If the last 18 months haven’t got you thinking, then thinking probably isn’t your thing. We have witnessed microbes’ revenge on civilisation, seen the limits of the “politically possible” being reset and come to revere vaccinologists. We have learned how an economy can keep going after “business as usual” stops, and endured an enforced pause in which we could reconsider life’s priorities. Some of us were conscripted into teaching our children. Some may even have got round to reading the books they had always meant to. Many others didn’t, and got lost instead in armchair epidemiology.
There has been plenty to think about—but what sorts of thought are most important in a world emerging from a pandemic? In consultation with the experts who write for us, Prospect presents the world’s top 50 thinkers for this moment. In lively and occasionally heated discussions about who should make the grade, our criteria were not only originality and eminence within a field, but the singular pursuit of an identifiable idea and an ability to gain traction for it. We also insisted on some form of “intervention”—be it a book, speech or a public stand—over the past 12 months.
There is one paradoxical pattern in our 2021 list. In practical and even emotional terms, this is a collectivist moment. The events of the last year and a half have reminded humans anew of how connected their fates are and, from edicts about masks to furlough schemes and global minimum tax deals, the big state is back in public policy. But when we turn to the world of ideas, this is a year for people who are individualists by temperament, if not intellect.
Take technology. By my reckoning there are no fewer than nine tech experts on our list, perhaps not surprising if the test is “rebuilding the world.” But what’s striking is how many refuseniks are among them. Three walked away from Google: Timnit Gebru over a question of principle; John Martinis after deciding he didn’t quite fit; and Tristan Harris to pursue cyber-ethics outside—and in some senses against—the tech giant. Then there is Audrey Tang, a Taiwanese software developer and public health minister who is, literally, an anarchist in government; and Lina Khan, who upended a generation of thinking about competition policy before Joe Biden brought her in to tame Big Tech.
In politics, as well as saluting the extraordinary bravery of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, we hail Rebecca Solnit, whose radical genius is an ability to turn on its head the question that everyone else is asking, and Robert Tombs who, politely, but very firmly, upsets just about everyone in the academic world by maintaining Brexit is a good idea. In science, we have Tim Spector, who was remaking the science of nutrition before redirecting his efforts into a Covid tracker. And also Laura Spinney, who pursued her own interest in the 1918 Spanish Flu when no one else cared, but then became one of the most prescient and prominent public voices when a new pandemic hit.
In the arts, we highlight figures who create new forms (Lawrence Abu Hamdan) or shine a light on worlds everyone else had neglected (director Chloé Zhao, novelist Douglas Stuart). Writer and performer Michaela Coel showed grit by turning down a deal that wasn’t on her terms with the behemoth Netflix, and instead got her series made with the BBC at home in Britain, scoring a massive hit. And in business, we have Elon Musk, whose eccentricities and ego have helped his firm Tesla push electric cars to the point where they might soon make a real difference on climate.
This is the most diverse list we have ever produced—most importantly in terms of ideas, but also gender, race and world regions. In stark contrast to the overwhelmingly male intellectual hit parades that Prospect used to produce in the early 2000s, the list is more or less gender balanced. I won’t be more precise—not least because at least three of our 50 are non-binary, a term almost unheard of in our magazine’s early days. So the list reflects how thinking life has evolved, but also some of the mixed feelings some changes have wrought: alongside the (non-binary) feminist philosopher Judith Butler sits novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who has been in the firing line for her remarks about the role of innate biological sex in the feminist struggle.
There has been talk about a “pivot to the east” since the dawn of the 21st century, but the way Asia dealt with Covid-19 has catalysed the shift. And now, more than ever before, we can see this reflected in the world of public thought: as well as the Taiwanese Tang, three of our 50 are Chinese citizens, and another (Rana Mitter) is the west’s most insightful guide to the country.
Moreover, we seriously weighed up others—such as Jiang Shigong of the Peking Law School and political Confucian Jiang Qing—to represent other strands of Chinese thought fast assuming global importance. Ultimately, we didn’t feel comfortable including them as thinkers to “rebuild the world.” Jiang Shigong’s reappraisal of Carl Schmitt is of real interest, but—important philosopher though he was—Schmitt was also a (literal) Nazi who rationalised the setting aside of the law; his Chinese interpreter does the same on behalf of President Xi. Likewise, Jiang Qing’s idealised Confucian order seems—to us—to wind the clock back too far on questions such as gender.
