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So I Could See Further

William Blake's Newton (1795), colour print with pen & ink and watercolour

If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.

Isaac Newton’s letter to Robert Hooke

Newton knew a thing or two about sight, in his book Opticks he was the first to use a diagram of a prism as a beam expander. But for all his original ideas, his letter to Hooke is important as it underscores the reality of creative endeavours and original research: that each new work builds on that which went before. A theme on which the FOSS community relies heavily. Take my operating system of choice, Pop OS. It stands on the shoulders of Ubuntu, Debian and GNU. This is a heritage of which I am proud to take part (view the source code of this page to see the design inspiration).

In the main, scholars, developers and researchers cite, and even pay homage to, those who have gone before, without whose work their own product would be much reduced. The late great Stephen Hawking proudly observed as much when he 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.

Sadly, at times some individuals fail to remember, or perhaps better to say acknowledge, their heritage. At such times, I am reminded of one of the earliest uses of the metaphor.

Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature.

John of Salisbury’s Metalogicon

In this telling, those on the shoulders of giants don’t have keener vision just more help. And those who fail to acknowledge this help are people of little intellectual stature for they don’t build upon earlier works but instead try and pass off the work as products of their own thinking. Or to put it in plain English, they plagiarise.

The speed at which search engines can return results, and the daily need to attract attention, can facilitate a negative feedback loop in which less scrupulous individuals routinely repost the work of others without attribution or further development. Far from standing on the shoulders of giants, such acts are a pretence and undermine discourse, development and research. The very antithesis of great thinking.


Newton by William Blake is licensed under Public Domain.

This post is day 023 of my #100DaysToOffload challenge. If you want to get involved, you can get more info from 100daystooffload.com.


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