Note: this poem is now available on a poster!
“If I have seen farther,” the scientist said,
“it’s not because I am a giant.
“Great minds of the past have helped me get ahead;
it’s their shoulders on which I’m reliant.”
“Now listen to me!” said the great on whose shoulder
the first one was glad to have stood.
“I’m quite short of stature, it’s just that I’m older
and those before me were so good.”
And sure enough, this one was perched on the neck
of a giantist of great renown
who balanced in turn on another; by heck!
It’s little guys all the way down.
And some were thought giants, and some were thought midgets
and some were thought nothing at all,
but each would insist, “Those below were no idjits.
It’s them that have made me so tall.”
And scrambling around them their fans would aspire,
to see something not seen before
by climbing the tower of dwarves, ever higher
for glimpses, or footholds, or more.
Most could not scale to the summit in time,
before their peak fitness would end.
Some found it tough and abandoned the climb
while some would, with vigor, descend:
Aware that such heights were so taxing to reach,
they helped to lift people and hopes,
inventing new ladders and platforms to teach,
securing and showing the ropes.
“They might not be giants, but they must go far
and that journey isn’t for me.
I’ll boost them through science, raise them and the bar
and profit from what they will see.”
So said the teacher while lifting a child
on shoulders so humble and stressed.
The youth saw a vista that had them beguiled
and bounded straight up to the crest.
Quotes similar to “If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants” have been attributed to many scientists and scholars. It’s been bugging me for a while, because even if the people whose shoulders they’re standing on are metaphorically taller than average, they’re nowhere near as big as how giants are imagined today, and they’re surely standing on someone else’s shoulders. There are no giants; it’s a tower of dwarves, and if it ever looks like it’s made of ivory, it’s just because the dwarves don’t spend enough time in the sun. You don’t need to be a giant to get up onto the topmost shoulders, but you need to do an awful lot of climbing; there’s a lot to learn before you can discover something new these days. Enjoy the view on the way up.
Luckily, we have people who invent new climbing techniques and equipment, and telescopes to see more when we get up there. This poem focusses more on teachers, but they could be science writers, YouTubers, educational charities, scientific songwriters (yes, even the ones that might be giants), inventors of more efficient lab equipment (the real or metaphorical telescope), maybe even code monkeys like me. Now that I’ve listed those things, it reminds me of the song ‘Somebody Will‘ by Sassafrass.
I would love to see illustrations of the tower of dwarves.
I had been planning to get Wax Mannequin to choose a card for me to write about this week, since I saw him in concert on Saturday, and why should Jonathan Coulton and Paul and Storm be the only musicians who choose cards? But in the end I started writing this one early in the week, and never even dealt out the cards. I hoped that the Jack of diamonds from one of my two Manneken Pis decks would be some kind of teacher or scientist, and luckily, one turned out to be a student. I never even dealt the rest of the cards.
On the subject of music, Marian Call will be performing at CERN on October 20. It’s going to be great! Also, I’ve uploaded videos of most of Paul and Storm’s and Jonathan Coulton’s show at Union Chapel. And now that I’m on the subject of videos, here’s one of a friend of mine asking a question when the crew of the shuttle mission to install the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer came to CERN. I’d have liked to have asked about the relative awesomeness of the ISS and the LHC, but we didn’t have microphones, and in the CERN auditorium, no one can hear me scream.