As in previous years, you can vote for who you think the top thinker of all should be—and also tell us who we have missed, including whether you think we’ve been unduly squeamish about Jiang Shigong or anyone else. Whether our list delights or riles you, there’s bound to be someone here who inspires you.
Introduction by Tom Clark
Born in Amman in 1985 to a Lebanese father and English mother, and brought up in York, Abu Hamdan deploys multimedia art in the cause of global human rights. Working with Amnesty International and the collective Forensic Architecture, he interviewed inmates in Syria’s dungeons. An experienced musician, he then created sound-spaces in galleries that evoke their memories: doors clinking, water dripping or someone being beaten in the cell next door. He jointly won the 2019 Turner Prize and his recordings have been used as evidence at UK asylum and immigration tribunals. Sadly, his own Lebanese wife’s immigration problems in the UK led the pair to relocate to Beirut—exemplary citizenship of the world as a whole does not, it seems, guarantee a warm welcome everywhere.
Philosophy is often told as a story leaping straight from the Ancient Greeks to the Renaissance with little in between. The American academic Peter Adamson, who teaches in Munich and London, challenges the old narrative with his outstanding podcast The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps. Enlivened by his trademark dad jokes (he loves a pun), Adamson offers authoritative précis of Greek, Indian, Muslim, Jewish and Christian thinkers. He slows down for the big names—there are 18 episodes on Aristotle alone—but most interesting are the less familiar areas. The series on pre-colonial African philosophy is a revelation, reframing the traditional account of what counts as deep thinking. Approaching 400 episodes, the podcast has yet to cover the Enlightenment.
“We are no longer humans,” wrote Adichie this June. “We are now angels jostling to out-angel one another.” The writer revered for novels like Half of a Yellow Sun has now turned with eloquent force on the bad faith of what passes for online discourse. Her essay, “It is Obscene,” described how two former students had reacted to her thoughts on the transgender issue with vicious insults. She risked more ire by publishing emails her antagonists had privately sent her, but the episode lit up the internet, crashing Adichie’s website. Months before, she released a memoir, Notes on Grief, reflecting on the death of her father. If we all talked to each other with the human condition in mind, we’d surely talk better.
Can Islam liberalise? The Turkish thinker Mustafa Akyol believes it can—by drawing on the religion’s rich medieval past. In Reopening Muslim Minds, Akyol points out that Locke, Leibniz and Spinoza admired the 12th-century Arab philosophical novel Hayy ibn Yaqzan, which showed how someone growing up alone on a desert island could discern truth without religious revelation. Ibn Tufayl, the author, was friends with Ibn Rushd (known in the west as Averroes), the great rationalist philosopher and, claims Akyol, a proto-feminist. Both were more influential on Europe than the Muslim world—a key factor in what Akyol sees as the regressive state of modern Islamic intellectual life. Inspired by them, he demands reform on blasphemy, apostasy and gender relations.
Bechdel’s comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For began exploring lesbian lives when they were still on the margins. One strip established the “Bechdel Test,” when a character says she will only watch films where women “talk to each other about… something besides a man”—a test Hollywood often fails. She modestly attributes the underlying thought to Virginia Woolf and her friend Liz Wallace, but it illustrates an unnerving ability to ask disruptive questions, and not only about gender. Now she’s at it again, interrogating the healthy and unhealthy aspects of today’s exercise fixation, unearthing insights on nature, love and loss along the way. The Secret to Superhuman Strength has been hailed for its mastery of the comics form.
Life expectancy in ancient Rome was around 25. That’s compared to roughly 80—and rising—in today’s rich world, with China ageing too. Age is the outstanding feature of our era—and elderly care our most difficult social challenge. A journalist with a philosophical bent, Bunting’s 2020 book Labours of Love blends reportage with ethical interrogation into the way we do (and don’t) care for the old and others. Resources are one problem: another is our culture of quantification. Capitalism misses the essence of what care involves: not task performance, but being present and listening. In our hours of need, we all know a personal touch is what matters most. Bunting rails against our failure to value it properly.
The arresting argument of Gender Trouble (1990) made it an instant classic, and soon a staple text of university courses: gender was not a pre-determined essence but rather a shapeshifting performance. The ideas of the world’s most influential academic feminist have taken on renewed significance in the light of transgender issues. Returning “to a strictly biological understanding of gender” would, Butler said in a recent interview, be “a disaster”; she warned feminists against imposing “fearful fantasies… on trans women.” She engages on other fronts too, exposing how our understanding of violence is socially constructed, and highlighting how the pandemic shows the need to dismantle our “rigid forms of individuality,” in favour of understanding ourselves as part of an interdependent, regenerating world.
