man in a lab coat grimacing over beakers and test tubes?
Is it the portrait of an artist who plumbs the depths of human expression while shattering boundaries in her chosen medium?
Is it the notion of an accidental prodigy, a social misfit with a spectacular, unparalleled, and uncontainable talent?
Do you picture an athlete capable of defying the laws of physics in the heat of competition, a prodigy of impenetrable brilliance, or a leader of charismatic distinction?
As it happens, any one of these definitions and innumerable others qualify. It would be a boring world if it was made up of only one kind of genius. If every genius was just a great artist, nobody would know how to do any of the accounting. If every genius was just super-good at math, all art would be rendered in connect-the-dot form.
The world needs engineers and entertainers; academics and antagonists; athletes and mathletes. Genius is a catalyst to evolution and innovation. Like humanity itself, genius comes in every shape and size, occupying all disciplines and creating many of its own.
Our list of geniuses is not entirely objective. While many theories and bodies of thought have been dedicated to the idea of multiple intelligences, we know of no method yet in existence that allows us to objectively assess the level of genius evidenced by those in the public eye across the whole spectrum of human pursuits.
Moreover, none of us may ever know just how much genius lurks in the remote, isolated, oppressed, imprisoned, and anonymous reaches of humanity. Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, remembering a sleeping child he once observed in the third-class compartment of an overnight train filled with refugees, remarked that this child might be a “little Mozart” but for society’s “common stamping machine” that ensures conformity and mediocrity.
Yet somehow, still today, a few children do manage to escape the universal stamping machine and grow up to become Mozarts. That is the miracle we wish to celebrate with this list.
* * *
What criteria did we use?
Perhaps more than anything, genius is reflected in the ability to shape one’s time and place. Indeed, this may well be the definition best reflected in the present list.
Because genius takes so many diverse forms, the geniuses listed here are presented in alphabetical order. Ranking these geniuses would be like comparing apples and astrophysicists. We’re not suggesting that Tony Hawk is smarter than Stephen Hawking. We’re not suggesting he isn’t, either. We’re just saying that his name comes first in the alphabet.
Disclaimers aside, consider this list a way of representing genius in all of its forms. Any good list, be it The 50 Greatest Living Geniuses or Top 50 Hairstyle Trends in 2014, is really designed to provoke debate, incite discussion, generate collegial disagreement, and ultimately promote reflection.
Indeed, where else does genius flourish if not through this very process?
With this humble scholarly objective in mind, we submit the following for your consideration.
[Note: For a slideshow of these 50 geniuses, see our Greatest Living Geniuses Slideshow.]
See more moments of genius:
- 10 Moments of Creative Genius: Songwriting
- 10 Moments of Creative Genius: Cinema
- 10 Moments of Creative Genius: Television
- 10 Moments of Creative Genius: Sports
The 50 Greatest Living Geniuses (alphabetically arranged)
|Name||Claim to Fame||Name||Claim to Fame|
|1. Paul Allen||Innovator||26. Tawakkol Karman||Humanitarian|
|2. Banksy||Artist||27. Evangelos Katsioulis||Physician|
|3. Warren Buffet||Businessman||28. Christopher Langan||Test Master|
|4. Magnus Carlsen||Chess Master||29. Stan Lee||Media Magnate|
|5. Jackie Chan||Martial Artist||30. Yo-Yo Ma||Cellist|
|6. Robert Christgau||Critic||31. Cormac McCarthy||Novelist|
|7. Joel Coen||Director||32. Sir Ian McKellen||Actor|
|8. Elias James Corey||Chemist||33. Nate Silver||Statistician|
|9. Natalie Zemon Davis||Historian||34. Elon Musk||Engineer|
|10. Richard Dawkins||Biologist||35. Barack Obama||Politician|
|11. Placido Domingo||Opera Singer||36. Conan O’Brien||Humorist|
|12. Bob Dylan||Songwriter||37. Larry Page||Computer Scientist|
|13. Ashton J. Eaton||Decathlete||38. Maya Plisetskaya||Ballet Dancer|
|14. Federico Faggin||Engineer||39. Judit Polgar||Chess Player|
|15. Sean Fanning||Software Engineer||40. Marilyn vos Savant||Columnist|
|16. Stephen Fry||Actor||41. Amartya Sen||Economist|
|17. Bill Gates||Computer Programmer||42. Tom Stoppard||Playwright|
|18. Wayne Gretzky||Hockey Player||43. Aung San Suu Kyi||Stateswoman|
|19. Tenzin Gyatso||Spiritual Leader||44. Terrence Tao||Mathematician|
|20. GZA||Rapper||45. Peter Thiel||Entrepreneur|
|21. Tony Hawk||Extreme Athlete||46. McCoy Tyner||Jazz Pianist|
|22. Stephen Hawking||Physicist||47. Craig Venter||Physiologist|
|23. Shirley Ann Jackson||Physicist||48. Oprah Winfrey||Media Magnate|
|24. Bill James||Statistician||49. Anna Wintour||Fashion Journalist|
|25. Michael Jordan||Basketball Player||50. Mark Zuckerberg||Social Media Magnate|
1 Paul Allen – Innovator
(Born 1953; U.S.A.)
Seattle-born computer programmer Paul Allen is, like his business partner and lifelong friend Bill Gates, among the wealthiest men in the world today.
As the co-founder of Microsoft, Allen’s contributions have helped to redefine the world of personal computing. He shared an early affinity for computer programming with Gates, who was a classmate at the elite Lakeside School in Seattle.
After scoring a perfect 1600 on his SAT (pre-1995 scoring), Allen attended Washington State University but eventually dropped out to pursue his profession as a programmer. This decision would prove a wise one. After earning a programming position at Honeywell, Allen encouraged Gates to leave Harvard and team up to found Microsoft.
This would make Allen a key catalyst to many of the innovations for which Gates was responsible, including the BASIC programming language and the DOS operating system, the latter of which would make the two men enormously wealthy.
Allen has made the most of this wealth, investing in high-growth companies like Ticketmaster, achieving ownership of more than 40 patents, and even earning a Super Bowl ring when his NFL franchise, the Seattle Seahawks, won their first title in 2014.
2 Banksy – Artist
(Born ?; U.K.)
Banksy’s true identity is unknown, yet he is among the most celebrated, exciting, and important artists working today.
Emerging from an underground British street scene, the graffiti artist is renowned today for his daring, subversive, thought-provoking, and unpredictable real-world installations.
Presumably working by shadow of night, Banksy’s earliest stencils began springing up in Bristol and London, often depicting highly provocative images decrying war, capitalist greed, and authoritarian hypocrisy. What most distinguishes Banksy, apart from his anonymity and the fascinating mythology that it invokes, is his philosophical commitment to guerrilla art as a form of social resistance.
The artist has traveled all over the world to deposit artistic statements that are as daring for their context as their content. Examples include a series of 2005 images painted on the wall separating the West Bank from Israel, depicting a ladder and children tunneling through; an inflatable doll outfitted as a Guantanamo Bay detainee and propped up inside a Disneyland ride in 2006; and, on the approach of the London Olympic Games in 2012, a series of pieces collaging images of the international athletic competition with images of warfare.
As a true testament to the artist’s controversial power, his works have been often defaced, or else dismantled and removed from their original location—the former typically an act by authorities who reject the artistic merit of graffiti vandalism; the latter presumably by those hoping to make a killing at auction.
Banksy came to wider attention (though with continued anonymity) through his Academy Award–nominated documentary, Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010).
Banksy’s combination of artistic brilliance with political daring and commitment makes him one of the most important artists working today.
3 Warren Buffett – Businessman
(Born 1930; U.S.A.)
Warren Buffett’s career in business and investment has rendered him one of the single wealthiest and most influential men in the world. Known as the Oracle of Omaha, Buffett might deserve the title as the shrewdest investor in the game today.
The son of a U.S. Congressman, Buffett started his first business undertaking when, in high school, he purchased a pinball machine and set it in a local barbershop. When his machine proved profitable, the young entrepreneur began to take an interest in investing.
Graduating a Master of Science in Economics from Columbia in 1951, Buffett started Buffett Partnership Ltd., where he managed a growling portfolio of investment partnerships all driven by intuitive, low-risk investment strategies. These partnerships made Buffett a millionaire by the start of the next decade.
He would parlay his fortune into creating an exponentially larger investment empire, assuming control of Berkshire Hathaway during a 1965 meeting, and leading the company to unseen heights of success. Buffet continued to grow his empire by acquiring controlling interests in blue chip companies like Washington Post, ABC, and Coca-Cola. Over his tenure at Berkshire Hathaway, Buffett would drive the value of his company into a new layer of the stratosphere, consequently rendering himself a billionaire.
Today, Buffett dedicates much of his fortune to philanthropic endeavors, particularly through contributions to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. And though he and Berkshire Hathaway were hit hard by the economic crisis and subsequent recessions (2008–2009), the company bounced back to record its most profitable quarter ever in early 2014.
4 Magnus Carlsen – Chess Master
(Born 1990; Norway)
At the age of 24, Magnus Carlsen is widely considered the best chess master in competition today. The Norwegian-born prodigy is the #1 ranked player in the world at the time of writing.
Carlsen displayed precocious problem-solving abilities and a razor-sharp memory from an extremely young age, though he preferred building complex Lego structures to playing chess as a child.
When the young Carlsen did begin applying his talents to chess, his grasp was remarkable and immediate. So too was his commitment. Practicing alone for several hours a day, Carlsen competed in the 1999 Norwegian Chess Championship for the first time at the age of eight.
Displaying a brash and aggressive playing style, Carlsen dove headlong into competition in 2000. Over the course of just that year, his rating as a player rose more than 1000 points. With more than 300 tournaments under his belt by 2002, Carlsen earned the International Master title. Just a year later, at 13 years and 148 days, Carlsen became the second-youngest player at the time (now third) to become a Grandmaster.
Over the next decade, Carlsen’s star rose and his playing style evolved. From the fearless and aggressive disposition of his earlier matches, to the widely unpredictable and prudent variation of opening maneuvers that distinguishes his game today, Carlsen grew into the game’s boldest and best player.
In 2009, he would earn his first of four consecutive “Chess Oscar” titles as the top player in the world according to international polls. The following year, the 19-year-old became the top-ranked player in the world—the youngest ever to do so.
