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.

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

Reed Saxon / AP Photo

#25 Roger Ailes

Field: Television

Position: CEO, Fox News Channel and Fox Business Network; chairman of Fox Television Stations and Twentieth Television

Why He Was Nominated: Television journalism was completely transformed over the past decade—69-year-old Ailes is the one who changed it. Fox News set the agenda for the past 10 years, and cemented the primacy of cable news with a point of view. Besides making Fox the nation’s leading news channel—and turning Bill O’Reilly, Sean Hannity, and Glenn Beck into superstars—Ailes indirectly stoked the rise of Keith Olbermann, Rachel Maddow, and MSNBC as counterbalances. Going back to his role as Nixon’s wunderkind media consultant in 1968, Ailes has proven a media visionary capable of reinventing himself virtually every decade.

Scott Gries / Getty Images

#24, David Chase

Field: Television

Position: Creator, show-runner and head writer of The Sopranos

Why He Was Nominated: The 64-year-old Chase created the celebrated HBO series that perfectly mirrored a decade itself defined by violence (9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq), venal corruption (Enron, Jack Abramoff, Wall Street), and brazen criminality (Bernie Madoff and too many others to mention). From 1999 until 2007, an obsessive army of Sopranos fans got in touch with their inner Tony and shared in the gallows humor, delivered via brilliant storytelling. In the process, Chase reinvented the television drama as a vital, smart, even necessary, art form for society, raising the bar for others that followed, including Mad Men, hatched by one of Chase’s Sopranos protégés. As Daily Beast nominator Peggy Noonan asserts: “We are living in the second golden age of television—the first being captured in the name Playhouse 90 and the second likely to be captured with the name The Sopranos.”

Visual News / Getty Images

#23, Ayman al-Zawahiri

Field: Terrorism
Position: Al Qaeda leader

Why He Was Nominated: This will go down as the digital decade, but there was one consistent thread almost as influential—and far more destructive: radical Islamic terrorism. This movement had an intellectual leader: Ayman al-Zawahiri. An Egyptian surgeon, al-Zawahiri merged his Egyptian Islamic Jihad with al Qaeda in 1998, becoming Osama bin Laden’s deputy, confidant, and personal physician. “Bin Laden had an Islamic frame of reference, but he didn’t have anything against the Arab regimes,” Montasser al-Zayat, a lawyer for many of the Islamists, has said. “When Ayman met bin Laden, he created a revolution inside him.”

Three years later, al-Zawahiri is believed to have spearheaded the 9/11 attacks. The U.S. State Department still offers a $25 million reward for information leading to his capture.

Giacinta Pace / AP Photo

#22, Michael Bloomberg

Field: Politics, Media

Position: Mayor, New York City; founder, Bloomberg LLP.

Why He Was Nominated: As mayor, the prickly billionaire demonstrated the efficacy of non-ideological competency, presiding over New York’s economic recovery after the catastrophe of 9/11, while calming racial turmoil and boosting school scores. (He also demonstrated the efficacy of spending unheard-of amounts of money to win three separate elections.) As entrepreneur, the 67-year-old Bloomberg’s data empire emerged as a dominant global media power, leveraging a business model—premium subscription fees, rather than advertising—that too many competitors ignored.

Frederick M. Brown / Getty Images

#21, Karl Rove

Field: Politics

Position: Fox News contributor, columnist for The Wall Street Journal and Newsweek; former top strategist to George W. Bush

Why He Was Nominated: The 58-year-old Rove rounds out the decade as just another talking head with an ax to grind, but his impact on the world as George W. Bush’s chief strategist—“Bush’s Brain”—can’t be misunderestimated. A protégé of brass-knuckled political guru Lee Atwater, Rove made a huge mark in politics with a “50 + 1” strategy that microtargeted the electoral map down to the neighborhood level. The results elected George W. Bush in 2000, despite losing the popular vote, and then reelected him in 2004, when many had forecast defeat. In the White House, as political director and deputy chief of staff, he was directly responsible for Bush’s domestic policies, run with a similar “us vs. them” shrewdness.

