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Since then, of course, Newton’s model of classical mechanics has been superseded by quantum physics, with the likes of Einstein, Planck and Bohr building on, and sometimes dismantling, those earlier theories.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.

In his talk, he gave a funny and dramatic account of the very first communication between two computers on the Arpanet, on October 29th, 1969, when a computer at UCLA attempted to make contact with a computer at Stanford. The command was LOGIN, but the system crashed after the second letter, leaving the world’s very first networked message being the short and sweet “Lo”. It was an inauspicious beginning for what became the internet.

Towards the end of his presentation, Kleinrock speculated on how the internet will continue to develop. “The infrastructure is easy to predict,” he said. “The internet will be a pervasive global nervous system. What is hard to predict is the applications and services built on that network.”

After the interview, I mentioned the earlier conversation with Fadell and his vision of the networked home, and Kleinrock responded, full of admiration: “I have that thermostat myself – it’s brilliant.”

Suddenly, I could perceive how the evolution of the internet and all its infinite promise resembled a faintly cosmic thread, running from Kleinrock’s original packet switching research 50 years ago to Fadell’s beautiful gadgets today. That morning, even as I heard their respective stories, I hadn’t made the full connection between Kleinrock’s fridge-sized Interface Message Processor in UCLA and Fadell’s thermostat or smoke alarm.

But Kleinrock’s praise for the Nest thermostat closed the circuit, so to speak – those foundations he had painstakingly laid so many years before were fundamental to the realisation of devices such as the Nest thermostat or smoke alarm, or the iPhone for that matter. The “pervasive global nervous system” that Kleinrock helped kickstart will be feeding the cars and devices and gadgets of the future with data and algorithms and intelligence, ultimately.

Fadell and his colleagues need not even be all that familiar with the work of Leonard Kleinrock for them to perch on his shoulders – that’s the beauty of the scientific process.

Perhaps it is fitting, then, that Newton didn’t actually coin the phrase himself – he was invoking a metaphor that had first been recorded many centuries before and attributed to the 12th-century philosopher Bernard of Chartres. The giant Bernard and Newton refers to is not any one particularly gifted thinker – instead, the giant represents the sum of all human knowledge.