Though this reign was short-lived, Carlsen would regain the title with a victory at the 2013 World Chess Championships and would successfully defend his crown in the following tournament in 2014—the year that Carlsen peaked with a stunning five-year rating of 2882. This remains the all-time record, a full 31 points higher than Garry Kasparov’s best rating.
At his age and pace, the future remains filled with exciting and record-shattering possibilities for Magnus Carlsen.
5 Jackie Chan – Martial Artist
(Born 1954; Hong Kong)
Jackie Chan is one of the most immediately recognizable and beloved entertainers in the world. Across a 50-year career, the Hong Kong born actor, martial artist, director, singer, and philanthropist has appeared in over 150 films and earned himself stars on both the Hong Kong Avenue of Stars and Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Chan’s enormous fame and box-office power are fueled by his stunning agility and an almost otherworldly ability to physically control the objects, space, and people around him. As a master of numerous martial arts, including Wing Chun, Mantis, Shaolin Kung Fu, Hapkido, and Judo, the diminutive film star is known as much for the ingenious comic timing of his fighting style as he is for his technical skill.
Chan is virtually unmatched in his ability to choreograph, improvise, and execute complex, humorous, and imaginative acrobatic sequences that draw in equal parts on the incisive slapstick timing of Buster Keaton and Bruce Lee’s cinematic hybrid of martial artistry.
Chan was cast in his first film role in 1962’s Big and Little Wong Tin Bar. But his career would take its first fated turn when he landed a stuntman gig in Lee’s landmark Fists of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) films. Before becoming arguably the biggest cinema star in the world, Chan was earning his keep by doing his own stunts. The background would serve him well.
His first successes came as a rising domestic star in the flourishing Hong Kong film industry with now-classic kung fu films like Snake in Eagle’s Shadow (1978), The Drunken Master (1978), and The Fearless Hyena (1979).
He made his Hollywood debut in The Big Brawl (1980) and had a small part in the 1981 Burt Reynolds blockbuster The Cannonball Run. But he achieved real fame in the U.S. market with 1995’s Rumble in the Bronx and the three-part Rush Hour franchise (1998–2007).
Chan is well-known for performing his own stunts, a commitment that has earned him countless broken bones, near-death experiences, and rejected life insurance applications.
6 Robert Christgau – Critic
(Born 1942; U.S.A.)
Robert Christgau has done more than perhaps any other journalist to elevate the critique of popular music to a level of cultural importance historically accorded literary or theater critique. Born and raised in Queens, Christgau has been an immovable fixture in the New York music scene since the late 1960s.
The ardent rock and jazz enthusiast produced his first music column for Esquire in 1967 before moving over to the Village Voice in 1969. It was here that the critic and college professor earned his title as “Dean of American Rock Critics,” particularly by way of his Consumer Guide, a monthly catalogue of capsule reviews distinguished by Christgau’s highly literary, often cutting, and undeniably cool writing voice.
In 1971, Christgau created the annual Pazz & Jop music poll, which compiles top 10 lists submitted by music journalists nationwide. The poll commands considerable respect among music buyers and musicians alike, and remains a staple at the Village Voice.
During a tenure with that journal spanning more than 37 years, Christgau has also been a regular contributor to Rolling Stone, Creem, Playboy, and Spin. Today, Christgau composes a monthly column for Billboard and is widely considered both a musical taste maker and elder statesman among music critics.
7 Joel Coen – Director
(Born 1954; U.S.A.)
Joel Coen is the elder of two brothers responsible for what is perhaps the most distinctive, colorful, and artful body of work in popular film over the last 30 years. Though we include Joel and not Ethan on our list, it should be with the understanding (as is always the case when either of the Minnesota-born brothers receives recognition) that the honor is shared. With this disclaimer aside, screenwriter, producer, and director Joel Coen is the leading voice behind an inspired filmography.
The New York University graduate made his directorial debut in 1984 with Blood Simple, a noir crime thriller that enjoyed critical praise but modest box office returns. This first film by the Coen Brothers already showed many of the features that would come to distinguish their later and greater successes, including the seamless blend of violence and humor; the intricate plotting of character and caper; and the reverent borrowing from Hollywood’s bygone studio-era genre films.
The brothers’ next film, Raising Arizona (1987), represented a refinement of director Joel’s surreal vision, his absurd universe, and the disarmingly sympathetic portrayals of those who inhabit this universe. Raising Arizona is also riotously funny, a quality that would elevate it to cult status.
Over the next several years, the Coen Brothers would become darlings of the Critics Circle with Miller’s Crossing (1990), the ultimate in soulful yet sardonic gangster flicks; Barton Fink (1991), a surrealist Lost Weekend remake starring William Faulkner and Satan; and The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), the brothers’ not-entirely-convincing take on a classic screwball comedy. All received generally favorable (in some cases rave) reviews. However, none of these films succeeded in connecting the Coen Brothers with a wider audience.
This would change in 1996, with the release of Fargo, a movie largely regarded by critics and audiences alike as a modern masterpiece. An utterly original genre piece—like all Coen Brothers films—Fargo‘s brilliance and wit were married this time out with a strong undertow of genuine feeling. As a whole, the film amounted to a bittersweet meditation on the tragedy of wasted life and the difficult achievement of ordinary happiness. It would earn seven Oscar Nominations and a win for Best Original Screenplay.
The year 1998 would see the release of yet another future cult classic with The Big Lebowski, a comedy crime flick with hilarious and career-defining turns by Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, and Steve Buscemi, all frequent Coen Brothers collaborators. In spite of its box office failure, since its original release Big Lebowski has gained increasing stature as a comedic gem—once again providing glimpses of lacrimae rerum beneath an inspiredly antic surface.
If the 1990s elevated him from emergent talent to noted director, the 2000s made Joel Coen among the most respected and innovative figures in American cinema. Noted accomplishments over the last decade-plus include the gorgeous Southern Gothic adaptation of Homer’s Odyssey, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000); 2007’s masterfully stark Best Picture and Best Director winner, No Country for Old Men; and, best of all, 2009’s A Serious Man, a hilarious reenactment of the Book of Job (we’re not joking!), inquiry into the existence of God, and quest for the meaning of life set in 1950s suburban Minneapolis/St. Paul, the Coen Brothers’ hometown.
It is clear from the near-sadistic cruelty visited on the characters of the latter film that the Coens agrees with Samuel Beckett: “Nothing is funnier than unhappiness.” And yet through it all, they remind us that, God or no God, we human beings had better “walk in the ways of righteousness” if we know what is good for us.
With his unbeatable combination of technical virtuosity, hipness, and humanity, Joel Coen is unparalleled as a contemporary practitioner of the Seventh Art.
8 Elias James Corey – Chemist
(Born 1928; U.S.A.)
At the age of 86, E.J. Corey is thought by many to be the greatest living chemist.
Born in Massachusetts to Christian Lebanese immigrants, Corey’s first love was mathematics. When he entered MIT at the extraordinary age of 16, it was with the intent of pursuing a degree in engineering.However, with his first exposure to chemistry, he proved an uncommonly quick study.
He completed both his bachelor’s degree and Ph.D. at MIT before becoming a full professor of chemistry at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, again at the startlingly young age of 27. Just three years later, Corey took his professorship to Harvard University, where he remains an emeritus professor of organic chemistry nearly 50 years later.
Corey’s accomplishments in the field of organic chemistry could span volumes. In fact, they do. With more than 1100 works published under his name, Corey was recognized by the American Chemical Society (ACS) as the “Most Cited Author in Chemistry.”
As the leader of the Corey Group, Corey has contributed to the total synthesis of more than 250 molecules, many of them constituting groundbreaking developments in the field. Corey’s group has also developed more than 300 laboratory methods, many of which are now considered standard operating procedure in organic chemistry.
Corey is also among the most decorated chemists in history as the recipient of a National Medal of Science (1988), a Nobel Prize in Chemistry (1990), and the Priestley Medal (2004). Corey also holds honorary degrees from 19 universities, including Oxford and Cambridge.
9 Natalie Zemon Davis – Historian
(Born 1928; U.S.A.)
Detroit-born Natalie Zemon Davis is a towering figure among historians. In a field dominated by patriarchal perspective, Davis has furthered the study of history by constantly challenging convention. Davis was a pioneer in the study of history from frequently ignored and consequently reexamined perspectives, particularly those of the impoverished or disenfranchised.
After receiving her Ph.D. from the University of Michigan, Davis and her husband fled the communist witch hunts that became known as the Red Scare, ultimately relocating to Canada. As a professor of history at the University of Toronto in 1971, Davis created one of the first history courses in North America examining issues of gender. This would be a landmark step in bringing the theretofore overlooked female perspective into historiographic discourse.
Davis also took a decidedly progressive approach to examining history, engaging the subject from an interdisciplinary perspective during her tenure as professor and department director at Princeton University (1978–1996). Her writing is distinguished for its seamless incorporation of anthropological, philosophical, and literary themes into historical narratives.
Her reflections on history are often noted for their remarkable resonance with present-day themes in spite of their seemingly remote subject matter. Trickster Travels (2006), in particular, focused on 16th century events that unabashedly paralleled 21st century challenges and patterns of violence.
Davis is a Companion of the Order of Canada (2012) and a recipient of the United States National Humanities Medal (2013).
10 Richard Dawkins – Biologist
(Born 1941; Kenya)
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins is world-renowned for his writing on the gene-centered theory of evolution.
Born to British parents on service in Kenya, Dawkins studied zoology at Balliol College, where he remained to receive his MA and DPhil degrees under the eminent ethologist, Niko Tinbergen. Dawkins worked as a professor at UC Berkley and Oxford before launching to widespread fame with his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.
This book explored and popularized the kin selection hypothesis of George C. Williams. Dawkins’s incisive yet easy-to-digest writing style gained the book a readership far beyond the confines of academia, as did his coining of the phrase “selfish gene,” which has stuck as a label for the hard-line genocentric position within the units of selection controversy.
The Selfish Gene may be seen in retrospect as one of the opening salvos in the culture wars of the past several decades, and as such it has had an incalculable impact on Western society. Together with subsequent volumes like The Blind Watchmaker (1986) and Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), Dawkins’s book may be seen as lying at the root of the high-decibel public controversy over the teaching of evolutionary theory in the public schools.