When Netflix offered Michaela Coel $1m for her series I May Destroy You, she asked for 5 per cent—and then just 0.5 per cent—of the rights. Netflix refused, and she walked away. A versatile and profound comic performer, Coel had previously shone in everything from Charlie Brooker’s dark satire Black Mirror to a Star Wars sequel, but her own series Chewing Gum, hailed by Time magazine as a “wild, funny, vulnerable ride,” set her apart. While working on it she had her drink spiked and was assaulted by two men. I May Destroy You is her creative response. She wrote, produced, co-directed and starred in the series, which examines the traumatic legacy of sexual abuse. It eventually debuted on the BBC to rave reviews and later won Baftas.
Constitutional theory, once consigned to a dusty corner of the library, has a new urgency after a populist US president ripped up the old norms and Brexit exposed our ad hoc ground rules. Stepping back, Linda Colley interrogates the origins of constitutions worldwide, ranging from Tunisia to Tahiti, tracing the roots to crises and particularly wars: a product of states shoring up their own legitimacy while marshalling populations. From Princeton, this Brit defies America’s parochial pre-occupation with its own constitution. Harvard’s Jill Lepore is so dazzled she wrote: “If there were a Nobel Prize in History, Colley would be my nominee.” Constitutions can tame power, but as Colley reminds us, they are always bound up with it. No constitution is neutral—least of all the uncodified British version.
Playing a central role in the development of “Crispr” gene-editing technology, Jennifer Doudna of the University of California, Berkeley helped make one of the great scientific leaps of our time. The tool holds enormous promise: by allowing scientists to more precisely target and snip out individual genes or transform their function, and thus correcting genetic “typos,” it could transform the treatment of blood cancers and debilitating inherited diseases. This great promise is accompanied by fraught ethical implications—such as worries over “designer babies,” edited for desirable traits. But Doudna engages with the issues head-on, informing the discussion on where the technologies should—and shouldn’t—go next. She shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2020, with the panel crediting her work on “genetic scissors.”
An Ethiopian-born refugee, Timnit Gebru studied electrical engineering at Stanford before working on “signal processing” on the first iPad. Not just a brilliant techie, she was always interested in the interaction between technology and society. She has variously explored quirky connections between the types of car on a street and how its inhabitants vote; the failings of facial recognition software when dealing with people of colour; and—fatefully—the ethical implications of data-mining projects. She was based at Google until December, when an internal row over a paper on the biases and misconceptions that can snare “very large language models” ended in her departure. She emerges into independent research as the last true believer in her old company’s former motto: “don’t be evil.”
At 87, Goodall remains a world expert on chimpanzees, the primates she first observed up close over 60 years ago in Tanzania. By highlighting family ties, sharing, grieving and tool use, she revealed what close cousins they are. Later, she stopped assuming they were “nicer” than us, and tuned in to their darker instincts such as their fight for status and hierarchy, raising uncomfortable questions about human nature too. But the better angels of her own nature are firmly in charge. The Jane Goodall Institute’s community programme has 700,000 active members, and her new work, The Book of Hope: A Survival Guide for an Endangered Planet is hailed by Greta Thunberg. “It’s about rolling up your sleeves, getting there and doing it,” Goodall says.
The Cambridge academic best known for her take-no-prisoners social media presence is an expert on colonial resistance. Her Insurgent Empire reframed the assumption that native liberation movements were inspired solely by European thinking, arguing that the influence ran the other way, with radicals in the colonies resetting the politics in the self-styled “mother countries.” This year she fearlessly set up a series of discussions at her own Churchill College to re-examine Churchill’s legacy. That got her in trouble with the Daily Mail, and the college has apparently cooled on the initiative. But Gopal remains undeterred. Few academics are doing so much, and so boldly, to expose how the legacy of empire continues to warp our thinking and institutions.
It was during Liberia’s devastating Ebola epidemic that the country’s minister of works, W Gyude Moore, came to a sudden realisation: what was being framed as a health crisis was really an infrastructure crisis. Blood tests, vaccines and medical supplies were no good if you couldn’t get them to the people who needed them most. Since leaving government, Moore has opened the world’s eyes to Africa’s ailing road networks (less than half is paved, and a third of that is in South Africa). His experience and insight are revealing just how much western aid is wasted. But he has also aired scepticism over China’s supposedly benevolent new role as a benefactor for African nations.
