On the Shoulders of Giants

Written by: Tony Harris, December 7, 2015



Sir Isaac Newton quoted: If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants. This was a reference to a quote by the philosopher, Bernard of Chartres, who had lived about 3 and a half centuries earlier. Newton was being uncharacteristically humble when he compared the progress that he had made, to the ideas of others that he had made use of.

But it is certainly true, as we look back at the progress of all forms of study, that we have been able to build on the work of previous eras and generations. For example, I sit here and type on a little laptop that has more computing power than was aboard the Apollo spacecraft and has its foundation, its roots, that can be traced back to work that was being done in the 1940s and 50s.

We I-phone and FaceTime with more ease than Captain Kirk could have dreamed of. Yet it was in 1861 that James Maxwell published the fundamental equations that describe electromagnetic radiation; the basic medium by which all modern data transfer travels. Hey, that is a long time ago. The first uses of RF amplification go back a long way.

The names of physicists, scientists, biologists, chemists, doctors and more pave the route from darkness to understanding. So we should not become conceited when we look at our achievements. Great though they are, they were made possible by standing on the shoulders of giants.

John Salisbury who attributed the ‘shoulders of giants’ quote to Chartres, wrote  in 1159: Between a tyrant and a prince there is this single or chief difference, that the latter obeys the law and rules the people by its dictates, accounting himself as but their servant.

Surely it was this level of understanding that allowed the Magna Carta to be feasible a half century later. We need to be cognizant of this when we judge and try to comprehend, peoples who do not have the luxury of standing on the shoulders of such giants.

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