Moreover, as an outspoken atheist and author of The God Delusion (2006), Dawkins has been the acknowledged leader (along with philosopher Daniel Dennett, writer Christopher Hitchens, and neuroscientist Sam Harris) of the highly visible New Atheist crusade against religion.
Apart from his great success as a populizer, Dawkins’s own scientific work has been concentrated for the most part on developing his notion of the “extended phenotype”—basically, the idea that behavior makes just as great a contribution to genic selection as “phenotype” in the standard morphological sense. His 1982 semi-popular book on this topic, The Extended Phenotype, was a significant contribution to the “sociobiology” controversy raging at the time in the wake of E.O. Wilson’s 1975 tome by that name. Today, these same ideas go by the name of “evolutionary psychology,” and have become standard fodder for thousands of popular psychology and women’s magazine features.
Dawkins is the recipient of countless honorary doctorates and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. In 2004, he ranked first on Prospect magazine’s list of top British intellectuals and, in 2013, he was identified by the same publication as the top thinker in the world.
11 Placido Domingo – Opera Singer
(Born 1941; Spain)
More than any other living opera singer, Placido Domingo has helped attract popular affection for the high art. The Spanish tenor is known for the enormous and versatile power of his voice and his career-long prolificacy.
Though he was born in Madrid, Domingo’s family moved to Mexico when he was just eight years old. It was here that he began his formal studies at the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City.
Domingo began his performing career singing supporting baritone in 1957, but also proved receptive to various musical ventures, even lending backup vocals to a rock band called Los Black Jeans in 1958. This openness would serve him well as his fame grew. The gifted young singer studied piano and conducting, eventually securing a spot with the Mexico National Opera.
Across the 1960s, Domingo earned his name as a singer of unparalleled drama and range, first in Mexico then in the United States. His debut at the Metropolitan Opera in 1968 would be his first of 21 season openers. Over the course of the next 40 years, Domingo would occupy the stage as both singer and conductor in far too many roles to list. Indeed, part of his brilliance is the remarkable preservation of his vocal power across so prolific a career.
Likewise, his commitment to the American stage would make him the foremost champion of his field in the U.S., helping to attract acclaimed directors, conductors, and performers from around the world. Likewise, his partnership in the 1990s with José Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti and their subsequent globetrotting tour as The Three Tenors, would bring a level of popular appeal to opera never before or since replicated.
Today, Domingo is the general director of the Los Angeles Opera.
12 Bob Dylan – Songwriter
(Born 1941; U.S.A.)
There is no songwriter who has exerted greater influence on music or popular culture in the 20th Century than Bob Dylan.
Born Robert Zimmerman in Duluth, the future songsmith would be raised in a small but close-knit Jewish community in the town of Hibbing, Minnesota, in the Mesabi Iron Range, whose bleak landscape littered with abandoned mines and broken lives would find a place in some of his earliest folk songs.
The singer, songwriter, guitarist, and future world-famous rock star first cut his teeth as a musician as a part of the Greenwich Village folk revival in the early 1960s. Taking cues from his idol, Woody Guthrie, Dylan inserted himself into the heart of a burgeoning anti-war and Civil Rights movement, performing both both socially conscious standards and ingeniously literate original compositions.
In 1963, his Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album would become the artistic high-water mark of the Greenwich movement. In the ensuing years, Dylan would prove mercurial and resistant to pigeonholing, though all the more innovative for his uncategorizability. Not only a brilliant songwriter, but also incredibly prolific, Dylan—who renamed himself in honor of the great Welsh poet Dylan Thomas—was known to compose entire songs in the back seat of a taxi in between his hotel and the auditorium where he was to perform.
As the Vietnam conflict boiled over into war, Dylan shocked his folkie supporters by departing the protest movement. In rock circles, the moment that he “plugged in” at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival remains a watershed event, marking Dylan’s transformation into a fast-talking, surrealist hipster.
It was during this contentious time that he also produce his very best and most important work in Bringing It All Back Home (1965), Highway 61 Revisited (1965) and Blonde on Blonde (1966). The rich vein of introspective surrealism that Dylan mined in these landmark albums marked him as a worthy successor of the French poètes maudits. At the same time, Dylan managed to marry his literary gifts with crowd-pleasing hooks and an infectious beat, making him the most popular, as well as the most literate, singer-songwriter of his generation. Indeed, it could be argued that with every movement of great importance in the history of rock, from psychedelia in the mid-60s to country-rock in the late 60s, from singer-songwriter confessional in the early-70s to slick stadium rock by the start of the ‘80s, Dylan has been a catalyst.
Today, Dylan continues to defy expectation by asserting his unwavering relevance in a young man’s game. From the careening force of nature that Dylan was in his youth to the wizened elder mystic that comes through his present-day albums, Bob Dylan is without a doubt the most important songwriter of his time.
13 Ashton James Eaton – Decathlete
(Born 1988; U.S.A.)
Those who compete in the decathlon are often rightly regarded as the world’s greatest athletes. If this is so, than Ashton James Eaton may hold the rights to the title of world’s single greatest athlete.
Originally from Portland, Oregon, Eaton owns the current world records in both the decathlon and the heptathlon. He is also only one of two decathletes in history to top 9000 points in a competition, exceeding Czech predecessor Roman Šebrle’s 9,026 points by 13.
The decathlon is comprised of four running events, three jumping events, and three throwing events. Over the course of two days, athletes compete in a series of heats that comprise a measure of unparalleled athletic excellence.
Eaton has proven that there may not be another athlete in the world the can come close to his abilities today.
Eaton excelled in collegiate competition, becoming a five-time NCAA champion during his time at the University of Oregon. As a member of the Oregon Track Club Elite, he won silver in the 2011 World Championships, established a world decathlon record during that 2012’s Olympic Trials, then coasted to a gold in that year’s Summer Olympics in London. He has also broken the world record in indoor heptathlon during three consecutive competitions between 2011 and 2013.
Eaton will likely compete in the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro and the 2017 World Championships in Athletics in London to defend his title.
14 Federico Faggin – Engineer
(Born 1941; Italy)
Physicist Federico Faggin may well be responsible for the single most important invention of the late 20th century. Following his graduation from a technical high school in Vicenza, Italy, and a stint with tech company SGS Fairchild, Faggin relocated to Palo Alto and took up work with Fairchild Semiconducter.
It was 1968 and Faggin’s arrival in Palo Alto, as much as any other factor, would help to forge the Silicon Valley. During his time there, Faggin created the MOS Silicon Gate, which is viewed as the basis of all modern computer technology.
Faggin took this development to Intel in 1970, where he continued to push the boundaries of his work. It wasn’t long before Faggin had invented the first microprocessor for commercial production. The engineer left Intel in 1974 to found Zilog, which ultimately became the first company solely driven by the production and sale of microprocessors.
In 1986, with the personal computer revolution raging around him, Faggin founded Synaptics, where he remains Chairman Emeritus today. Synaptics is the world leader in touchpad technology.
In 2010, Faggin was recognized with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the highest technology honor bestowed by the United States.
15 Sean Fanning – Software Engineer
(Born 1980; U.S.A.)
Sean Fanning’s greatest contribution to the world is one that most record executives wish had never happened. As the software engineer responsible for the Napster file trading program, Fanning’s impact on the music business has been massive.
The Massachusetts-born entrepreneur was still a student at Northeastern University when he noted the emergence of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing. Still known to only a relatively small sphere of web enthusiasts at the time, Fanning creating a forum specifically for trading a relatively new compressed music file type called MP3.
By being among the first to specifically facilitate the trade of popular music and by creating a P2P forum that was readily accessible and attractive to users, Fanning would initiate dramatic change in both the music business and the world of online file sharing. The latter would see an absolutely massive proliferation, while the former would see a sharp decline in sales of physical media.
Released to the world in 1999, Napster is said to have had roughly 80 million users at its peak, all trading billions of music files a day from personal computer to personal computer. Musicians and record companies reacted negatively to the innovation, calling Napster a forum for digital piracy and theft of intellectual property. Napster would mark an inflection point where the spread of web technology had officially altered our collective perception of intellectual property and copyrights.
Though a court injunction would shut down the Napster operation, Pandora’s Box had been opened. In spite of stiff resistance on the part of the music industry, Fanning’s invention spawned countless imitators and, eventually, forced the business to embrace rather than resist the evolving technology.
From iTunes to Spotify, Fanning’s fingerprints are all over the music business today.
16 Stephen Fry – Actor
(Born 1957; U.K.)
London-born Stephen Fry is perhaps best known for his work as a television actor and personality. However, the scope of his accomplishments challenges easy categorization. From a troubled childhood (which included several expulsions from school and a three-month jail term for a misunderstanding over a missing credit card), Fry would develop into a renaissance man of unparalleled esteem.
Fry is best-known for his work in television. The actor began honing his craft at Queens’ College, Cambridge, where he joined the Cambridge Footlights theater group and met long-term future collaborator Hugh Laurie. Upon graduation, Fry and Laurie formed a comedy duo that was featured on a wide range of television programs throughout the early ‘80s, before they ultimately scored their own BBC sketch show.
A Bit of Fry & Laurie achieved considerable success and acclaim during its run (1986–1995). The two actors also appeared together in another smash-hit BBC comedy series in the early ’90s as P.G. Wodehouse’s immortal Master & Man duo of Wooster (Laurie) and Jeeves (Fry).
Fry rose to increasing fame for his prolificacy, taking on a recurrent comedic role in the extremely successful Blackadder series, earning a Golden Globe nomination for his film portrayal of Oscar Wilde in 1987’s Wilde, and establishing himself as one of the most distinctive film and television character actors of the last 30 years.
As host of the British comedy game show QI since 2003, Fry has earned a reputation as a witty and insightful humorist. This reputation would also see him recognized in a 2006 poll as Britain’s “Most Intelligent Man on Television.”
This honor is underscored by an incredible list of pursuits and accomplishments, including an Emmy win for directing a documentary about his own struggles with manic depression, receipt of numerous honorary doctorates and fellowships from universities throughout the U.K, and composition of four novels, as well as three volumes of his autobiography.
17 Bill Gates – Computer Programmer
(Born 1955; U.S.A.)
Today, when people talk about Bill Gates, it is his vast wealth that generates most of the attention. But of course, Gates would never have accumulated this wealth were it not for his unique genius. As co-founder and former CEO of Microsoft, the Seattle-born software innovator was perhaps the most visible face of the personal computer revolution in the 1980s and ‘90s.
