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11.29.09

The 25 Smartest People of the Decade

Who are the greatest minds of the past 10  years? The Daily Beast convened a panel of moguls, academics—and more than 40 credentialed geniuses—to settle the matter once and for all.

It was a decade that most will rank among the worst ever, book-ended by a tragic terrorist attack and an epic financial meltdown, with a lot of bitter politics and debt-fueled spending in between.

But there was also a lot of brilliance: genius thinking that transformed information, politics, business, and medicine. For all the pain and the angst, centuries from now historians may well measure the last 10 years by our biggest brains and the transformative changes they set in motion. The Daily Beast thought we’d help them with a present-day measure of the greatest minds of our times: the 25 smartest people of the decade.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of the 25 Smartest People of the Decade

While “smart” is impossible to exactly quantify, we gave it a good effort. We started with a definition—to find the smartest people of the decade, we wanted to focus on three factors:

  • pure brainpower
  • using that brainpower to affect change in their field or the world at large
  • affecting the change which merits recognition in the past decade, not before

That decided, we convened more than two dozen of the smartest people we know to develop a list of nominees. This diverse group included the president of Harvard (Drew Faust) and Yale (Rick Levin); business moguls like David Geffen, Mort Zuckerman, and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg; academic thinkers like Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., Steven Pinker, Nassim Taleb and Simon Johnson; and savvy writers like Christopher Buckley, Peggy Noonan, and Nate Silver.

These nominators wound up submitting over 100 names. We looked for overlaps and also gave more weight to nominations made by people in their field. In the end, 25 finalists rose to the top of the list.

Christopher Buckley's Smart 16So how to rank these 25 brilliant minds? For that task, we turned to a group of fellow savants: winners of the MacArthur Foundation’s coveted “genius” grant during the past decade. More than 40 MacArthur fellows took the time to go through each finalist’s credentials, and rank them in order, based on our criteria. A genius-on-genius survey.

There are some people you’d expect (Steve Jobs, Harold Varmus, Nouriel Roubini), some surprises (Ayman al-Zawahiri?), and even a few names you may not recognize. Intellectuals crave debate—and hopefully this will start some. See the full countdown here.