About whom should I learn while we still share a planet?
March 2, 2010 12:29 AM   Subscribe

What really awesome people should I learn about before they die? Inspired by my frustrations with this post(and others) on the blue.

It's frustrating to learn about people who have done incredible work from their obituaries. The Robert McCall post, linked above, was particularly troubling to me. He illustrated a great percentage of what I read and gawked at when I was younger, yet I, for whatever reason, didn't connect the individual works back to the man (and consequently, back to his much larger body of work). This has happened to me before when reading obits on Metafilter and elsewhere, but I won't say about whom, for fear of revealing how much of a philistine I am.

Who, like McCall, is influential and/or prolific in his/her respective field and is not likely to be around a decade from now? I'm not very interested in pop musicians, actors or politicians, or even older people who have just recently become famous. I'm generally more interested in people such as art musicians, authors, visual artists, scientists and other academics who are and have been known as being "old guard" types in their fields. Bonus points awarded commensurate with prolificacy if he/she continues to produce work up to the present.
posted by The Potate to Grab Bag (48 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
You might be interested in an excellent article the other day in the Guardian about IM Pei: the architect behind such buildings as the Louvre Pyramid. He is 92 years old - and still designing.

The article also mentions another architect, Oscar Niemeyer from Brazil, who is apparently still working at the age of 102.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 1:22 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Taj Mahal (the musician)
posted by gnutron at 1:35 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

The historian Eric Hobsbawm would probably count. He's in his 90s now but still writes.
posted by Abiezer at 1:48 AM on March 2, 2010

Oh god, easy, Richard Feynmann. If no-one else. I'm not even going to crudely link to some random page, just google him and read everything. Better than that - read the books he wrote. He was a mathematician with the ability to explain fantastic things to anyone. Also, he pretty much figured out why Challenger shuttle blew up.
posted by daveyt at 2:58 AM on March 2, 2010

- oh god, *FEYNMAN*
posted by daveyt at 2:59 AM on March 2, 2010

While an amazing man, Richard Feynman passed away in 1988, and so is outside the scope of this question.
posted by Faint of Butt at 3:25 AM on March 2, 2010

Messrs Voltair, Crowley, Shakespeare, Huckley and Feynmann were all fine fellows but I don't think they're quite who the OP was looking for. The question was:

What really awesome people should I learn about before they die?

Some suggestions for interesting people who are still very much alive:

Chinua Achebe is an acclaimed Nigerian novelist.

Lee Scratch Perry is one of the founding founders of dub.

Gore Vidal is credited with inventing the term 'crypto-fascism'.
posted by embrangled at 3:29 AM on March 2, 2010

As I reread my post, I might not have been completely clear. I'm looking for people who are still currently living.

e.g. Feynman is indeed all kinds of awesome and exactly the kind of person I'm looking for, but he's been gone for a while.

Thanks, everyone so far. Pei, Niemeyer, Taj Mahal and Hobsbawm are all great fits.
posted by The Potate at 3:35 AM on March 2, 2010

I'm only here because I'm interested in the answers, and I couldn't think of anyone myself, but I will totally second Scratch Perry. Even if he is a nutcase these days.
posted by pompomtom at 3:48 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Noam Chomsky is gettin on a bit. It'd be a shame not to know his stuff.

And David Attenboroguh, can't get enough of him. I second IM PEi and Niemeyer - good call The Other Guy.
posted by honey-barbara at 3:48 AM on March 2, 2010

Seconding Chomsky. My recommendation is Alexander Shulgin who I suspect will turn out to be increasingly important after his eventual demise. He's massively prolific, has conducted pioneering work on hundreds of novel compounds he invented and synthesised, has an impressive list of publications and has a new book forthcoming.

Check out this NYT article and then pick up a copy of PiHKAL and read it. I'm having a mindblank right now, so that's the best I can do at the minute.
posted by turkeyphant at 4:39 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Barry Humphries. Not just Dame Edna.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 4:50 AM on March 2, 2010

Terry Pratchett--one of my favorite fiction writers and now diagnosed with particularly bad form Alzheimer's. He's a pretty amazing guy, self educated and has written a fantastic number of books, and it's really a tragedy to think that he's going to be gone within the decade.
posted by _cave at 5:02 AM on March 2, 2010

Pete Seeger
posted by HuronBob at 5:08 AM on March 2, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, Ray Bradbury
posted by HuronBob at 5:10 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

