On a Review of ”Giants”

“Monday Musings” for Monday December 2, 2013

Volume III, No. 47/141

Five Formidable Geniuses

By Assad Meymandi, MD, PhD, DLFAPA*


Book  Review

On the Shoulders of Giants

By Stephen Hawking

1266 pages

Running Press Book Publishers

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Dramatis personae of this huge volume, 1266 pages of dense texts, physics, mathematics, geometry, functions and calculus, along with warm humane and human stories are five characters. They are Nicolaus Copernicus, (1473-1543), Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727), and Albert Einstein (1879-1955). I presume the title of the book is from a letter Sir Isaac Newton wrote on February 5, 1676 to his bitter enemy Robert Hooke, which contained the sentence “if I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Of course Robert Hooke, the greatest experimental scientist of the 17th century is relegated to the dustbin of oblivion and burned out of sight by the brilliance of Sir Isaac Newton. This is perhaps the reason one seldom hears the name Robert Hooke. Some biographers and historians have interpreted Newton’s letter to Robert Hooke as a thinly veiled insult to Hooke, his crooked posture (we do not have a picture of Hooke, but have hundreds of Newton’s), and short stature which made him but a giant…

 One of the exciting aspects of this book is that the writings by these five giants on whose shoulders the author, Stephen Hawking proposes subsequent physical scientists have stood, are translation of the original copy.  No attempt has been made to modernize the authors’ own distinct usage and spelling or punctuation. As a former United Nations translator, I personally appreciate the discipline of keeping the text pure and uncontaminated by interpretation. The book has an introduction penned by Stephen Hawking, a renowned theoretical physicist. Like Sir Isaac Newton before him, he is a Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge. Faithful readers may recall our review of his 1988 book A Brief History of Time which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for a record breaking 237 weeks. His other more recent bestseller book is The Universe in a Nutshell. He enjoys the reputation of being the most brilliant theoretical physicist since Einstein. But this book is not only about dry and inflexible raw science, the pages are imbued with human history, personal relations, and warmth which reflect the author’s personal humanity. The life story of each of the five heroes is full of accounts of their growth, adolescence, falling in love, marrying and settling down to raising a family. For example, here is the story of Einstein, the closest man to our time (he died in 1955); in 1903, Einstein married his Serbian sweetheart, Mileva Maric, and the couple moved into a one bedroom flat in Bern. Two years later, she bore him a son, Hans Albert. That was the happiest period of Einstein’s life. Neighbors later recalled seeing the young father absent-mindedly pushing a baby carriage down the city streets. From time to time, Einstein would reach into the carriage and remove a pad of paper on which to jot down notes to himself. The notepad in the baby’s carriage contained some of the formulae and equations that led to the theory of relativity.

And about the giant farthest from us in time, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543): After receiving the degree of Doctor of Canon Law, Copernicus practiced medicine at the Episcopal Court of Heidelberg. He returned to Poland in 1503 and moved into his uncle’s bishopric palace in Lidzbark Warminsk where he spent the rest of his life in priestly service.  However, the man who was a scholar in mathematics, medicine and theology was only beginning the work for which he would become best known, the theory of motions of heavenly objects, asserting that the earth moves and the sun remains at rest. He wrote that the center of the earth was NOT the center of the universe. The first 400 pages of the book are devoted to Copernicus- his genius for building bridges between theology, medicine, physics, astronomy and Aristotle who lived about 700 years before him is legendary. There is a most intriguing chapter filled with formulae and tables demonstrating the latitudes of Venus and Mercury, additions and subtractions of Saturn and Saturn’s movement of Parallax over the course of a year.

Returning to Newton- 445 pages are devoted to the life and work of Sir Isaac Newton and his seminal work, Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica) generally known as Principia. Newton is considered the father of infinitesimal calculus, mechanics and planetary motion, and the theory of light and color. But he secured his position in history by formulating gravitational force and defining the laws of motion and attraction. One very interesting thing about Newton’s use of the word Math after he returned to Cambridge- Newton studied the philosophy of Aristotle. He was fluent in Greek. In Greek the word Math means knowledge, and not just numbers and calculation. Newton was a polymath, a man of much knowledge, and that is how he used the word math in his dissertations. One of the significant events of Newton’s life was the 1665 bubonic plague which made Cambridge University close. He called the year away from Cambridge the “annum mirabilis” (the miraculous year) during which he worked out the laws of motion and gravity. In those years, Cambridge was the convening spot for the likes of Newton, Hooke, the architect of St. Paul’s Cathedral, Sir Christopher Wren, Edmond Halley and others. Newton was the editor-in-chief of the Cambridge publications, and would not allow publication of any of his rival Robert Hooke’s works. This shows the intense enmity Newton held for his intellectual and academic rivals.

Galileo Galilei occupies 235 pages of this colossal volume. Galileo was the son of Vincenzo Galilei, a virtuoso violinist and accomplished composer. As an aside for the opera lovers (not a part of this book) Vincenzo was a member of the Florentine Camerata, a group of writers, musicians and scholars who poured over the ancient Greek operas for a period of 17 years. They gave birth to what we know today as the Western Opera. The first opera, Orpheus et Eurydice, composed by Josepi Peri was performed at Peti Palace in Florence, 8:00 PM, October 6, 1600.

Galileo was teaching Copernican theory of the earth in motion. He got into hot water with the church and his work Two Chief World System was brought before inquisition tribunal in 1616 with an edict forbidding him from teaching Copernicus.

Finally the book on Kepler occupies 96 pages. Kepler was a German astronomer who was famed for his dedication to absolute precision. He was obsessed with measurement and what in today’s parlance we call metrics. His obsession made him calculate his own gestational period to the minute, i. e., 224 days, 9 hours, 53 minutes. He had been born prematurely. So ladies with preemies don’t fret, you may have given birth to a Kepler or to a Mother Teresa- she, too, was born prematurely. Kepler was a deeply religious man. His relationship with the writings and teachings of Martin Luther who lived and wrote only about fifty years earlier, is most interesting. It makes for fun and exciting readings. In Kepler’s time there was very little difference between astrology and astronomy. Kepler had predicted a severe winter, as well as a Turkish incursion, and when both predictions came true, he was triumphantly hailed as a prophet. Another historical aside (not a part of this book): the first person who wrote eloquently to disparage astrology and establish astronomy as a science was the famed Persian poet, Omar Khayyam (1048-1131), some 500 years before Kepler.

 The book is huge. The reading and understanding of the work and character of these giants expand the warehouse of mental space.  It is most enjoyable and fun. Finishing 1266 pages feels like having finished climbing Mount McKinley and living to write about it.


*The writer is Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry, University of North Carolina School of Medicine at Chapel Hill, Distinguished Life fellow American Psychiatric Association, and Founding Editor and Editor-in-Chief, Wake County Physician Magazine (1995-2012). He serves as a Visiting Scholar and lecturer on Medicine, the Arts and Humanities at his alma mater the George Washington University School of Medicine and Health.


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