10 Scientists Rocking Our World

In the award-winning movie “Amadeus,” Antonio Salieri labored in the shadow of his rival, the absurdly talented Wolfgang scientists-changing-world-1Amadeus Mozart. Salieri was a competent, seasoned composer, but his work never achieved the recognition or acclaim of Mozart’s. The scientific world has similar personalities. Mozart might be compared to the Galileos, Darwins and Einsteins of the world; Salieri to all of the other scientists who push their fields forward, if not in anonymity, then at least without fame.

In our own way, we’re trying to remedy that situation. On the following pages, you’ll meet 10 actively working scientists whose research continues to shine a light into the shadowy corners of our mysterious universe. Some have walked away with Nobel Prizes, while others have basked in much smaller spotlights on much smaller stages. All are forward thinkers with the vision and drive to change the world and, perhaps, to become the next Amadeus of the scientific community.

Discovery Magazine once said this guy possessed one of the “20 Best Brains Under 40.” In 2012, the professor of astronomy and physics at Johns Hopkins University is now in his 40s and no less impactful for the few extra years. Adam Riess’ research has sought to answer some of the biggest questions of cosmology: Is the universe expanding? And, if it is, at what rate and by what mechanisms?

In 1998, he began to provide crucial answers when he led the High-Z SN Search Team — an international group of scientists using the Hubble Space Telescope to study the behavior of light from distant exploding stars — to investigate whether or not gravity was reeling the universe back from the slingshot ride caused by the big bang. To their surprise, Riess and his colleagues discovered that the acceleration of the universe wasn’t halting, but speeding up at an alarming rate. Riess coined the term dark energy to describe the mysterious force responsible for the rapid expansion.

Riess has been hungry to better understand and describe dark energy ever since. He continues to keep an eye on supernovae, but he also studies cepheids (pulsating stars), all with the goal of getting more and better data to refine his calculations. Those calculations predict that dark energy makes up more than 70 percent of the universe. What they haven’t revealed is the nature of dark energy itself. Is it a property of space, a new dynamic fluid or evidence of a different form of gravity? The answer to that question may be the biggest discovery of the 21st century.

As a biogeochemist stationed at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Katey Walter Anthony studies one of the most understood compounds in chemistry — CH4, or methane. Unfortunately, the impact of methane on global warming is far less evident, which is why Walter Anthony regularly treks to Siberia, near the North Pole, to study a type of soil known as permafrost, the soil that remains at or below the freezing point of water for years and years.

But the “perma-” isn’t permanent. In fact, the frozen soil can melt, forming first a sinkhole, then a small lake, then a large lake. As our planet warms, more of these bodies of water will form. In and of itself, that’s not so bad, but these permafrost lakes produce something else — methane gas, a byproduct of microbial decomposition that bubbles from the lake bed to the surface. At the surface, it bursts into the atmosphere and, like carbon dioxide, becomes part of the gassy blanket warming our planet up.

Walter Anthony has been collecting methane from Arctic lakes for years and worries that Earth may be on course to experience an unprecedented warming. Her estimates suggest that, by 2100, melting permafrost could increase levels of atmospheric methane by as much as 40 percent beyond what would be produced by all other sources [source: Walter Anthony]. Because methane is even more potent than carbon dioxide as a greenhouse gas, it could potentially raise Earth’s mean annual temperature an additional 0.32 degrees Celsius [source: Walter Anthony]. This could accelerate global warming to drastic levels and wreak havoc with weather patterns and sea levels.

When you think of cutting-edge research, you often think of sophisticated labs stuffed with multibillion-dollar equipment. But arguably one of the biggest discoveries in the last decade of physics and materials science came on the back of a small piece of invisible tape — the same kind you use every day in your home or office. The brainchild behind the discovery was University of Manchester researcher Konstantin Novoselov, and the novel material he plucked from the sticky tape was graphene.

Graphene comes from graphite, the form of carbon that makes up the tip of your No. 2 pencil. Scientists have known graphite’s structure for years — it consists of carbon-atom sheets stacked on top of each other — but they were never able to separate the black, crumbly substance into its individual layers. Then, in 2004, Novoselov (perhaps stuck on some tedious conference call) placed a small crumb of graphite on the business side of a piece of a tape. Next, he folded the tape over the crumb and peeled it back to reveal an even smaller piece of graphite. He repeated this process several times until, finally, he had graphene — a single layer of carbon atoms, arranged in a flat plane of interconnected hexagons.

