Not Knowing

“They say great science is built on the shoulders of giants. Not here. At Aperture, we do all our science from scratch. No hand holding.” - Cave Johnson

Bassel Saleh


May 9, 2021

The Giant’s Feet

I don’t have any children, but if I did I think I’d be one of those parents who keeps kicking the naming can down the road and referring to their newborn as “the baby” for weeks into its life. Point being, I think naming something is really hard, especially if it’s something young and new that hasn’t quite fully formed. I overthink and second guess, I make spreadsheets of options and weigh the pros and cons, and in the end I can never be 100% satisfied with the result. I also think this defficiency is not unique to me in my profession, for it seems many practicioners of science struggle to creatively christen their creations. I think if academic papers were required to have short, uncomplicated titles, there would be a lot less getting published every year.

In the epic struggle of picking a name for this blog, I settled on a reference to the famous quote by Isaac Newton:

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

I think this quote captures the essense of what I’m trying to do with this blog. It’s a powerful metaphor, the idea that science allows us to reach far beyond our individual acuities, to glimpse profound truths on the horizon of human understanding, but only because we are elevated by the insight and hard work of generations of past thinkers. It’s beautiful, in a way, to imagine perching precariously on the shoulder of some enormous creature, gazing at a vast landscape that would be hidden to those on the ground.

But it’s also a bit… grandiose? Pretentious? Who am I, after all, to suggest that my shoulders are worth standing on? I’m no giant, no leading expert in any field. I’m not even a full-fledged Ph.D. yet. And thus the appropriate version of this metaphor became apparent to me. I’m not an authority on science or mathematics, or anything else for that matter. But I’m a student, an aspiring shoulder-gazer. I’m still standing on the ground, looking up at the giant and wondering about the view.

So by reading this blog you won’t necessarily get the perspecive of a giant’s shoulders, but you can, if you like, come along with me while I start to climb. Every day we’ll get a little higher and see a little further. I hope to make a career some day out of science communication, so maybe this is the natural place to start, at the giant’s feet, climbing gear in hand. Maybe some day we can look out at the horizon together.

A Little Time to Change

There’s another problem with Newton’s quote about the giants, besides it being a bit lofty. It’s basic. Many of you I’m sure have heard the quote before. It’s appeared numerous times across popular culture, from song lyrics to sitcoms. Stephen Hawking wrote a whole book called On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy. The official motto of Google Scholar is “Stand on the Shoulders of Giants”, and the video game Portal 2 humorously subverts the metaphor through the scientific arrogance of the fictitious Aperture Science. It’s even inscribed on the edge of the British two pound coin.

Perhaps it’s the dormant Austin hipster in me that I pretend isn’t there, but surely you don’t want something too popular as the source for your name. It’s not cool unless it’s sufficiently obscure, right? Well there is another quote, one that I think even better represents my attitude toward this blog (and also probably toward life in general), and it is at least slightly more obscure:

I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.

– Richard Feynman

It’s hard to convey just how much this sentiment resonates with me. It’s direct and unpretentious, and it boils all of the complexity of life down to something simple but true: we are born ignorant, and every day we gather data to update our knowledge of the world. Every exam taken, every book or social media post read, every conversation had, and every sight seen and sound heard contributes to this endeavor. And we are all equal in this way, all born the same and then thrust into the world to absorb as much as we can before our time is up.

But alas, partly due to the simplicty of its language that drew me to it, this quote does not contain a catchy two or three word phrase that can be synthesized into the name of a blog. Trust me, I tried. I settled on referencing it in the title of this post, but that’s about all I could milk out of it. So instead you get the story about the giants and the legacy of Isaac Newton and every scientist, songwriter, and video game developer who’s quoted him over the years.

Oh well, I can live with being a little basic, especially since this was all just an excuse to ramble about interesting quotes and the several sources of inspiration I had for starting this blog. Maybe that’s the best summary of what to expect: me looking for excuses to rant about things I find interesting.

Did you know Newton didn’t even come up with the shoulders of giants thing? When he mentioned it in a letter to Robert Hooke in 1676, he was referencing a metaphor that was already quite popular at the time, one which apparently can be traced to Bernard of Chartres, a 12th century French philosopher, who had in mind the image of dwarfs riding on the shoulders of giants from ancient Greek mythology. I wonder what Bernard would think of all the credit Newton gets for referencing his metaphor.