Who doesn’t love to reminisce about STEM rock stars of yore like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein? I sure do! But while it’s always fun to rap about Curie’s two Nobel Prizes and Einstein’s infamous disdain for quantum mechanics, it’s easy to forget great science is still happening today, right now, all over the world!
Here are 5 living STEM leaders your students should know about (in no particular order):
1. Andrew Wiles
Wiles is a British mathematician whose claim to fame is solving one of mathematics’ greatest mysteries, the proof for Fermat’s Last Theorem. The theorem dates back to 1637 and basically says “xn + yn = zn has no whole number solution when n is greater than 2.” Fermat sent the math world into a 300-year tizzy when beside the theorem he wrote: “I have discovered a truly marvelous proof of this, which, however, the margin is not large enough to contain,” and then promptly died before ever writing it down.
In 1994, Wiles won the Abel Prize—sometimes called the Nobel of Mathematics—for his proof. Of course, Wiles’ solution is hundreds of pages long and uses methods not available in Fermat’s time, so it’s obviously not the slightly-too-large-to-fit-into-the-margin-of-a-book proof Fermat was thinking of. But Wiles deserves credit for never giving up! His wife deserves credit too for cleaning up after him while he spent literally all day in an attic for seven years in the throes of proofin’. Gross.
2. Tu Youyou
In 2015, Youyou became the first Chinese woman to win a Nobel Prize for creating an anti-malaria drug that saved the lives of millions of people in tropical regions around the world. Youyou accomplished her feat by extracting the active ingredient in a traditional Chinese method for treating malaria. Then, she used that ingredient to developed a drug that could be distributed via modern medicine around the world. She’s now the Chief Scientist at the China Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine. So the next time you’re in a tropical environ swarming with mosquitos so bad you resort to unloading your bug spray directly into the air like it’s a can of Raid, thank Youyou for ensuring you at least won’t die of malaria!
3. James Watson
The man who helped discover the double-helix structure of DNA is still kicking around, though his health is in decline; as a result he’s been hospitalized since 2019. In 1963, he and his colleagues Francis Crick and Maurice Wilkins were awarded the Nobel Prize for their discovery that helped kick off the field of modern genetics.
Unfortunately for him, Watson became persona non grata after making unsupported-by-science remarks about racial intelligence in 2007 (guess who he thinks is “genetically smarter”). In 2014, he sold his Nobel medal out of spite. Even with his ostracization from the scientific community, he stood by his racist remarks as late as 2019. Though Watson was perhaps the most influential biologist of the twentieth century, his inclusion on this list more than anything is a cautionary tale of what happens when biases trick extremely smart people into believing obviously wrong things.
4. Noam Chomsky
Chomsky is often called the “father of modern linguistics.” His groundbreaking theory that language is an innate ability all humans are born with kicked off the field of cognitive science in the 1960s as people rushed to test this theory. Remember all those experiments through the 60s and into the 80s of researchers trying to teach chimps sign language and bringing them home like they were human kids? That was all in response to Chomsky’s theory. One famous experiment even involved a chimp named Nim Chimpsky. Alas for the researchers, after decades of trying to teach non-human animals language, they’ve so far achieved middling results at best, nothing near the human capacity for language—proving Chomsky’s theory is most likely correct.
5. Wendy Freedman
Freedman led an international team of astronomers in a project to precisely calculate the galactic expansion rate called the Hubble constant. With the most accurate measurements ever, they were able to recalculate the age of the universe from the previous rough estimate of 10-20 billion years old to 13.7 billion years. Knowing the actual age of the universe is critical to all sorts of other areas of astrophysics, such as understanding dark matter and guessing how the universe might end to make “this is how the universe ends” videos that are cool and also fill you with existential dread. Have you ever walked through the astronomy section of a science museum and noticed the “age of the universe” signs have been altered? That’s because of Freedman!
Written by Shana Figueroa