Sir Isaac Newton, born close to 400 years ago, is still a contender for the title of Greatest Scientist Who Ever Lived. Best known for his thinking on gravity, he made advances in many fields, including physics, mathematics, astronomy, and optics.
Newton knew that he had developed powerful new theories and tools. Yet he thought of himself as part of a long scientific tradition. “If I have seen further,” he wrote to fellow scientist Robert Hooke, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”
“Standing on the shoulders of giants” is a good metaphor for working with sources. How do we master a subject? First, we learn from experts who have already done work on the subject. They show us how to define terms, weigh evidence, and solve problems in our field. In the process of becoming expert, we may test, dispute, or expand others’ ideas. However, our insights and methods are not developed in a vacuum, and crediting those who influence our thinking is part of the work of any academic paper.
Locating and citing sources gets us to the giant’s shoulders. The temptation is to stop there. However, from a giant’s shoulders we see a new, wider perspective. Our job now is not to exult in the height we have achieved, but to see even further.
See farther than the giants? That thought can be a bit intimidating. However, as Newton recognized, knowledge is meant to be used. To find what you can add to a body of knowledge, imitate his scientific approach: question, observe, and develop new insights.
Ask: Have the giants left a question unanswered? What do you observe when you try to apply one of their ideas? How might their ideas, combined with your experience, suggest a new solution or more effective method?
First, learn all you can from the experts in your field. Then challenge yourself: What do you see from your giants’ shoulders?