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READ: Standing on the Shoulders of Invisible Giants

The history of science is a history of our collective learning. Historians piece together different conversations to tell a story that crosses centuries and continents.

Standing on the Shoulders of Invisible Giants

By Eman M. Elshaikh
The history of science is a history of our collective learning. Historians piece together different conversations to tell a story that crosses centuries and continents
Sir Isaac Newton, the famous English scientist, once said, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Of course, Newton wasn’t literally standing on the shoulders of giants. Newton was explaining that his ideas didn’t come from him alone. He relied on the ideas of those who came before him. When Newton used the word giant, he meant people who were giants in the scientific community. These were the people who, before him, made big contributions to our knowledge. Newton, even though he was a genius himself, knew that he couldn’t have come up with his scientific breakthroughs on his own.
That’s probably not a surprise to you. But what you might not know is that some of those giants came from the Islamic world. And that might be surprising because Newton was a European scientist. The Renaissance—and the Scientific Revolution, which came later—started in Europe, so many assume that’s where all the scientists were. But many of the ideas that developed in Europe during the Scientific Revolution in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were influenced by the work of earlier scholars in the Islamic world and elsewhere.
We often hear about the medieval period as a “dark age,” but that’s not quite accurate. From the eighth to the thirteenth century, a golden age of culture and scientific thinking flourished in the Islamic world, which stretched from the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) to India. Of course, these scholars also stood on the shoulders of giants from Greece, India, and China. Yet despite the giant innovations of Islamic scholars, they have often been left out of the story, making them invisible. So let’s look a little closer at what these “invisible giants” can show us.

Collective learning

When Newton spoke of standing on the shoulders of giants, he was talking about collective learning—our species’ unique ability to share, preserve, and build upon knowledge over time. It’s a key part of what makes us human. Our creative abilities depend on learning from the work of others—just like Newton did. You rely on collective learning when you learn by reading a book or listening to your teacher. When you use these ideas in a school project, you make your own contribution to collective learning by sharing your ideas with others. In that way, you become a part of the chain of collective learning.
Sometimes it’s easy to see how collective learning moves from one thinker to another, or one community to another. For example, we know that the great astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus directly influenced two other famous astronomers: Galileo Galilei and Johannes Kepler. If we think of Copernicus as a giant, we can say that Galileo and Kepler stood on his shoulders to reach greater heights. And our friend Newton stood on their shoulders to reach even higher. These thinkers lived in different times and places, but we can imagine collective learning as a kind of conversation they had across time and distance. They might never have met, but the transfer of their ideas across time and space allowed science theories to be built, questioned, and refined.
These conversations aren’t exactly easy to spot. Historians of science have to work hard to find the evidence that connects one thinker to another. We know about some of these links because historians pieced together the story from a variety of documents. One of the things that makes this so hard is that these documents are located in different countries and written in different languages. Some are better preserved than others. Collecting and translating is already a big challenge, but then historians must put them together and make arguments. These documents are sometimes incomplete or missing, which makes the job even harder.
And in many cases, historians just haven’t gotten around to reading them yet. There are thousands of manuscripts that historians are still reading and analyzing so they can uncover stories about the history of science still waiting to be told! The further you go back in time, the harder it is. Copernicus and Newton weren’t separated by that much time or distance, at least compared to the wide separation of Copernicus from Islamic scholars like the Persian astronomer Nasir al-Din al-Tusi, who lived centuries before Copernicus and thousands of miles away!
Collective learning is like a conversation that happens across time and space. Over millennia and across continents, humans have contributed to our collective knowledge by writing, publishing, talking, teaching, analyzing, debating, collaborating, and sharing ideas. © DrAfter123 / DigitalVision / Getty Images.
We have to wonder: how many invisible giants are still out there? How will we discover them? Which scholars have had their contributions to science erased by time and distance? Probably quite a few. There are a lot of reasons they don’t appear in the historical record. They might be “invisible” because historians just don’t know much about them yet. Even if historians do know about them, they may debate who influenced whom and how much of an influence there really was. Unlike students and scholars today, who carefully write down their sources and references, scientists in the past didn’t always do this. Scientists often borrowed the ideas of others without giving them credit directly. So, historians must connect the dots in other ways. One way is by noticing similarities between two scientists’ work, and then researching how a scientist in one place might have influenced another scientist who lived very far away in a different time.
You know that story of Newton discovering gravity by watching an apple fall? That’s called an “aha! moment” and stories of scientific geniuses are full of them. But there is a lot more to collective learning than aha! moments. Adaptations, conversations, arguments, and changes are what keep the scientific conversation going, century after century. Yes, it includes Newton, Copernicus, and al-Tusi, but also included are students and teachers, librarians and writers, historians and astronomers, and you!

A bigger history of science

To really think about collective learning, we have to tell bigger stories that include once-invisible giants. While Copernicus influenced many scientists, we have to ask: who influenced Copernicus? On whose shoulders did he stand? Copernicus is said to have started the Scientific Revolution, but was there no science before him? Some historians say, “Of course there was—in Europe, China, India, the Islamic world, and beyond!” Historians of science today are beginning to uncover many of these connections. For example, some think Copernicus was influenced by Persian astronomers like al-Tusi. For that matter, al-Tusi was influenced by Chinese and ancient Greek astronomers. Plus, al-Tusi couldn’t have done his mathematical calculations without Arabic numerals—which are really based on a numbering system developed in ancient India. And—oh, wait!—those were introduced earlier by the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi. These connections are part of our Big History, because they add to our collective learning. It happens across continents and across centuries.
Throughout this course, you’ll learn about important moments in our collective learning. You might wonder why you haven’t heard about these scholars before. Well, it’s still a pretty new field of history! Historians of science continue to learn, debate, and write about it. They argue over who the giants are and how their ideas traveled. Our collective learning about the topic is still growing—and we learn new things every day. It’s a complicated story, but it’s definitely worth telling, especially when it has the power to make invisible giants more visible
Author bio
Eman M. Elshaikh holds an MA in social sciences from and is pursuing a PhD at the University of Chicago, where she also teaches writing. She is a writer and researcher, and has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the US and in the Middle East. Eman was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP world history.

Want to join the conversation?

  • starky tree style avatar for user NineJinx
    This topic is very interesting, to be honest I alway thought that scientists researched everything by themselves and created claims without any inspiration of other scientist's claims. This is my aha! moment.
    (5 votes)
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  • female robot amelia style avatar for user Abe
    There are two periods missing in this article. One on the second to the last paragraph and one missing in the first paragraph. Interesting read though!
    (0 votes)
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