Think of innovators as gift-givers—their work results in bounty for the rest of us. Some innovators set out to do good; others are simply trying to do well. To succeed takes more than intelligence. It takes persistence, focus, and the sort of insight that comes to the well-prepared mind. Innovators who have passed the half-century mark—such as the brilliant and accomplished people we honor here—represent a particular kind of success. Their careers are long arcs of intense dedication, idea building upon idea. And success has sharpened them. Their reputations secure, many veteran innovators feel freer to take risks. Along with this freedom comes a generosity of spirit, a desire to pass knowledge on. This, of course, is their part in a chain. They acknowledge the debts they owe to their predecessors. They know progress comes in steps. One result of this incremental progress is that new ideas are often underestimated. Thomas Edison was sure that the phonograph would be of use chiefly to stenographers. Who can blame him for not envisioning Sensurround? But our very blindness to the future is part of the magic of new ideas. We live in an era of unprecedented discovery. Any day, one of a thousand developments could radically alter our lives. The thrill and the responsibility of innovation lie in coming to recognize what has been placed, shining, in our hands.
—By Jon Spayde
* She discovered a hidden fountain of youth
Elizabeth Blackburn, 53
Professor of Biochemistry, University of California, San Francisco
Regular cells divide a finite number of times, then die. But cancer cells are immortal. In 1985, Blackburn discovered why: an enzyme she named telomerase. In theory, to disable the enzyme is to stop cancer. And telomerase might also keep healthy cells alive indefinitely. Blackburn's finding launched a field devoted to altering the cell's life span. Hailed as an ongoing trailblazer, Blackburn is modest: "Nature is much cleverer than I am," she says.
* She reshaped the art of modern sculpture
Louise Bourgeois, 91
Bourgeois drew from both surrealism and abstract expressionism to create a style that is defiantly her own. Mining memories of a traumatic childhood, she explores themes of sexuality and family drama in room-size installations she calls "cells." With her adventurous use of latex, fabric, and other materials, she has rewritten the rules of sculpture. Recognition came late for Bourgeois, who didn't have a major public commission until 1978. She recently completed one for London's new Tate Modern.
Medicine for the mind: "Art is a guarantee of sanity," Bourgeois once declared. "That is the most important thing I have said."
* He makes peace by believing it possible
Jimmy Carter, 78
Chair, The Carter Center
Jimmy Carter On January 4, 1981, at the First Baptist Church of Washington, D.C., Jimmy Carter taught his last Sunday school class as President of the United States. "Is greatness being a president?" he asked. "An emperor?" His answer, of course, was no, for Jesus taught that "the foundation of greatness is service to others." Last December, when Carter accepted the Nobel Peace Prize and Norwegians greeted him with a torch-light parade in Oslo's winter cold, it was clear that America's 39th president had won the prize for his fidelity to that message.
In his "retirement," Carter has become a citizen of the world. Equipped with a rare mix of spiritual strength, organizational skills, and international experience, he has tackled intractable problems in the world's most volatile places. He has led efforts to eradicate diseases such as guinea worm and river blindness, and directed programs to boost harvests in depleted countries. He has preached religious tolerance and launched an urban rehabilitation program in Atlanta. These endeavors and others pursued under the auspices of the Carter Center he founded with wife, Rosalynn, will stand as his legacy.
A pioneer in election-monitoring techniques, Carter has helped facilitate the transition to democracy in such places as Panama, Haiti, and Nicaragua. He has helped mediate disputes, civil wars, and political transitions in countries including Ethiopia, North Korea, and Bosnia. Why was he invited to these places? Partly because his missionary sensibility implies integrity. Also, Carter disarms dictators and rebel leaders alike with his empathy, lack of pretense, and—as critics see it—his willingness to grant respect even where it might not be merited.
Carter makes it clear that he favors neither side in any dispute and that his sole objective is to end or avert war. Consequently, he will gamble that even brutal dictators have consciences and can be redeemed. He relishes flouting the State Department; it perturbs him that at America's foreign policy bastion the word "peacekeeping" is often followed by "forces." To admirers, Carter is America's global conscience. His detractors see calculated attempts to rehabilitate a mediocre record as president while securing a spot in heaven. But nobody would dispute Carter's unwavering confidence that he can succeed where others failed.
Call it compassionate hubris. If a Georgia peanut farmer could reach the White House, Carter seems to think, why shouldn't he solve a Central American border dispute? As he once told a Bible class, "We'll never know whether something new and wonderful is possible unless we try."
—By Douglas Brinkley