The 20 Smartest People Of 2010

Whose minds shined brightest, with the most impact, in the past year? The Daily Beast, aided by a panel of two-dozen MacArthur “genius” fellows, unveils the 20 smartest people of 2010.

12.30.10 4:19 AM ET

The past 12 months were defined by recovery. Unemployment and foreclosures remain high, yet the world economy is tentatively stable. The Gulf of Mexico is still cleaning up after the disastrous BP oil spill, Haitians fought tragedy after tragedy after a 7.0 magnitude earthquake devastated the island nation, and a group of 33 Chilean miners survived for 69 days more than a mile underground in a space the size of a Manhattan apartment. Conan O’Brien bounced back on TBS after being booted from NBC, quarterback Michael Vick regained a sliver of good grace with his MVP-caliber play for the Philadelphia Eagles, and Tiger Woods returned to the links, albeit with mixed results.

Gallery: The 20 Smartest People of 2010

Amid all the tragic, comic, and inspirational stories of 2010, a small group of talented and smart people were tinkering with the very fundamentals of how we live, and some were changing the way we think about life itself. Some are names you know, some are names that remain obscure from the zeitgeist. But in sum, their innovations in 2010 will define the technological, scientific, and social milieu of the decade.

Like last year, when we enlisted MacArthur “genius” grant winners to help us pick the smartest people of the 2000s, the very idea of what constitutes “smart” is difficult to define. We did our best by focusing on three factors:

• Flashes of brilliance that occurred or came to a head in 2010

• Intelligence in action

• Overall smarts

The Daily Beast surveyed key staffers and contributors to determine an initial list, which was then presented to a group of more than 20 geniuses—recent winners of coveted MacArthur grants, awarded on the basis of pure brilliance. This group cut the list down to 20, and ranked these best of the best, creating our final list of the 20 Smartest People of 2010—a genius-on-genius survey. While no such exercise can be truly exhaustive, it is undeniable that everyone on this list, from the big-name to the no-name, has left an indelible footprint on American intellectual and popular culture.

Research and reporting by Clark Merrefield, Marlow Stern, and Lauren Streib.