I'm exhausted. Worn out. Being humble is a tiring business, and I'm just about the most humble insectivore there is. But humility is really hard. And exhausting.
A few hundred years ago, Sir Isaac Newton said, if we are to believe the books, and I paraphrase from memory, since it's more likely to reflect the truth, “If I have seen further, it is only because I stand on the shoulders of giants.” Or something like that. Isaac Newton, the phenomenon, the genius who brought us calculus, optics and the spectrum, the basics of all mechanical physics, indeed he gave us the entire universe, including all but the very largest, fastest or smallest, and still he admits that his contribution is but a stone's throw from the high platform those before him had erected. Gentleman scientist, indeed.
This seminal sentence (on which so many other quotations have been based in meta-quotation, a core principle of humility in the sciences) appears in a letter to Newton's arch nemesis (too harsh, shall we say `someone he didn't like to have drinks with'?) Robert Hooke, the president of the Royal Society before Sir Isaac took the job. Hooke was a superb scientist of his day, and his difficulties with Newton certainly hurt his place in history, all due to an argument about who really invented calculus (Hooke was only willing to consider the possibility that it had been independently hit upon by Leibnitz, which was sufficient reason for Newton to hate him). So what's all this humility and “shoulders of giants” nonsense? Newton really wanted to say that he certainly was himself a giant, and Hooke should tremble before him. Or am I reading too much into this quote? Who is this Newton guy anyway? What's his impact factor?
I'll start again.
Centuries before Newton or Leibnitz or Hooke or the Royal Society, mud-hut dwellers in the Dark Ages (and here we are only referring to western Europe, the cradle of Dark Age mud thinking) looked about and noticed the remains of huge buildings that no normal human could possibly have erected. Not just big rocks, but edifices, aqueducts, temples and the like, right there just down the road from the hovels that whole villages struggled to keep erect. Clearly, previous eras must have included giants – not simply societies with a keener grasp of structural engineering. Rome and its grand civic projects was forgotten; it was giants who built such incredible things. These were real giants, not metaphorical giants (in this mud-view), but undoubtedly the humble view struck a chord. Those who went before built the foundations on which we build our meager dwellings.
And so it is with science, of course. We simply love the idea that our progress, our leaps of understanding, our newest insights into the deepest depths of Nature's sacred mysteries, are simply incremental steps (or perhaps small jumps, if they're really big) up from the edifices that those before us have built – big edifices, built by people much bigger than ourselves.
Well, I'm tired of carrying giants around, and I'd like to get them off my back. No question, our work is dependent on things that have gone before. And yes, while we pick and choose those things that best fit our world views, we tend to agree on a few of the older things. But whose `shoulders' are we standing on? Aristotle's? Newton's? Quick, the clock's ticking: tell me one principle that was established prior to 1900 that you employed in your reasoning yesterday. I'm assuming, of course, that (a) you're a scientist, (b) you reason, and (c) you worked on anything scientific yesterday. Okay, I'll make this easier: what did you depend on that was established prior to, say, anything you can attribute to one individual who published the attributable work pre-PubMed? (I'm not sure when this is. Newton isn't in PubMed as an author, nor is Darwin or Robert Hooke. There are papers that were published prior to 1985, but most of them aren't in PubMed – important, but not my point here.)
Wait. Rather than starting yet again, let me ask you, point blank. Do you stand on the shoulders of giants?
I'm in a cantankerous mood, so I'll answer for all of us. No, we don't and we're sick of giants anyway. Me, I don't believe much in giants. I reckon that there are lots of little guys, who work really hard, who build big things. Like those Roman and Celtic (and whoever) workers who built the buildings that primitive Europeans viewed as impossible – ordinary folks, working hard and more or less together, built some big things. And those who came later simply assumed that they were the work of giants.
I admit it freely. Einstein was much smarter than I am. So was Newton, I'm sure. Darwin had an amazing way of staying on a problem and not letting go, no matter what anyone thought. There are a lot of very smart people out there, and I have no doubt that they are all smarter than I am. So what? They didn't publish the most recent paper from my lab, bought with hard work, blood, sweat, pain, and grant money. Sure, I'm just a little guy, but I did it, me and my group, and Newton, Aristotle, Hooke, Pasteur and Ehrlich didn't help me one little bit. Nor did any of the other giants. My work was based on the work of a lot of little folks just like me, who publish their work and share their findings, and I'm happy to admit that I couldn't have done it without them, but, somehow, we're getting the job done.
And in the process? We're building great huge structures in homage to individuals we somehow want to elevate to `giant' status – individuals we're happy to put on our own shoulders. Sure, it makes us seem a bit humble. Sure, it makes us seem aware of the enormous debt we owe those who came before. But do we owe the giants or all those who worked in relative anonymity?
And that's the bottom line, isn't it? We don't honestly expect to be giants, but we hope that by standing on their shoulders others will want to stand on ours. But the sad thing is (if it is a sad thing) a few days after you retire from this career hardly anyone will really remember what you, specifically, did. Only you'll know. Hopefully a lot of what you did will be taken as simple fact, things everyone now knows, but they won't know that it was you who found it out. A few from each generation are selected as giants, but they get smaller every generation (Quick, who won the “N” prize in your selected field in 1999?). And hardly anyone admits that they stand on their shoulders.
In fact, each day we go to work, all those giants stand on our shoulders – hoping to see a bit further, hoping to get a glimpse of the next discovery, a discovery you'll make, hoping you'll give them the credit for what you did. But let's stop pretending that they knew it all along, that science just waits for a select few brilliant minds to lead us, while all the rest hang in there. There aren't any giants, not really, just some folks who are a bit (or a lot) smarter, work a bit (or a lot) harder, and happen to be a little bit (or a lot) luckier, more ruthless or better at promoting themselves. But me? I'm just thrilled that I can do this for a living, thank you. I'm perfectly delighted to hang around with little folks, just like me. And I'm very proud to stand on their shoulders, and they, in turn, are welcome to stand on mine.
Actually, this carrying the weight of the greats around is hard work. So instead, I think I'm going to take a little nap. If I sleep more deeply, it is only because giants have stood on my shoulders.