I Don't Stand on the Shoulders of Giants

May 24, 2017

Lets start with a quick imagination. Picture some giants. Like actually though. Close your eyes, visualize, them - see them in your minds eye. Take a moment to experience the scene.

Okay, one question: How many giants did you imagine?


Nah mate, I’m going crowd-surfing instead.

It is reasonably common to hear (in science), as I did recently at a conference, that, as scientists, we are merely ‘standing on the shoulder’s of giants’. It’s a metaphorical way of expressing that all we are doing is building upon the contributions of the visionaries before us. Basically, it’s the ultimate science humble-brag, a seemingly nice way to acknowledge those who came before. An age-old expression, it’s use in science seems to be traced back to Isaac Newton with his famous formulation ‘if I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants’. It’s not an uncommon statement - it’s even the official motto of Google Scholar.

Every field has a set of revered ‘giants’ - a small group of thinkers who somehow saw further and with more clarity than anyone else at the time, launching their field forwards, sometimes in unexpected new directions. In my field, I think of scientists like Ramon Y Cajal, Wilder Penfield, or more contemporarily, Gyorgy Buzsaki. And it’s true - these scientists made massive contributions, and are truly foundational to the work that I (and many, many others) do.

That said, science is by no means immune to excessive and/or misplaced hero worship. In what way do we actually ‘stand’ on these giants? My current research projects collectively cite hundreds of papers by many hundreds or perhaps thousands of scientists, each adding some little piece to the questions on which we work - questions which were often entirely unimagined by the proverbial giants of field. Beyond that, if I manage to get anything done on any given day, it is due to a network of mentors, peers, research assistants, and even administrative staff contributing to the overall project. If I were to say my work is ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ it would be to ignore almost everyone whom I actually ‘stood on’ to get the work done.

Our worship of ‘giants’, appeals to the authority of a small number of people to whom we give praise in isolation, despite the context of everyone else who was involved, and the historical bias of who we choose to glorify. If ever there was truly a time in which individuals independently pushed science forwards, it is not today. Modern science is a team sport, and the words we use should reflect that, and give credit to the immense number of people contributing to its developments. I’m not saying everyone’s contribution is (or has to be) equal - there are indeed revolutionaries who sent us hurtling in a new direction, prolific workers who shepherd through an insane amount of progress, a rare few who do both, and most of us who will do neither - but within and beyond that, there are always a lot of people propping us up when we take the stand as a scientist.

The metaphors we use matter - they don’t merely reflect the world, they also work to shape our perception of it. If you did the initial imagination, I am willing to bet that in your visualization you imagined a small number giants, say, 2 or 4, maybe a couple more. I doubt you envisioned hundreds of them. If, as a researcher, you really feel that you are independently taking a step forwards directly from the proverbial giants of the field, then by all means go ahead - but that is not the story of my research.

So, perhaps we need a new metaphor. So far, the best I have to offer is crowd-surfing. It takes a lot of people to crowd-surf - a crowd even. And so, if you ever find me taking a moment to talk about my science, I hope you will hear me acknowledge that I am merely crowd-surfing on the bedrock of science. Sure, Cajal, Penfield and Buzsaki are in there, strong arms propelling us forwards when we reach the thinning edges of what is known, but so are innumerable other helping hands, supporting the field in myriad different ways. And when I’m done, I’ll sink back into the crowd, offering support to the next person to push forward on our shared questions, collectively creating and discovering science as we go.

Thank you to Rose Hendricks for comments on this post. Rose studies how the use of metaphor effects how we think, you can find her on her website, and/or learn more from her Ignite talk. She suggested science as ‘human pyramid’ metaphor, which I also very much like.

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