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Quotations from Scientists (and others)

Peter   Abelard

Haec quippe prima sapientiae clavis definitur assidua scilicet seu frequens interrogatio ... Dubitando enim ad inquisitionem venimus; inquirendo veritatem percipimus. [The master key of knowledge is indeed a frequent and persistent questioning ... Doubting leads us to inquiry; through inquiry we come to the truth.] [Sic et Non, Prologus, 1130]

Francis   Bacon

The empiricists are like the ant; they only collect and use. The rationalists resemble the spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance. The scientist is like the bee; it takes a middle course; it gathers material from the flowers, but adapts it by a power of its own. [Novum Organum, XCV, 1620]

Benjamin   Banneker

... but Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves. (From Banneker's August 19, 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson, pointing out the contradiction between the principles of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's ownership of slaves.

Jefferson promptly replied to Banneker, and forwarded Banneker's astronomical almanac with a favorable letter to the Marquis de Condorcet, secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Paris.

Lewis   Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

"One can't believe impossible things."

"I daresay you haven't had much practice," said the Queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast." [White Queen, Through the Looking Glass, 1872]

Now here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that! [Red Queen, Through the Looking Glass, 1872]

"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean-neither more nor less." "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things." "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be master -- that's all." [Through the Looking Glass, 1872]

The Professor came down, and led the way to where a post had been driven firmly into the ground. To one side of the post was fastened a chain, with an iron weight hooked on to the end of it, and from the other side projected a piece of whalebone, with a ring at the end of it. "This is the most interesting Experiment" the Professor announced. "It will need time, I'm afraid: but that is a trifling disadvantage. Now observe. If I were to unhook this weight, and let go, it would fall to the ground. You do not deny that?"

Nobody denied it.

"And in the same way, if I were to bend this piece of whalebone round the post --- thus --- and put the ring over this hook --- thus --- it stays bent; but, if I unhook it, it straightens itself again. You do not deny that?"

Again, nobody denied it.

"Well, now suppose we left things as they are, for a long time. The force of the whalebone would get exhausted, you know, and it would stay bent, even when you unhooked it. Now, why shouldn't the same thing happen with the weight. The whalebone gets so used to being bent, that it can't straighten itself any more. Why shouldn't the weight get so used to being held up, that it can't fall any more? That's what I want to know!"

"That's what we want to know!" echoed the crowd.

"How long must we wait?" grumbled the Emperor.

The Professor looked at his watch. "Well, I think a thousand years will do to begin with, ..."

  [The Complete Works of Lewis Carroll,
   Sylvie and Bruno Concluded
, Chapter XXI]

George Washington Carver

Ninety-nine percent of the failures come from people who have the habit of making excuses.

Marie Curie

All my life through, the new sights of nature made me rejoice like a child.

One never notices what has been done; one can only see what remains to be done.

Max   Delbruck

A mature physicist is puzzled by the circumstance that there are no absolute phenomena in biology. Everything is time bound and space bound. The animal or plant or microorganism he is working with is but a link in an evolutionary chain of changing forms, none of which has any permanent validity. The organism he is working with is not a particular expression of an ideal organism, but one thread in the infinite web of all living forms. The physicist has been reared in a different atmosphere. The materials and the phenomena he works with are the same here and now as they were at all times and as they are now on the most distant stars. He deals with accurately measured quantities and their casual interrelations and in terms of sophisticated conceptual schemes. The outstanding feature of the history of his science is unification.... Such a situation from the outset diminishes the hope of understanding any one living thing by itself and the hope of discovering universal laws, the pride and ambition of physicists. The curiosity remains, though, to grasp more clearly how the same matter, which in physics and in chemistry displays orderly and reproducible and relatively simple properties, arranges itself in the most astounding fashions as soon as it is drawn into the orbit of the living organism.... If it is true that the essence of life is the accumulation of experience through the generations, then one may perhaps suspect that the key problem of biology, from the physicist's point of view, is how living matter manages to record and perpetuate its experiences''.

