Standing on the shoulders of giants – this is a common metaphor used in the empirical world to symbolize scientific progress. This concept dates back to the 12th century. Some of you might recognize it as the title of Stephen Hawking’s book ‘On the Shoulders of Giants’ while some others might recall it as a phrase underneath the Google Scholar’s search engine. But what exactly does it mean?
The French philosopher Bernard of Chartres said that we are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size. It is just the idea that in order to make intellectual progress and development, one needs to use the understanding and development done by previous thinkers and hence, literally, stand on the shoulders of these massive giants to look further ahead into the unknown and make further developments based on the cumulative wisdom and knowledge gained from the past thinkers as well as the present ones.
It is quite unfortunate how people undermine the collective efforts of other contributors to development or discovery. Most of the inventions known today were not linearly invented and are rather interdependent. However, many of them were inspired by past thinkers and past findings. We need to understand what inspiration actually is in regards to inventions and discoveries. Inspiration is the interaction between your current knowledge and the information you receive from the world. That is how famous discoveries were made; the ones who discovered them were able to foresee the things no one else could have foreseen by standing on these gigantic shoulders – with better hindsight and foresight. Stephen Hawking stated: “Each generation stands on the shoulders of those who have gone before them, just as I did as a young PhD student in Cambridge, inspired by the work of Isaac Newton, James Clerk Maxwell and Albert Einstein.” In a 1675 letter to Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton mentioned, “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” It can be easy to look at great geniuses like Newton and imagine that their ideas and work were original and came solely out of their heads. Innovative ideas must originate from somewhere. No matter how distinctive or unprecedented their work seems, delve a bit deeper and you will figure out that the creator stood on someone else’s shoulders.
A perfect example is how the creation of calculus has been more closely associated with Newton than with any other mathematician. However, his work was dependent on the contributions of others. Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz were both working simultaneously but individually on creating this entirely new branch of mathematics. Though their methods were essentially equivalent, both developed and justified their discoveries with different arguments and reasoning. The works of Johannes Kepler, Bonaventura Cavalieri, Blaise Pascal, Pierre de Fermat, John Wallis, and Isaac Barrow were inspirations for all the later work in calculus.
An example of this from the 21st century is when the iPhone was introduced back in 2007 and how it was seen as a revolution but it is important to know that the first touchscreen was invented in 1965, which is almost half a century before the introduction of the iPhone. Moreover, before Facebook, there was Friendster, and Facebook wasn’t the first one of its kind either, it was just better; you don’t need to be first to win, you know.
This metaphor holds light not just for science and technology but also for other areas of study and life. Knowledge and wisdom are built upon over time. No one can make such a great contribution alone. You can see this by observing the evolution of an atom through time. The present model of an atom is extremely different from the one that Rutherford initally came up with. This is because people who came after him layed brick on his foundation and led to more repercussive discoveries. The progress we’ve made in astronomy is because of how back in the 16th century Copernicus completely transformed the way we perceive the universe to be.
Similarly our future generation would be standing on the shoulders of present innovators as well as the ones in the past, achieving milestones beyond our imagination. Innovations can’t be looked at in isolation. To understand something truly we would always need to trace down the influence of other innovators. Mary Shelley put it this way in the nineteenth century, in a preface for Frankenstein: “Invention, it must be humbly admitted, does not consist in creating out of void but out of chaos.”