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.

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo,Carolyn Kaster

Carolyn Kaster / AP Photo

1, Jon Stewart

Opinionated, funny—and, according to our panel of 20-plus MacArthur geniuses, the smartest person of 2010. Jon Stewart, conventional wisdom went, peaked after Barack Obama was elected (his comic foil had left office). Yet two years later, the brains behind The Daily Show remains speedier and more biting than the media monoliths and political establishment he regularly skewers. This year, Stewart went further. He turned his logic-rooted, hypocrisy-bashing comedy into action, with his Stephen Colbert co-hosted Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear, which drew roughly 200,000 people to the National Mall in late October. Lawmakers later called him out as instrumental in helping pass health-care funding for 9/11 first responders. "Jon Stewart really took the push for the 9/11 bill into overdrive by doing two separate nights' worth of coverage last week, and drawing attention to this that the networks had not," Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-NY) said. And while still a liberal darling, Stewart flexed his independent muscles, increasingly going after Obama, and even opening a rational dialogue with Bill O'Reilly.

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2, Bill and Melinda Gates

The Gates are becoming better-known for philanthropy than software, as evidenced by this year's work with Warren Buffett, on the revolutionary Giving Pledge, which asked fellow billionaires to put their money where their mouths are, and promise to give away at least half of their wealth to charity. Signatories include New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, hedge-fund magnate T. Boone Pickens, Ted Turner, and the chairman of IAC (which launched The Daily Beast) Barry Diller. The Giving Pledge is not a legal contract, of course, but in many ways, a compelling public statement that the billionaires club will give a significant portion of their wealth to charity. "Nothing like this has happened before," noted The Chronicle of Philanthropy's Caroline Preston. "Maybe this news can bridge what has been a big disconnect." Some estimates say The Giving Pledge will amount to $150 billion in future philanthropy—a smart sum by any measure.

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3, Steve Jobs

Coming off a liver transplant in 2009, Steve Jobs led Apple to one of the most remarkable years in tech history, with most of the moves directly attributable to the vision of the company's founder. The company introduced the game-changing and highly successful iPad as well as the flawed but also successful iPhone 4; Apple TV sold 1 million units in its first three months; and Apple finally overtook longtime rival Microsoft in market capitalization. The Beatles' catalog, at last, joined iTunes.

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4, Mark Zuckerberg

The founder of social-networking site Facebook—and subject of the movie The Social Network—saw his brainchild reach 500 million users in July, making it the most ubiquitous way to interact and reconnect online. "I usually don't like things that are too much about me," he told Time magazine, which named him its Person of the Year. Well Zuck, get used to the attention. When you're smart enough to fundamentally change the way people communicate, odds are there'll be journalists nipping at your heels for, say, the rest of your life. "When I make the choice, I think of [what] has actually affected people's lives the most [in] the past year," Time Managing Editor Rick Stengel said. "Five years from now, who's going to look smart? Julian Assange has been in the news a lot lately. I think five years from now, he'll been an asterisk."

Matt Houston / AP Photo

5, J. Craig Venter

A perennial on any list like this, for John Craig Venter 2010 was officially the year of life—or at least the year that we reconsidered what it means to be alive. Venter and his research institute created the first living organism with a synthetic genome, at a cost of $40 million and 15 years, and unveiled it to the public this past summer. "If you look over the last few years, at what they've been able to produce, it's definitely impressive," said MIT biology professor Ron Weiss. "Being able to create genomes of this scale? That's impressive." Venter's work, many years down the road, could lead to cheaper medicine, biofuels, and of course, could lead to new insights on the basic building blocks of life. "It's a chance to examine the genie inside the bottle," said James Wagner, vice chairman of President Obama's bioethics commission.