The team led by this Palestinian stem-cell expert at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel made waves when they announced they had grown mouse embryos in jars for 12 days: that is half the animal’s normal gestation period. Hanna says this new research sets the stage for similar experiments with other species—including humans. The 14-day limit legally imposed on human embryo growth “ex utero” may soon be relaxed by governments keen to see the scientific benefits: gene editing for inherited diseases, for example, or growing organs for transplants. Scientists like Hanna are leading us into exciting yet uncharted territory, which we will soon need a new ethical framework to map out.
We are increasingly shaped by digital technology that shortens our attention span and pits us against one another. Tristan Harris—described as “the closest thing Silicon Valley has to a conscience”—campaigns for a healthier balance between online and offline life. When he worked at Google, he wrote a now-famous paper on how online platforms exploit users’ psychology to keep them hooked. Harris, who now runs the Centre for Humane Technology, has won real victories in persuading tech companies to alter their products. He draws inspiration from anything that sheds light on how the mind works, from behavioural economics to performative magic. The 2020 Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma brought his message a mass audience.
The rise of artificial intelligence asks big questions about what it means to be human—questions too important to be left to politicians. The latest novel by British Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun, is narrated by an “Artificial Friend” or AF, who becomes a companion-servant to an unwell child. Can such relationships ever “count” as real? And what follows if they do? One of the few literary novelists to engage in such quandaries—2005’s Never Let Me Go, a companion novel to this in many ways, was about a society that condoned cloning—Ishiguro brings his trademark subtlety and compassion to bear on a poignant story of a robot’s desire to be loved, and to feel love for others.
In 2017, in the Yale Law Review, 27-year-old Lina Khan challenged decades of competition policy, which had narrowed the problem of monopolies to mere “‘consumer welfare’ defined as short-term price effects.” But, Khan argued, Amazon’s range of operations allowed it to exert power disproportionate to its market share over much beside the retail price. She has raised questions about the power of other tech giants over rivals, suppliers and workers. Uniquely among our 2021 thinkers, she also made our 2019 list. She returns because she now wields the tools to put her ideas to work, as Joe Biden’s chair of the Federal Trade Commission. As governments globally wrestle with the slippery beast of Big Tech, all eyes are on Khan.
For all the armchair theories about “defending democracy,” the frontline troops on whom our freedom ultimately depends are campaigners doing hard, practical graft. In the US, where “vote suppression” is a perennial threat, Stacey Abrams mobilised hundreds of thousands of Democratic voters in Georgia to tip the state Joe Biden’s way and to wrestle control of the Senate. Prashant Kishor might seem a more surprising saviour of the world’s largest democracy, having previously masterminded Narendra Modi’s rise to power. But now he has turned against Modi’s hardening Hindu nationalism and pandemic misrule, and recently plotted the defeat of his BJP at the West Bengal assembly election. This former insider is the man India’s authoritarian ruler fears the most.
Whether it’s sewing, wall-building or baking sourdough, lockdown has allowed (or required) many of us to get much more practical. For Roger Kneebone, a surgeon and GP, that is something to cheer. He encourages a “community of practice” that brings together people with very different hands-on skillsets so they can learn from each other—chefs and potters can help surgeons, for example, and vice versa. Currently professor of anatomy at the Royal Academy of Arts, Kneebone emphasises collective enterprise more on the model of a medieval guild than of the individual mastery embodied in the 10,000 hours of work cliché. His message is one to keep hold of as society unlocks: “we can all become expert at something.”
Why do so many nation states struggle to accommodate minorities? Mahmood Mamdani argues in Neither Settler Nor Native that the colonial “define and rule” attitude towards ethnic or religious minorities lives on in postcolonial states. Such politicisation of identity (you could even call it identity politics) often leads to extreme violence. Mamdani includes the US as a settler-colonial nation due to its treatment of Native Americans, who still do not have full constitutional protections. Some hope, Mamdani thinks, lies in the post-apartheid South African model.
