February 15th is Shoulders of Giants Day (unless you’re still on the Julian calendar).
Or should be.
Famous quotations often get cited to the wrong famous person. ‘Somebody said something about standing on the shoulders of giants — who was it? Edison? Lincoln? Einstein? Jefferson?’ It may be possible someday to use Google or a similar service to track down the misquotes.
The inspiration, perhaps
Robert Burton, melancholy scholar at Oxford
A dwarf standing on the shoulders of a giant may see farther than a giant himself.
Robert Burton (February 8, 1577-January 25, 1640), vicar of Oxford University, who wrote The Anatomy of Melancholy to ward off his own depressions
The famous quote
Sir Isaac Newton, by Sir Godfrey Keller, 1689
If I have seen further (than you and Descartes) it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.
Sir Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675, Julian/February 15, 1676, Gregorian
Newton consciously paid tribute to others who had plowed his science fields before, even if he came up with different crops, er, answers. All science is based on something that comes before it, and in the modern world science advances, oddly, by trying to disprove what scientists thought happened before.
But the sentiment applies equally well in business, in politics, in raising children. We are products of what we learn, and what we learn is a result of culture, which is a result of history. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.
It’s our job to try to see farther, and not just look down, at how far up we are.
Someone will ask (since we so often discuss it), ‘can we fly our flags today?’
Of course you may fly your U.S. flag today. It’s not a day designated by law, but you may fly it in honor of Sir Isaac Newton’s letter if you wish. The U.S. flag code suggests times Americans may fly their flags, but does not require it, nor does law forbid flying the flag for other occasions, or just for every day.
Maybe better, climb to the top of the flag pole. What can you see, aided by a giant’s height?
- On the Shoulders of Giants, title of a book by physicist Stephen Hawking
- On the Shoulders of Giants: The Post-Italianate Edition, by sociologist Robert K. Merton, a humorous send-up of academicism
- On the Shoulders of Giants: New Approaches to Numeracy (1990), from the Mathematical Sciences Education Board of the National Research Council, published by the National Academies Press
- The quotation is reproduced on the edge of the British £2.00 coin, since 1997
- Galileo: On the Shoulders of Giants, 1997 movie about Galileo, by HBO
- Theologian John of Salisbury wrote a similar line, in Latin, in Metalogicon, in 1159.
- Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, 1990, fourth studio album by the British band Oasis; band member Noel Gallagher cribbed the quote from the £2.00 coin, while drunk in a pub.
- On the Shoulders of Giants: The Power of History Told Through Basketball and Music, a story of the Harlem Rens, the first all-black basketball team, with the story of the Harlem Renaissance — a book, movie and CD project by basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
- Wikipedia chases the quote back to the 12th century — The metaphor of dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants (Latin: nanos gigantum humeris insidentes) expresses the meaning of “discovering truth by building on previous discoveries”. This concept has been traced to the 12th century, attributed to Bernard of Chartres. Its most familiar expression in English is by Isaac Newton in 1676: “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
- TSOGiants.org encourages science education
- ShouldersOfGiants.com has a more outdoorsy focus, and commercial
- Britain’s £2.00 coin carries the inscription on its edge, “Standing on the shoulders of giants,” in tribute to Newton
- Even more trivia
Inscription on the edge of Britain’s 2-pound coin; in this photo, four coins are used, to show the entire inscription. Flickriver image, 1875Brian
Yes, this is mostly an encore post. Fighting ignorance requires patience. But, nanos gigantum humeris insidentes.