We all like to think that our actions are, at some fundamental level, important. That at the end of the day we have left a mark on the world around us, made some positive impact that will resonate with and improve the lives of our fellow human beings. Well, maybe we don’t think on quite so ambitious a scale. However, there is no denying the levels of ingenuity, perception, humility and, ultimately, courage displayed by the following five individuals. They really did change the world.
While he remains a divisive figure in his native Russia, there is no doubting the impact Mikhail Gorbachev had on world politics in the late twentieth century. Elected General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in 1985, and serving as President of the Soviet Union from 1990 until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, Gorbachev provided the catalyst for reform that brought the Cold War to its end. Building from his foundational domestic reforms of perestroika (restructuring) and glasnost (reform), Gorbachev sought to reshape and liberate Soviet society from the depths of communist repression. His rapport with US President Ronald Regan was legendary, and his ordering of the Berlin Wall’s demolition remains perhaps the most significant symbol of democratic triumph in modern history. Among other accolades, Gorbachev won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990. Not everything has been perfectly peachy in the former states of the Soviet Union since dissolution, yet there is no denying the impetus for change and freedom that this one courageous man provided to his people.
When thinking of historical game-changers, it is all too easy to overlook the artists. Charles Dickens, widely regarded as the greatest novelist of the Victorian Period, and one of the most celebrated storytellers of all time, is both a literary and cultural giant. From the serialised publication of The Pickwick Papers in 1836, Dickens enjoyed a celebrity that was unprecedented for writers of the time (and, to be fair, of any time). The meticulousness of his story construction, the remarkable idiosyncrasies of his characters, and the vibrant realism of his settings ignited the imaginations of readers the world over. The fact that his writings were easily consumed meant that he encouraged those who would not normally read to do so, and he paved the way for generations of writers and thinkers to come. To have not read Dickens is to have done oneself a terrible disservice.
Sir Isaac Newton
As a scientist whose legacy includes championing the heliocentric model of the cosmos, building the first practical reflecting telescope, and publishing the defining work on laws of motion and universal gravitation, Isaac Newton was kind of a big deal. His exploration of mathematics in relation to natural science was not revolutionary, yet the way he applied these mathematics reshaped humanity’s understanding of the world. He made a profound contribution to the field of optics, researched into the speed of sound, and shares credit as the inventor of the infinitesimal calculus. Basically, Newton was a really smart guy. Respect.
Martin Luther King, Jr
The revered MLK Jr may share his name with the father of Protestantism, yet he held his own when it came to being controversial, radical, and entirely devoted to his beliefs. A clergyman whose activism in the American Civil Rights Movement led to perhaps the most significant social shift in the nation’s history, King’s dedication to realising his dream of racial equality took him from the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott to the famed 1963 March on Washington, and by the end of his life he was a trusted and influential counsellor to President Lyndon Baines Johnson. Amid blossoming support and sweeping social reform, King was assassinated in 1969, at the age of 39. The legacy of slavery in America lives on to this day, yet mainly as a spectral reminder – thanks to King, its realism has diminished.
Rob Johnson is a media graduate and freelance writer who wishes this list could have been longer, so he could have squeezed in some more scientists. He finds recent developments in prosthetics and sports science to be particularly impressive, such as those from http://www.boxanddice.com.au/portfolio/medical-knee-models/.