After isolating graphene, Novoselov was able to begin testing the material’s properties. He and other scientists discovered that a monolayer of carbon atoms conducts electricity faster at room temperature than any other substance (hello, faster computers!). In 2010, Novoselov received a Nobel Prize in physics for his groundbreaking research. Now he’s working to turn graphene into useful products, such as ultrahigh-speed transistors, that could revolutionize the electronics industry.

Social networking usually makes us think of Mark Zuckerberg, but how and why people connect have been central questions of social science for centuries. More recently, James Fowler, professor of medical genetics and political science at the University of California, San Diego, has been lighting up the field. In 2007, Fowler teamed up with Harvard University researcher Nicholas Christakis to study the effects of social networks on health outcomes.

What they discovered mesmerized scientists and laypeople alike: that a person’s friends can profoundly affect that person’s health. They started with obesity, reporting in The New England Journal of Medicine that a person’s chance of becoming obese increased 57 percent if a close friend became obese at the same time. The effect held even when a direct friend wasn’t involved; obesity in a friend of a friend also increased the odds of a person becoming obese.

In 2008, Fowler and Christakis followed up with two additional studies examining the effects of social networks on smoking and levels of happiness. They discovered similar patterns in both health measures. If someone’s friends quit smoking or described themselves as happy, then that person was more likely to quit smoking or to be happy himself. In 2011, the two researchers summarized their discoveries in “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives,” a best-selling book that has since been translated into 20 languages.

Fowler has gone on to research overconfidence as an evolutionary trait. His findings suggest that overconfident people outcompete realists in many situations, even though those folks could hurt the group as a whole.

The word chemistry comes from ancient Egypt — Khem described the soil’s changing colors when the Nile flooded — so it seems strangely satisfying that one of the world’s most significant chemists is Egyptian by birth. Ahmed Zewail was born in Damanhur, Egypt, in 1946 and received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Alexandria University before moving to the United States to pursue his Ph.D. Fast-forward a few decades and you’d find Zewail as the Linus Pauling Chair professor of chemistry and professor of physics at the California Institute of Technology. He’s also a Nobel laureate, picking up the 1999 award in chemistry for his groundbreaking work using lasers to study chemical reactions.

Here’s why that work is important: Most chemical reactions occur in the smallest fractions of a second. Transition states — intermediate molecules or atoms that are neither the reactants nor the products — exist for only 10 to 100 femtoseconds (a femtosecond is equal to 10-15 seconds or 0.000000000000001 seconds). Zewail developed a technique whereby ultrashort laser pulses froze these transition states and made it possible to observe them clearly. For the first time, chemists could witness molecules split apart, move and recombine.

His pioneering work in femtosecond spectroscopy would be enough to earn him a spot on our list, but his lasting contributions are just as likely to come from his ongoing efforts to revitalize science education in the Middle East. After the revolts of the Arab Spring, Zewail returned to his homeland to discuss how the region might cultivate the next generation of scientists. In May 2011, the new government unanimously approved a research center called the Zewail City of Science and Technology, which hopes to attract the brightest Middle Eastern minds and return the country to its glory as the seat of scientific innovation.

Daniela Witten, an assistant professor at the University of Washington, has an impressive pedigree. Both of her parents work in Princeton at the Institute for Advanced Study, the same hallowed research center that served as the academic home of Albert Einstein. In fact, Witten’s father, Edward Witten, had a little something to do with string theory, as did her mother, Chiara Nappi.

But Daniela Witten is proving to be a great thinker in her own right and own field — the application of statistics to medicine. Specifically, Witten uses artificial intelligence programs to analyze the enormous amounts of data coming from DNA sequencing and gene expression. The ultimate goal is to make sense of a person’s genetic code and use that information to develop personalized treatments for diseases.

Witten earned her doctorate in biostatistics from Stanford University and joined the faculty of the University of Washington School of Public Health. In September 2011, she received an Early Independence Award from the National Institutes of Health. The honor enables exceptional, early-career scientists to move into independent research positions directly upon completion of their graduate degrees. In other words, Witten is in the game, while some of her colleagues still labor through their post-doctoral training. It’s why Forbes Magazine recognized her as one of “The 30 Under 30″ and featured her research in the science category of the award. And it may be why we could enjoy a customized cure for cancer in the near future.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, affects about 30,000 Americans by causing their nerve cells to waste away, which leads to muscle weakness, twitching and, eventually, death, according the ALS Association. People with ALS and other related neurodegenerative diseases have long looked to stem cells as the medical miracle that might save their lives. Kevin Eggan, an associate professor in the Department of Stem Cell and Regenerative Biology at Harvard University, is working on it.

