On the Shoulders of Giants

I am sure most people have heard or read the quote attributed to Sir Isaac Newton:

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

It sounds like a wonderfully humble and self-effacing comment. We can easily imagine Newton slipping that in as he is being lauded for his contribution to science.

The actual context is a little more interesting. Newton was involved in a number of controversies during his life. The best known is probably between him and Liebniz over the invention of calculus (which historians now say was developed independently by both). Of course, he was also involved in conflict with Robert Hooke. Hooke criticized Newton's work on numerous occasions. Probably the most serious accusation came in 1675, when Hooke accused Newton of stealing work on optics from him (you might remember that Newton showed a prism will split light into a rainbow of colours - Hooke claims it was his discovery).

A number of letters were exchanged between the two over this and on 05-Feb-1676, Newton wrote that famous quote.

After Hooke died, Newton effected the removal of Hooke's portrait from the Royal Society (yeah, he hated him that much), so we have no idea of what Hooke actually looked like. However, some chroniclers describe Hooke as a small deformed man with a hump on his back (certainly not flattering). This description of Hooke makes Newton's quote even more biting - Hooke was no giant and had not square shoulders.

For the extra curious, the first recorded use of the phrase is from the 12th century by John of Salisbury who attributes it to Bernard of Chartres

Bernard of Chartres used to say that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance - Metalogicon


Well, in a way, this is refreshing to see these scientists portrayed as ordinary people with their jealousies and issues with each other. Reminds me a little of the Banting-Best rival and the other man whose name escapes me just now! You'll know and I should too!)

I do agree with the statement though, and perhaps we are all giants for at least a few people in our lives in some way. Parents are for sure and teachers at times.

(I'm still reading and gathering thoughts on your "epic 5 answers plus bonuses"! It was so thorough and must have taken a lot of time and reflecton.)
Richard said…
People often don't realize that the past was not some sanitary, romantic time of great nobility and chivalry. It was brutish. Modern life, on the whole, is not much different. In Canada, we are blessed with it being slightly better (though, during the reign of JC it seemed to be getting definitely worse. Which was not surprising considering that The Prince by Machiavelli is apparently one of JC's favourite texts).

When we think of politics, subterfuge and intrigue, we are drawn to certain notable characters like Machiavelli, The Borgias, and Brutus (of Et tu, Brute? fame). However, all the dirty politics, arm twisting, backroom deals, nepotism, etc which we decry today was in plenty abundance in the past too.

The problem is that when the history books are written, they tend to either flatter or vilify, but not be impartial.

"He who controls the past, controls the future; and he who controls the present, controls the past." - George Orwell, 1984

My previous post is long. Mostly I just sat on it and kept cutting (yes, it was m-u-u-u-ch longer). I had toyed with posting each question in a separate post.
Barbara said…
We never think of these people as humans with personality foibles who could be mean-spirited, choosing instead to remember them for their legacy to science. This is a very interesting new look at one of those legedary figures.
Ancilla said…
the quote is great...
never heard about it before
KayMac said…
richard, this is why i visit your blog...i always learn something.
Richard said…
barbara: everyone is human, but we tend to idolize away those parts we don't like.

ancilla: glad I could epose you to it now.

kaymac: I never intended it as a teching blog, simply a thought provoking blog. Thanks.
b said…
That is very interesting, Richard. I often enjoy quotes for what I personally interpret them to signify but the true context is quite revealing and important. Newton's feelings toward Hooke are also quite interesting. I am not familiar with Robert Hooke but unsurprisingly, given Newton's influence.
tin-tin said…
i didn't know about that rivalry. heheehe. question, they can't find the portrait of hooke that newton removed?

queation, are you a chemist? or a scientist? :)
Richard said…
breal: it is always easy to take a quote out of context. The most egregious sin of this is when an author is quoted and the quote is attributed to the author instead of the work it occurred in. Oscar Wilde is a really good example, he wrote many outrageous things, but often those quotes are attributed directly to him, rather than the work he wrote.

tin-tin: neither. I am a dabbler, a tinkerer, an amateur, a dreamer.
Ancilla said…
thanks to you :)

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