George Stokes on science and knowledge (1877)

One thing I’ve learned about the great scientists in history is that they are almost all well aware of the collaborative progressive nature of science.  The most famous example of this is Isaac Newton’s quite-possibly-sarcastic “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants,” but there are other examples.  While researching my post on physicist George Gabriel Stokes‘ 1857 courtship and romance of his future wife Mary, I came across a wonderful description of Stokes’ view on the scientific process and scientific knowledge. The account is second-hand, relayed by his daughter much later in life, but is oddly more poignant because of it.  It shows both Stokes’ wisdom as a scientist as well as his kindness as a father; I present without further comment.

In the year 1877 an Irish cousin came over to spend a long visit with us. On hearing her express a wish to study Euclid my father suddenly announced that he was going to try her paces and would take her for an hour every evening when he was at home, and that I might come too. He read through the first book of Euclid with her during the month of her sojourn with us. It was apparent during the first lesson that I was keeping them back, and that it was better to withdraw; but I felt most wretched and abased at losing the chance of learning from him. That night when bidding him good-night he kept my hand in his and said he wished to talk to me. He first spoke of things not mathematical which he wished me to study. He then gave me the most beautiful account of the growth of knowledge, and said
that even the wisest people knew very little. He spoke of himself as only apprehending slightly in advance of others, as standing on the edge and looking into the unknown, and said that people were then only born who would perhaps know far more than anyone yet dreamt of. Then after speaking of human knowledge as it had been and as it was, he passed on to imagine it in an infinite degree, and from that to Divine Wisdom as the root of all things which are or can be, and yet as willing to dwell in every creature who in humility desired true wisdom.

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