22 Dec 1999
OK, I have finally been sucked into millennium fever. I have come up with a list of the 10 most influential people of the millennium (years 1000-1999 Common Era). It seems to me the major themes of this millennium are 1) the decline of ecclesiastical power and the ascendancy of secular government, 2) the expansion of European influence, in particular that of English-speaking cultures, and 3) the meteoric rise of technology. Here are my choices for the Top Ten, in no particular order:
1. NEIL ARMSTRONG. Consider that most educated people cannot name a single historical figure from the 3rd millennium BCE, although there is written history from that era in Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Indus Valley, and China. I, a history buff myself, can name only three, all Egyptian Pharaohs (Khufu, Khafre, and Menkaure). I postulate that 5,000 years hence, if the average person knows anything about our period at all, it will be that in 1969 CE man first set foot on another planet, and the name associated with that enormous feat will be Neil Armstrong.
2. JAMES CLERK MAXWELL. His equations describing electromagnetic waves are the foundation not only of electricity and magnetism but also relativity, and Einstein's work can be considered a logical extension of Maxwell's. Also, the Maxwell-Boltzmann equations can be considered as the foundation of all thermodynamics, another huge segment of physics.
3. T. H. HUXLEY. Charles Darwin must share the credit for elaborating the enormously important theory of natural selection with Alfred Russell Wallace, so I can't give either a place on my list. However, I can give place to Huxley, who sold evolution to the world, and in doing so told a lot of people what they didn't want to hear. (Boy, could Kansas use a Huxley now!)
4. STEVEN SPIELBERG. In trying to come up with an entertainer of the millennium, one is tempted to list William Shakespeare. The main problem I have with him is that there seems to be disagreement as to whether the physical person named Shakespeare actually did the work that was attributed to him. Secondly, at millennium's end, Shakespeare's influence has declined to a very narrow segment of the English-speaking world. Spielberg, who has enjoyed an armamentarium of entertainment technology Shakespeare could have only dreamed of, is enjoyed by literally billions worldwide. Like Shakespeare, he has taken on a panoply of issues, from deadly serious to trivial, and has produced bombs as well as hits.
5. WILLIAM I, "The Conqueror", Duke of Normandy and King of England. He carried out the last successful invasion of Great Britain (1066) in the very first historically important event of the millennium. The hybrid Norman-Saxon culture that eventually shook out built a world-ringing empire that persists linguistically and culturally to this day. The English language, derived from an Anglo-Saxon and Old French admixture, leavened with Celtic and reintroduced Classical languages, is now the lingua franca of the world.
6. VOLTAIRE. His influential writings led us into the Age of Reason and arguably did more to advance secularism than any other figure. Like others on my list, he was more a repackager of ideas than a creator of them, but what a package!
7. JOHN CALVIN. While Martin Luther is certainly important as a religious reformer, he would have simply replaced one church-state monolith with another. Calvinism focuses more on the power of small groups and interdigitates better than Lutheranism with the modern secular state. Furthermore, Calvinism was the inspiration for Puritanism, and the latter's emphasis on democracy and personal responsibility to community is the basis of the American work ethic, which, fueled by natural resources and recurrent waves of fortune-seeking immigrants, made the British North American colonies, later the US, the richest country in the world (in terms of living standard) from the mid 1700s to the present.
8. LOUIS PASTEUR. Pasteur is the beginning of modern medical science. He was the first to systematically employ lab methods to investigate and treat disease and could arguably be called the first clinical pathologist. Before Pasteur, medicine was all anecdotes, gross dissections, and a few brilliant but unexplored general observations (e.g., Semmelweiss on puerperal sepsis, Snow on cholera). Louie did it our way.
9. TIM BERNERS-LEE. Perhaps the full influence of his invention of the World Wide Web at CERN in 1989 remains to be seen, but with an estimated 800,000,000 Web pages currently online, I'll bet it's going to be huge.
10. LEONHARD EULER. e to the pi i plus one equals zero. Wow! That just totally blows me away. And that was just the beginning; this guy was the Tasmanian devil of math.