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Sir Isaac Newton

"If I have seen further, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants"

Sir Isaac Newton was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, alchemist, inventor and natural philosopher who is generally regarded as one of the most influential scientists in history.

This quote is from a letter written to fellow scientist, Robert Hooke in February 1675. The phrase is understood to mean that if Newton had been able to discover more about the universe than others, then it was because he was working in the light of discoveries made by fellow scientists, either in his own time or earlier. There is some suggestion that the phrase may also have had a sarcastic undertone - some historians report that Robert Hooke began to disagree with a number of Newton's theories, and Hooke himself was reportedly quite short in height.

The son of a farming family, Sir Isaac Newton was born in Lincolnshire in England in 1643. He is best known as the scientist who first identified the effects of gravity. A popular story claims that Newton was inspired to formulate his theory of universal gravitation by the fall of an apple from a tree. Cartoons have gone further to suggest the apple actually hit Newton's head, and that its impact somehow made him aware of the force of gravity. However, there is no basis to that interpretation.

Unique for time, Newton is also famous for his revolutionary discoveries in mathematics, optics, physics and astronomy. His book Principia, published in 1687, is regarded as the greatest scientific book ever written, and his discoveries have been the basis for much scientific research.

Our Expert Says...
Professor David Crystal

This is one of the most frequently used quotations in scientific enquiry, alluded to by researchers of all backgrounds who wish to acknowledge their own limitations when faced with the complexity of their subject. It is a quotation which varies enormously in its formulation. Another version is "We see further when standing on the shoulders of giants". But the essential metaphor remains the same. People who are proud of their contribution to a science are nonetheless well aware that they would have been unable to make that contribution if it were not for those scientists who have preceded them. It is a fine sentiment, and knowing that it came from Newton - a scientific giant, if ever there was one - it provides a model of humility which scientists would do well to emulate. In this age of the television scientific pundit, unfortunately, scientific humility is often conspicuous by its absence.

Sir Isaac Newton
Links

Newton's manuscripts

Newton's Biography

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