Innovators of Our Time

We mark Smithsonian’s 35th anniversary by revisiting scientists, artists and scholars who’ve enriched the magazine and our lives

Every genius, said the Danish writer Isak Dinesen, is doomed. She meant that geniuses, or those touched with a spark of it, had very little choice in life. Each one, she said, was powerless "in the face of his own powers," compelled to follow a certain path and to do a particular thing with instinctive flair and originality, whether that meant being a master chef, an inspired writer of poetry or an astronomer unraveling the secrets of the stars.

Genius is an overused word these days, but it may not be too strong a label for many of the figures marching through our pages this month. All have been chosen for inclusion because what they do—or what they have done—has made a difference. And a contribution. Each has been here before to enliven Smithsonian; most continue to enrich our lives by their work; all will doubtless inspire future generations by their example.

They are a varied lot, reflecting the diversity of America and the wide-ranging interests of Smithsonian. They come to us from Civil War battlefields and the African bush, from the ravaged streets of New Orleans and the mountain observatories of California, from the Broadway stage and the Amazonian forest, from the corporate boardroom and the forensic laboratory. They sing arias. They scrutinize ants. They create memorable movies and singular buildings. They work magic with the instruments of their choosing—trumpets, cellos, cameras, paintbrushes, laptops and imagination. One sits awake writing poetry in the wee hours; another sorts through old bones to shed light on the advent of humans in North America; another has spent his professional life deep in the ocean, pursuing an elusive monster he has yet to find alive.

At least Captain Ahab had seen Moby-Dick.

Like that famously obsessive captain, the men and women we celebrate here have set out on bold missions of their own, forging ahead in the face of conventional wisdom—and often the advice of friends or colleagues—to pursue the work they love. They are all rebels of a sort. Some, like the noted scientist Edward O. Wilson and the natural historian David Attenborough, have simply extended the interests they pursued as children, seemingly without a moment's doubt about what they were meant to do. Others have piled one distinguished career atop another, as Richard Leakey has done, morphing from paleontologist to conservationist, politician, civil servant and popular lecturer with hardly a pause for breath. One of our writers, whose byline will be familiar to every reader, has run through enough careers—nuclear engineer, peanut farmer, governor, president of the United States, cabinetmaker, Nobel laureate, author—for several lifetimes.

From either side of the byline, we take inspiration from such people—explorers of the spirit, rebels with a cause, each doomed by his or her particular genius to show us the high road into new territory.

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