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Shoulders of Giants

Posted by Tug Brice on 15 Nov. 2020

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Tonight I am going to write about something near and dear to my heart: science. Science is the method by which knowledge is tested and expanded upon. It is how we conquered the world and launched ourselves into space. 

The awesome thing about science is the way it builds on itself. It was Isaac Newton who said “if I have seen further than others, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” He was referring to the way that he used the work of those in the past to build his own work upon. Without data on planetary motion, he wouldn’t have been able to come up with his theory of motion. That data came from people who used telescopes built by lensmakers, who used breakthroughs in glass making developed by chemists, who used chemicals mined by people using techniques developed by engineers, and so on and so forth. Everything builds on something else that came before it. That’s how science works.

A perfect example of this comes from the closely related subject of math. Euclid, the ancient Greek philosopher who nearly single-handedly invented geometry, wrote a textbook called The Elements. It is so influential that it is still used as the basis of many basic textbooks on geometry to this day. 
Euclid starts with several axioms (statements that are so simple that they are just taken as true. For example: The whole is greater than the part) and postulates (definitions, like all right angles are equal to each other). From these axioms and postulates, he moves step by step from very simple proofs to extremely complex ones, each one building on a concept he has previously proven. 

This, along with the rigorous testing of knowledge, is the essence of science. It is what allowed us to build up from having almost no understanding of the world around us to being able to put a human on the moon and explore the subatomic world. 

There is a science fiction writer named Arthur C. Clarke who made some statements about science that came to be known as Clarke’s Laws. Many people have heard the third law, but not many know all three. They have proven to be true quite often. I present them here because I believe them.

  1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
  2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
  3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

So much of what we previously believed was impossible is now possible. We can fly. We can talk with each other instantly across the globe. We can cure diseases and heal injuries. I can write a journal entry on a rectangle powered by lightning tamed with mystic runes carved into flat rocks. What would Newton think about today’s world? And what would he say if he knew we consider him a giant upon whose shoulders we stand to make all of this possible?

Science is what has made our world what it is. It gave us all the things that we cherish in this life. Pretty much the only thing science didn’t give us is each other. We understood how to make babies on our own, although science does have a hand in making the whole process safer, easier, more controllable, and more predictable.

I promise you, scientists are not out to ruin your lives. On the contrary, most of the scientists I know got into science to make the world a better place. And trust me, nobody goes into science for the money. Most of the ones I know have to fight to get their projects funded, or they have to study what someone else tells them to. There is no sinister agenda. Just people who want to know more about the world. People who want to understand how it works. 

We all benefit from science. We are all standing on the shoulders of the generations of scientists and knowledge seekers that brought us to this point. It is up to us to honor their work by respecting it, so that the next generation may stand upon our shoulders. Let’s not let down the giants that came before us, and be giants to those that come after us.

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