I received an email this morning that gets the prize for reader comment of the week. In Wikinomics, we referenced Isaac Newton‘s “shoulders of Giants” quote to illustrate the idea that all knowledge and scientific discovery is cumulative . . . one great discovery builds on the foundation of previous discoveries, and so on.
Well, Wikinomics reader Frank Smith notes that there is more to Isaac Newton’s “shoulders of Giants” quote than meets the eye. Here is an excerpt from Frank’s note:
I’m listening to the audio book at the moment and I love it, just one thing… In the book you mentioned how Isaac Newton back in his day, wrote a letter saying “If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants” as an example of scientific collaboration.
Well I really like the book, but the truth about the letter was that it was a bit of a backhanded compliment to his scientific rival.
You see a young Isac Newton clashed with an elderly Robert Hook. Robert Hook in his younger years was a massive scientific force, working in partnership with Wren to rebuild London after the Great Fire [he suggested the grid system of city planning for London, which was later used for New York], being one of the principle founders of the Royal Society [which is EASILY, the world’s most revolutionary group of scientists and explorers, with Newton, Darwin, Cook, Hook, Davey, Peeps and many others members]. . .and being widely believed to be the originator of Boyles law.
Anyway, when he got older he and Newton clashed over their views of the properties of light, Newton wrote the famous quote at the end of a letter where he proved his theory once and for all and did so, to make fun of Hook’s short height as compared to Newton’s rather impressive height.
I don’t mean to be picky, but I think it’s a great story and well worth knowing.
Well, it turns out that Frank is probably right. Apparently several historians have suggested that Newton’s remark was a thinly veiled insult. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say on the subject:
This has been interpreted as a sarcastic remark directed against Hooke. This is somewhat speculative: Hooke and Newton had exchanged many letters in tones of mutual regard, and Hooke was not of particularly short stature, although he was of slight build and had been afflicted from his youth with a severe stoop. However, at some point, when Robert Hooke criticized some of Newton’s ideas regarding optics, Newton was so offended that he withdrew from public debate. The two men remained enemies until Hooke’s death. Research suggests that Hooke’s stoop was a combination of Scoliosis and Pott’s disease, literally making Hooke a Hunchback. This insult may have related to their apparent positions in society: Hooke was the experiment curator for the Royal Society and Newton was Sir Isaac, the chairman of the Royal Society.
Another source, aerospaceweb.org, claims that the original quote is not Newton’s at all, but comes from an 11th century monk named John of Salisbury. In any case, they concur that Newton’s comment was likely vindictive.
Clearly, the basic idea of these thoughts is that modern researchers owe much to the knowledge that earlier scientists have discovered. While many believe that was the sentiment being expressed by Newton in his letter to Hooke, some researchers have suggested that he was actually using the phrase “on the shoulders of giants” as a veiled insult of Robert Hooke, who was a rather short man. Newton had a reputation as somewhat of a petty and vindictive man whose ego clashed with those of his rivals in the scientific and mathematical communities. One of these rivals was Robert Hooke, who had been involved in a long-running fued with Newton over which one had discovered the inverse square law. Although Newton’s letter to Hooke appeared courteous on the surface, some historians have concluded that he cleverly employed the phrase “on the shoulders of giants” to ridicule Hooke’s lack of physical stature and imply that he lacked intellectual stature as well.
So, draw your own conclusions. I, for one, still think that the basic principle of cumulative knowledge creation remains just as relevant as ever, even if Newton’s use of it was somewhat petty. If any one else would like to set the historical record straight, please weigh-in with your comments!