Kevin Winter / Getty Images

#20, Will Wright

Field: Game Designer

Position: Leader of the Stupid Fun Club, former designer, Electronic Arts

Why He Was Nominated: Wright, 49, revolutionized how people entertain themselves—an alter ego became a tangible way to have fun. In 2000, building on the success of earlier versions, Wright launched The Sims—100 million units were sold, making it the bestselling computer game of all time. His vision for an open-ended design and world-unto-itself style blurred fantasy and reality. At the end of the decade, Wright designed Spore, a game involving species creation that combines role-playing, action, and strategy. This last year saw Wright leaving his home at Electronic Arts to found a think tank for entertainment, the Stupid Fun Club.

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

#19, Lawrence Lessig

Field: Law

Position: Director of the Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University

Why He Was Nominated: As the burgeoning online world collided with the law, Lessig filled the breach. He advocated for free culture and loose copyright laws, seemingly emerging with a new book each year, while engaging with popular ideas through his Wired magazine column and other popular writings. “He opened our minds to the viability of open source,” says David Montgomery, a geomorphologist at the University of Washington in Seattle and one of our MacArthur “genius” voters. This year, the 48-year-old quit Stanford for Harvard, changing his focus to combating corruption in government and industry.

Alex Brandon / AP Photo

#18, General David Petraeus

Field: Military

Position: Commander, U.S. Central Command

Why He Was Nominated: General Petraeus has dominated recent thinking about military strategy in the Middle East. When Iraq appeared lost in 2007, the four-star general with a doctorate in international relations from Princeton pushed for an Iraqi “surge” strategy—more troops, jointly deployed with U.S. and Iraqi forces—that’s credited with reducing violence in Baghdad. Last year, he assumed leadership of U.S. Central Command, overseeing military operations across the region including Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan.

Mark Lennihan / AP Photo

#17, Nouriel Roubini

Field: Economics

Position: Associate Professor, Stern School of Business, New York University; adviser to the Treasury Department.

Why He Was Nominated: Almost alone in an academic discipline that embraced what was widely believed to be rational exuberance, the Turkish-born Roubini resisted groupthink and predicted doom and gloom. As far back as 2005, he warned that the real-estate bubble would inevitably burst and cause the overall economy to crash. In 2006, he predicted a deep recession accompanied by mortgage defaults and “trillions of dollars of mortgage-backed securities unraveling worldwide and the global financial system shuddering to a halt." “Roubini saw the crisis coming,” says Nassim Nicholas Taleb, a member of The Daily Beast’s nomination panel and the author of The Black Swan, one of the decade’s most influential tomes. A second nominator, who preferred anonymity, praises the 50-year-old Roubini’s “unique analytical capability, common sense, and instinct for the nature of the role of business in the economy.” Roubini’s analysis, says this nominator, “continues to be the best being done as we work through the current financial crisis.”

Neilson Barnard / Getty Images

#16, Malcolm Gladwell

Field: Journalism

Position: Staff writer at The New Yorker

Why He Was Nominated: No one has been better at explaining complex academic theories to the world, in doing so making terms like “the tipping point” part of the vernacular. Through his essays and reportage in The New Yorker and with books like The Tipping Point, Gladwell, 46, introduced an ever-widening audience to abstract ideas in economics, mathematics, medicine, and sociology. Blink, Outliers and The Tipping Point were three of the biggest nonfiction books of the decade. “The ideas put forth in those three books are truly insightful,” says Aaron Dworkin, one of our voters and a MacArthur “genius” fellow in 2005.

Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP Photo

#15, Manmohan Singh

Field: Government

Position: Prime Minister of India

Why He Was Nominated: The first Indian prime minister to serve two consecutive terms since Nehru, it’s been Singh, a 77-year-old economist, who has kept India’s tiger economy growling. Responsible for leading one of every six people on earth, Singh has done so as a Sikh, a minority in India. His ability to avoid the stain of corruption has also earned him praise. An professor with a knack for politics—think India’s Josiah Bartlet—Singh has thrived on the world stage. “Anyone who can obtain a Ph.D. in economics from Oxford and successfully manage the world's largest democracy has to be the smartest person in the world,” says one of our MacArthur voters, Loren H. Riesenberg of Indiana University.

Kristian Dowling / Getty Images

#14, Arianna Huffington

Field: Media
Position: Co-founder, editor in chief of The Huffington Post

Why She Was Nominated: In the last part of the decade, Huffington, 59, helped reinvent how people digest news. Her Huffington Post turned the concepts of content aggregation and citizen journalists into an essential media platform. When protests broke out across Iran this summer, it was Huffington’s site, not The New York Times or ABC News, that emerged as the definitive place to find out what was going on.