As a young student at Seattle’s exclusive Lakeside School, Gates’s aptitude for programming was readily apparent. He and fellow students Paul Allen and Rick Weiland first earned a ban, and subsequently a job, from Computer Center Corporation, for their collective skill in finding and exploiting system bugs.
Gates and Allen would engage in numerous collaborations together over the early and mid 1970s before even graduating from high school. After scoring a 1590 out of 1600 on his SAT (pre-1995 scoring), Gates enrolled at Harvard. However, while there he spent more time pursuing his own software programming whimsy than his studies.
In 1975, Gates left Harvard to found Microsoft with Allen, and they soon authored the BASIC programming language. Around this innovation, both Microsoft and its philosophy of proprietary programming copyrights evolved within a nascent industry. In the early years, Gates was intimately involved in all aspects of Microsoft from business management to programming grunt work.
In 1980, through a partnership with IBM, Microsoft developed the PC DOS operating system, which would be among the most critical leaps forward in home computing. This was followed in 1985 with the emergence of the Windows operating system and, thereafter, Microsoft’s independence from its partnership with IBM.
With Gates overseeing product strategy and taking an aggressive (some would even say anti-competitive) approach to free market capitalism, Microsoft started the 1990s as a singular powerhouse in software design, rendering Gates one of the single wealthiest and most influential men in the world.
Today, Gates dedicates most of his energy to his philanthropic pursuits through the Bill and Melinda Gates foundation.
18 Wayne Gretzky – Hockey Player
(Born 1961; Canada)
“The Great One,” as Gretzky is often called, is widely considered the best hockey player ever to lace up skates. In a game marked by brute force, broken teeth, and incidental bloodletting, Gretzky controlled the competition with finesse, agility, and intelligence. Modestly sized for a professional athlete, it was Gretzky’s game-time intuition that made him so successful.
The rural Ontario–born center began his professional career in 1978 as a rookie with the World Hockey Association’s (WHA) Indianapolis Racers. He was traded to the Edmonton Oilers just before the WHA folded and his team joined the NHL. Gretzky would immediately excel above his competition, leading his team to four Stanley Cup championships before being traded to the L.A. Kings in 1988.
Gretzky led the Kings to a Cup in 1993 and helped to raise the profile and popularity of his sport in the untapped California market. During a career that is otherwise unmatched in NHL history, Gretzky won nine league MVP awards, 10 point-scoring titles, and two playoff MVP trophies. At the time of his retirement, Gretzky owned more than 60 NHL records and remains the league’s all-time scorer and the only man to exceed 200 points in a season, a feat he accomplished four times.
After brief stints with the St. Louis Blues and the New York Rangers, Gretzky retired in 1999 and was honored with an unusual waiving of the waiting period for Hall of Fame induction. In addition to being immediately enshrined, Gretzky became the only player in the game’s history to have his number “99” retired league-wide. Gretzky also earned an Olympic Gold Medal as executive director of the 2012 Canadian men’s hockey team.
19 Tenzin Gyatso, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama – Spiritual Leader
(Born 1935; China)
Though his status as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama suggests that he was destined for spiritual leadership, fate could not have selected a more suitable vessel to lead the captive Tibetan people from exile.
The future 14th Dalai Lama was born Lhamo Dondrub and would later take the religious name, Tenzin Gyatso. He entered this life in the small Tibetan village of Taktser, which lies in the northern part of the Tibetan plateau in the Chinese province of Qinghai, a region populated by a mix of Tibetan, Han, Turkic, and other ethnic groups, but also (under the name of Amdo) one of the three traditional provinces considered to constitute Tibet.
The infant was recognized as the 14th Dalai Lama and successor as spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism by a mystical process when he was only two years old, though a regent would preside on his behalf until he came of age.
Even before Tenzin Gyatso reached maturity, his position was embattled as a byproduct of growing tensions between Tibet and China. In the midst of his assumption to the position of leader of Tibet in 1950, that country was ramping up its centuries-long struggle against Chinese domination and occupation. As a result of the 1959 Tibetan uprising, the 14th Dalai Lama was forced to flee for his life, seeking asylum in India, where he established a Tibetan government-in-exile in the town of Dharamsala. It was from this base in the foothills of the Himalayas that he began a life of ever-growing spiritual and political influence, leading eventually to worldwide renown.
As one of the world’s most prominent practitioners of Buddhism, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama has given the better part of his life to advocating for progressive causes, including freedom from governmental oppression, nuclear disarmament, gender equality, environmental preservation, and interfaith harmony.
These efforts have paralleled his unwavering support for a free and independent Tibet, a movement that gained particular attention during the fall of Soviet communism in the late ‘80s, culminating in Tenzin Gyatso’s receipt of Nobel Peace Prize in 1989.
20 GZA – Rapper
(Born 1966; U.S.A.)
Born Gary Grice in Brooklyn, the hip hop artist and actor is better known as GZA (pronounced “Jizzah”), though perhaps his second alias is more appropriate for our purposes. Dubbed “The Rap Genius,” the lyricist and MC is best known as the founding member and spiritual leader of the legendary hip hop collective, the Wu-Tang Clan.
As an architect of the Wu-Tang’s gritty, soul-infused street poetry and a co-visionary behind its fully conceived Shaolin-influenced mythology, GZA is among the most influential and organically-educated lyricists in popular music.
As a child attending neighborhood block parties in Brooklyn and Staten Island with cousins Robert Diggs (RZA) and Russell Jones (Ol’ Dirty Bastard) in the 1970s, Grice was witness to the first generation of hip hop MCs. By the early ‘80s, the trio was traveling the five boroughs to challenge other MCs to lyrical battle. Here, Grice’s unequaled wordplay earned him his reputation as an erudite, fleet, and emotive rapper, as well as earning him his Genius alias.
GZA and his cousins assembled the nine-member Wu-Tang collective in 1992 and released their landmark Enter the 36 Chambers in 1993. It remains an accomplishment of incisive streetlight critique and narrative still unmatched in the genre. The same level of reverence has been accorded the GZA’s first solo album, 1995’s Liquid Swords.
Solo and collective works by the Wu-Tang are distinguished by the group’s savvy branding, with allusions to the kung fu cinematic genre permeating the recordings, packages, and imagery. The highly literate GZA has been instrumental in designing and carrying out the group’s mythology. He also placed second behind Aesop Rock in a recent empirical survey measuring the largest vocabularies in hip hop.
Recently, GZA became a co-founder of Science Genius, a foundation devoted to using hip hop as a way of advancing science education among youth in inner-city public high schools.
21 Tony Hawk – Extreme Athlete
(Born 1968; U.S.A.)
Tony Hawk is likely the most successful and recognized skateboarder in the world, to many a godfather of the sport and of “extreme sports” in general.
As a child in Carlsbad, California, Hawk was extremely driven, hyperactive, and competitive. He was a gifted student, testing at an I.Q. score of 144. However, skateboarding proved a necessary outlet for his excess energy.
Hawk went pro in the still-relatively-young sport and went on to win an incredible 12 consecutive National Skateboard Association championships. By the early 1990s, skateboarding had grown from a cult hobby to a respected and lucrative professional sport. Hawk ascended with his sport, becoming a household name, a cultural icon, and the innovator of countless new and challenging maneuvers.
Starting in 1995, the X Games began what would become a massively successful brand, featuring astonishing competition in sports like skateboarding, BMX riding, and snowboarding. The new showcase for extreme sporting continued to elevate sport elders like Tony Hawk to iconic status. Hawk also initiated his own touring competition with the Boom Boom HuckJam in 1998 and, in 1999, debuted his Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game, which is a genre classic and, now in its 18th incarnation, remains a massively popular title.
Though Hawk retired from official competition in 1999, he did, by invitation of President Obama, become the first person to skateboard on the White House grounds in 2009.
22 Stephen Hawking – Physicist
(Born 1942; U.K.)
Stephen Hawking’s name is often seen as synonymous with genius. The British-born theoretical physicist is recognized for his unparalleled scientific brilliance and for the triumph of mind over body exhibited in his life’s work.
Bound to a wheelchair by motor neuron disease and capable of speaking only through use of a computer-mediated voice simulator, Hawking has nonetheless carved out a massive sphere of influence in his field. Known for his brash demeanor and often combative will for innovation, Hawking’s research and writing in popular science have given us dramatic insight into the universe and our own origins.
Hawking’s work with gravitational singularity theorems, black holes, and quantum mechanics have added layer, nuance, and intrigue to deeply complex discussions on human existence, the origins of the universe, and the probability that other parallel dimensions may exist. On the technical level, he is perhaps best known for his proof that the gravitationally collapsed stars popularly known as “black holes” are subject to a slow process of evaporation via a mechanism now dubbed “Hawking radiation” in his honor.
Hawking’s writing, especially his landmark A Brief History of Time (1988), helped to bring some of these complex discussions to a far wider audience. Selling more than 10 million copies since its release, Time remains a landmark meditation on the Big Bang Theory, black holes, and, in later editions, time travel.
Hawking is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts and, until his retirement in 2009, served there for 30 years as the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at the University of Cambridge—Sir Isaac Newton’s old academic chair.
Hawking’s life is marked by tragic circumstance, heroic perseverance, and breathtaking intelligence.
Read more about Stephen Hawking in our article, The 50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today.
23 Shirley Ann Jackson – Physicist
(Born 1946; U.S.A.)
Shirley Ann Jackson is among the most accomplished scholars in her field, her accomplishments made all the more remarkable by the fact that she was forced to shatter two long-standing cultural obstacles on the way.
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., Jackson was a top student among her peers, graduating as high school valedictorian and becoming the only African-American theoretical physics student at MIT in 1964.
Completing her bachelor’s degree and subsequently her Ph.D. at the storied university in 1973, Jackson became the first African-American woman to earn a doctorate in the university’s history. Jackson would continue to blaze new trails for both women and African-Americans, venturing into subatomic particle research in the 1970s and conducting some of her most important research for Bell Laboratories.
Her work on semiconductors at Bell would be particularly influential, as would her more than 100 research articles composed during this time. Jackson was also tapped by President Clinton to chair the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1995, once again the first African-American and the first woman to occupy the position.
