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Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On the shoulders of giants...

Isaac Newton once famously said:

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

The idea that the insights of today owe much to the hard work of others who went before us is not new.  As far back as the 12th century John of Salisbury wrote in his work Metalogicon

"Bernard of Chartres used to compare us to dwarfs perched on the shoulders of giants. He pointed out that we see more and farther than our predecessors, not because we have keener vision or greater height, but because we are lifted up and borne aloft on their gigantic stature."

The tradition of the lab notebook clearly acknowledged the importance of this concept. Knowledge accumulates and builds. Discoveries beget discoveries, and thought stimulates further thought. This is why it is so important that scientists properly and accurately document their work.

I was struck by the poignance of a recent article: "Newly discovered notes show Venetian physician had a key role in shaping early modern chemistry."  The newly rediscovered notes help us to understand how the foundations for modern evidence-based medicine were laid in the 16th century and the study of these notes is like a slightly one-sided conversation with the author. Lev Vygotsky has said that all learning is social. This is another key reason why the preservation of the creative thought processes of scientists as written words is so important. To study these thought processes is to enter into a social dialog of sorts with the author, even if the author lived hundreds of years ago, and according to Vygotsky, social interactions invariably lead to, and and are in fact required for the construction of new knowledge.