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The lion and the boy


In 1697 Isaac Newton, who was "considered either the greatest scientist who ever lived or one of a tiny handful of the greatest", received two challenge problems from the mathematician Johann Bernoulli, who doubted he could solve them.

At the time, Newton was reorganizing the Royal Mint to solve a crisis in coinage which was threatening the economy -

Newton came home from the mint one evening, tired, to find the problems and solved them before he went to bed. When Bernoulli shortly thereafter received from England an anonymous paper with the solutions, he understood at once whence it came—‘as the lion is recognized from his claw’, in his classic phrase. (Oxford DNB)

Over the years Newton defended his priority in making several mathematical and scientific discoveries. He wasn't shy about saying what he knew, so it's breathtaking to hear him say something quite different -

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me. (Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir David Brewster)

"Everyone else thinks that they know. I know that I do not know", Socrates said. It's an idea that seems to be missing from political punditry and the pontifications of politicians and sometimes from my commentary.

Good science is realistic.

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