Beowulf Sheehan / Newscom

#13, Kwame Anthony Appiah

Field: Philosophy

Position: Professor of philosophy at Princeton University

Why He Was Nominated: The leading thinker in applying ancient philosophy to modern issues: specifically, one of the biggest forces of the decade, globalism. "It is difficult to imagine a more eloquent manifestation of elegance of thought than Kwame Anthony Appiah's work manifests,” says colleague and friend Henry Louis Gates, one of The Daily Beast’s nominators. Born and raised in Ghana, schooled in Cambridge, England, the 55-year-old theorist and novelist has taught at a variety of American institutions and become a chief force behind the creation of a new philosophy for our interconnected world, most notably through his 2006 book Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers.

Ben Margot / AP Photo

#12, Jeff Bezos

Field: Business, Internet

Position: Founder, CEO, Amazon.com.

Why He Was Nominated: Bezos might have made a ranking like this in the '90s for one of the great Internet success stories of Web 1.0, a site that transformed book sales. He makes this list for continuing his vision, synthesizing a genius for computer science and business to tap the Internet’s near-limitless potential for selling any kind of product. "If I had a nickel for every time a potential investor told me this wouldn't work..." the 45-year-old Bezos likes to say with a laugh. Seattle-based Amazon.com is a fast-growing $20 billion business, moving everything from DVDs to videogames and giving retail giant Wal-Mart a run for its money. Amazon’s Kindle—the handheld electronic reader though which users can access an entire library—is gaining traction, with further innovations to come. According to Daily Beast nominator Jonathan Karp, head of the hardcover imprint Twelve, Bezos deserves credit for “marketing savvy in changing the way we buy online.”

Michael Probst / AP Photo

#11, Jimmy Wales

Field: Technology

Position: Co-founder, Wikipedia; chairman emeritus, Wikimedia Foundation

Why He Was Nominated: Wikipedia created the Web’s knowledge center, and helped democratize how history is recorded. Its co-founder, Jimmy Wales, known as Jimbo in Internet circles, announced his vision for a free online encyclopedia in 2001. Eight years later, the site has more than 3 million articles, 11 million contributors and 69 million monthly unique visitors. More long-lasting, he pioneered a cooperative work model now playing out across the Internet in numerous fields.

Charles Dharapak / AP Photo

#10, Elizabeth Warren

Field: Law

Position: Professor, Harvard Law School; chairman of Congressional Oversight Panel

Why She Was Nominated: Before it was fashionable, Warren was warning of the dangers that exotic finance products could unleash on middle-class families through her many books and articles. “She is the one who really nailed it,” said MIT economist Simon Johnson, a Daily Beast contributor. And now after her premonitions have materialized, Warren, 60, gets to figure out, for taxpayers and politicians alike, what happened to the billions of dollars destined for bailing out troubled banks.

Eric Thayer, Reuters / Landov

#9, Jacqueline Novogratz

Fields: Business, Philanthropy

Position: Founder, CEO of Acumen Fund

Why She Was Nominated: While her former colleagues on Wall Street spent the decade pillaging, Novogratz took the skills she learned as a banker and became a prominent “social investor.” Specifically, she founded the Acumen Fund, which seeds companies that have potential solutions to poverty. Her book, The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World, should be required reading for every TARP recipient. The 48 year old has an intellectually stimulating home life: She’s married to Chris Anderson, founder of the influential TED conference, who also received nominations for this list.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

#8, David Plouffe

Field: Politics

Position: Senior Adviser, AKPD Message and Media. Former Campaign Manager, Barack Obama for President

Why He Was Nominated: The 42-year-old Plouffe—“the unsung hero” of the “best political campaign in the history of the United States of America,” according to President Obama—reinvented politics in 2007 and 2008. Howard Dean tapped into the power of the Internet as a political tool in 2004, but it was Plouffe and Obama who mastered it, raising unprecedented amounts of money—mostly from small donors—and spreading their message in ways never before attempted. In the end, the Obama campaign out-organized and outspent (a first for a Democratic challenger) John McCain, and Plouffe helped deliver the first African American in the White House.

