To close out 2015, we at Geek & Sundry have looked back over the year and made a short list singling out those who made the world a better place. To paraphrase the poet, we found geeks who stand at the edge of the new century and see a wide world of what could be.
5. Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker: Discoverers of Homo Naledi
In 2013, Rick Hunter and Steven Tucker were exploring a cave outside of Johannesburg, South Africa. They found a narrow fissure, at some points only eight inches wide, and descended it.
In the chamber below, they found thousands of pieces of bone belonging to at least 15 individuals.
These bones, which were described this year in a paper by Lee Berger, reveal an entirely new species in our genus, Homo naledi. Homo naledi has similarities to both Australopithecus and other hominins such as the Neanderthals.
The discovery of a new member of the genus Homo is the scientific equivalent of discovering a long, lost sibling (albeit a dead one in this case). Mysteries still swirl around Homo naledi. The bones have not been dated, nor has it been explained how they came to be in such a remote and inaccessible chamber.
4. Lujendra Ojha: Discoverer of Water on Mars
Lujendra Ojha was an undergrad at the University of Arizona when he changed the world.
His professor had him looking at images of gullies on Mars, gullies which seemed to undergo seasonal changes. Ojha studied the gullies, and eliminated optical distortions such as shadows.
Dark shapes reminiscent of a crow’s feathers spread down the gullies. Ojha had no idea at first what they were. The streaks moved downhill, like water. Could it be water? Scientists, being scientists, were cautious.
This year, further evidence came in to support the water hypothesis. NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter captured images of the streaks as they appeared in the warm season and disappeared in the Martian winter.
It is likely briny, salty, water.
Ojha, now a grad student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, was the lead author of a report on the findings published in Nature Geoscience on September 28th of this year.
Ojha himself is a native of Nepal, a sci-fi geek and a metal head. He dreamed of building a time machine when he was younger, and sports a beard that would make James Hetfield weep tears of Heineken.
3. Ann Leckie, author of the Imperial Radch trilogy
The future is becoming increasingly foggy. What will the world look like when machines have grown as intelligent as humans, and minds can be uploaded into the cloud? Ann Leckie gives such a future form, but asks the converse question: What will happen when machines download their minds into humans?
This is the core conceit of her Imperial Radch trilogy. AIs can download themselves into countless “ancillaries,” essentially human beings captured in war whose minds are deleted to allow the AI to be downloaded into them. These AIs control thousands of human bodies at a time. The idea that a human mind might be wiped away like a stain to allow an AI to inhabit it is a fresh horror, and makes Leckie’s work stand out.
Leckie gives us a new future, brilliantly conceived and cleanly written. As the trilogy was completed this year, now is the perfect time to go and pick up Leckie’s magnum opus.
2. The New Horizons Team
Since Pluto’s discovery, images of the dwarf planet have been the domain of artists. Our previous best images of the planet made it out to be but a muddy marble, and it seemed so distant as to be almost beyond the touch of science. H.P. Lovecraft named it Yuggoth, and filled it with brain-stealing sentient fungi, and as I was growing up, some small part of me always hoped Lovecraft was right. It would be terrible, yes, to share the solar system with bat-winged horrors made of matter that does not exist on Earth. But also, how exciting!
All hopes of Yuggoth were dashed this year when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft brought Pluto fully into the known. The muddy marble has been mapped, and its regions named. Future peoples can imagine what it would be like to ramble across the plains of Sputnik, or stand astride the peaks of the Zheng He Mountains.
The place-names of Pluto reveal much of the geeky interests of their discoverers. My favorite is a spot in Pluto’s southern hemisphere named, Morgoth Macula. Morgoth was the big bad in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Silmarillion, and Sauron the Deceiver was but his lieutenant.
Image courtesy NASA
1. George Takei
In 1965, George Takei was cast as Hikaru Sulu. It is the role he is most famous for. Yet 50 years later, he is clearly still a geek who is changing the world.
Takei is a cultural force to be reckoned with. His Facebook page has over 9 million likes, he is a frequent guest on talk shows and news channels, and a musical inspired by his experiences within a Japanese internment camp during World War II starring Takei premiered on Broadway in November.
It is for his ability and willingness to speak about his experiences during World War II that we find him to be a geek who has changed the world. Takei was a prisoner at the age of five, charged with no crime and found guilty by no court. His only offense was to be born Japanese on the eve of World War II, a victim of a fearful nation that took away his freedom, and a chapter of his childhood.
Today, Takei still speaks out against the politics of fear. His life’s tale has only grown in importance with age; it is one which must be remembered.
What other geeks of 2015 changed the world? Let us know in the comments below!
Feature Image courtesy Gage Skidmore.