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The shoulders of giants

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MARCH 08, 2013

The chapter in my physics textbook on gravity is called “Newton’s Universe.”

Forget worldviews: Imagine having a perspective on the entire universe named in your honor hundreds of years after you’re dead, like you’ve singlehandedly redefined the right way to look at literally everything. That’s godlike.

But it’s apparently not the way Newton saw things.

“If I have seen further,” he is said to have written, “it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Those giants must have been exactly one Isaac Newton short of the plateau overlooking the panorama of the universe, a height I’m not yet far enough into physics to know how to measure.

Even though I can’t do the math, I like to imagine the way Newton might have felt as he made his way up to those shoulders, clamoring up over giant after giant through a seemingly endless procession of human ingenuity, making his way through the carefully accrued log of what our species knows about our universe.

And even more than that, I like to imagine the way Newton’s face might have looked when he finally reached that last set of shoulders, when he knew his own sturdy set would be the next rung in that human ladder, when he knew he knew something true that no one else had ever known before. I like to imagine the way the sight of that new universe splayed out in front of him, overwhelming in its brilliance, might have been reflected in his own face — whether his features registered a slow shock and then an unadulterated joy.

I feel very thankful for the giants who have broadened society’s collective perspective, and I especially like the way their work stacks up. I like the way that our campus is literally built on top of those stacks, that when we walk on Memorial Glade, we are standing on paper giants. I like the way books stack up against one another on their shelves, their ideas quietly pushing against each other through their leather bindings. I like that the paper on which this column will be printed will be one leaf in a very tiny part of that overwhelming chronicle.

I think this chronicle exists in more practical places as well. On Tuesday, I saw a photo of a Downtown Berkeley apartment building that was taken more than five years ago. I have a friend who currently lives in the apartment in the image, but it’s not the same person who took the photo. My friend is not the person who wanted to frame the apartment’s exterior with her camera to show that it was her space, to show that it had been her home while she went to school here.

But I’m sure my friend feels like that, too. I’m sure she also feels a connection to the apartment, a sense of ownership, that it feels very much hers.

I feel a connection to it as well. The photographer has moved away, but the building in the photo looks exactly the same, and even the lighting in the photo is something I recognize.

The two apartment-dwellers will probably never meet, will probably never even think of each other. The apartment’s landlord might have met them both, though. Or even if it’s a different landlord now, the new landlord might have met the old landlord or one landlord in the shoulder sequence who met that photographer a few years ago.

We are our own giants, too. We are the most recent iteration of a person constantly climbing the shoulders of past selves toward a plateau we dream will be as brilliant as Newton’s.

Sometimes, when I’m in the middle of working really hard for something, I am struck by a sense of clarity that feels a bit like how I imagine Newton’s new universe might have. Like maybe every edit I make to this piece means getting closer to enumerating something true about the world. Like finally, something is illuminated.

It would be naive to say that it is ever a straight climb, and it would be problematic to say that humans are on a clean trajectory toward progress.

But it’s true that we’re made of the stuff of the stars and that we stand on a library full of ancient thoughts that have yet to exhaust their potency, that my textbook speaks of “unifying natural motion on Earth and in the heavens” and that the sky we see is one passed down to us from times of varying degrees passed, old light and new light that’s come from light-åyears away before we can look up to it.

And there’s still something that rings true for me in a photo of an apartment I have almost no stake in other than the humanness of it — the humanness of this enormous sequence of which I am so, so thankful to be a part.

Contact Sarah Burns at  or on Twitter

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MARCH 07, 2013