When the new inequality took hold in the 1980s, politicians stopped talking about security or fairness in favour of “opportunity”: the ladder that hard work and talent could propel anyone up. “Meritocracy” was overdue a kicking when Markovits meted one out. The supposed “brightest and best,” he says, really have schooled themselves into being super-productive—but this hasn’t done anyone any good. The children of meritocrats are condemned to life as a joyless obstacle course of anxiety and exams. Others, raised without the vast educational resources now needed to compete, can rarely break through. It’s an acknowledged irony that Markovits is an impeccable Yale Law School meritocrat. But then inside jobs are especially devastating.
A familiar face on Sky News, who has covered Europe, Asia and the US, Marshall produced a surprise bestseller in 2015: Prisoners of Geography argued maps could explain the biggest problems in international relations. To understand Russian aggression in Ukraine, for example, you needed to grapple with the shape of the north European plain, which has directed centuries of Russian military history. Now The Power of Geography throws things forward to the regions that will shape tomorrow’s global politics, including Iran, the Sahel and space. His experience close to many frontlines means he knows first-hand how physical topography conditions the literal contours of battle. With a rare ability to boil down complexity with wit, he maps a baffling world for us all.
Dreams of “quantum computing” go back to 1980—and Martinis has helped make it a reality. Ordinary computers, from your smartphone to supercomputers, are a vast series of tiny on/off (or 1/0) switches, hence the basic building block of binary “bits.” But by tapping into the “spooky” states established in quantum mechanics, one can instead build with “qubits,” not restricted to being 1 or 0: because, like Schrödinger’s cat, they can be two things at once. As qubits are added, the effect on power multiplies up exponentially. Martinis led the Google team that demonstrated “quantum supremacy,” which outpaced all normal computers on a particular task, shortly before quitting. Like a qubit, he didn’t quite fit as a cog in the machine.
The Cameroonian thinker has studied the world over—after training at the Sorbonne, he held appointments at Harvard and Yale before landing at Witwatersrand, South Africa. Mixing African history and European continental philosophy, he is an indispensable voice in postcolonial studies—though, interestingly, he rejects that label, preferring to transcend the western divisions between countries and peoples it implies. He coined the term “necropolitics” to describe how the power of states and institutions can determine who lives and who dies—and who gets locked in a state of precarity. That is especially pertinent in the UK, in light of its early maverick Covid-19 herd immunity strategy, and Boris Johnson’s alleged shout to “let the bodies pile high in their thousands.”
An expert on 20th-century Chinese history at Oxford, Rana Mitter is the most acute commentator (including in Prospect) on the world’s new superpower. While remaining clear-headed about its regime, he always takes the trouble to understand how things look from Beijing’s point of view, taking account of the particular sensibilities produced by its distinctive past, as well as Confucian and Marxist-Leninist habits of thought. His work on how the 1937-1945 war with Japan fits into Chinese national memory—and how it’s used by the regime—is a revelation. Mitter is also the genial presenter of Radio 3’s Free Thinking, with wide-ranging interests that make for a true public intellectual.
A leader of a group of female warriors in Brazil’s Amazon region, Munduruku has spearheaded campaigns to stop miners, loggers and dam builders impinging on the tribe’s territory. Her success has brought her enemies: illegal miners have put a bounty of 100 grams of gold on her head and her house has been burned down. The Amazon is being cleared at an alarming rate—“development” which the frontier mentality of hard-right president Jair Bolsonaro encourages. Her big idea? Take responsibility. It was after men in her tribe began working with goldminers that she started her all-women group. “We think it is up to us to protect ourselves,” she has said. But in a climate emergency, she is protecting us all.
As a billionaire bent on colonising space, Musk is never far from controversy. Then again, Thomas Edison had cranky habits, and the tech utopian behind Tesla is driving the innovations of our own time. More than anyone, he has popularised the electric car, so essential to fixing the climate. And his hefty cryptocurrency portfolio has been rebalanced away from energy-intensive Bitcoin. His firm Space X is the only actor—barring Russia, China and the US—to send astronauts into deep space. Planned trips to Mars don’t sound environmentally friendly, but he has pioneered reusable rockets. His reply to his many critics? “I reinvented electric cars and I’m sending people to Mars in a rocket ship, did you also think I was going to be a chill, normal dude?”
When Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was flown out to Berlin last year with nerve-agent poisoning, it looked like the end of his campaign against state corruption—but then he went home. Millions live-streamed images of his return to Moscow, where he was escorted away by black-helmeted policemen. He has since been in prison, and his Anti-Corruption Foundation has been banned as an extremist organisation. He is no Gandhi, being supremely pragmatic on most political questions except his challenge to Vladimir Putin’s rotten state. But the two do have this in common: a readiness to let enemies condemn themselves by doing their worst. Navalny’s fearlessness is a reminder of how hard-won are the freedoms many of us take for granted.
Princeton’s brilliant revisionist classicist provoked a storm when it was suggested he wanted to shut down his own discipline. But what Padilla—who was born in the Dominican Republic and grew up as an undocumented migrant in the US—actually argues for is a comprehensive reevaluation of the subject and how it is taught. If classics is supposed to inculcate ideas of European supremacy, he has said, he wants nothing to do with it. But if it can look at Greek and Roman culture with a more critical eye—he himself has researched the inner lives of slaves—that is something worth fighting for. “I’m not interested in demolition for demolition’s sake,” he has said. “I want to build something.”
Rankine’s trilogy exploring race in America, which began in 2014 with the bestselling Citizen: An American Lyric, has redefined what can be tackled in verse. In the concluding volume, Just Us: An American Conversation, she undertakes a series of uncomfortable dialogues with white interlocutors about Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter and the meaning of “white privilege.” Sceptics have claimed that what Rankine does is more sociology than poetry but no matter how you label it, her work has changed the discussion. Her title for this book comes from a Richard Pryor joke about not finding “justice” in the courthouse dock but “just us”—that is, only black people. Here it is: white America on trial.
Quantum mechanics raises so many deep questions about how we understand the universe. Common sense breaks down at the sub-atomic level, with particles popping in and out of existence and appearing in two places at once. Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli is the greatest guide we have to such mysteries, combining impeccable analytical pedigree (he has developed “Loop Quantum Gravity,” a theory attempting to reconcile quantum with general relativity) with an imaginative grasp of the philosophical implications, and lyrical descriptions of the physical world. In yet another bestseller, Helgoland, Rovelli argues that we live in a fundamentally “relational” universe, where entities have existence only in terms of their interaction with other objects. Popular science has rarely been so good.
The fashion for planting trees is no answer to the clearing of rich tropical forest. To truly redeem the Earth’s haemorrhaging biodiversity, we must learn to let go of land and let nature regenerate: under a spontaneously reseeding canopy, embattled flora and fauna can finally recover. Rewilding Europe, led by Frans Schepers, is making it happen. Their 16-strong team leads eight initiatives across the continent—from Sweden’s Lapland to the Danube Delta. Its wider network covers five million hectares. As well as re-introducing animals and plants through a European Wildlife Bank, they’re rewiring finance: Rewilding Europe Capital is the continent’s first targeted loan facility for “conservation enterprise.”
After George Floyd’s murder, the tactics of US—and to some extent global—police forces are rightly under unprecedented scrutiny. Amid the fury, certain good news gets lost: a vast drop in American violent crime rates since the 1990s. Princeton criminologist Patrick Sharkey hails the special benefit of this to African Americans and other disadvantaged groups. In Uneasy Peace he risks the ire of liberals and conservatives by suggesting law enforcement can take some credit, but also highlights how the police have become enemies of some communities along the way. Interestingly, Sharkey found non-profits and community organisations played significant roles in reducing violence. “Defund the police” is a snappy slogan, but “redirect resources to effective community programmes” is a more plausible message.
Best known for popularising the term “mansplaining,” this American writer has produced 20 books in 30 years covering social change, nature and feminism. Her way of flipping the frame has been invaluable over this strange past year. Amid media stories about pandemic duties landing “on the shoulders of women,” Solnit observed it was as if “that workload had fallen from the sky rather than been shoved there by their [unremarked upon] spouses.” Her cultural history of walking, Wanderlust, assumed new significance in lockdown; so too—for reasons the title makes plain—did Hope in the Dark. “It is too soon to know what will emerge from this emergency,” Solnit recently wrote, “but not too soon to start looking for chances to help decide it.”
Bobby Kennedy damned the way Gross National Product included napalm, nuclear bombs and “special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them,” but not children’s play or forests. Over 50 years since, various efforts to “count what counts” have got nowhere, and green campaigners have often hindered the political cause by allowing themselves to be painted as peddling a joyless austerity. In an overheating world, Soper switches the focus to the philosophy of happiness: the relationships, the time to “stand and stare” and the reflective autonomy that make life worthwhile. Her Post-Growth Living is a manual for rebuilding the economy with humans in mind.
