Written Work by Graham T. Baden
“What Des-Cartes did was a good step. You have added much several ways, & especially in taking ye colours of thin plates into philosophical consideration. If I have seen further it is by standing on ye shoulders of Giants.”
-From a letter written by Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke, 5 Feb. 1676
The phrase “standing on the shoulders of giants” seems a very forward thinking, hopeful, even grateful thing to say. When one regards, however, to whom Newton was speaking, the full context of how it was phrased, and the bitter rivalry he had with the person who received the letter, the idiom seems tinged with jealousy.
Newton hated Hooke. When he wrote the letter, the two had been rivals for years, arguing about the nature of light. Newton thought light was made of particles, and Hooke thought it was made of waves. How silly their competition seems from the perspective of the modern world, where wave/particle duality is an accepted reality. When, in his letter, Newton said that he saw further than Hooke because he stood on the shoulders of giants, it not only shows Newton’s obsessive need to be the best, it shows how low he would stoop to demean his peers. It is commonly assumed Hooke had either Scoliosis or Pott’s disease. This made him short, standing with a stoop— perhaps even a hunchback. Rather than a phrase that celebrated the march of scientific progress, it may be more likely a cheap dig at a compatriot— a fellow scientist whose theory was the other side of the same coin.