Carl Court, AFP / Getty Images

6, Julian Assange

Hate him or love him, terrorist or journalist, Julian Assange has created the most successful mechanism for enhancing transparency. Whether the world is a better place is an open question, but the brilliance and impact are undeniable. Assange firmly established himself as a polarizing figure in the U.S. in 2010 with WikiLeaks' release of classified diplomatic cables and video of a botched 2007 Baghdad airstrike during which Reuters reporters were fired on by U.S. military personnel. As a sort of real-life 007 figure, it makes sense that Assange keeps WikiLeaks' servers in a former Cold War bunker 100 feet below the streets of Stockholm, according to recent reports. Whether or not Swedish sexual-assault charges pan out, it's clear Assange hasn't been as smart in his personal life.

7, Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, Charles Adler

Three of the smartest people of 2010, according to our panel of geniuses, get credit for revolutionizing how smaller projects get funded. Pals Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler founded Kickstarter in April 2009 after raising $300,000 in seed money from family and friends, including comedian David Cross. Based out of Manhattan's Lower East Side, the startup pioneered an online threshold pledge system, to spur everything from indie films to rock band tours to inventions. The crowdfunding site allows project managers to select a fundraising target minimum, a deadline to meet that figure, and a list of rewards that backers will receive. If the minimum is not gathered by the deadline, no funds are collected, but if the target is met, the project moves forward, and Kickstarter receives a 5 percent cut of the funds raised. Extrapolating from its financials, Kickstarter has helped various creatives and artists raise $30M since its inception, including nearly $1 million for a kit that transforms your iPod Nano into a multi-touch watch.

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8, Felisa Wolfe-Simon

There are a few truths about life, including death, taxes, and that phosphorus is a key component of DNA and RNA. Or so everyone thought until Felisa Wolfe-Simon and her colleagues discovered a bacterium in the waters of Mono Lake in northeastern California that is able to use arsenic in place of phosphorus. The findings were reported this month in Science, with research paid for by NASA. "Our findings are a reminder that life-as-we-know-it could be much more flexible than we generally assume or can imagine," Wolfe-Simon said. While some scientists were quick to caution against some extrapolations from her findings—specifically involving a greater possibility of extraterrestrial life—the 33 year old's work, which passed peer-review muster in a highly reputable journal, hints at more important discoveries from this year's findings.

Kevin Dietsch, UPI / Landov

9, Michelle Rhee

Oprah Winfrey has called her a "warrior woman" and after leading Washington, D.C. schools using an aggressive approach of firing incompetent administrators and focusing on better test performance per dollar spent, Rhee this year founded Studentsfirst.org. Rhee's detractors say her combative business-like approach is a poor fit for public education, but criticisms have failed to gain traction among education bigwigs. When her patron, D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty lost reelection this year, in large part due to Rhee, it only raised her profile. "Michelle Rhee is back—bolder and even more committed and determined than ever. If education is the civil-rights issue of our time, then we must forge a new and ever more vibrant movement to march to the beat of this new drum," said Gloria Romero, a former California legislator and director of the California Office of Democrats for Education Reform. Rhee's new project seeks to raise $1 billion to enact her education vision.

Evan Agostini / AP Photo

10, Aaron Sorkin

"You can't handle the truth!" screamed Jack Nicholson in the 1992 film A Few Good Men. And with that classic movie line, playwright-cum-screenwriter Aaron Sorkin's genius was established. Since then, Sorkin's become known for memorable speeches and lightning fast dialogue rife with witty repartee, epitomized by his work as head writer, creator, and executive producer of the Oval Office TV drama, The West Wing. In 2010, he delivered The Social Network, adapting Ben Mezrich's The Accidental Billionaires about Mark Zuckerberg's founding Facebook. Despite the criticisms that it's misogynistic and plays loose with the facts, the film has received universal praise from critics, with Sorkin's Rashomon-style screenplay receiving much of the credit. "We know from The West Wing that Sorkin can write the smartest and swiftest dialogue since Ben Hecht and Preston Sturges," said critic David Denby of The New Yorker, but, "Sorkin's script for The Social Network is his best work yet—incisive and witty from moment to moment but expansive overall as a picture of college social life, hipster business enterprise, friendship, and rivalry."

