on the shoulders of giants

One of the things that sets science apart is the way that it operates, building on the work of others and accepting, rejecting or altering understandings as new data come to hand. The idea that science is so open to change seems to be one of the hardest things to get across, in the classroom & in society at large: there seems to be constant surprise that scientists might alter their conclusions on an issue in the light of new information, and that each generation of scientists builds on the work of those who have gone before them.

That last point is perhaps exemplified by this quote from Isaac Newton: ‘If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants‘ (Newton was writing to his colleague, Robert Hooke, at the time, & I have heard it said that he was being rather snarky; Hooke was a small man.) Now Orac has a wonderful post about stepping back into the past in the medical world – how much of what doctors do today is dependent on the discoveries & advances of previous generations. You could substitute ‘scientists’ for ‘medical doctors’ & the message would be the same. [Warning: there is a graphic description of a pre-anaesthesia operation on a malignant breast tumour – perhaps not best for reading over lunch…]

(Orac’s post could be a good basis for a classroom thought experiment; some of his commenters give some good supporting reading material, in the form of science-fiction novels based on the back-in-time premise. Now, if I could only think of a way to fit this into my lectures…)

3 thoughts on “on the shoulders of giants”

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I highly recommend the second edition of “Asimov’s Biographical Encyclopedia of Science and Technology”. It is written as a popular volume which includes linked biographies of 1510 famous workers. There are some surprising omissions, but a large number of famous people I had never heard of. You look some one up, start following the links and you are still reading an hour later.

  • Alison Campbell says:

    Darn it, Jim, that’s another book to add to the teetering pile by the bed! (Seriously, thanks heaps for the recommendation.)

  • Jim,
    Your recommendation sounds good. Reminds of the Oxford Companion series in your description of entries linking to others. I have the companions to the Mind and Archaeology. It’s great stuff, you randomly dip into one entry, which leads to another… Their entries are for the science as well as the people (and in the case of the Archaeology book, places).
    Hey! I’m procrastinating… (thinking of your latest post; good post, too)
    (Actually I’ve spend most of this Sunday working on my grant application, aside from a few interruptions from a climate conspiracy theorist accusing me of things I haven’t done. Sigh.)

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