Isaac Newton is one of the most accomplished human beings ever to set foot on Earth.
His work on the laws of motion and universal gravitation changed how we see the universe, and his influence on fields ranging from optics to astronomy to calculus can be felt today.
As a person, however, he was often petty, egotistical, and very difficult to get along with. There are many known stories of him behaving in extremely erratic ways with the people in his life.
And yet, by all records, there appears to be a stark distinction between the Newton that the public and the community dealt with, and the Newton that pursued his scientific endeavors.
Although he wasn’t particularly inspiring as a colleague or acquaintance, the way he treated his fascination with understanding why the world worked the way it did was different.
When it came to the art of invention, Newton’s approach was that of great humility. He saw himself simply as a curious student wandering the shore of an ocean of undiscovered truths.
In a letter exchanged with a rival, Robert Hooke, in 1676, he gave us perhaps one of the greatest insights into the process of discovery when he wrote the following words:
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”1
Collective Intelligence Is Our Success
Humans have been around for approximately 200,000 years, but up until about 70,000 years ago, we weren’t too different from any of the other animals in our impact on the environment.
Then, in a relatively short period, we became the dominant predator on Earth. A few 10,000 years later, we began settling into agricultural communities, and less than 9,000 years after that, we learned to write. Since then, our rate of progress has only gotten faster.
The modern world we enjoy today is inconceivably different from the world we’ve lived in for the majority of our existence. It begs an important question. What changed?
The answer lies in our ability to pass down knowledge. No other animal can do it as we do.
It began with the stories that our complex form of language enables us to tell each other, it was compounded as we started to write down information, and it shifted into a whole new gear when Newton and his predecessors kicked off the scientific revolution.
Alone in the wild, we’re no match for a lion or a gorilla. Together as a species, our collective intelligence has enabled us to rule the planet. Our power grew from large-scale cooperation.
If Newton hadn’t first read the work of Copernicus, Kepler, and Galileo, he wouldn’t have known where to start. He had what he called a “Waste Book” where he stored any important passages from the texts he read. It inspired many of his discoveries.
Through written words and our communications systems, we have the ability to connect from across seas and centuries. Without our collective knowledge, we’d be starting from scratch with each new generation, and our impact on Earth would be astronomically different.2
Nothing Is Entirely Original
The words discovery and invention often refer to something new; something useful that didn’t exist before. And given this connotation, when most of us think about a discovery or an invention, we think of it as something groundbreaking that seemingly came up out of thin air.
That isn’t an entirely accurate way of looking at it. In actuality, any new idea, process, or method is in some way a combination of old concepts and information.
Sometimes, the connection between existing knowledge may well be loose and abstract enough not to be immediately visible, but no discovery or invention is completely original.
The basic notion of creativity – which is what leads to something new – is that it’s a process of seeking relationships between what we already know. It’s about combining a mental inventory of the past and mingling it around in a new way that somehow contextually works.
In science, for example, new ideas go through a process of refinement. They begin as a hypothesis, and they develop into theories if they consistently pass the experimentation phase. Any theory is held firm until it’s proven wrong by another reliable experiment.
Hypothetically speaking, nothing can ever be proven right. It can only ever be falsified or proven wrong. Science is an approximation game of being less and less wrong over time.
With that in mind, the context of Newton’s brilliant insight makes even more sense. To discover and invent what he did and to see what he saw, he had to have known the work of those who came before him. He had to start at a higher vantage point than anyone in history.
Old discoveries pushed knowledge closer to the truth so that Newton could push it even closer. Without an awareness of past ideas, his own point of reference would’ve been off.
Discoveries are never a product of pure single-handed originality. That doesn’t exist.
All You Need to Know
Today, Newton is considered the father of modern science. He looked far beyond what had previously been seen, and he pushed our knowledge of physics and mathematics forward.
Ironically, he knew better than most that it wasn’t all him. He had a deep appreciation and understanding of how the process of discovery occurs. He knew he had help.
“If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
It’s a simple yet clear sentence about how we make progress. It’s a reminder to share the credit for our successes and to harness the power of what others can teach us.
Our prosperity as a species rests on our collective intelligence. Alone, and without the power of past knowledge, we wouldn’t be where we are today. We’d be starting from scratch with each new generation. We rely on others more than we depend on ourselves.
Even the inventions and discoveries we consider original aren’t entirely so. They’re a product of both a simple and complex combination of existing elements of our reality. The creative process is just a way of finding relationships between what is already known.
None of us can do it alone, and we don’t have to. There is inspiration to steal everywhere.
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