The Chroniclers

Article excerpt

In an age when "search" is a browser function that can call up more information in an instant than an ancient scholar could accumulate in a lifetime, it is easy to mistake data for knowledge. The Global Thinkers in this category put that hubris in perspective, showing us novel ways of understanding the world and our place in it. They have traveled to jungles and deserts, near-Earth orbit and the Martian surface. With reporting that moved us, photography that shook our view of conflict, and research that exposed the very fabric of physical existence, they have helped us understand what it means to be human.

DAMIAN EVANS

ARCHAEOLOGIST | AUSTRALIA

BILL BENENSON, STEVE ELKINS

FILMMAKERS | SANTA MONICA, CALIF.

FOR USING LASERS TO DISCOVER AND MAP ANCIENT CITIES.

* People have been looking for "lost cities" for centuries. But what's really the best way to find one, and what can we learn from a once-thriving metropolis?

These are questions that Damian Evans, Bill Benenson, and Steve Elkins have begun to answer. The three men, along with teams of scientists, are using a technology called lidar, short for "light detection and ranging," to find the ruins of ancient civilizations. Lidar works by bouncing billions of laser shots from the bottom of an aircraft to the ground, even through dense tree canopy. By measuring the time it takes for beams to bounce back, scientists can create detailed maps of what's below.

In May, Benenson and Elkins released new lidar-generated images taken over Honduras that show foundations, canals, and roads of what could be La Ciudad Blanca, a city that explorers have sought since the era of conquistador Hernando Cortes. (The men had announced the initial discovery of the overall site in mid-2012.) Then, in June, scientists in Cambodia led by Evans announced that they had uncovered a massive city complex rivaling Phnom Penh in size.

Some researchers who use lidar are loath to describe what they do in adventure-seeking, Indiana Jones-style terms. They stress that lidar mapping, beyond finding ruins, can provide crucial insights into how civilizations live and die. In Cambodia, for instance, lidar has dramatically illustrated how the collapse of the classical Angkor civilization was likely tied to environmental damage created by urban water-management systems. In other words, the people of Angkor probably sowed some of the seeds of their own destruction. (For more on lidar, see Douglas Preston's article on p. 112.)

With urban populations exploding, inequality mounting, and climate change intensifying, lidar's ability to reveal what happened to long-gone civilizations doesn't just revolutionize the work of archaeologists--it offers warnings for us all.

FRANCOIS ENGLERT, PETER HIGGS, FABIOLA GIANOTTI

FOR UNRAVELIND THE MIYSTERIES OF THE UNIVERSE.

PHYSICISTS | BELGIUM, BRITAIN, SWITZERLAND

* In the last two years, Francois Englert and Peter Higgs have finally gotten to see proof of predictions they made in 1964 about the fundamental nature of the universe and the beginning of humanity's story.

Englert and Higgs, now 81 and 84, deduced the existence of a sort of force field across the universe that instills elementary particles with mass as they pass through it. This, in turn, allows there to be stars, planets, and people. Their theory set off a long search for the Higgs boson, or "God particle," necessary for that force field to exist. After announcing in July 2012 that they might have found the particle, researchers with the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at the CERN particle-physics laboratory near Geneva confirmed this year that data analysis "strongly indicates that it is a Higgs boson." In October, Englert and Higgs were awarded the Nobel Prize in physics.

While the romance of the God particle will always be associated with Englert and Higgs, credit for the grinding study of quadrillions of high-speed particle collisions that could reveal its existence goes to Fabiola Gianotti and her team. …