Have you ever found yourself in the kitchen, pouring milk over your cereal, gripped by the genesis of an expression you’ve heard, or said, many times: “There’s no use crying over spilled milk?” If not, I’m here to tell you the search for its backstory sent me down a shallow and perhaps fake rabbit hole.
In contrast, Craige Gravestein, the recipient of the 2023 Arthur Venn Lifetime Achievement Award, sent me down the Westminster Abbey of rabbit holes. Craige knew Arthur Venn, was humbled to be associated with one of the giants of Australian fundraising and felt fortunate to stand on his shoulders. After speaking to Craige, I had to know more about where that expression came from. So, I sought the wisdom of Google.
In 1675, Isaac Newton wrote to fellow genius Robert Hooke, “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” A decade earlier, home from Cambridge University due to an outbreak of bubonic plague, Isaac watched an apple fall from a tree and wondered why it fell straight down rather than up or sideways. Apocryphal, perhaps, but it’s a great origin story for the theory of gravity.
Around the same time, Hooke published his seminal work, Microphagia, which featured detailed illustrations and pithy descriptions of miniscule specimens he viewed under a microscope he designed, most famously an astonishing drawing of a flea. A noted architect and surveyor, he would soon embark on a project with childhood friend, Christopher Wren, to rebuild London after the Great Fire of 1666. The Curator of Experiments at the Royal Society (the world’s oldest scientific academy and still going strong), Hooke was a true polymath. He developed the law of elasticity, discovered diffraction (that light can bend around corners), he is the originator of the word ‘cell’ to describe the smallest form of life, he built a reflecting telescope, he was the first person to suggest that Jupiter rotated on its axis… I’ll stop there!
The cordial acquaintance between the father of modern physics and England’s answer to Leonardo Da Vinci devolved into acrimony, and, after the publication of Newton’s seminal work Principia in 1687, Hooke cried plagiarism. Newton, who had always acknowledged he built upon the knowledge of others, dismissed the claim – and then set about reducing his rival to a dust mite of history. It was rumoured, never proven, that after Hooke’s death in 1703 Newton destroyed the only painting of his rival.
Thankfully the pernicious behaviour of 17th century scientists is no longer pervasive. But we do stand on the shoulders of others, giants or not. It’s called collective learning and it’s a wonderful attribute of the nonprofit sector.