This same first applies to her 1999 appointment as President of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, a position which reportedly makes her the highest-paid university president in the world.
24 Bill James – Statistician
(Born 1949; U.S.A.)
The most influential man in the game of baseball today is not a player, or a manager, or even a commissioner.
He is a statistician.
Kansas-born Bill James is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) and a leading champion of its output, sabermetrics. This refers to the array of scientifically derived statistical formulas aimed at providing a more accurate and data-driven understanding of why players and teams win and lose.
Beginning with his independent distribution of the Bill James Baseball Abstracts in 1977, James began to carve out a new way of looking at the great American Pastime. His Abstracts featured a novel way of writing about and evaluating baseball and its players. James used (and in many cases invented) statistical metrics that he believed provided a more accurate understanding of factors such as runs created, defensive efficiency, and major league equivalency. The Abstracts, which James published independently at first, offered witty and perspicacious writing in complement to these emergent statistical metrics.
Though the Abstracts were decidedly geared toward baseball obsessives, James soon found a steadfast audience, much of it comprised of scouts, general managers, and other real-world baseball figures. By the early ‘80s, James had gained enough of a following that his Abstracts were released through a media outlet. His widening audiences presaged the even wider impact that his ideas would have on the game of baseball.
By 1988, James had suspended production of his Abstracts, citing the enormous wealth of statistical analysis increasingly available on the open market. His Abstracts had sufficiently signaled the start of a new cottage industry, one which would accelerate dramatically with the proliferation of high-speed Internet and complex statistical computing. Sites like Baseball Prospectus and Baseball Think Factory sprang from James’s early work, ultimately providing fans with an extremely detailed level of sabermetric insight.
In 2003, James’s work was outlined in the Michael Lewis bestseller Moneyball, which chronicled Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane’s effective use of sabermetric theory to build a winning team on a shoestring budget. Lewis’s book was turned into a successful film of the same name in 2011.
James’s ideas have had a dramatic bearing not just on how we analyze the game, but also on how we design and award multi-million dollar contracts to players. Today, James is a Senior Advisor to the Boston Red Sox, a team which has enjoyed three World Series victories since adopting his philosophy.
25 Michael Jordan – Basketball Player
(Born 1963; U.S.A.)
Michael Jordan should perhaps be considered a genius in two categories. His physical prowess on the basketball court was so extraordinary that it defies description and his skills as an entrepreneur recently made him the very first professional athlete to top $1 billion in net worth.
Brooklyn-born Jordan first gained attention as a young shooting guard for UNC Chapel Hill as they hoisted an NCAA Championship trophy in 1982. In 1984, Jordan went pro with the Chicago Bulls and almost immediately set the NBA ablaze with his gravity-defying dunks, shooting accuracy, and fierce competitiveness.
Over the course of his first decade in the game, Jordan completely redefined the sport, gaining a level of fame, visibility, and cultural influence never previously seen by an NBA player. He won his first championship with the Bulls in 1991 and repeated the feat the next two years.
In 1992, Jordan also became an Olympic Gold Medalist, joining fellow NBA superstars like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird in Barcelona. In addition to dominating the competition in dramatic fashion, the Dream Team (and Jordan in particular) helped to elevate the global profile of the NBA and the sport of basketball.
After an abrupt retirement and an aborted baseball career with the Chicago White Sox, Jordan returned to the court and led his team to an additional three championships in 1996, 1997, and 1998. Jordan finished his career with the Washington Wizards.
Ultimately, Jordan compiled five league MVP awards, 14 All-Star Game Appearances, 10 scoring titles, six NBA Finals MVP Awards, and a 2009 induction into the NBA Hall of Fame.
As a majority owner of the Charlotte Bobcats NBA franchise, lead sponsor of Nike’s Air Jordan sneakers, and a well-loved and readily recognizable icon, Jordan sits atop a business empire as massive as his athletic accomplishments.
26 Tawakkol Karman – Humanitarian
(Born 1979; Yemen)
Brilliance and courage aren’t necessarily interdependent but they are perhaps the two most apparent features of Yemeni journalist and political activist Tawakkol Karman. As an outspoken critic of President Ali Abdullah Saleh’s military dictatorship and a staunch advocate of greater press freedom in her home country, Karman came to widespread notoriety in the mid-2000s.
In 2005, Karman co-founded Women Journalists Without Chains (WJWC) with fellow female journalists and began a dangerous battle against both governmental oppression and deep-seated, often violent cultural patriarchy.
The human rights and press freedom advocacy group made Karman the target of threats and harassment, most originating from within the Yemeni government. Indeed, the Ministry of Information rejected the organization’s application to create its own newspaper and radio station.
Karman responded by redoubling her efforts, with the WJWC releasing a 2007 report outlining Yemen’s systemic abuses of press freedom and Karman herself leading countless political demonstrations in the Yemeni capital, Sana’a. In fact, Karman’s efforts made Sana’a a major focal point of the unfolding Arab Spring.
In 2011, sparked by resistance against government oppression in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere, Yemen erupted in protests. Karman quickly became the face of a revolution, leading public calls for Saleh’s abdication of power. Following her 36-hour detention by authorities, Karman became a symbol of an increased fervor for change. She also remained a visible and unshakable presence as violence rippled through the streets and, ultimately, President Saleh surrendered his office of 30 years.
Karman’s role in propelling the Arab Spring through peaceful means earned her the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011, making her the first Arab woman, first Yemeni, and second-youngest person in history to be named a Nobel Peace Laureate.
27 Evangelos Katsioulis – Physician
(Born 1976; Greece)
Greek physician and psychiatrist Evangelos Katsioulis is at once a consummate medical practitioner and a possessor of one of the world’s highest recorded IQs. Scoring a 205 on the Stanford-Binet scale, Katsioulis is noted for an intelligence largely unparalleled in the various fields where he has been a leader.
Following his graduation in 2000 from the School of Medicine of the Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Katsioulis remained at the university to earn an MSc in Medical Research & Technology in 2003 and a Faculty of Philosophy MA in 2012. His career in medicine would see Katsioulis rise to mastery in nearly every field he entered, including radiation oncology, neurology, and general practice. He has subsequently ventured into psychiatry and psychopharmacology, making particular contributions to research in antipsychotic medication.
Katsioulis is a member, and in some cases founder, of numerous high-IQ societies and organizations.
28 Christopher Langan – Test Master
(Born 1952; U.S.A.)
Not only has Christopher Langan been referred to as “the smartest man in America” in more than one medium, but he is also perhaps the biggest advocate for the cause of genius among those on our list.
Born in San Francisco and raised in Montana, Langan came from a background of poverty and abuse. In spite of these challenges, he was a naturally gifted student who skipped ahead in school so many times that he was engaged almost entirely in independent study by his junior year.
Focused on advanced math, physics, and ancient languages, Langan scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT (pre-1995 scoring), but ultimately dropped out of Montana State University. With an IQ hovering somewhere between 190 and 210, Langan’s off-the-charts intelligence led him into what he has called a “double life.”
Over the course of 20 years, he worked odd-jobs, including forest ranger and farm hand, by day, while engaging in complex freelance mathematical work by night for companies like Disney Research.
It was also during this time that Langan began to develop his Cognitive-Theoretic Model of the Universe, a theory concerning the intersection of the physical universe and consciousness, which he continues to expand upon today. Langan is also the founder of the Mega Foundation, a non-profit designed to help gifted individuals further their ideas and make the most of their gifts.
By way of numerous television appearances, including a 1999 broadcast of 20/20, and his featured role in Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling Outliers, Langan earned both a measure of fame and popular consideration as one of the smartest men alive.
29 Stan Lee – Media Magnate
(Born 1922; U.S.A.)
Stan Lee’s mind is responsible for many of the most iconic and sustainable characters ever to grace any medium. As the magnate of the Marvel comic book universe, Lee’s influence over the course of popular culture, graphic literature, and Hollywood cinema is absolutely immeasurable.
The Manhattan-born son of Romanian immigrants, Lee was an avid reader and harbored serious literary aspirations. His future path was assured, however, when he took on his first job as a gofer at Timely Comics, home of Captain American and seedling to Marvel.
In fact, Lee made his writing debut providing filler text for a 1941 Captain America adventure. Later that very year, the editorial team at Timely resigned in a dispute with the publishing house, opening the door for a 19-year old Lee to assume the position of editor.
Over the next two decades, Lee guided Timely and Atlas, its immediate successor, with only modest success. The pulp style western and romance content was losing ground to DC Comics superhero titles, particularly its Justice League of America franchise. With little to lose, Lee transformed his brand into Marvel and launched The Fantastic Four.
Lee’s trademark exploration of the human psyche through courageous but flawed superheroes proved an instant success, propelling a wave of creativity through the mid- and late ‘60s that produced Spiderman, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk, the X-Men, Thor, Daredevil, and Dr. Strange. Lee would go on to create or co-create a mind-boggling 300+ characters over his 75-year career as editor and publisher for Marvel Comics.
Today, Lee sits atop an empire of multi-billion dollar film and comic franchises and is a beloved figure for his good-natured humor, the relatable nature of his characters, and his frequent appearances in media and in his own films.
30 Yo-Yo Ma – Cellist
(Born 1955; France)
Paris-born and American educated, Yo-Yo Ma is among the most recognized, prolific, and decorated musicians in any genre. The classically trained cellist showed his musical depth at an early age, performing in his first recital at the age of five, performing in front of Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy at just seven, and making his television debut a year later.
The prodigy would continue to realize his promise during his studies at both the Juilliard School and Harvard University. By the mid-1970s, Ma was already beginning to gain far-reaching praise for his classical work both in performance and recording. By the start of the following decade, he was widely considered the foremost cellist in the world and, increasingly, one of the most recognized faces of classical music in popular culture.
Indeed, his music often openly embraced an eclectic array of styles and accompaniment, leading the cellist into traditional Eastern folk, Argentinian tango, and even American bluegrass among countless other musical planes.
Among Ma’s most notable pieces are his numerous recordings of Bach’s Cello Suites (1983, 1994–1997) and his Brahms Sonatas (1993). His prolificacy is virtually unmatched, however, as Ma has more than 70 albums and 15 Grammys to his name.
