Shoulders of Giants

August 1, 2011

Torah Kachur

Sir Isaac Newton penned the famous phrase "if I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants" as an ode to all the scientists that came before.  Or, it was a slight to the recipient of the letter, Robert Hooke, who was a fellow scientist and short in stature.




Regardless if it was meant as an insult or an exaltation, Newton has a point - science cannot be done in a vacuum and it is by collaboration that the most innovative thinkers really shine.  Take Newton, his theories in mathematics were mostly arrived at independently from careful study of the classics like Pythagoras and Aristotle - but they were only formulated after years of correspondance and competition between contemporaries.  Newton and Leibniz came up with the basics for infinitesimal calculus wiith drastically different notations but their time and place in history was hardly a coincidence. 


A similar story between Hooke and Newton where it was Hooke's critique of Newton's theories that later refined the equations calculating the centripetal force of planets in elliptical orbits.  Hooke was a monumental figure in science as well as Newton, partly because he was a complete ass by all accounts and partly because he coined the term 'cell' and redefined the scientific method.  This scientific cluster included other names as well, like Halley and Galileo - all of whom were contemporaries around Europe and it is their interactions that spurred the discoveries of the 1600's.


The most influential thinkers in the history of science could not have achieved their greatness without those around them to challenge their theories and expand the ideas at the time.  Darwin and Lamarck battled for the title of the King of Evolution for years and Mendel was even in the mix, despite being a lowly monk. 


This Golden Age of Biology in the late 1800's was certainly spearheaded by the genius of Darwin but it was also a time of changing attitudes and loosening of the church that allowed these ideas to even be published.  Great science isn't just luck and timing, it takes genius, environment and a little dose of chance to have a name that can reside beside Newton, Galileo, Darwin, Aristotle, Kachur.


And now our modern times have proven to be genius-filled - Einstein, Hawking, Pauling - all giants in their own right have all lived in our lifetime.  They have left big shoes to fill, which means even bigger giants of science.






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