Dr. Astro Teller
Charles W. Bryant
Dr. Astro Teller Director of New Projects, Google
Heroes are people who inspire us to be better people. Heroes inspire us to push our own limits and to see more potential in ourselves and in mankind than we had previously seen. So the people who have outrageous levels of talent but who were, by most accounts, not extraordinary in their humanity, people like Mozart or Bobby Fisher, tend not to be our heroes. Instead we gravitate to people who exhibit levels of characteristics like passion, persistence, integrity, creativity, and adaptability that we can barely imagine humans being capable of. And so, when we make our lists of heroes of the last 100 years, we should be careful not to lean too hard to those who achieved much and lean instead toward those people whose lives have the most to teach us. I submit as a strong contender for this list, Wilma Rudolph, who was for a decade in the 1960's the fastest woman in the world but who spent the first twelve years of her life with a left leg and ankle so twisted by premature birth and the polio virus that she could barely walk even with the aid of her leg brace and crutches. If she can do that, what is there that you can not accomplish if you set your mind to it?
Charles W. Bryant Co-Host, Stuff You Should Know
Willie Nelson says that his "heroes have always been cowboys, and they still are today." I'd like to quiz Willie on those heroes right about now, although I suppose that cowboys stand as good a chance as any at making a list of famous heroes.
Will Rogers was certainly a famous cowboy entertainer and my bet is that he'd make the list of heroes for more than one western-phile. Who can deny the pleasure of a well-executed lasso routine? Then there's the real life cowboy, Frank "Pistol Pete" Eaton -- who at the age of eight years-old, vowed vengeance upon the heads of his father's six murderers. It took him 19 years, but eventually the vendetta was satisfied, five by Eaton's quick draw and one from another member of Eaton's posse.
Clint Eastwood is an artistic hero to many, myself included, and he made a name for himself playing quiet, but ruthless cowboys in spaghetti westerns. No word on what Willie Nelson thinks of Eastwood, but something tells me they'd get along just fine.
Teddy Roosevelt, a self-described cowboy and maverick President is undoubtedly on a lot of hero lists. Roosevelt was known for his masculinity as a naturalist, explorer, hunter and outdoorsman. When the Spanish-American War broke out, he resigned his post as head of the Navy so he could lead the Rough Riders into battle. Heroic indeed, and very much a cowboy move.
But if Willie really wants to impress with his list of cowboy heroes, he need not look any further than Nat Love, one of the more well-known African-Americans on the cowboy circuit. Born a slave, Love won his freedom and headed west to Dodge City, Kan. to get work as a cowboy. Despite the prejudices of the time, Love was such a good cowboy and marksmen that he did pretty well for himself. He eventually wrote an autobiography about his adventures rustling cattle, and retired to Los Angeles where he died in 1921.
In 1999, Time Magazine published a list, made up of 20 people (each from several categories), that it described as "heroes and icons of the 20th century." The list included U.S. President and World War II hero John F. Kennedy, evangelist Billy Graham, boxer Muhammad Ali, record-setting aviator Charles Lindbergh, murdered gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, and Helen Keller, who demonstrated to the world that it was possible to overcome disabilities. Another honoree was Anne Frank, a young Jewish girl from the Netherlands whose posthumously-published diary proved more resilient than the Nazi regime that sent her to her death. Rosa Parks, whose refusal to yield a bus seat to a white passenger in the 1950s helped lead to civil rights for African-Americans, also was included on the list.
Also on the Time 1999 list were Presidents Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, each facing enormous obstacles during their terms (the Soviet Union for Reagan and the Great Depression for Roosevelt). Poet T.S. Eliot and singer Bob Dylan made the list, too. Icons can come from many walks of life, and artists can be as iconic as they come.
You could even look to the Time list again, for great scientists; among them Sigmund Freud, and, of course, perhaps the greatest scientific hero of the past 100 years, Albert Einstein. The former was a landmark psychiatrist and the latter changed how we look at gravity, speed, space and the nature of time itself.
Finally, alongside the famous heroes known worldwide by name, one might also consider the collective fame of unknown contributors to a century of heroism. For example, the soldiers who fought in World War II, unknown as individuals, achieved incredible heroism as a group beating back the Nazis. Some of their commanders became famous-name heroes -- Dwight D. Eisenhower and George S. Patton, for example -- but without their boots on the ground the world might look very different today.
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