Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of On the Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy

edited with comments by Stephen Hawking

(Running Press, $25.95, 1280 pages, October, 2002)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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If you like On the Shoulders of Giants, you might also enjoy coverthe Science Shelf review of The Universe in a Nutshell, also by Stephen Hawking.

"If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." This quotation from a 1676 letter from Lucasian Professor of Mathematics Sir Isaac Newton to Robert Hooke is probably the most often cited occurrence of giving scientific credit where it is due.

In a compendium drawing its title from those words, Stephen Hawking, the current holder of Newton's prestigious academic chair, notes that those words carried an irony. Hooke and Newton were bitter rivals, and Newton's genuine acknowledgment may have also contained a swipe at his adversary's short stature and stooped posture.

Prof. Hawking, whose physical limitations may provide him more sympathy for Hooke than most people, capitalizes on his literary acclaim, earned through previous popular books about his own esoteric research into the nature of space and time, to introduce the giants on whose shoulders his wheelchair sits. His own writing is a small fraction of tAK
For readers already familiar with the lives of those "giants," the essays contribute little more than reminders of anecdotes previously encountered. Readers less familiar with those pioneering scientists will find the essays useful as a common thread. In either case, they provide useful historical and personal context for discovering or rediscovering path-breaking works, and affirm that modern scientific achievement is the result of our ability to perceive the universe from our perspective on the shoulders of giants-atop-giants.

Physicist and children's science author Fred Bortz captured the words, lives, and work of contemporary scientists of significant stature for his book To the Young Scientist: Reflections on Doing and Living Science.