What does it take to produce a world-changing breakthrough? Humans try again and again to arrive at a formula. These days, the X-Prize Foundation sponsors competitions in areas such as space travel and genomics, with a mission, it says, "to bring about radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity." As far back as 1714, meanwhile, the British government pursued this same so-called "market approach" to sparking innovation, offering a king's ransom, £20,000, to solve the seemingly intractable longitude problem. Sailors could not accurately determine their longitude at sea, limiting exploration and resulting in deadly shipwrecks.
Part of the problem with the market approach, though, is that humans aren't always imaginative enough to know what we need. Eighteenth-century British leaders knew they needed to figure out longitude. But the vast majority of discoveries are at least semi-accidental.
Given the serendipity behind so much innovation, it may seem like folly to predict who will change the world — but we're doing it anyway, if for no other reason than to spark creative discussion. We've looked far and wide to come up with our 10 revolutionaries. They're young thinkers and scientists whom you've probably never heard of, doing work that is radically new and potentially world-changing. Together, they might transform medicine and computing, pollution and poverty, and our understandings of the brain and the cosmos— in short, they really could change the world.
While researching these innovators, we didn't stumble upon a magic formula for producing breakthroughs. But we did get a good idea of where to look for innovation — and a good idea of just how many methods of fostering it have been tried.
Some organizations give cash upfront, hoping for unspecified benefits later. The MacArthur Foundation is among the best-known organization of its kind, giving no-strings-attached cash awards to artists, writers and scientists based on, among other things, "manifest promise for important future advances." Various clubs, meetings and conferences — the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, is probably the most prominent example — function on the premise that if you throw enough smart people together in a resort, new ideas will emerge. Writers and artist colonies like Yaddo in upstate New York hope that peaceful natural surroundings and stimulating company will work magic, and they may have: Yaddo alumni have collectively won 61 Pulitzer Prizes, 56 National Book Awards and a Nobel Prize in literature.
In the sciences, on the other hand, the giant, well-funded research lab, owned by a government or corporation, has a surprisingly strong track record as an innovation incubator. "Some of the great places of invention were the old industrial research labs," says Arthur Molella, director of the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. The great corporate labs were housed at companies like 3M, Eastman Kodak, General Electric and DuPont, and science historians consider the 1930s through the 1950s their golden age— before deadlines for profit-making became shorter and lab budgets were cut. Those years produced such breakthroughs as the transistor at Bell Laboratories and nylon at DuPont.
Even in a corporate lab, though, chance plays a major role. In 1938, Roy Plunkett of DuPont was trying to make a new refrigerant when he discovered Teflon. Post-It notes were famously invented when a 3M scientist developed a glue that wasn't strong enough. And while modern drug research labs can speed up and systematize many steps, "there's still a very large element of mystery in the discovery process," says John Swen, vice president for science policy and public affairs for the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer.
So is there any way to boil discovery down to a science? Shelf-loads of business-advice books claim to have hit upon the secret, while would-be innovation gurus dine out on speaking fees. Only one man, though, seriously tried to systematize innovation to the point where it could be taught: The Soviet patent examiner Genrich Altshuller came up with TRIZ, the Russian acronym for Theory of Inventive Problem Solving. His 60-year-old strategy, which involves 40 principles for solving engineering problems, is enjoying an unlikely renaissance. But if it's really giving big businesses an edge, they're keeping quiet about it. "I don't think there's a formula that you can use, because there's always a moment of intuition involved in any significant discovery," Molella says.
Despite the role of randomness in scientific invention, "it's rare that it's a total accident," Molella says. "The prepared mind is important in these things. If you're not ready to see the real world do something a little strange, you're going to miss it." The longitude problem was eventually solved by a clockmaker named John Harrison. His realization was that the solution wouldn't come from improved astronomical readings, as many thinkers believed, but from an extremely accurate clock that could tell the time of the home port while at sea. Our revolutionaries, similarly, have minds prepared to see something different.
They also have a practical streak to complement their wild ideas. Take Canadian neuroscientist Karim Nader, who discovered that human memories can be altered in the lab. Joseph Ledoux, a New York University neuroscientist who oversaw some of Nader's early research, says that Nader "had brilliant ideas and a great knack for turning them into experiments — and making the experiments work. These don't always come together. He's got the whole package."
Or take stem cell biologist Kevin Eggan, who combines scientific brilliance with an awareness of real-world politics. "If we didn't work hard to educate the public about why we want to do what we want to do, there would be no opportunity at all," he says.
Physicist (and revolutionary) Max Tegmark likes to say that his grandmother grew up in a different universe, because since the time when she was a child, humans have discovered that the cosmos extends much farther, and obeys vastly different rules, than previously believed. In another generation, the universe as we know it will have changed again. Prepare yourself.
© 2012 Forbes.com