Tuesday, 7 April 2009

What about the great thinkers and scientific visionaries who worked on their own?

Lets take Isaac Newton and Darwin as our two examples.

Whilst the sharing of ideas, during these times, was largely done in cafe rooms and salons, both Isaac Newton and Darwin did not, it appears, engage in such activities on the whole. Even though Newton's great quote:

"if I have seen further it is because I have stood on the shoulder's of giants"

infers he consulted others and attributes his success accordingly, numerous books, biographies or other types of synopses on both these men testify to these facts and paint a picture of secretive men who spent many years formulating ideas alone, discussing them with few, if any, and publishing long after their research had been completed.

So what role does conversation have to play in education here, you might ask?

It seems the theories, ideas and findings of both men, although originally unearthed in solitary pursuits, may have indeed remained unpublished had it not been for open dialogue, social interaction, correspondence or conversation with another. Had these important contributors to our education and understanding never published, our current twenty first century knowledge base, scholarship and approach to education might have appeared very different.

Lets review the evidence:

Isaac Newton

He was renowned for his secrecy, solitary working and lack of desire to publish. He was sensitive to criticism and fearful of plagiarism. Newton did not publish or share his findings until very late in his career. In fact he did not publish his greatest work 'Principia' (allbeit in Latin) until 1687, twenty one years after he first worked on it whilst at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe by Colsterworth in Lincolnshre (both his birthplace and a place I lived for 6 years between 1998-2004), a place to which he had returned in order to escape the plague in 1665-1666.

What made Newton publish? - A conversation.

Newton published only on the back of the persuasion, prompting and intervention of his friend Edmund Halley (of Halley's Comet fame). Halley responded by writing a poem about Newton's achievement and contribution to education. This ode, also originally written in Latin, appeared in the preface to the first edition of I.Newton's Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Matematica in 1687.

An interactive application produced by McMaster Univeristy alludes to Newtons secrecy and Halley's involvement in effecting the publication of 'Principia' (do not skip the intro!) as do many of the books written about Isaac Newton and his educational legacy.


Beyond sharing his ideas with a close circle of scientist friends, Darwin told no one of his views on the origin and development of life. Indeed, he did not publish his now-famous volume, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, unitl 20 years after he had first formulated his theory (Masci, 2009) Why?

You've guessed it! It seems that Darwin, too, was only driven to publish as a result of correspondence he had with Wallace, a younger scientist who was working abroad and beginning to come up with similar sorts of theories. Darwin published in a panic the following year.

By July 1858 both papers had been jointly presented to the Linnean Society, by August 1858 both papers were in print and by November 1859 Darwin had produced and published a condensed abstract of his book on Natural Selection under the title: On the Origin of Species.

So in essence Alfred Russell Wallace, via his dialogue and correspondence with Darwin, prompted his eminent interlocutor to publish his theory of evolution. Mark Carwardine's recent video blog (for the BBC) about Wallace, a 'forgotten naturalist', re-highlights Darwin's and Wallace's relationship.

And what of Darwin's legacy?

"By the time of his death, in 1882, Darwin was considered the greatest scientist of his age. Moreover , the very church his theory had challenged accorded him a full state funderal and burial in Westminster Abbey, near the grave of Sir Isaac Newton. Darwin's idea was still provocative, but by the time of his death it had gained general acceptance in Britain, even among many in the Anglican clergy" (Masci, 2009 para 14)
This picture shows Darwin at the age of 51 having just published his 'Origin of the Species'.

1 comment:

  1. Isaac Newton, although working alone, adopted an approach to his research which drew from the ancient philopohers like plato and socrates. He used inquriy and the use of questions in the form of hypotheses which he later investigated for truth.

    As mentioned elsewhere in this blog the use of socratic type questions can underpin conversational theory and the use of questions and inquiry as a base for research is neatly illustrated in the interactive application produced by McMaster University and which is already highlighted in this post. The introduction to this application and the questions listed under the Inquiry link at the bottom of the screen particularly demonstrate the effectivenes of posing questions for investigation. This of course mirrors Isaacs own approach to his work.

    It can be argued therefore that Isaac Newton did engage in conversation, allbeit one way (with himself in reflective and questioning mode) and with his environment (See Pasks Conversational Theory)


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