Time Names Three Harvard Researchers as ‘The Best’
Professor of Psychology Elizabeth Spelke, paleontologist and Fisher Professor of Natural History Andrew Knoll, and evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, Pellegrino university professor emeritus, were among the leaders chosen from a field of 100 by a group of distinguished scientists—including psychology professor Stephen Kosslyn—and Time editors.
The list came as part of a monthly series Time is running this year to name a list of “definitive” best in five fields.
Three other Boston area researchers were honored, including Brigham and Women’s Hospital cardiologist Paul Ridker, MIT biomedical engineer Robert Langer, and MIT cell death specialist H. Robert Horvitz.
The panel of scientific advisors, which included Steven Pinker, MIT professor of brain and cognitive sciences, and Stephen Kosslyn, Professor of Psychology, chose the 18 winners from a list of 100 experts in science and medicine.
Spelke has been at the forefront of the field of developmental psychology almost since she began her career. During graduate school at Cornell in the 1970s, Spelke answered a long-standing question about what babies perceive by looking at “simple, naturally occurring behavior.” Using two television screens and a stereo, she proved that babies could connect their senses and tell that a person who was talking was the same as the person at whom they were looking.
Spelke left MIT to join Harvard’s psychology department just last month, saying that Harvard offered unique opportunities including working with former New York University psychologist Susan Carey who also joined the faculty this summer as a psychology professor.
Time editors put a “particularly negative” slant on Spelke’s experiences as a female scientist, she said in an interview from Paris this week. The magazine quotes her as saying, “There were times I felt I was cheating my science, my students and my children.”
While she said that she has experienced some problems as a woman in science, the vast majority of her experiences have been positive. The presence of women in senior positions at Cornell, where she went to graduate school, and the University of Pennsylvania, where she began her academic career “made a big difference,” she said.
“There was a sensitivity among the senior women about issues unique to women scientists, and I personally benefited from that understanding,” Spelke said.
Before she came, Spelke noticed the paucity of female tenured professors at Harvard and while she thinks current tenure trends are an improvement, the lack of women is still a “problem.”
Nonetheless, Spelke is excited about her future here.
“I get paid for what I love to do most. I get to determine when and where I work, and this flexibility lets me combine parenting and family life with being a scientist,” she said.
Spelke is currently studying how adults think with numbers. Her laboratory is looking at which parts of the brain are activated when humans do “fancy things” like solving problems that involve whole and irrational numbers, she said.
Knoll said he does not take Time’s praise too seriously.
The winner of many major awards, including being elected to the National Academy of Sciences—an event that “for most scientists, tells you you’ve arrived,” he said—Knoll said he feels the awards from his peers are more important than honors from the media.
“It’s not why you wake up in the morning,” he said of media accolades. Like “any good scientist, I wake up in the morning hoping to learn about the earth, hoping that I might discover a new fossil,” he said.
Knoll’s research interests include the early evolution of life on earth, the early fossil record of plankton, and interrelationships between crustal, atmospheric, and biological evolution during the Precambrian period.
Although Knoll said he is grateful for the recognition, he added, “it’s not something that has any great or important long-term consequences.”
However, he said he was “tickled” by Time’s mention of one of his “real heroes,” E.O. Wilson.
“Just to see myself mentioned in the same breath as Ed was a momentary pleasure,” he said.
Wilson, who—according to Time—has had “one of the great careers in 20th century science,” was honored for his lifetime achievements.
Wilson began his career at Harvard as an assistant professor in the late 1950s and went on to propose and often prove many radical ideas, including showing that fire ants used pheromones as a form of communication.
His controversial 1975 book, “Sociobiology: The New Synthesis,” explained social structures in terms of evolution for both animals and humans.
In 1992, Wilson predicted in his book “The Diversity of Life” that 30 to 50 percent of all species would be extinct by the middle of the 21st century. His warnings were initially criticized but eventually were supported with research.
Wilson’s latest book, “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” calls for “a convergence of thought and ethics comparable to the Age of Enlightenment during the 17th and 18h centuries,” wrote paleontologist Michael J. Novacek in Wilson’s Time profile.
Novacek, the provost and curator of paleontology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, wrote that “Wilson has produced a scientific masterpiece in nearly every decade of his life.”