Guest Post by Shirley Zeilinger
Given their status as Charons across the higher education Styx, it makes perfect sense that professors and other academic types can rise up and enjoy considerable influence over more than just their students. Whether they exert their positions as activists, authors, media commentators, or something else entirely, some even move on to enjoy extremely powerful, prominent roles that completely shape the world around them. They may not always be the wealthiest — or even the most beloved — but they nevertheless leave quite the impact all the same.
The 2009 Nobel Prize winner in Medicine and Physiology currently utilizes the clout such a prestigious honor offers as a means of promoting science education in her native Australia. Elizabeth Blackburn serves as a professor at the University of California, San Francisco, but splits her time between hemispheres encouraging youth — especially females — to pursue the sciences as a viable career path. While she might not necessarily enjoy household name status the way some of the other names listed here do, her efforts will likely resonate quietly for generations and hopefully inspire another few rounds of groundbreaking Nobel laureates.
Cambridge mathematics professor Stephen Hawking likely requires very little explanation, as not only has he managed to revolutionize theoretical physics for professionals, but rendered the notoriously dense field accessible to general audiences without Ph.D.s through books and television specials. A Brief History of Time remains a popular science favorite, having shattered records upon its 1988 release by staying on the bestseller list for more than four years. Despite occasional health issues these days, the heavily decorated 70-year-old continues traveling around the world for lectures, conferences, and other events advancing the noble cause of science.
As one of the world’s foremost cryptographers and computer scientists, this ACM Turing Award-winning Weizmann Institute professor has developed numerous strategies for coding and keeping safe sensitive information. Among Adi Shamir’s contributions to the fields include the RSA algorithm, the Feige-Fiat-Shamir identification scheme, and (almost) the entire discipline of differential cryptanalysis. Organizations such as the National Security Agency have utilized his creations to lock down data that could portend doom if it winds up in sinister hands. That’s powerful right there.
He’s either every English major’s best friend forever or mind-scarring nightmare hound. But without the hundreds of compilations and more than 20 scholarly works of literary criticism, humanity’s understanding of how to closely read and process the written word would not have progressed as quickly. Obviously, one must not consider Harold Bloom the be-all, end-all authority of literature, though the Yale professor’s influence continues permeating the academic and creative worlds alike. For one thing, much of the “Western” canon pushed in classrooms today hails from his recommendations and interpretations; it’s such an everyday contribution few realize the grandiose implications.
Princeton professor and political and philosophical superstar Cornel West is often touted as one of America’s most provocative progressive voices. Through his radio program and groundbreaking, bestselling sociological and political works Race Matters and Democracy Matters, he has sought to challenge the citizenry’s perceptions and mores precluding equality and freedom. It certainly cloaks West in controversy, but he considers the death threats and Occupy-related arrests necessary obstacles to a world no longer divided by race, class, gender and gender orientation, or sexual orientation. His prominence and position inspire swaths of Americans eager for real change they can believe in rather than empty promises by empty suits in two largely empty parties.
With both the economy and eco-friendly initiatives standing as prominent topics of debate and inquiry these days, it makes sense that Time would twice name someone with considerable power over both among its 100 Most Influential People. Oh, and The Economist considers Jeffrey Sachs among the three biggest economists alive today, which is what most people would probably consider an accomplishment. He serves as a senior advisor to the UN, writes a column syndicated in more than 80 different publications, and directs a little organization known as The Earth Institute at Columbia University. All of which grant him an elevated platform through which he synthesizes both disciplines and discusses sustainability strategies and theories for a greener world that won’t bankrupt nations.
Thanks to the Trendalyzer statistics tool developed in part by the Karolinska Institute’s Hans Rosling, public data gets compiled and shared much faster, much easier than before. For the public health sector — another field in which the professor and medical doctor excels — this means visualizing a broader understanding of outbreaks and other serious issues in the developing world. UNICEF and the World Health Organization both take advantage of Rosling’s extensive training and acumen to serve peoples in ravaged parts of South Asia, Africa, and Latin America.
Catholics have the Pope. Atheists have Richard Dawkins. While he doesn’t speak for all nonbelievers any more than the pontiff speaks for all Catholics (it’s true!), the Oxford professor and his book The God Delusion have certainly made headway in de-stigmatizing agnosticism and atheism. But his power and influence stem from far, far beyond the religious sector most recognized by the mainstream. For one thing, Dawkins also happens to be one of the foremost living evolutionary biologists, with reads such as The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype offering up solid discussions about how life got itself started and kept itself perpetuated throughout millennia.
Even if he spends the rest of his life kicking back by the pool with monkey butlers slinging mojitos, this billionaire computer science professor at Stanford has pretty much already left his major mark on the world. His habit of establishing and funding tech startups (some of which have been snapped up by Cisco and Sun Microsystems) eventually led him to hand a check over to his students Larry Page and Sergey Brin in 1998 so they could set up a modest little search engine called Google. Notoriously thrifty and unassuming, David Cheriton prefers distributing his money to colleges and universities to prop up their computer science and general science departments.
Although a linguist and cognitive scientist by trade, MIT’s Noam Chomsky earns more mainstream attention — not to mention garners more followers — as a political philosopher, activist, and social commentator. One of the most heavily decorated and respected academics currently alive today, he’s a mainstay on news outlets big and small discussing the current climate from a socialistic libertarian perspective. While Chomsky’s contributions to furthering academic and philosophical discussions could fill several more articles, Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media probably stands as his most popular and influential. It brought the rhetorical strategies used in political propaganda to the forefront of relevant discourse once again.
also published here