Taking giant steps on the shoulders of others
Of all Isaac Newton’s gifts to humanity, my personal favourite is his famous turn of phrase, written in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
There is such a beautiful humility and economy in the words, a vivid evocation of the process of human learning. The Principia Mathematica is a work of genius, no doubt, but in that phrase Newton acknowledges how his work builds on the breakthroughs of Kepler, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, Galileo and so on.
Since then, of course, Newton’s model of classical mechanics has been superseded by quantum physics, with the likes of Einstein, Planck and Bohr building on, and sometimes dismantling, those earlier theories.
“Standing on the shoulder of giants” conjures the proper scale in which we must understand and appreciate the individual scientist, researcher, inventor - minuscule in his or her own right, but capable of furthering the bounds of human knowledge only because they can build on the achievements of their predecessors. Its elegance and insight rests on the way it contextualises the scientific process, the accretion of knowledge, the accumulation of understanding.
Most of the time, though, we just don’t have the perspective to fully appreciate how the “giant-shoulder standing” process works – it happens on a larger timescale than we can easily perceive. So I felt very fortunate indeed when the process was brought into sharp relief for me a few weeks ago.
I was working at the Web Summit at the end of October, and on the Wednesday morning, I got to interview Tony Fadell for an hour. Fadell is not exactly a household name, but you’re more than likely very familiar with his work – he invented the iPod, bringing the concept to Apple in 2001 and overseeing the development of the game-changing music player. He spent nearly a decade at Apple, leading the development of the iPhone, and now is probably doing more than anyone to pioneer an entirely new class of devices, bringing to reality a world of smart network-connected domestic appliances through his latest company, Nest.
With two products released so far, a thermostat and a smoke alarm, Fadell is reinventing not just how the devices in our homes work, but is also pioneering a space often described, somewhat inelegantly, as “the internet of things”. It is a vision in which the internet doesn’t just connect our computers, tablets and smartphones, but also our domestic appliances, our cars, our watches – everything electronic, basically.
Soon after my interview with Fadell, I attended a wonderful lecture by Leonard Kleinrock and interviewed him afterwards. Kleinrock is one of the founding fathers of the internet, a pioneering computer scientist who developed some of the fundamental concepts of networking theory in the early 1960s before becoming a key figure in the development of the Arpanet, the precursor to the internet, later that decade.