I saw this post the other day on the Art of Manliness about Byron “Whizzer” White. I don't know anything about him beyond what's written there, but he seems like an impressive dude with big accomplishments. He was a Supreme Court justice, so I'm not sure if he'd get dq'd on your no-politician criteria.
posted by tenaciousd at 5:43 AM on March 2, 2010

Rita Levi-Montalcini -- a pioneering female neuroscientist who, because she was an Italian Jew during the time of Mussolini, was forced out of her medical-school career, set up a home laboratory (TWICE, because of having to flee her home), where she did really pioneering and visionary experiments about the development of the nervous system, and then later got the Nobel Prize for discovering a family of chemicals that make nerve cells grow. She's still alive and will turn 101 this spring. She still takes part in academic activities (although I don't believe she still conducts experiments) and she's heavily involved in Italian politics (she was appointed as a Senator For Life in 2001 and consistently pisses off the right-wing Italian politicians).
posted by kataclysm at 5:45 AM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Umberto Eco. Philosopher, semiotician, novelist, and a "public academic". He's still teaching at a university in Italy, and pretty much everything he's written is high quality, wryly funny, and deeply deeply good.
posted by zpousman at 6:04 AM on March 2, 2010 [3 favorites]

Go to www.TED.com and you will see presentations by some of the greatest thinkers of our time.
posted by MsKim at 6:28 AM on March 2, 2010

Ugh. I went to a Lee Scratch Perry show nearly 10 years ago, and it was the worst, most depressing show of my life. He's still alive, but a shell of his former self.

The Wailers, tho - they can still lay it down. And Toots Hibbert is another old dude that can rock the house.

And in a completely different genre, I would be remiss not to mention Doc Watson. He is truly an American treasure. I was also unexpectedly impressed by Dolly Parton a few years back at Hardly Strictly.

As far as jazz goes, you may wanna check out guys like McCoy Tyner and Lou Donaldson while you have the chance. Also Zakir Hussain.
posted by gnutron at 6:42 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Dick Dale.

Yeah he's only 72, but the man HAS had cancer twice already.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:27 AM on March 2, 2010

Rolf Harris. Seriously.
posted by low_horrible_immoral at 7:53 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

John Adams; R Crumb; Peter Sellars and, from the dark side, Jeffrey Skilling.
posted by TheRaven at 8:11 AM on March 2, 2010

Ornette Coleman, 79, is probably the most important living jazz musician.
posted by Joe Beese at 8:36 AM on March 2, 2010

Just out of curiosity, why is it important to you to become aware of these people before they die? I'm especially puzzled because you rule out popular musicians, and that's the only category where I have this reaction, since I've missed my chance to see them live. Les Paul, for example, was playing shows here in New York almost up to his death, and I never got around to seeing him. With someone like McCall ...well, not to sound callous, but how is the pleasure of learning about his work diminished by his death?
posted by pete_22 at 10:03 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Elliot Carter
posted by Lutoslawski at 10:08 AM on March 2, 2010

I think he still has a ways to go, or at least I hope so, but it would be a total shame if anyone on Earth missed out on seeing the art of Andy Goldsworthy
posted by bondcliff at 10:48 AM on March 2, 2010

Two flaming hot topics in the modern era are:
1. Evolution
2. Global Warming

The following two scientists are rarely mentioned, but in my opinion, are the living 'elders' we should be paying the most attention to regarding these respective topics.

Carl Woese: a microbiologist/evolutionist person. He essentially invented the modern tree of life. For whatever reason, we're still using the outdated 5 Kingdom system. Mr. Woese is still redefining biology and challenging the concept of Darwinian evolution.

Wally Broecker: You can salute or blame him for inventing global warming. He's also the guy that first described the oceanic conveyor belt which is critical for discussions in climate change but is frequently neglected.
posted by surfgator at 11:10 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Paolo Soleri (originator of the idea of an arcology) is still kicking.
posted by Barry B. Palindromer at 11:14 AM on March 2, 2010

Just out of curiosity, why is it important to you to become aware of these people before they die?
To be entirely honest, I can't say in a way that satisfies me why I have that desire. The best I can explain it is to say that it's one thing to look back at history, but somehow it seems better to be aware of history as it's being made. That's still far from satisfactory since I can't realistically think that my knowledge of a person somehow affects his/her trajectory. It probably boils down to vanity. If I ever have kids and grandkids, I've got to be able to tell them something interesting about my enthusiasm with my "contemporaries."
But, Christ, I hope they're sophisticated enough not to fall for that kind of bullshit.
posted by The Potate at 11:15 AM on March 2, 2010

Just out of curiosity, why is it important to you to become aware of these people before they die?

