On the Shoulders of Giants
Lessons from Sir Isaac Newton
by Helen Lycitt (revised, originally published in 2005)
Suitable for Whole School (Sec)
To reflect on the achievements of Sir Isaac Newton and to consider the value of humility.
Preparation and materials
- You will need a £2 coin, an apple and either a glass prism or a telescope (which you should hopefully be able to borrow from the science department).
- Optional: you may wish to have available an image of the edge of some £2 coins and the means to display it during the assembly. An example is available at: https://tinyurl.com/ra79reo
- Show the £2 coin, the apple and the glass prism or telescope.
Tell the students that these three objects have something in common and ask the students if they know what it is.
If the correct answer isn’t offered, explain that all three objects are connected to one of the best-known scientists and mathematicians of all time: Sir Isaac Newton.
- Comment that Sir Isaac Newton was a gifted scientist and mathematician. He was also a Christian. He is probably best known for his explanation of the laws of gravity. The story goes that his interest was stimulated when he was sitting in a garden one day and saw an apple fall to the ground.
Show the apple.
‘Why did it fall in a straight line to the ground?’ he asked himself.
The answer, Newton decided, must be that the earth pulled the apple to itself. He put his theory to good use in astronomy and space, too. Gravity would explain why the moon was held on its course round the earth: it was a combination of the speed of the moon and gravity.
- Show the telescope, if available.
In 1668, Newton built the first reflecting telescope. By using a mirror to reflect the image of the stars, it was possible to see far more than with the ordinary optical telescope.
- These are only two of Newton’s discoveries that were valuable for the study of astronomy. He also discovered how white light can be divided into the colours of the spectrum as seen in a rainbow.
Show the glass prism, if available.
- Show the £2 coin.
Ask the students whether any of them know what the connection is between a £2 coin and Sir Isaac Newton.
After receiving some suggestions, ask a student at the front to read what it says around the edge of the £2 coin: ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’.
Optional: show the image of the edge of some £2 coins.
- Explain that Newton is often regarded as a genius, but despite his abilities, he was always ready to recognize his debt to those who had gone before and prepared the ground for his work.
These words - ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ - were taken from a letter that Newton wrote to fellow scientist, Robert Hooke, in 1676, where he modestly claimed that his success had been built on the achievement of others. His exact words were, ‘If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.’
- Of course, Newton didn’t mean that he had literally stood on giants’ shoulders! He was saying that many scientists had done great work before him and he merely took their work further.
- Sir Isaac Newton died on 31 March 1727 at the age of 84, and was buried in Westminster Abbey in London.
Time for reflection
Newton’s outlook is similar to something that we find suggested in the Bible. In his letter to the Philippians, St Paul says, ‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.’ (Philippians 2.3-4)
Explain to the students that you are going to read the words again so that they can quietly reflect on them.
‘Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests, but each of you to the interests of the others.’
Pause to allow time for thought.
Encourage the students to consider what it means to show humility and not look to getting our own way all the time.
Encourage them to think about how they can encourage someone else today.
Thank you for letting us gaze at your wonderful creation and explore your handiwork.
Thank you for the secrets that you share with scientists.
Help us to make the most of the opportunities that you put before us.
Teach us to appreciate the accomplishments of others without envying their success,
To follow the example of leaders without looking down on their discoveries
And to grow wise through reflection, experience and service.
Keep our hearts fresh and our minds open to the possibilities of growth through which you may choose to stretch us.