Ma is seen as something of a national treasure in the United States, where he is often treated as the de facto musical master of ceremonies for events of national importance, including his performance with the New York Philharmonic at the Statue of Liberty’s 100th anniversary (1986), his opening dedication at the World Trade Center on the first anniversary of 9/11, and his appearance alongside Itzhak Perlman at President Obama’s inauguration ceremony.
31 Cormac McCarthy – Novelist
(Born 1933; U.S.A.)
Cormac McCarthy is viewed by many of his contemporaries as the finest novelist alive today.
Born in Rhode Island, McCarthy’s family relocated to Tennessee when he was just four. His surroundings would have a defining impact on the evocative and spare style of prose that distinguish his work.
McCarthy’s first break as a writer would be a critical one. In 1965, he sent his first manuscript to Random House, where it found its way into the hands of Albert Erskine, editor to the recently deceased William Faulkner.
McCarthy teamed up with Erskine for the next 20 years, gradually but appropriately assuming Faulkner’s throne as the leading exponent of Southern Gothic literature. With early works such as Outer Dark (1968), Child of God (1973),and Blood Meridian (1985), McCarthy explored the dark, chilly, and violent backwoods of American life, receiving high critical marks and modest commercial success.
McCarthy sustained his early literary career by securing a Rockefeller Foundation Grant and a MacArthur Fellowship. But in 1992, he catapulted to the upper echelon of working novelists with All the Pretty Horses, which earned McCarthy a National Book Award and a National Book Critics Circle Award. He added two further installments to that story, creating The Border Trilogy which many consider his finest achievement in fiction.
His success would grow even further with 2005’s No Country for Old Men, which employed his recurrent themes of American social decay and violent despair, and which became an Academy Award–winning film in the hands of the Coen Brothers (2007). In 2009, McCarthy’s bleak 2006 post-apocalyptic, Pulitzer Prize–winning novel, The Road, was also turned into a powerful, darkly elegiac film starring Viggo Mortensen.
The novelist, who now makes his home in New Mexico, has been a consultant for a number of years with the elite and esoteric scientific think tank, the Santa Fe Institute. McCarthy now serves on the SFI’s Board of Trustees.
In a time when chaotic violence and disorder often seem close at hand, McCarthy’s work stands alone for showing us our greatest fears with unflinching, devastating, and simple honesty.
32 Sir Ian McKellen – Actor
(Born 1939; U.K.)
Sir Ian McKellen is a thespian in the truest sense of the work—renowned as much for his accomplished classical repertoire as for his box office mojo. McKellen is one of the most decorated, admired, and dignified performers of stage and screen, and yet has succeeded in commanding an enormous presence in popular culture.
Born in Lancashire, England, McKellen showed early interest in the theater, with a particular enthusiasm for Shakespeare. While studying English literature at Cambridge, he made his stage debut as Shallow in Henry IV. By 1965, he had worked his way into Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company, where he achieved widespread recognition for his commanding and often provocative work in the Shakespeare milieu.
Over the course of his career in theatre, McKellen earned six Laurence Olivier Awards, a Tony, and, in 1991, a knighthood for his accomplishments in the performing arts.
Though McKellen was a mainstay on the British stage, it would be his work in Hollywood that would bring him to wider recognition, beginning with a supporting role in Six Degrees of Separation. This was followed by critically acclaimed turns in the made-for-TV movie And the Band Played On (1995), and the full-length motion picture, Gods and Monsters (1998). The former earned him a Cable ACE Aware for Best Supporting Actor, and the latter, an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.
In spite of his brilliant body of work in the British theater and his aptitude for more artistic cinematic fare, he is best known today for his recurring roles in two massive blockbuster franchises, embodying with astute perfection the culturally familiar characters of Gandolf (in the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit trilogies) and Magneto (in the X-Men films).
33 Nate Silver – Statistician
(Born 1978; U.S.A.)
New York-born statistician Nate Silver has proven that baseball and politics have more in common than a propensity for cheating.
The Michigan-born statistician showed a gift for remarkable math acumen at a young age, a fact only magnified when he witnessed his beloved Detroit Tigers win the World Series of Baseball in 1984. He soon began applying his exceptional mathematic gifts to analyzing his sport of choice.
Graduating from the University of Chicago in 2000, Silver spent four years working as an economic consultant for KPMG before deciding his talents would be better applied to baseball. Leapfrogging off of Bill James and other first-generation sabermetrics advocates, Silver developed his own algorithm for projecting individual player performance.
In 2003, Silver sold his algorithm to Baseball Prospectus and, the next year, became the Executive Vice-President of the baseball stat company. In addition to contributing more than 200 articles and more than a dozen books to Baseball Prospectus, Silver has published articles for ESPN, Sports Illustrated, and the New York Times.
But it is his work in the field of politics that perhaps warrants the greatest admiration. In 2008, at the height of election season, Silver unveiled FiveThirtyEight.com, a site dedicated to projecting electoral outcomes through sophisticated and practical statistical analysis. FiveThirtyEight would quickly demonstrate itself an eerily accurate predictor of said outcomes, correctly prognosticating the presidential victor in 49 of 50 states, as well as the winners of all 35 Senate races.
Silver replicated the performance in 2012 by accurately calling the president in all 50 states and 31 of 33 senators.
34 Elon Musk – Engineer
(Born 1971; South Africa)
Elon Musk is perhaps the world’s leading exponent for turning science fiction into reality. From his work in private space travel to his courage in the field of carbon-neutral technology, the South African–born engineer and entrepreneur is truly a living visionary.
Musk showed his intuition, business savvy, and affinity for rocket science at age 12 by teaching himself computer programming, designing a space battle video game called Blastar, and selling the code to a video game company for $500.
His next major venture would be quite a bit more profitable. After earning his Bachelor’s Degree from the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, Musk moved to California and inserted himself into the burgeoning Silicon Valley revolution. In 1995, Musk and his brother developed a software company which provided online city guides to newspapers. With the New York Times and Chicago Tribune among their clients, Zip2 ultimately was sold to Compaq in 1999, netting Musk a fortune.
Musk used this fortune to launch X.com, a financial exchange service that would eventually merge with and be absorbed into Paypal. Many credit Musk’s aggressive marketing ideas with Paypal’s rapid growth and eventually multi-billion dollar acquisition by eBay.
From here, the tirelessly innovative Musk founded SpaceX, an endeavor designed to reduce the cost and improve the feasibility of private space travel. His company would become the first private enterprise to successfully launch a satellite in the U.S, as well as the first to dock with the International Space Station.
Musk’s innovations on earth are perhaps even more compelling. His founding involvement with electric car pioneer Tesla Motors, his conceptual support of leading solar provider SolarCity, and his as-yet-unrealized vision for an emission-free subsonic transportation system called Hyperloop all suggest a man who has used his great fortune and even greater brilliance to help mankind.
35 Barack Obama – Politician
(Born 1961; U.S.A.)
The policies of Barack Obama, 44th President of the United States, may invoke a wide spectrum of reactions, but there are few who would deny his singular gifts as an orator or politician.
The Hawaiian-born chief executive enjoyed one of the most meteoric ascents in history, from relative anonymity to two-term holder of America’s highest office. A graduate of Columbia University and Harvard Law, Obama made headlines early in his career by becoming the first African-American elected president of the Harvard Law Review.
Indeed, this accomplishment earned the young Obama a publishing contract, which ultimately led to the 1995 release of Dreams from My Father. Following his graduation, Obama accepted a fellowship to the University of Chicago Law School. This ultimately led to a 12-year professorial tenure. It was also during his time in Chicago that he began work as a civil rights attorney and community activist, coming to particular notice for a 1992 voter registration campaign that helped bring disenfranchised African-Americans to the polls.
Obama’s political career began in earnest with his 1996 nomination to the Illinois senate, where he achieved fast and far-reaching bipartisan support and increasing statewide popularity. Though he was dealt a defeat in his 2000 bid for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, Obama bounced back with a successful 2004 run for the U.S. Senate. Indeed, it was during this run that Obama first made his name on a national stage, speaking at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, not only outshining presidential nominee John Kerry with his stirring address, but generating an organic sense among those in attendance that they’d just been introduced to the next President of the United States.
Indeed, though his speech could not win that year’s election for Kerry, it would begin a groundswell for the freshman senator’s presidential nomination. In 2008, Barack Hussein Obama became the first African-American nominated to the presidency on a major party ticket, in spite of America’s historic and present-day racial inequities, in spite of a name destined to inflame xenophobia, and in spite of a country riven by deep ideological divides. In 2009, he was sworn in as the 44th President of the United. That same year, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
While it can be difficult to truly evaluate any sitting executive’s accomplishments, with the benefit of hindsight, it cannot be denied that the two-term President is among the most gifted, charismatic, and intelligent men to hold the office.
36 Conan O’Brien – Humorist
(Born 1962; U.S.A.)
Known for his gawky demeanor, self-deprecating humor, and floppy red hair, Conan O’Brien may well be the sharpest wit on American television. The Massachusetts-born comedy writer and television host rose from seeming-anonymity to occupy one of the top jobs in his field, but, in fact, his résumé reads like a blueprint for nurturing comedy genius.
During his time as an undergraduate at Harvard University, O’Brien served as president of the storied Harvard Lampoon. After graduating, he worked as a writer for a number of short-lived shows in Los Angeles and performed regularly with The Groundlings comedy troupe.
In 1988, he earned a job writing for Saturday Night Live just as it entered a period of reinvigoration. Indeed, the long-running sketch show won its writers, O’Brien included, Emmys in 1989.
In 1991, O’Brien left SNL due to burn-out, and received a chance call from show runners for the red-hot animated series, The Simpsons. Here, Conan O’Brien spent two years as the head writer, a period which is often regarded as among the best in the show’s nearly 30-year run. His fellow writers also remember O’Brien as almost compulsively driven to make other people laugh, and capable of doing so at will.
This compulsion would be an absolute necessity when, in 1993, he became the surprise choice to replace David Letterman on NBC’s Late Night show. In spite of a rocky start and unfavorable early reviews, O’Brien’s quirky demeanor, oddball sketches, and lighting-quick delivery won over a deeply dedicated audience, making him a fixture on NBC for the next 16 years.
In 2010, O’Brien moved to TBS and took a seat as the nightly host of Conan. The cable format not only freed the comedian to push the envelope even further, it also helped to attract a younger and edgier audience to late-night television.
37 Larry Page – Computer Scientist
(Born 1973; U.S.A.)
