Lounging On the Shoulders of Giants

The earliest known use of the now-trite phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” can be found in a book called Metalogicon by John of Salisbury written in 1159. (Phew! Old.) The Latin to English translation roughly reads:

Issac Newton

Issac Newton

“We are like dwarfs sitting on the shoulders of giants. We see more, and things that are more distant, than they did, not because our sight is superior or because we are taller than they, but because they raise us up, and by their great stature add to ours.” (source)

But the most popular and currently well-known iteration of this phrase comes from a letter Issac Newton penned in 1676 for his rival Robert Hooke:

“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.”

Our knowledge is the result of synergy – that makes perfect sense.

The other day I paused as I looked around my living room. Our Samsung smart TV, our Pioneer airplay enhanced piece of technological magic, our coat rack, stove, couch, faucet with running water, walls and roof … These are all inventions. Nature gave us trees and fruit. And we made houses and smoothies out of them.

Pioneer with Airplay
Pioneer with Airplay

Looking around just one room in any house, you can see centuries of brilliance turned commonplace. I guess in some ways it’s a perplexing but beautiful thing, and in other ways I sometimes lament that these advances have put distance between us and the basics. (I challenge you to find a restaurant that serves fruit without additives like sugar or preservatives.) Don’t get me wrong, I am very thankful for some things, like shelter, especially on a rainy Boston weekend like this one. And how could I possibly live without Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO?

Anyway, despite my mixed feelings about the current state of affairs, I feel really humbled by enormity of past influence on our modern lives.

This awesome Louis C. K. bit, “If God Came Back” describes my feelings perfectly:



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