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Planet Earth

The 50 Most Important, Influential, and Promising People in Science

From teenage biologists to world-renowned physicists, DISCOVER brings you the minds to watch.

By Corey S PowellNovember 18, 2008 6:00 AM

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In the current era of nonstop media frenzies, it may sound strange to call for more celebrities—but that is exactly what we are doing in presenting this year’s DISCOVER 50:

20 Best Scientists Under 40

10 Most Influential People in the World of Science

5 Prodigy Scientists Under 20

10 Amateur Scientists Who Might Cure Cancer—From Their Basements

• 5 Lifetime Achievers who have revolutionized their fields:Noam Chomsky, Vinton Cerf, Stephen Hawking, E. O. Wilson, and EdwardWitten

For this special feature, the editors of DISCOVER sought out the individuals who are making the most important contributions to American science. We conferred with leading academics and unleashed a team of crack researchers to seek out the best of the best. The breadth of achievements among our 50 honorees is both exhilarating and humbling. These are the people who are making giant strides in tapping new sources of energy, eliminating deaths from cancer, ushering in a second computer revolution, and seeking habitable worlds around other stars. With few exceptions they are not household names. They should be.

Today’s top scientific thinkers come in all forms, and our DISCOVER 50 list is divided accordingly. In “20 Best Scientists Under 40” we highlight young visionaries who are transforming their fields. In “5 Prodigy Scientists Under 20” we focus on prodigies who are tackling the big problems before they are old enough to drink. “Ten Most Influential People in the World of Science” recognizes the operators who control so much of the agenda for science, often from behind the scenes; “10 Amateur Scientists Who Might Cure Cancer—From Their Basements” takes an opposite approach, uncovering the vital role of researchers who operate in non­traditional settings. Finally, we acknowledge the Lifetime Achievers who have dedicated their careers to shifting the intellectual landscape in breathtaking ways.

One of those Lifetime Achievers, Stephen Hawking, makes a powerful argument for scientific celebrity. Despite his well-known disability, he manages to remain resolutely committed both to unlocking the secrets of the universe and to communicating that work to the public. I learned this firsthand when he disrupted his intense schedule to allow DISCOVER an exclusive photo shoot in a basement classroom at the University of Cambridge. Hawking was engaged, cordial, and genuinely flattered to be on our cover.

In his scant free time, Hawking is writing a series of children’s science books with his adult daughter, Lucy, promoting dialogue between science and religion, and calling attention to the greatest threats to human survival. The world could use more famous people like him. With any luck, it will soon have them.

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