The “truth” about Isaac Newton

Category: Health, Science & Education
Published on Jan 21, 2008

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.

Yours,
Frank Smith

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!

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Comments

i , so firmly disagree; to say that ( in my opinion ) one of the greatest thinkers of our time could have been so petty, that he would belittle even his long time rival, after his ( hookes ) death is just not so, i think he was giving his long time rival his praise after his passing that he regarded him as a giant in the scientific community.

posted by john stephens on 07.19.08 at 7:57 pm

A correction re: Newton’s height. He did not possess “impressive height.” His contemporaries described him as being of “medium height” for a man in the 1600’s.
Milo Keynes, M.D., the nephew of the famed economist John Maynard Keynes, was once in possession of the bulk of Newton’s papers. Dr. Keynes made an exhaustive study of the iconography of Newton, including measuring Newton’s walking sticks, and concluded that Newton, ” was short of stature at five feet six inches tall (the same as Beethoven and Napoleon), and the statue of him in the Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge gives him a small head, which Roubiliac had sculpted using his death mask for size. ” See, inter alia,
http://www.galtoninstitute.org.uk/Newsletters/GINL0103/birth_weight.htm

posted by F. Creighton on 03.31.09 at 5:11 pm

I think too much effort has been spent to decode the sentiment behind Newton’s statement. This statement itself is very significant in the wider context of all Science. In this particular context itself, Newton acknowledged the role of Des Cartes and Hooke. These were three Giants, perhaps with some human failings, but Giants nonetheless. Let there not be more read into it then that.

posted by Sailesh Akkaraju on 04.16.10 at 9:44 pm

To remove the `probable’ insult to Hookes, I would suggest citing the true source of “standing on giants” from below:

John of Salisbury. 1159. The Metalogicon: A Twelfth-Century Defense of the Verbal and Logical Arts of the
Trivium. Philadelphia, PA: Paul Dry Books. Translation by Daniel McGarry [2009].

Publicity and popularity is not innovation. Isaac Newton was the politician of innovation, not a innovator. Certainly he made important ideas popular through his social networks, but did he create any new science or math?

What exactly did Newton do that was a contribution? Argue with a hunchback? Get Knighted? Rewrite Galileo’s geometric proofs in algebraic form using fluxions? (Dialogue on the Two Systems)

posted by Monte on 03.25.11 at 8:00 pm

It is well known that Robert Hooke had a dibilitating disease of the spine causing him to be hunchbacked. Also if I recall, Newton did not want to give Hooke any credit for the theory of gravitation.

posted by George DeRise on 07.22.11 at 7:35 pm

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