March 26, 2013
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Rubbing Shoulders with Giants
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” is a quotation usually attributed to Isaac Newton. Newton did write something like that in a letter to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, but the phrase and the concept were very old and well known, even by the 17th Century. Similar language is found, for instance, in a 12th Century manuscript by a philosopher known as John of Salisbury, and he attributed the saying to an even earlier time.
It is fitting that Newton should have borrowed the phrase for he was stating that the advances he made in the scientific world were possible only because he could build on the many hundreds of years of thoughts and writings of great men who had preceded him. That is true for all of us, though our accomplishments may not be as illustrious as Newton’s.
The recognition that Newton was “standing on the shoulders of giants” does not imply that he was merely a dwarf seeing the world from a good vantage point. Isaac Newton was certainly one of the towering giants of human intellect, and most of the scientific advances of the past 300 years have been made by someone “standing on his shoulders.”
Giant and creative intellects remain among us today, and I feel privileged to have known some of them. Continue reading