Vaughn Youtz, Zuma / Newscom

11, Sebastian Thrun

Ever looked over while stopped at a red light and seen a car with no driver? Someday, if Sebastian Thrun and Google have their way, that surreal vision might become reality. In 2010, Thrun revealed the secret project—as of October of this year, his robot cars had driven more than 140,000 miles without a driver (sort of—there's always someone in the front seat ready to take over), including the famously twisty Lombard Street in San Francisco. Thrun's first driverless effort, a Volkswagen Toureg named Stanley, won the 2005 DARPA Grand Challenge in the Mojave Desert. "Your car should drive itself. It just makes sense," Google CEO Eric Schmidt said at this year's TechCrunch Disrupt conference. "It's a bug that cars were invented before computers." And oh yeah, Thrun is also one of the brains behind Google's Street View, now nearly ubiquitous in the U.S. and available on all seven continents.

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12, Sheri Fink

An accomplished medical journalist with a Ph.D. and M.D. from Stanford, Fink, a senior fellow with the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative and a staff reporter at ProPublica, won a Pulitzer Prize for her in-depth account of the heartbreaking, life-or-death decisions a New Orleans hospital faced when its power was cut off by Hurricane Katrina's floods. More important, her work influenced new national guidelines on how to deal with major medical shortages in a disaster situation. Her other work has delved deeply into the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, as well as delivering aid in combat zones and reporting on war-torn Bosnia, and her book, War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival, won the American Medical Writers Association award.

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13, Elon Musk

Although Jon Favreau based his Tony Stark character in the Iron Man films on him, Elon Musk's interests lie far from the realm of military defense. After co-founding PayPal, and then selling it to eBay, Musk concentrated his focus on more physically rooted endeavors, founding the company Space Exploration Technologies ( SpaceX) in 2002, whose aim is to manufacture space exploration vehicles more efficiently. Late last year, Musk's SpaceX's Falcon 1 rocket became the first privately funded liquid-fueled vehicle to put a satellite into Earth's orbit, and he's working on delivering both astronauts and private citizens into Earth's orbit, and beyond. Back on earth, Musk runs Tesla Motors, a company that specializes in selling electric cars. Tesla unveiled the Model S—an all-electric, seven-person family sedan—in March 2009, and will start shipping them to customers in 2012. In 2010, he was the youngest recipient of the Automotive Executive of the Year Innovator Award for, according to judges, "his enlightened vision for the automotive industry's future."

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14, Kanye West

What do you do when the entire public, including George W. Bush, thinks you're a vainglorious, Taylor Swift-hatin' jerk? Well, if you're boisterous, loose-lipped rapper Kanye West, you exile yourself to Hawaii, spend months in the recording studio—often sleeping there—initiate an ingenious publicity campaign for your upcoming LP by not only featuring your first single, "Power," in promos for The Social Network and creating a 35-minute, Thriller-esque short film for the album, but also releasing a track on your website each week through the free music program G.O.O.D. Fridays, and ultimately emerge with a rap album for the ages. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is West's Divine Comedy—an allegorical journey through the dark corners of West's twisted psyche that numerous critics, including Rolling Stone, named the best album of the year.

Marvin Joseph / The Washington Post via Getty Images

15, Christopher Hitchens

Though his staggeringly prolific career has spanned four decades, including stints as a columnist at The Atlantic, Vanity Fair, and Slate, the outspoken polemicist reached an intellectual peak this year in the face of tremendous adversity. His tome, Hitch 22: A Memoir, was released in June to near universal praise. Hitchens "has a mind like a Swiss Army knife, ready to carve up or unbolt an opponent's arguments with a flick of the wrist," said The New York Times. Then, on the day his book became a bestseller, he was diagnosed with cancer of the esophagus. His candid, heartfelt account of his battle with the disease was a thing of earnest beauty, and not even chemo could hamper his prodigious output—he found the time to appear on numerous talk shows, and even square off in a sold-out public debate against former British Prime Minister Tony Blair on whether "religion is a force for good in the world." As the crowd could see, the cancer had done nothing to blunt his charismatic smarts.

