Standing on the shoulders of Giants. Isaac Newton

26 01 2009

newtonIn responding to a letter from a scientific rival Robert Hooke,  Sir Isaac Newton wrote;

“What Descartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, and especially in taking the colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen a little further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”

The origin of this famous phrase, as with so many others, is the subject of debate but it conveys in many ways and on many levels, the importance of those who went before us; our leaders.  Upon the shoulders of their wisdom, insight and strength is built our present and our future. If Newton accepts this, how much more should we appreciate and acknowledge those who inspired us and through whose leadership we have moved forward?

It is also import to recognise that wherever we are in the pile of humanity, standing on the shoulders of Descartes or lesser mortals, there are people for whom we are leaders. There is no greater thrill than seeing them move on to become leaders themselves in different spheres of activity and locations.  I have recently had this pleasure and it has brought me both pride and I hope humility.

The future is bright if those who were followers can then say, that from their new vantage point, they can see further.

(I’m talking about you Mr. E!)

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3 responses

26 01 2009
ajcann

In recent years this has quotation been interpreted as a particularly cruel snub to Hooke, who had a spinal deformity, by Newton. the two men despised each other.
Puts a different light on leadership.

26 01 2009
inseiffolliet

Thanks for your comment. I did read about that interpretation and in particular
http://www.isaacnewton.org.uk/essays/Giants

The strong suggestion there, when the full quote is read in context, is that Hooke was one of the giants to whom Newton was referring. Certainly he compliments Hooke that he had added to the work of Descarte.
Their relationship is quite intriguing and the two were clearly sparring partners. I think the closing point of the referenced web page however sums it up, that when Newton wanted to insult someone, he did.

All that said the point for leadership is upon whose shoulders we stand. Perhaps it is even more valid if Newton accepts that his better view is achieved standing not only on the shoulders of someone he hugely admires; Descartes, but also someone he was in conflict with; Hooke.

10 04 2013
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