Dear Paul Graham,
Einstein isn't on the list, for example, even though he probably deserves to be on any shortlist of admirable people. I once asked a physicist friend if Einstein was really as smart as his fame implies, and she said that yes, he was. So why isn't he on the list? Because I had to ask. This is a list of people who've influenced me, not people who would have if I understood their work.
…When I thought about what it meant to call someone a hero, it meant I'd decide what to do by asking what they'd do in the same situation. That's a stricter standard than admiration.
―Some Heroes by Paul Graham
1. Albert Einstein
Einstein asked himself how God would design the Universe and then reverse engineered it. He didn't use science to solve problems. He solved problems with sheer intelligence and then used science to prove himself right.
This method didn't just crack relativity. Einstein could deduce the quantization of matter from a single graph of a single macroscopic phenomenon. He worked out special relativity from practically no data at all. Then he cracked general relativity before science had caught up with him.
2. Leonardo da Vinci
His most impressive work, to me, is his drawings. They're clearly made more as a way of studying the world than producing something beautiful. And yet they can hold their own with any work of art ever made. No one else, before or since, was that good when no one was looking.
―Some Heroes by Paul Graham
Leonardo was the Isaac Asimov of the Renaissance. Leonardo was an engineer the same way Isaac Asimov was a robotocist. This is the standard I hold myself to when I write about antimemetics.
3. Steve (Woz) Wozniak
When Woz was a kid there was nothing he wanted more than a computer. He couldn't afford one so he designed his own in his imagination over and over again. He figured out how to build one cheaper and cheaper until eventually he could assemble one from off-the-shelf parts.
I want an artificial intelligence the way Woz wanted a computer.
Woz could get components to do things they were never intended to accomplish because he understands how computers work down to the level of individual electrons. This is the standard I hold myself to when I think about software.
Perhaps most importantly, Steve Wozniak still believes in magic. He is great at teaching little kids.
4. Catherine the Great
The young not-yet-Catherine not-yet-the-Great was a brilliant strategist. She played tight and aggressive. I cannot do justice to her story. Instead, check out Catherine the Great: Portrait of A Woman by Robert Massie.
Considering the hand she was dealt, just becoming Empress of Russia would be sufficient to put Catherine the Great on this list. But she didn't stop there. Catherine the Empress attempted to reshape the world's largest feudal empire into Enlightenment ideals and it wasn't a complete disaster—despite the fact that her political power flowed from the aristocracy!
Yes, I have a crush on her.
秦始皇 conquered all of contiguous civilization and then invented China. He constructed systems intended to last for 10,000 years.
The biggest mistake 秦始皇 made was chasing immortality before the technology was ready. I think about 秦始皇 when I choose not to sign up for cryogenics.
6. Paul Graham
Paul Graham used to write software that writes software. Then he founded a software startup. Then he founded a startup that starts software startups. Now he writes software that writes software that writes software. Paul Graham is the ultimate metaprogrammer.
I never imagine what Paul Graham would "do in the same situation". I follow the explicit instructions on his blog.
There are lots of commonalities between the people on this list. For instance, they are all determined polydidacts. But so are many people who didn't make this list.
What really sets my heroes apart is the standards they held themselves to. They all worked forward from reality and backwards from perfection until the two met in the middle.