Eggan made headlines in 2007 when he successfully created motor neurons characteristic of ALS using skin cells from a patient with the disease (see sidebar for details on how he did it). Since then, he has produced billions of spinal nerve cells to use in experiments probing the pathways and mechanisms of ALS, as well as trials testing new therapeutic agents.

In 2009, Eggan was selected as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Early Career Scientist, an honor that earned him six years of dedicated support to conduct his research. In that time, he may unlock the mysteries of ALS and provide the techniques and knowledge about stem cells to help other scientists develop treatments for other devastating illnesses.

You know how certain physicists and cosmologists are fixated on trying to unravel what took place in the first few moments after the big bang? Biologists have a similarly mysterious moment they like to obsess over: the rise of multicellular animals from unicellular progenitors. One scientist trying to piece together that enigmatic puzzle is Nicole King, an associate professor of genetics, genomics and development at the University of California, Berkeley.

King’s research focuses on choanoflagellates, single-celled protists found in both freshwater and saltwater environments, that may be the missing link between unicellular organisms and animals. One clue to this link is the resemblance of choanoflagellates to the collar cells of sponges, the simplest of animals. Another clue is the ability of choanoflagellates to organize themselves into colonies, much as an early animal might have done. But the most telling clue, revealed by King’s investigations, is the presence of two genes previously believed to exist only in animals. Those genes code for adhesion molecules and receptor tyrosine kinases, responsible for maintaining the physical integrity of tissues and for intercellular communication, respectively.

Now King’s lab is sequencing the genomes of several choanoflagellates to test whether genes required for animal development evolved before multicellular animals themselves. The answers she finds may reveal how and when Earth’s primordial soup began to fill up with tastier, more complex morsels.

Today, global warming is old news, but back in the 1980s, when NASA climatologist and Columbia University researcher James Hansen began warning the public and politicians about the threat of greenhouse gases, the concept was relatively new. Hansen stayed on the case to make sure the science — and the side effects — of global warming were known to as wide an audience as possible. One person in that audience was Al Gore, who turned to Hansen for advice, consultation and information. The product of that partnership was “An Inconvenient Truth,” a slide show, film and book that introduced the concepts of climate change to millions of people and, in many ways, encouraged the world to “go green.”

Hansen continues the drumbeat today. In 2009, he published “Storms of My Grandchildren,” a searing look at how human-caused climate change could destroy the planet as we know it today. The book has won awards and stirred controversy, but its major contribution is that, just like Al Gore’s work, it has reinforced the key concepts of global warming to a worldwide audience. In fact, New Scientist editor Michael Le Page said this about the 2009 book: “This is not the best-written science book ever, nor the easiest to understand. But it could be the most important one you’ll ever read.” Hansen regularly updates the facts of the book on the Web, so you can stay current, if you’re so inclined, with the ongoing debate surrounding one of the most significant issues humans will face in the near future.

The spacecraft used in NASA’s Kepler mission isn’t a person, but since it’s named after one of the great minds in the history of science — Johannes Kepler — it seemed fair to include it (him) in the list, especially considering the magnitude of the mission’s discoveries.

First, the facts: Kepler is a space telescope launched by NASA in March 2009 with the goal of surveying 170,000 stars in a small patch of sky near the constellations Cygnus and Lyra. Its quarry aren’t the stars themselves, but the exoplanets that might be orbiting them and that might have conditions capable of supporting life. Kepler finds these planets when they cross the face of their parent star.

Now, the amazing results: Kepler has found a spectacular array of planets. In just a few months, it has discovered more than twice the number of exoplanets spotted from Earth in the last 15 years. More than 400 of these worlds exist in solar systems containing a number of bodies revolving around strange, faraway stars. What are some of these worlds like? Kepler-16b is a Saturn-sized planet orbiting two stars, a la Luke Skywalker’s home Tatooine. The Kepler-11 system consists of six planets — some rocky and some gas giants — orbiting a single, sunlike star. In all, Kepler had identified more than 1,200 candidate planets awaiting confirmation and further study, as of January 2012.

The Kepler mission is scheduled to make observations through the end of 2012, but its design will support an additional three years of investigation. NASA officials, faced with extreme budget cuts, are now trying to decide if the program should be granted an extension or terminated. Given its success, one can only hope that Kepler — the telescope, not the man — is allowed to live on.

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