Shoulders Of Giants

"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants."

The enterprise of mankind as embodied in our advance of knowledge is built on the pattern of ShouldersOfGiants. Human knowledge and understanding is a very cumulative affair.

The quotation above was written by IsaacNewton as a backhanded insult directed squarely at RobertHooke (1635-1702), with whom Newton carried on a life long, bitter rivalry. Newton used this quote in a letter responding to Hooke's claim that Newton stole the hypothesis on light from Hooke's "Micrographia". Newton was familiar with Micrographia and claimed that Hooke took much of the work from Descartes who - claimed Newton - took his work from Marcantonia de Dominis and Ariotto. The comment was very likely intended to be sarcastic as Hooke was a very short man, practically a midget.

The phrase itself has a long and ancient history. It is thought that Newton will have seen the aphorism in Robert Burton's The Anatomy Of Melancholy: "Pygmies placed on the shoulders of giants see more than the giants themselves.". Burton in turn took his cue from the 12th Century scholastic Bernard de Chartres who is quoted as saying "In comparison with the ancients, we stand like dwarves on the shoulders of giants".


Some people take Newton's statement to express the importance of collaboration in knowledge, but as JamesSurowiecki? points out, Newton did most of his work alone, and probably felt that the advance of knowledge depended more on a few geniuses than on the collaboration of many (the choice of the word "giants" suggests that Newton is only thanking those with unusually large achievements or reputation). Also, Newton's statement refers more to cumulation, rather than cooperation or collective development. Perhaps those of us that use Newton's statement as a motto for collaborative endeavors should find another motto. -- KoChira

In the early 80s, while attending a tutorial at the annual SIGGRAPH conference, I heard the intentionally ironic claim, I think by DanIngalls, that we in the computer software business insist on "stepping on the toes of those who came before us instead of climbing on their shoulders". As I recall, it was in the context of a lively exchange between DanIngalls and RobPike about the then-contentious issues of bitblt, pixel graphics, and high-performance graphics software. But LarryTesler? and several other Apple and Xerox luminaries were present, so it might not have been Dan. In any case, it was hilarious and was a perfect icebreaker for a debate that was becoming overly contentious. -- TomStambaugh

It takes quite a bit to recognize the Giants, and then get the permission to start climbing, and then the mountaineering skills, and then make sure you do not get blown away once you reach high ground, and then to look in the right direction...

See also: SaintsAndHeroes, GhostsInUs, ArsLongaVitaBrevis
Contributors: RaySchneider, GlenAlleman, TomStambaugh, other(s)

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