Google is so encompassing on the Internet that one could be forgiven for harboring the impression that it is the Internet.
The search engine and its affiliated applications make for a massive presence online and, increasingly, in the corporeal world. Much of this may be credited to Larry Page, the Michigan-born computer scientist who co-founded Google with the equally brilliant Sergey Brin.
In the mid-1990s, both Page and Brin were graduate students at Stanford University, when the former began experimenting with the idea that the Internet was little more than a huge graph of hyperlinks. This prompted Page to surmise that a reliable method of counting and qualifying backlinks could make the Web a more valuable and navigable place. This idea was the seedling for Page’s invention of PageRank, an algorithm that used these backlinks to accurately rank websites in order of importance.
PageRank ultimately became the driver for the Google search engine, released in 1996 via Stanford’s campus website and immediately superior in the accuracy of its search results to all then-existing engines. In 1998, Page and Brin founded Google, Inc., and rapidly ascended to multi-billionaire status. Google also climbed rapidly, eclipsing Yahoo! and a slew of now-forgotten contenders (Remember Ask Jeeves?) as the world’s most-trusted search engine.
Today, thanks to Page’s algorithms, Google is a powerhouse of knowledge, information, and—through both its email hosting service and its capture of search history—personal data.
The implications of Google’s ever-growing power and influence are continually subject to philosophical and ethical debate. However, the enormity of its cultural impact is beyond question.
38 Maya Plisetskaya – Ballet Dancer
(Born 1925; Russia (then-USSR))
Maya Plisetskaya may well be the single most important ballerina of the 20th Century. But the Russian-born dancer, choreographer, ballet director, and actress rose from tragic circumstances.
Though she first performed at the famed Bolshoi Theatre at the age of 11, she would also lose her father just two years later to the Stalinist purges. When her mother and brother were forced into a Gulag in Kazakhstan, Maya sought refuge in the ballet.
In 1943, Maya, just 18 years of age, joined the Bolshoi company and rapidly became its most treasured performer. Though she performed during a time of great political and cultural repression, Plisetskaya still rose to international prominence and helped set new standards for technical brilliance and stage presence.
Even so, she suffered under the yoke of a travel ban, dictated because the Soviet Union had a chronic defection problem among its best touring dancers. Both during and after the 1959 lifting of her travel ban, Plisetskaya set the standard by which other leads are still judged in landmark works such as Swan Lake (1947), Spartacus (1958), The Sleeping Beauty (1963) and Carmen Suite (1967).
Plisetskaya achieved the esteemed title of the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina assoluta in 1960. She also choreographed her own work in Anna Karenina, a vehicle which provided her with a starring film role in 1968.
Though Plisetskaya was a faithful emissary for the Soviet Union in its latter years, she would outlast the empire, remaining on the Bolshoi stage until 1990. In 1996, she was named President of the Imperial Russian Ballet and today, at the age of 89, she remains a vital force in modern ballet.
39 Judit Polgar – Chess Player
(Born 1976; Hungary)
Judit Polgar is the youngest of three sisters, all home-schooled and all chess prodigies.
Their father raised the sisters with the aim of magnifying their in-born genius. He considered intensive chess training the best avenue to realizing his goal. The girls did not disappoint, all rising to at least the rank of International Master in international competition.
It was Judit, though, who demonstrated the most innate genius and the most steadfast commitment to her development as a player. These characteristics made her the best female player in the world years before she could even drive a car. She was competing in tournaments by the age of six and, by nine, had finished with the top prize in her first U.S. tournament.
At 10, Polgar made headlines by defeating 52-year-old International Master Dolfi Drimer at an Australian tournament. At 12, she became an International Master herself, two years earlier than the great Bobby Fischer. When she won the Hungarian National Championship in 1991, Polgar became the youngest player at the time to earn the title of Grandmaster.
Over the ensuing years of competition, the young Polgar emerged as one of the strongest players in the game and easily the strongest female ever to sit at the board. It wasn’t just Polgar’s skill but her boldness in demanding competition against the leading men in chess that catapulted her to success.
Her peak accomplishment was her 2002 defeat of Garry Kasparov, which marked the first time a woman had defeated the world’s top-ranked player.
40 Marilyn vos Savant – Columnist
(Born 1946; U.S.A.)
Marilyn vos Savant was born Marilyn March (her father’s name) in St. Louis, of German and Italian parentage. Remarkably, she took her mother’s supremely apt maiden name of vos Savant before achieving the Guinness Book of World Records title of world’s highest documented IQ (228), when she was just 10 years old.
Savant departed her philosophy studies at Washington University in St. Louis before earning her degree, to help out with the family business. Ultimately, though, she moved to New York to pursue her writing ambitions.
When the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records shone its spotlight on Savant for her record IQ score, she rose to national fame. After Parade ran a profile on her, the publication was flooded with inquiries about the acclaimed genius.
In response to continued inquiries, Parade made “Ask Marilyn” a fixture. The column has served as a platform for Savant to meditate on academic subjects, offer solutions to mathematical puzzles, and challenge her readers with puzzles in return.
Though Savant’s work has often opened her to scientific and intellectual criticism, she continues to employ her column as a way of furthering intellectual exercise among her readers.
Savant has also served on the Board of Directors of the National Council on Economic Education and the National Association for Gifted Children.
41 Amartya Sen – Economist
(Born 1933; India)
Indian economist Amartya Sen is a rare figure in his field, a scholar at once possessed of a deep insight into economic systems and moved by a compelling empathy for those who have been disenfranchised by these systems.
Sen’s work in the fields of welfare economics and social justice sets him apart from both Keynesian and neoliberal economic theorists. Contrary to those around him as he engaged in undergraduate and graduate studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, Sen was fixated on the philosophical underpinnings of economic practice.
As he graduated and achieved full professorship at the Jadavpur University in Calcutta, this fixation helped him to make fundamental contributions to the field of social choice theory. This would, in turn, open a dialogue that continues to this day about about the philosophical underpinnings of the notion of utility, the too-frequent disconnect between representative democracy and economic policy, and the importance of cultural factors in understanding economic phenomena.
For example, Sen is famous for having shown that widespread famines in the developing world have been closely correlated historically with the lack of freedom of the press. Sen’s work has also contributed greatly to bringing evolving nuance to strategies for helping to move developing nations into free market capitalism.
Sen has served as a visiting professor at MIT, UC-Berkeley, and Cornell. He also held long-term positions at the Delhi School of Economics (1972–1977), the University of Oxford (1977–1986), and Harvard University, where, today, Sen is a Professor of Economics and Philosophy as well as a senior fellow in the Harvard Society of Fellows.
Sen was awarded a Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences in 1998 for his advances in welfare economics.
42 Tom Stoppard – Playwright
(Born 1937; Czech Republic (then-Czechoslovakia))
Tom Stoppard is perhaps the most-performed (and almost certainly the most-acclaimed) playwright of his generation. Born in Czechoslovakia, Stoppard’s family fled Nazi occupation during World War II and ultimately settled in England.
It was here that Stoppard received his formal education and his passion for writing. So great was this passion that he chose to work as a journalist at Bristol’s Western Daily Press in lieu of a college education.
This position gave him a widespread exposure to the whole spectrum of journalistic experiences. This diversity of interests would pay dividends as his career flowered, but certainly the most important assignments were those that cast Stoppard as a theater critic.
His exposure to the world of drama would mark an awakening and the initiation of an illustrious career. Stoppard dedicated his 20s to honing his skills, ultimately completing his first play, A Walk on Water, in 1960.
The debut brought him to immediate attention, but this attention would be dwarfed by the celebration that greeted the 1966 opening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The play would earn Stoppard a Tony in 1968 and make him into drama’s brightest rising star.
Stoppard would spend the next two decades expanding on the philosophical humor that distinguishes his work and voice, with Jumpers (1972), Travesties (1974), and The Real Thing (1982) standing out among them.
The recipient of four Tony Awards, Stoppard’s writing continues to possess great vitality and to enjoy attention at every level of the American and British theater, as witnessed by his more recent plays—Arcadia (1993), The Invention of Love (1997), and the Coast of Utopia trilogy (2002)—which have been as honored by critics as they are beloved by the play-going public.
Stoppard’s work in screenwriting would be equally successful, earning the playwright an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay in 1998 for Shakespeare in Love.
Stoppard holds Honorary Doctor of Letters degrees from Cambridge, and Oxford, and Yale.
43 Aung San Suu Kyi – Stateswoman
(Born 1945; Myanmar (Burma))
Aung San Suu Kyi is viewed the world over as a symbol of democratic reform. The scholar, political activist, and politician has been a major catalyst for change in her native Burma (now officially known as Myanmar), even as many of her contributions came while under house arrest.
Current chair of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Suu Kyi is the daughter of Aung San, a military leader who helped negotiate Burmese independence from England in 1947 before being assassinated by political enemies. It may perhaps be said that Suu Kyi’s own entanglements with a corrupt government were hereditary.
Suu Kyi was an eager and gifted student with a particular penchant for learning languages. It was politics, however, that most attracted her attention during her undergraduate studies at Hugh’s College, Oxford. Following graduation in 1969, she traveled to New York City to spend three years honing her diplomatic chops at the United Nations.
Though she spent the subsequent decade traveling and furthering her scholarly pursuits, Suu Kyi returned to Burma in 1988 and soon found herself at the forefront of a burgeoning pro-democracy movement. Her efforts to promote democratic reform of the military dictatorship prompted the Burmese government to place her under house arrest the following year. She was to spend more than 15 of the next 21 years under house arrest.
It was as a prisoner in her family’s lakeside villa in Rangoon (now officially Yangon) that Suu Kyi rose to her greatest prominence, with her politically motivated detention prompting international outrage and pleas from world leaders and the United Nations for her freedom.
In 1990, Suu Kyi’s NLD defeated the incumbent military dictatorship in open elections. Though under house arrest at the time, Suu Kyi was viewed by her supporters as the nation’s rightful Prime Minister. Nonetheless, the ruling party overturned the election results, maintained itself in office, and kept Suu Kyi under house arrest. Her detainment did not come to a permanent end until 2010, when the military regime finally relinquished its stranglehold on power.
Aung San Suu Kyi, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, remains an aggressive advocate for reform in Burma and a global symbol of principled political endurance.