Paul Sakuma / AP Photo

#7, Elizabeth Blackburn

Field: Biology

Position: Professor of biology and physiology at University of California, San Francisco

Why She Was Nominated: In the race to understand the causes of cancer, Elizabeth Blackburn broke new ground with the discovery of the molecular nature of telomerase, an enzyme found in human cells that keeps cells healthy and young. A vocal advocate of limiting political control on scientific research (she was reportedly kicked off the President’s Council on Bioethics in 2004 for her positive stance on embryonic stem-cell research), she was awarded the Nobel Prize for her cancer research this year.

Keith Srakocic / AP Photo

#6, Harold Varmus

Field: Medicine

Position: President of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center

Why He Was Nominated: The Daily Beast’s nominators threw out more than 100 names, but almost none came up more often than Varmus’. It’s been 20 years since the biologist won his Nobel Prize, but he made the list for this decade because of smarts he displayed as a leader. In 2000, Varmus, 69, became the president of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, and proved himself “a brilliant manager,” said one of our nominators. When appointing Varmus to co-chair his committee on science and technology, President Obama said, “The truth is that promoting science isn’t just about providing resources—it’s about protecting free and open inquiry. Dr. Varmus is no stranger to this work.”

Carlos Alvarez / Getty Images

#5, Muhammad Yunus

Field: Economics

Position: Managing director of Grameen Bank

Why He Was Nominated: He used his brain to make a dent in the fight against poverty. This "banker to the poor" from Bangladesh is the originator of the innovative microcredit concept, in which financing is doled out to those too poor to receive traditional loans to help them break free from poverty. For his work, Yunus, 69, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006. Yunus has also been an advocate for transparency in India's national elections, and is a member of the Africa Progress Panel, alongside Tony Blair and Kofi Annan. The panel promotes Africa’s economic, social, and political development.

Wong Maye-E / AP Photo

#4, Hillary Clinton

Field: Politics

Position: U.S. Secretary of State

Why She Was Nominated: Hillary Clinton began the decade as first lady, spent most of it as a U.S. senator and finished it Secretary of State. Oh, and she almost became the first female commander in chief. “She made us all see women as potential presidents,” says one of our MacArthur “genius” voters, David Montgomery, a geomorphologist and professor at the University of Washington. If anyone had a more intellectually rigorous résumé for the decade, we have yet to see it.

Ethan Miller / Getty Images

#3, Steven Chu

Field: Science

Position: U.S. Secretary of Energy

Why He Was Nominated: “I am not a billionaire, but at least I am a nerd,” Steven Chu said in a commencement address at Harvard this past spring. This nerd might be the most important person on the planet when it comes to combating climate change. A former physics professor at the University of California, Berkeley, Chu netted a Nobel Prize in 1997 and the 61-year-old spent the past decade directing his mastery of small things, like atoms, on very big concerns, helming the Berkeley National Laboratory and turning it into a leader in climate and energy research this decade. "Chu is a brilliant physicist who is trying to solve humanity's greatest current challenge," says one of our voters, Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, a MacArthur “genius” fellow.

Jeff Chiu / AP Photo

#2, Steve Jobs

Field: Technology

Position: Co-founder and CEO, Apple Inc.; co-founder Pixar

Why He Was Nominated: Famously temperamental and tenacious, Jobs spent the decade battling health problems—and changing the way people work and communicate. He also helped revolutionize design and marketing. Think about his products that weren’t around a decade ago: the MacBook, the iPod, and the iPhone. Think about the music industry without iTunes, kids' movies without Pixar’s wondrous digital animation, Jobs is responsible for “just about everything cool about computers,” says Daily Beast nominator Christopher Buckley. Fortune magazine, for one, named him the most powerful person in business in 2007 and the CEO of the decade in 2009. Having survived pancreatic cancer in 2004 and, more recently, a liver transplant, Jobs rules his empire like a philosopher king. He often quotes the wisdom of hockey great Wayne Gretzky: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not where it has been.”

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

#1, Larry Page and Sergey Brin

Field: Business, Technology

Position: Co-Founders of Google

Why They Were Nominated: A two-headed hydra for the No. 1 spot. The 36-year-olds used algorithms to create a smarter search engine, and that in turn changed the way everyone in the Western world received information. Commerce, advertising, video, mapping, email—Google changed them all. On a list heavy with superlatives, nobody used their brains for greater impact on how we lived, worked, and came to know things. “They have transformed communications, boosted global productivity,” one of our nominators, Yale President Rick Levin, says of the two Stanford graduates, “and built a company that is the most desired workplace in the world.”