Nutritional science in the past has faced major setbacks, relying on tracking surveys which struggle to reconnect with respondents, who in turn struggle to recall what they’ve eaten. Smartphones have transformed everything, allowing for mass real-time logs. Genetic epidemiologist Tim Spector has revolutionised the field, interrogating the “difference in the difference” in food responses between twins to disentangle environmental and biological effects: a good biome proved important while diet book claims were bunk. When the virus hit, he repurposed his efforts to a dedicated app. Millions signed up, and the vast data soon identified loss of smell as a tell-tale symptom. A calmly authoritative voice during Covid-19, his creative rigour will surely soon reveal more about the post-pandemic world.
Scholarly specialisms are lonely, until suddenly everyone wants you—especially if you can write. Ahead of its centenary, this science journalist and novelist immersed herself in the story of the 1918 Spanish flu. Before her Pale Rider, it was half-forgotten—despite killing 50m, far more than the First World War. When a new pandemic arrived she was a rare voice that could put things in some sort of context. She gives a long view on different strategies for managing pandemics, and also the sometimes surprising human response, from art to crime. Spinney has criticised government sloth and penny-pinching, warning: “we’ve forgotten a lot of the lessons we learned after the Spanish Flu and other pandemics, and we may be about to learn them again.”
The science of Covid-19 was the same everywhere; to understand why countries fared so differently, social science matters. Edinburgh-based professor Devi Sridhar is a rare thinker trained in both fields. She flips between analysing information gaps and practical reforms, like grafting a global health committee onto the UN security council. A book with Chelsea Clinton propelled her to a prominence rare in academic public health. She’s used her platform to engage tirelessly, both in the media and working with Nicola Sturgeon’s Scottish government to get through the pandemic. Having previously honed her skills working on Ebola, Sridhar will be ready to help build defences against the next virus, when it comes.
Over the last few years, we have seen more focus on diverse novels in terms of authors’ gender, race and sexuality. But fiction remains a broadly middle-class concern with few working-class voices in the mix. Shuggie Bain, the debut novel by Scotland-born Douglas Stuart, which won the Booker Prize in 2020, could start to change all that. It offers an unvarnished portrait of 1980s Glasgow, a place where poverty and alcohol still blight many lives. But Stuart’s novel is no misery-fest: it is full of life and (dark) humour, presenting human beings in all their complexity. Stuart’s work will also hopefully open the door to other writers who feel like their stories can now be told.
Just as Midas came to see that turning everything into gold was a curse not a blessing, so plastic has become the miracle material we can’t wait to get rid of—but how? Chilean industrial designer Margarita Talep has developed one answer in the form of a “bioplastic” made from water and agar, a polysaccharide extracted from red algae. Just like regular plastic, the material can be produced in varying degrees of thickness, rigidity and consistency; it can even be coloured using dyes from fruit and veg. What makes it a game changer, though, is that it is entirely biodegradable, breaking down in soil in a few months. Talep’s touch, unlike that of Midas, is reversible magic.
Taiwan’s digital minister Audrey Tang is its youngest-ever cabinet member. They are also a former child computer genius, middle-school dropout and the first transgender and non-binary member of the country’s government. Since coming to office in 2016, they have spearheaded projects helping citizens petition the government and streamlined the government’s website, all animated by Tang’s belief in the power of technology to strengthen democracies, rather than inhibit them. Tang drove the country’s revered and life-saving digital response to Covid-19, using phone apps to distribute masks and medical supplies. Curiously, for a government official, Tang is an anarchist desiring the abolition of all states—but is happy to remain in position so long as the state promotes “worthwhile ends.”
After the crash, a question from the Queen pole-axed economists: “why did no one see it coming?” The FT’s Gillian Tett is not an economist but an anthropologist—which might be why she did. Applying ethnographic techniques to the world of investment bankers, she warned us about about insular discourses becoming unmoored from reality. Months before the credit crunch, she reported on the weird world of credit derivatives from a Mayfair awards ceremony to honour Northern Rock, and demanded to know where this “frenzied debt dance ends.” Now her eye is trained on the hidden tribes, rituals and “webs of meaning” that determine how we work and shop. Every company—and government—should take note.