44 Terrence Tao – Mathematician
(Born 1975; Australia)
Australian-American mathematician Terrence Tao embodies the word “prodigy.” His accomplishments in the fields of harmonic analysis, partial differential equations, and analytic number theory are only magnified by his unlikely age.
In fact, Tao was pretty much the youngest person to do almost everything in his field, from achieving a 760 on the math section of the SATs when just eight years old to becoming the youngest winner of the bronze, silver, and gold medals in the International Mathematical Olympiad at, respectively, 10, 11, and 12 years of age.
Tao earned his master’s degrees from Flinders University at the age of 16, won a Fulbright Scholarship to study in the U.S., and received his Ph.D. from Princeton University at 21.
At 24, he became and remains the youngest person ever to earn full professorship at UCLA.
Today, just 39, Tao has published more than 250 research papers and 17 books. His Green-Tao theorem (arrived at in partnership with mathematician Ben Green) is considered a groundbreaking revelation regarding progressions of prime numbers.
Tao is also the winner of numerous prestigious awards, including the Salem Prize (2000), the Bocher Memorial Prize (2002), and the Fields Medal (2006)—often considered the “Nobel Prize for Mathematics.” He is the first Australian to receive the last of these awards.
As one of the younger entrants on this list, Tao may yet have a lifetime of groundbreaking accomplishments ahead of him.
45 Peter Thiel – Entrepreneur
(Born 1967; Germany)
German-born and American-raised venture capitalist Peter Thiel embodies the unbridled creativity and energy that often underlie entrepreneurial success. In fact, the multi-billionaire may well have a hand in more start-up ventures than any other living businessman.
Thiel demonstrated his gamesmanship early, becoming one of the highest-ranked U.S. chess masters under the age of 21. During his undergraduate studies at Stanford University, the avowed libertarian founded the Stanford Review. This remains the conservative publication of record on the Stanford campus.
After completing his graduate studies at Stanford Law, Thiel spent the mid-90s honing his legal skills and trading derivatives for Crédit Suisse.
In 1998, Thiel and several fellow Stanford alumni co-founded Confinity, the immediate precursor to PayPal, which was originally conceived as a way of off-setting the devaluation of physical currency. While it didn’t accomplish this goal exactly, it would become the first and most prominent commercial channel for exchanging money online, an innovation that would rapidly accelerate the e-commerce revolution.
This was especially so when Thiel and partners sold PayPal to eBay for a cool $1.5 billion in 2002.
The subsequent decade has seen Thiel court and contribute to countless venture start-up projects, many of which would eventually become game-changers themselves, including Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, and Yelp.
Thiel’s restless intellect has led him to author or co-author several books on politics and other matters. He is not only a major philanthropist, he is also an important investigator into the theory of philanthropy. Thiel’s enthusiasm for new ideas and his intuition in backing or actively contributing to these ideas make him one of the great innovators of the 21st Century.
46 McCoy Tyner – Jazz Pianist
(Born 1938; U.S.A.)
McCoy Tyner’s technical dexterity, soulful delivery, and mind-expanding ventures in sound have helped widen the palette of jazz music for more than 50 years.
Beginning as a sideman for elder luminaries like Benny Golson and Art Farmer, the young pianist joined fellow Philadelphian John Coltrane in 1960. Led by the legendary late alto saxophone player, Coltrane’s quartet rendered some of the most invigorating and challenging recordings of the 20th Century.
Far from receding behind Coltrane’s powerful and distinctive tone, Tyner was a true musical foil, propelling classic recordings like Live at Birdland and A Love Supreme with his shimmering, fleet-fingered, and impossible-to-replicate soloing.
When Coltrane diverged into free jazz through the mid- and late ‘60s, Tyner went from sideman to leader. Taking a cue from his work with Coltrane, Tyner continued to explore the plane where music, spirituality, and intellectual curiosity meet.
Post-bop recordings like Expansions (1968), Extensions (1970), and Sahara (1972) saw Tyner establishing a middle ground between post-bop and fusion, crossing borders into Asian and African music, and displaying a growing technical gift that is at once organic and wildly experimental.
In his later years, Tyner has become noteworthy for his prolific output and continued touring. His influence looms large over the generation of pianists that developed alongside him, including still-active luminaries like Jack deJohnette, Herbie Hancock, and Chick Corea.
Perhaps more than any living jazz pianist, though, Tyner’s ability to combine virtuosity with raw emotion places him at the top of the list.
47 Craig Venter – Physiologist
(Born 1946; U.S.A.)
Craig Venter’s contributions in the fields of biochemistry and genetics suggest that the man is not only brilliant but that he is dedicated to using his brilliance to save, lengthen, and improve human lives.
The Salt Lake City–born scientist and entrepreneur first developed his passion for saving lives while working in an intensive care field hospital during the Vietnam War. After earning his Bachelor’s and Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego, Venter became a full professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo and, in 1984, joined the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Venter began his work in the field of genomics with the NIH before ultimately striking out on his own to advance our collective knowledge of human genetics. Frustrated by the relatively slow pace of the Human Genome Project (HGP)—which aimed to transcribe a complete sequencing of human DNA—Venter innovated a process called shotgun sequencing. Though seen as slightly less accurate than strategies used by the HGP, Venter’s approach nonetheless spurred the government-led project forward and resulted in its delivering a complete human DNA sequence three years ahead of schedule.
As the president of the J. Craig Venter Institute, Venter remains aggressively active in the field of genomics, and is dedicated to using his knowledge and resources to improve human lives. In addition to the medical implications of his work in human genomics, Venter’s Synthetic Genomics venture aims to use synthesized bacterial organisms to promote alternative fuel solutions.
Read more about Craig Venter in our article, The 50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today.
48 Oprah Winfrey – Media Magnate
(Born 1954; U.S.A.)
Simply stated, Oprah Winfrey is the most powerful woman in entertainment, and, given her friendship with President Barack Obama, perhaps even beyond.
Born in a poor rural community in Mississippi, Winfrey would overcome considerable hardship to become what many consider to be the most culturally influential woman in America. Beginning her broadcast career as a local news reporter, her 1984 relocation to a poorly performing morning talk show in Chicago would prove a watershed moment in television history.
Almost immediately, Winfrey’s emotionally confrontational and empathetic style would elevate her to tops in her market. By 1986, the program had been renamed the Oprah Winfrey Show and expanded to a full hour. Winfrey’s unrestrained and down-to-earth demeanor contrasted with a market then dominated by stodgy white men and ultimately helped to redefine the daytime talk show. Indeed, Winfrey helped to catalyze a movement away from patronizing tabloid sensationalism and toward inspirational, self-improvement–driven programming.
She also addressed difficult issues facing women and African-Americans with unabashed candor. Some of her interviews, particularly a rare and prying prime-time interview with Michael Jackson in 1993, would achieve record-setting ratings performances. As her by then nationally-syndicated show elevated both its content and its ratings, Oprah sat atop a growing media empire that she called Harpo Productions.
Oprah’s celebrity has elevated her above the typical respect accorded a daytime talk show host, with her influence extending into far-reaching fields, including her Academy Award-nominated turn in 1985’s The Color Purple, her Book Club’s unmatched impact on Amazon sales, and her extremely effective support of 2008 presidential candidate Barack Obama.
Winfrey holds an honorary doctorate from Harvard University and, in 2013, received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
49 Anna Wintour – Fashion Journalist
(Born 1949; U.K.)
There may be no other individual who exerts as great an individual influence on the culture of celebrity, fashion, and style as Anna Wintour.
The London-born daughter of Evening Standard editor Charles Wintour, Anna was ushered into the fashion world at a young age. In 1970, she gained her first editorial assistant position for Harper’s & Queen. This would initiate an illustrious career at the forefront of fashion journalism.
Wintour quickly gained a reputation for favoring street-savvy and youthful photographers in her spreads and for possessing an uncommonly keen eye for emerging trends.
In 1975, Wintour would relocate to New York City to become a junior fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, where her provocative shots would prove too edgy for her employers, and she would be dismissed after less than a year.
Her first lead editorial position would be at Viva, then Savvy shortly thereafter. Both saw Wintour’s evolving focus on the fashion-forward feminist. By targeting strong women who were at once professional, independent, and feminine, Wintour’s work would reveal an emerging class of modern woman.
After gaining acclaim as the fashion editor of New York, Wintour became creative director of Vogue in 1983. It was here that Wintour ascended to her greatest influence, eventually taking over as editor of British Vogue in 1985. She became known for her unilateral control, exacting leadership style, and, in most instances, excellent results.
Wintour’s style of management has often been called dictatorial (a disposition chronicled to comedic effect in the semi-fictional, 2006 blockbuster film, The Devil Wears Prada), but her leadership at Vogue would set a mold for fashion journalism on the whole.
Once named the 39th-most-powerful woman in the world by Forbes magazine, Wintour’s work embodies this very spirit, presenting an image of the empowered modern woman that is now a template for fashion journalism and, to an extent, feminist discourse.
50 Mark Zuckerberg – Social Media Magnate
(Born 1984; U.S.A.)
Often cast as something of a social misfit himself, Mark Zuckerberg is nonetheless as responsible as any single individual for the novel ways in which we socialize and communicate in the 21st Century.
The White Plains, New York–born computer programmer demonstrated prodigious talent from a young age. As a young teenager, he developed an intranet software program to assist his father’s in-home dental practice, which connected all the computers in the household. The innovation predated AOL’s Instant Messenger by a year.
Zuckerberg spent much of his recreational time in high school coding video games, though he was also known to have a strong penchant for Greek mythology and fencing.
By the time of his arrival at Harvard University, Zuckerberg had already gained a reputation for his programming prowess. But it was his creative engineering, combined with the efforts of several collaborating classmates, that led to the invention of The Facebook, later shortened to Facebook.
Facebook’s earliest incarnation was a Harvard-only social networking site, essentially the first of its kind to combine personal presentation with powerful virtual community building tools.
After its launch in 2004, Zuckerberg and his team departed Harvard for Silicon Valley in order to export Harvard’s social media forum to the world. Today, Facebook has more than one billion users and Mark Zuckerberg, as chairman and CEO, is said to be worth roughly $33 billion.
More than its reach and its economic enormity, Zuckerberg’s innovation would be a true social game changer, forever altering the ways in which human connection, relationship maintenance, community-building, and emotional-mediation take place.