Chris Pizzello / AP Photo

16, Patti Smith

The iconic, androgynous rock-poet chanteuse first made a name for herself during the punk rock movement in 1970s New York City. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member's debut album, 1975's Horses, influenced future artists like R.E.M. and The Smiths, and her most famous song, "Because the Night," was co-written with Bruce Springsteen. In addition to her musical achievements, Smith has always been a fixture in the grungy, Lower East Side art scene—painting, sculpting, and performing poetry readings. But 2010 was truly her year. She opened an art exhibition, Objects of Life, on January 6 at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York, and her memoir, Just Kids, a lyrical tale detailing her romance and friendship with photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, received the National Book Award for nonfiction. "We would not be here if it weren't for Patti Smith setting fire to our imagination," said U2's Bono.

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17, Marina Abramović

The self-proclaimed "grandmother of performance art," Abramović's work explores the complicated relationship between performer and audience, and stretches the limits of the human body, and imagination. She began her career in the 1970s with several shocking exhibitions, the most notorious of which, 1974's Rhythm 0, saw Abramović place 72 objects on a table in front of her—including scissors, a whip, and a gun with a single bullet—and, for six hours, the public could use the objects any way they chose on her, while the artist remained passive (one man held the loaded gun to her neck). However, her most popular performance occurred from March 14 to May 31, 2010, at New York City's Museum of Modern Art. The Artist Is Present consisted of Abramović sitting silently in a chair in the museum's atrium, while visitors took turns sitting opposite her in a staring contest of sorts. She sat and stared for six days a week during museum hours without a break, resulting in an epic 736-hour and 30-minute static work of performance art that attracted celebrities like Sharon Stone, Lou Reed, and Christiane Amanpour, and whose online live feed received 800,000 hits. "What I know now is that she and MoMA have brought some magic back into art—the sort of magic that all of our courses in art history and appreciation had encouraged us to hope for," said renowned art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

18, Kudo Tsunoda

In a year full of communication and transportation innovation, Kudo Tsunoda merged both with the release of the Microsoft Kinect, his brainchild. The Kinect takes the Wii to its logical conclusion: totally hands-free gaming. It's no surprise that Tsunoda is the mastermind behind a full-body motion sensor gaming system, considering that until 2007 he worked for Electronic Arts developing sports and fighting games, among others. "Certainly, if you like playing sports, now you can actually go in and play the sports yourself. It's not using a controller anymore, so if you're playing a soccer game, you're actually kicking the ball yourself, or if it's a boxing game, you're punching with your own fists," Tsunoda told ESPN. "I think it makes the sports a lot more engrossing and a lot more immersive to play."

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19, Jonathan Franzen

A tad arrogant and slightly crazy, Franzen isn't the most affable character, but the man's genius is undeniable. After earning a National Book Award for his 2001 novel The Corrections, Franzen became an immediate sensation in the literary world, and the book became one of the bestselling novels of the decade. But praise for the Midwestern author reached new heights when he released his followup novel, Freedom, in August this year. Freedom landed on virtually every critic's top 10 list of the year, with The New York Times calling it "a masterpiece of American fiction." President Barack Obama was seen carrying a copy while vacationing in Martha's Vineyard, and the book was so good that it forced Oprah Winfrey to swallow her pride and make amends with Franzen, whom she's feuded with in the past, selecting the tome as the 64th entry in Oprah's Book Club. As if all that wasn't enough, Franzen was the first author to grace the cover of Time magazine since Stephen King in 2000, above the headline: "Jonathan Franzen: Great American Novelist."

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20, Dennis Crowley, Naveen Selvadurai

Where are you? In 2010, Dennis Crowley, Naveen Selvadurai, and their Web and mobile networking tool Foursquare made it so social butterflies never have to ask that question again. Foursquare gained 5 million total users and 25,000 new users daily in more than 95 cities, with more than $20 million in funding secured. The potential for businesses to use Foursquare also became clear in the last year. "That's people talking about us, coming back for second or third visits, getting excited about what we're doing," said Chris Dilla, owner of Bocktown Bar and Grill near Pittsburgh. "Foursquare can be a retail business' best friend for marketing and instant market research."