Paul Lauterbur, scientist
In the 1960s, Paul Lauterbur wondered if the magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) technology used to analyze chemicals might help locate cancerous tissue in the human body. His colleagues only chortled. Lauterbur had to sneak into the labs at Stony Brook University at night to run experiments. When he finally produced images, the science journal Nature rejected his paper, and the university refused to patent the technology. It took Lauterbur another 10 years to convince government skeptics to fund a prototype. In 2003, Lauterbur was awarded the Nobel Prize for his role in the invention of the modern MRI machine.
Tank Man, Chinese activist
Dissidents aren’t always aware of their impact. This is surely the case with the Chinese demonstrator known only as Tank Man. In April of 1989, a ceremony mourning the death of a political reformer was transformed into a massive protest for greater democracy in China. The government ordered soldiers to clear Tiananmen Square. They did so, killing and wounding thousands. Amid the carnage, photographers captured a man standing before a line of tanks to stop them. Although he was never identified, and the photograph is virtually unknown in China, the image remains a testament to the strength of individual dissent in the face of tyranny.
Alexander Nikitin, Russian naval officer
A loyal commander in the Russian Navy, Alexander Nikitin was expected to continue toeing the military line when he was named a safety inspector in the 1990s. Instead, he was so horrified by the condition of his country’s nuclear submarines that he submitted damning reports to his government. When they were ignored, he contacted a Norwegian environmental group to draw attention to the brewing human and ecological disaster. Russia’s decaying fleet became an international concern and Nikitin was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize. Sadly, he was unable to collect his prize; the Russian government arrested him and charged him with treason.
Howard Zinn, historian and activist
Although he lost his teaching job for endorsing a student uprising and was arrested during Vietnam War protests, Howard Zinn will be remembered for less dramatic dissent. Zinn believed traditional education led to passivity because it was based on student obedience. His goal was to inspire “a new generation of people who can do away with war, who can do away with racism and sexism.” And this is exactly what he did through his legendary courses at Boston University and with A People’s History of the United States, a progressive interpretation of history now used in many high schools and universities.