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Great Minds Thinking Different: The Atlantic’s Brave Thinkers Of 2012
October 27, 2012
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Each year, The Atlantic magazine rounds up their list of "the people risking their reputations, fortunes, and lives in pursuit of big ideas."

It's always an interesting list.

This year it includes an 18-year-old nuclear expert who skipped college to focus on nuclear fusion, a cancer researcher who gave away his work for free, and a pastor who is risking his church over his stand on same-sex marriage, among others.

Here are a few of the people that were chosen as brave thinkers, and their stories. You can read the full list right here.

And if you can think of someone The Atlantic overlooked, let us know in the comments. For instance: we would nominate Special Olympian John Franklin Stephens as one of the bravest thinkers out there.

taylor-wilson-feature.jpgTaylor Wilson, 18-Year-Old Nuclear Researcher

What were you doing at 14? Probably not the same things as Taylor Wilson. At 14, Taylor built a nuclear-fusion reactor. A little while later, he designed a bomb-sniffing device that impressed the President of the United States.

Now he's 18, and as you might expect, he wouldn't have a hard time getting into the college of his choice. Instead, he's using a $100,000 Thiel Fellowship to try and do something many scientists consider impossible: harnessing energy from nuclear fusion.

As for why he's focused on such a challenging goal, he told The Atlantic, "if you look at the scientists who really make a difference, they think boldly. They're not afraid to question what they see."

koofi-feature.jpgFawzia Koofi, Member Of Parliament And 2014 Presidential Candidate In Afghanistan

Fawzia Koofi certainly qualifies as brave: the parliamentarian has declared her intention to run for President of Afghanistan in 2014. When she announced her plans back in April, she pointed out what she will be up against.

"It's very easy to terrorize a woman in Afghanistan. It's very easy to create accusations against a woman, and then her political life will be finished," she said.

But it's not just her political life that's at risk. According to The Atlantic, assassins have stalked Koofi and her life is in danger. Even so, she's determined to run on a platform that opposes corruption and supports women's rights.

chen-guangchen-feature.jpgChen Guangchen, Chinese Civil Rights Activist

Blind since early childhood, activist Chen Guangchen has repeatedly stood up to Chinese authorities and demanded that they live up to commitments they have made to Chinese citizens on issues from the rights of the disabled to protection against forced abortions.

But this year, Chen also displayed physical bravery in a daring escape from a house where local authorities had detained and physically abused him and his family for years. He climbed over a wall, breaking a bone in his foot in the process, and then felt his way along roads for miles before he found shelter.

He is now living in exile, but he continues to fight for the rights of his fellow Chinese citizens, even though he fears that his family still in China is vulnerable to government retribution. In a recent interview, he said, "The Chinese people are more and more aware of their rights. In the past, people might hear only about their own situations. Now they know about others, and they help each other."

oliver-white-feature.jpgOliver White, A Reverend Standing Up For Same-Sex Marriage

For 22 years, Oliver White was the head of a small, predominantly black church in St. Paul, Minnesota. But when he took a stand for same-sex marriage, he lost his church to foreclosure, as well as most of his congregants.

Even so, he continues to stand up for what he believes in.

"I've always been a supporter of gay marriage," he told The Atlantic. "There are all kinds of different people - left-handed and right-handed, gay and straight. And I don't believe God made a mistake in creating them that way...

"The other ministers tell me, 'Oliver, this is not a civil-rights issue like we went through 50 years ago.' But it is! When you preach against the gays and lesbians, that's discrimination, pure and simple."

White is now hoping to open a new church in a different neighbourhood. He needs to raise $50,000 for the down payment, and if he fails to do so, he could lose the money his congregants have already put forward to pay for the new building. If that happens, he says, he'll resign from the ministry. But for now, he says, "I have to try. I cannot sit by and watch my congregation dissolve into nothing."

pussy-riot-feature.jpgPussy Riot, Members Of A Russian Punk Rock Collective

Punk rock collective Pussy Riot has certainly been in the news a lot this year. Three members of the group (no one knows exactly how many women associate with Pussy Riot) were arrested and tried for performing a "punk prayer" at Moscow's Cathedral of Christ the Saviour.

In The Atlantic's Brave Thinkers piece, Masha Gessen says that during their trial, "the three arrested women - then 22, 23, and 29 years old - turned out to be more articulate than their lawyers, better educated than their critics, and more dignified than anyone who has spoken up in Russia since the dissident Nobel Laureate Andrei Sakharov."

Despite their eloquence, two of the three women are now facing two-year sentences in harsh and remote prison camps.

jun-xia-feature.jpgJun Xia, Project-Design Architect, Shanghai Tower

How's this for audacious thinking: Jun Xia is currently directing the design of one of the most audacious construction projects in history, the 121-floor Shanghai Tower in China. It's due to open in a couple of years, and it will be the world's second-tallest when it does.
It might also be the world's greenest skyscraper.

The elevators will be the fastest in the world, but they'll also regenerate electricity as they operate. But the people who occupy the tower won't have to use them as often: the building will feature nine "neighbourhoods," with cafes and shops, so people don't need to go all the way to the ground floor to get find food.

Even the building's shape is designed to save energy and prevent waste - the curved structure will reduce wind shear, saving an estimated $58 million in construction costs and materials. And all that wind won't go to waste: turbines at the top of the tower will generate power to run the building's exterior lights.

jay-bradner-feature.jpgJay Bradner, Research Scientist Who Gave Away His Cancer-Fighting Discovery For Free

Two years ago, Jay Bradner discovered a molecule that, in mice, appeared to trick certain cancer cells into becoming normal cells. That kind of discovery could have led him to file a patent, so that anyone else hoping to use his work would have to pay him for the privilege.

Instead, Jay gave his work away in the hopes that other scientists could improve on what he'd already done. He says the decision felt like "the more efficient way to do science - and maybe the more honourable way."

His decision was unusual, to say the least: the current research culture favours secrecy and long testing periods. Already, four companies are building on his discovery, and he's released four new molecules since that first one.

"For years, drug discovery has been a dark art performed behind closed doors with the shades pulled," Bradner says. "I would be greatly satisfied if the example of this research contributed to a change in the culture of drug discovery."


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