So much is in flux in the world—the climate emergency, the tilt of power to the east, recovering energy prices, the strained multi-national politics of the EU and indeed the UK—that nobody can keep up with it all. But Helen Thompson comes close. Soaring across history and geography, and following the logic of where different scenarios lead, the freethinking Cambridge don, whose Midlands lilt is familiar from the Talking Politics podcast, can always spot trouble coming. She dismayed left liberals by warning—just before Boris Johnson cleaned up—that attempts to reverse the EU referendum would be self-defeating. As she rings the alarm about pending “tragic” choices on climate, we’d do well to pay attention, before it’s too late.
A rare intellectual proponent of Brexit, Robert Tombs infuriates pro-Europeans—even more so because of his undeniable calibre as a historian. His impressive work on 19th-century France and 2015’s The English and Their History means he is not easily dismissed. Last year This Sovereign Isle argued that the Leave vote was inevitable as well as rational: the UK never fitted the European project. He understands this as a reaction to the traumas of the continent’s story—traumas that Britain’s distinctive journey has sometimes ducked. His conclusion is debatable, but his grasp of the premises is not. And his theme—national identity in a fracturing world—has contemporary significance far beyond these shores.
In January 2020, Özlem Türeci and Ugr Sahin were sitting at their breakfast table discussing news about a disease running riot in China. BioNTech, the married couple’s company, specialises in MRNA technology—might it work against Covid-19? They went on to develop a safe and effective vaccine more quickly than anyone in history, which has since saved countless lives. It is a tale of remarkable ambition and, in the partnership with Pfizer, strategic acumen too— and a story that boosts their (often marginalised) German-Turkish community. They aren’t done yet: trials are currently underway for a BioNTech vaccine to fight skin cancer. “In science it does not matter where you are from,” they say, “what counts is what you can do.”
A relative liberaliser in China’s elite, Zhou was among those who navigated the 1997 east Asia financial crisis. Then, as governor of the People’s Bank, he managed its global counterpart a decade later. He damned the west’s lack of grip on finance and rued the postwar failure to pursue Keynes’s plan for global monetary governance. He spotted Bitcoin and the threat of stateless currencies early, responding with a twin-track approach: crackdown and imitation. He set in train a “cyber-yuan,” which could—like Bitcoin—efficiently cut the banks out of payments, while keeping the state in charge. Although now retired, he remains influential as it goes live. Success could hasten the end of the dollar’s unrivalled reserve currency status.
Washington is pursuing a dizzying economic experiment, but thankfully under a Treasury Secretary who reliably gets it right. After studying under America’s greatest Keynesian, James Tobin, she worked with—and married—the brilliant disruptive theorist George Akerlof. As US workers fell into the grip of a half-century-long pay squeeze, the couple explained how higher wages might make them more productive. She pushed a reluctant Alan Greenspan to embrace a positive inflation target, and then later, as Federal Reserve chair, presided over the biggest postwar drop in joblessness. Now she’s inspired the G7 push for a minimum corporate tax rate. Some grumble she’s unduly worried about swelling public debt, but with her record it’s rash to bank on Yellen being wrong.
This Chinese entrepreneur is behind the world’s most valuable startup—and those viral videos of teens doing dance challenges. Zhang’s company Bytedance first launched a video-sharing app, Douyin, in 2016; 2018 brought the global version, TikTok. It has now been downloaded over two billion times, with 800m monthly users in 155 countries. Its young fans can make brief videos doing anything—from lip-synching to making speeches. They can parade their identities, expound worldviews and amplify messages, as Black Lives Matter campaigners have done. As with every new medium since Gutenberg, where it will lead is unknowable, but the mix of words, pictures and music is powerful. It could shake up more than TikTok’s Silicon Valley rivals.
The Chinese director dazzled with her first two features, and picked up awards at Cannes. This year her third, Nomadland, saw Zhao become the first woman of colour to win the Oscar for best director. Zhao, whose films have explored the world of rodeo cowboys in South Dakota and the travelling van-dwellers of Nevada, is known for her intricate study of subcultures, often using non-actors and blending fiction with non-fiction. Her next project offers a tone change: she is directing the Marvel superhero film Eternals, which follows a group of immortal aliens who come out of hiding. From the great beyond to the lesser-seen American Midwest, Zhao’s films sweep us through different worlds. She looks set to become one of the great all-time directors.
Biographies by Tom Clark, Sameer Rahim, Alex Dean, Rebecca Liu, Emily Lawford, Chris Tilbury, David McAllister, Keir Bradwell and Eleanor Noyce