great people

People I admire

This is a list of people I admire, because of their work, their contribution to the world, their ideas, but that I don't necessarily consider my personal heroes. I may respect them for a particular reason, but they don't resonate with my views entirely, or simply I do not know them well enough.

Also, I don't care about person x o y being considered important by the majority of ___ (historians, politicians, leaders, scholars, fill in the blank). This is my list, and could not care less what other people tell me to think. Moreover, I have no intention of placing some famous name just because, if I don't know them well enough, if I hadn't read their works, watched their speeches, their debates, I can't put them in.

Donald Knuth

Donald Knuth
Donald Ervin Knuth is the de facto father of modern computer science. Back in the day, when the field didn't even exist, and when books about computers and programming were just a bunch of incoherent pieces of work put together, he decided to set the record straight and build the most complete and comprehensive work on the newly created field that has ever been written. His monumental work The art of computer programming is for computer science what Newton's PhilosophiƦ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is to physics, with a small difference: while Newton's work is mostly obsolete now, Knuth's masterpiece is still at the edge of the field, and it is likely to stay so for a long time.

He released the first three volumes in a very short time (each one approaches one thousand, carefully constructed and painstakingly accurate pages): in 1968, 1969, and 1973. In 1992 Donald retired to medieval monkness in order to finish his work. After 38 years of work, he released volume 4A. He studies about 12-18 hours per day every day, entirely dedicated to this work. Sometimes it takes him a few weeks just to write one sentence, because he wants to use the most appropriate and precise words possible. He doesn't see that as just a book. To him, it's a Bible.

In addition to fundamental contributions in several branches of theoretical computer science, Knuth is the creator of the TeX computer typesetting system (arguably the best one ever created, and the standard for every scientific paper published in the world, all released Open Source from the very beginning), as well as the related METAFONT font definition language and rendering system, and the Computer Modern family of typefaces.

He has also a quirky sense of humour. He offered a reward check worth "one hexadecimal dollar" (100HEX base 16 cents, in decimal, is $2.56) for any errors found on his work. The correction of these errors in subsequent printings, has contributed to the highly polished and still-authoritative nature of the work, long after its first publication. According to an article in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Technology Review, these rewards have been described as "among computerdom's most prized trophies". Knuth reports having written more than 2,000 checks, with an average value exceeding $8 per check. The total value of the checks signed by Knuth was over $20,000, but very few of these checks are actually cashed, however, even the largest ones; more often, they are framed, or kept as "bragging rights". And who can forget his hilarious "Earthshaking announcement" at Stanford in 2010? Brilliant.

Personal heroes

I do not use the word "hero" lightly, nor do I indulge in utilising it often. What we achieve as a species is the sum of all the individuals who shape society and our culture. There are, however, some who have taken a step further than the rest of us. These are the people who dedicated their lives to higher purposes, those who selflessly helped make this world a better place.

This is my very personal, highly subjective, and non-comprehensive list of such inspiring people.

Carl Sagan

Carl Sagan
Carl Edward Sagan is the closest we can get to the most complete human being that has ever walked planet Earth. He was an astronomer, astrophysicist, cosmologist, author, and just about the best science populariser and science communicator in astronomy and natural sciences. He was a prolific scientist, publishing more than 600 scientific papers and articles, and author, having written of co-written more than 20 books. He was a master of scientifically skeptical inquiry and the scientific method, yet he kept his mind open to new ideas like no other. In short, he was a true scientist. He was also a pretty badass scientist, having pioneered exobiology and being practically the mastermind behind the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence program (SETI). But most of all, he was a philosopher of humanity. He understood the place we had in the universe, giving us hints of greatness with his humility, creeping into the essence of being human.

Should we have made contact with an extra-terrestrial intelligence, I have no doubt in my mind who I would have chosen to represent our species. Now that he's gone, I'm really not sure anybody would be up to the task.

I miss you, Carl.

Further info

Salman Khan

Salman Khan
When you have four degrees from the top universities in the world, you are under 30 and financial institutions flood you with job offers you can't refuse, it's pretty simple to imagine what path you will take. But Sal Khan is different: he gave everything away for something more meaningful that making a few rich people ever richer. He decided to teach all that he knows, for free, to anybody, forever. And that's not the best part. He's smart, funny, humble, receptive, quick, he understands people, how they think, and can empathise with them by teaching in a way that anyone can understand. He didn't just gave all this knowledge away for free, he open sources it, all of it. The videos, the lectures, the notes, the exercises, the source code of the software, everything.

Sal Khan made what billions of dollars and millions of people working for decades could not achieve: provide an accessible, high quality, free education to the entire world. Sometimes it takes only one person to change the face of the planet, and he's a proof of that.

Further info

Marcin Jakubowski

Marcin Jakubowski

There are plenty of people who talk about building a better world. Many have great ideas, too, futurist visions of how the world could be, if we just wanted to. One of them is actually building it. His goal: no less than creating a post-scarcity society, where people have to work only 1-2 hours per day to live, so that they can use the remaining time for higher purposes. He's putting the basis for the next paradigm is social evolution, and he's open-sourcing all of it. A visionary, but with solid grounds. We need more like him.

Further info

Syndicate content