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Surprisingly, Witten's undergraduate degree was in history (he planned to be a journalist). But his father was a physicist, and after a short stint working on the McGovern presidential campaign, Ed enrolled in Princeton's graduate program in physics and never looked back. Now he's convinced that he and his colleagues are on the verge of cracking a philosophical mystery that's dogged science ever since Aristotle divided the world into earth, air, fire and water: What is the ultimate nature of the universe? "I can't say how long it will take," he says, "but it seems to me that the handwriting is on the wall." If he's right, the world's greatest physicists generally agree, the handwriting looks remarkably like Ed Witten's.
CAROL GILLIGAN Psychologist
How likely is it that a single book could change the rules of psychology, change the assumptions of medical research, change the conversation among parents and teachers and developmental professionals about the distinctions between men and women, boys and girls? Yet many who read Carol Gilligan's book In a Different Voice (600,000 copies in print, translated into nine other languages) find that their views on gender will never be the same.
In her landmark study (first published in 1982) and five subsequent books, Gilligan, a professor at Harvard's Graduate School of Education, has forced scholars across many disciplines to reckon with the differences in the way boys and girls develop their moral faculties and world views. Like most medical research, studies of moral development were usually based on male subjects. But what if women grew up along a different trajectory? When asked whether it was right for a man to steal a loaf of bread to feed his starving family, were the men who answered no, citing rules of justice, occupying a higher moral plane than women who said yes, citing human compassion?
Because women's moral judgments placed greater weight on emotional ideas like caring than on abstract notions of justice, they were often graded as morally deficient in psychological studies. "The answer in the field was that women's sense of self was too much embedded in relationships, that women's thinking was too contextual, and women's judgments were too influenced by feelings. That was the going interpretation," Gilligan, 59, recalls. "I said, 'Maybe the problem isn't in the women. The problem is in the theory.' Bringing women's voices in changes the theory."
The result, say many, is that Gilligan's work has changed the voice of psychology. Her interviews with girls at different stages of childhood and adolescence showed how social expectations can crush a girl's spirit and shut down her confidence. Maybe girls need to be taught differently, talked to differently, to help master the transition to adulthood. And that suggestion carries broad implications. "No longer is it valid to make conclusions about heart attacks, diabetes, education, without looking at differences between men and women," says psychologist Norine Johnson of Boston University School of Medicine. "I think [Gilligan's] major contribution in this society, which loves numbers as a way to make meaning, is that you cannot know about the human race unless you look at what women are doing, and not just make inferences about them from men."
LOUIS FARRAKHAN Leader of the Nation of Islam