My opinion is that you are essentially asking who are the undersung heroes of the modern era. When a hero brings something new to the world in any field (art, music, science, humanities), there is an immediate response by hundreds or thousands of copycatters to develop flavors of that something new or to deny its existence or relevance. So, your excellent question is an attempt to increase your signal to noise ratio so you can help your grandkids not waste their time in distinguishing *true* meaning from bullshit. At least that's why this thread is important to me.
posted by surfgator at 11:33 AM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

seconding Elliott Carter.
posted by Logophiliac at 11:49 AM on March 2, 2010

Roger Ebert: you may know his name, but there is so, so much more to know, and he has a fantastic blog

Ronald Coase: extremely influential in the law and economics field, and already 99 years old
posted by sallybrown at 12:33 PM on March 2, 2010

Alexander Shulgin, for sure.

The work Noam Chomsky did to revolutionize linguistics was awesome. Many of his theories have since been questioned, much as Chomsky himself questioned the dominant paradigm of his day. Everything he did after he started to veer away from linguistics and into politics generally just pisses me off though. I don't really care whether I get the chance to meet Noam the politico, or acknowledge his existence before it passes.
posted by solipsophistocracy at 12:35 PM on March 2, 2010

Last semester, I met and briefly conversed with Jürgen Habermas, the inventor of the concept of the "public sphere", who among other things, has been instrumental in German discourse about the Holocaust, and a key figure in conceptualizing what human rights and the rule of law mean in practical terms.
posted by StrikeTheViol at 12:47 PM on March 2, 2010

One thing that bothers me in this question: who's close enough to death to include? I've only just remembered that Douglas Adams has already passed. I guess he'll always be alive to me.

In British Art: Gilbert and George
Literature: Alisdair Gray, Elmore Leonard, Vernor Vinge and Nthing Gore Vidal - dude is rock
Music: David Bowie, Simon and Garfunkel, and Bob Dylan
Science: James Watson, Stephen Hawking, and Dan McKenzie are still around

Fun Fact: Yuri Gagarin is long gone, but the first woman in space, Valentina Tereshkova, is currently living.
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:18 PM on March 2, 2010

Oooh- Nobel laureate Doris Lessing! And Philip Glass!

if you are reading your name on this page, congratulations, and take care!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 1:26 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Rolf Harris?! The guy who became famous for a racist song, offered a grudging apology four decades later and within days was making further offensive public comments about Indigenous Australians? He's certainly had a prolific creative life but most of it is more cringe-worthy than worthy of admiration.
posted by embrangled at 5:34 PM on March 2, 2010

The thought of Gilbert and George not existing in this world anymore depresses me, especially if one departs the earthly plane before the other. They either need to live forever or at least outlive me and then die at exactly the same time.
posted by elsietheeel at 7:38 PM on March 2, 2010

The hive mind came through remarkably for this. There wasn't a bad suggestion all day, even if some didn't fit my weird criteria. Thank you.

I've already spent a couple hours today reading about everyone's suggestions. I've got a lot more reading ahead of me. That was precisely my hope.

Surfgator: You read my "bullshit" comment correctly. I hope that the NanoPotate-Clad GrandKids of the Future® can see through the vanity of my over-spun yarns to appreciate that, while GrandPotate probably had very little to do with the history of his time, he was aware of and curious about the important parts and it gave him happiness. Maybe they'll feel closer to history, and hopefully they'll be more interested in whatever world surrounds them.

May the healthiest and heartiest of schmoopy inhabit you all.
posted by The Potate at 10:23 PM on March 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Keith Rowe
posted by Joseph Gurl at 2:01 AM on March 3, 2010

Seconding Ebert and Rolf Harris. I heard a radio programme on the latter a few weeks ago and he really is an excellent guy.
posted by mippy at 7:35 AM on March 3, 2010

Also: Mark E Smith.
posted by mippy at 7:35 AM on March 3, 2010

Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean-Jacques Perrey are both 81.
posted by galaksit at 7:43 AM on March 3, 2010

Michael Hurley, singer, painter and living national treasure.
posted by snofoam at 9:29 AM on March 3, 2010

Does type designer Matthew Carter count?
posted by of strange foe at 10:21 AM on March 3, 2010

Michel Serres, and maybe Michel Onfray (who is way younger, but had a heart attack in his twenties, so...).
posted by nicolin at 10:16 AM on March 8, 2010

Adrienne Rich-- one of the most significant poets of the 20th century. She's around 80, and still writing.
posted by airguitar2 at 7:43 PM on March 8, 2010

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