  ["A Physicist Looks At Biology", 1949]

Paul Dirac

Now when Heisenberg noticed that, he was really scared.

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.

Some physicists may be happy to have a set of working rules leading to results in agreement with observation. They may think that this is the goal of physics. But it is not enough. One wants to understand how Nature works.

  [Proc. Conf. Perturbative Quantum Chromodynamics 74:129-130, 1981.]

Émilie   du Châtelet

Judge me for my own merits, or lack of them, but do not look upon me as a mere appendage to this great general or that great scholar, this star that shines at the court of France or that famed author. I am in my own right a whole person, responsible to myself alone for all that I am, all that I say, all that I do. it may be that there are metaphysicians and philosophers whose learning is greater than mine, although I have not met them. Yet, they are but frail humans, too, and have their faults; so, when I add the sum total of my graces, I confess I am inferior to no one.

  [to Frederick the Great of Prussia]

If I were king...I would redress an abuse which cuts back, as it were, one half of human kind. I would have women participate in all human rights, especially those of the mind.

  [From the translator's preface to Mandeville's The Fable of the Bees]

Albert Einstein

I do not know with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones.

I think that a particle must have a separate reality independent of the measurements. That is, an electron has spin, location, and so forth even when it is not being measured. I like to think that the moon is there even if I am not looking at it.

I have never belonged wholeheartedly to a country, a state, nor to a circle of friends, nor even to my own family.

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

Michael Faraday

Wonderful as are the laws and phenomena of electricity when made evident to us in inorganic or dead matter, their interest can bear scarcely any comparison with that which attaches to the same force when connected with the nervous system and with life... [Philosophical Transactions, "Experimental Researches in Electricity", 1839]

Enrico Fermi

If I could remember the names of all those particles, I'd be a botanist.

Benjamin   Franklin

Every man has two nations, and one of them is France. Chaque homme a deux nations et l'une d'elles est la France.
Either write something worth reading or do something worth writing.
Your present of an electric tube has put several of us on making experiments... we have observed some interesting phenomena.

Rosalind Franklin

I cannot locate any electronic citations of Franklin's spoken or written words, but I have provided several links here, plus a summary statement from her paper with Gosling in the "Watson-Crick" issue of Nature, and bibliographical information for some of her scientific papers.

The 1953 April 25 Nature table of contents includes a section titled "Molecular Structure of Nucleic Acids", which contains the Watson-Crick paper and contributions from M. H. F. Wilkins, A. R. Stokes, and H. R. Wilson, and from R. E. Franklin and R. G. Gosling. Each paper addresses, with a different style and degree of certainty, the double helical nature of DNA.

Thus our general ideas are not inconsistent with the model proposed by Watson and Crick in the preceding communication.

Franklin, R. E. and R. G. Gosling, Molecular configuration in sodium thymonucleate, Nature 171:740--741, (April 25 - two pages after the Watson and Crick paper in the same issue) 1953.

Franklin, R. E. and R. G. Gosling, The structure of sodium thymonucleate fibres. I. The influence of water content, Acta Cryst. 6:673--677, 1953.

Franklin, R. E. and R. G. Gosling, The structure of thymonucleate fibres. II. The cylindrically symmetrical Patterson function, Acta Cryst. 6:678--685, 1953.

Franklin, R. E. and R. G. Gosling, Evidence for a 2-chain helix in crystalline structure of sodium desoxyribonucleate, Nature 172:156--157, 1953.

R. E. Franklin, Tobacco mosaic virus: an application of the method of isomorphous replacement to the determination of the helical parameters and radial density distribution," Acta Cryst. 11:213, 1958.

Galileo Galilei

And who can doubt that it will lead to the worst disorders when minds created free by God are compelled to submit slavishly to an outside will? When we are told to deny our senses and subject them to the whim of others? When people devoid of whatsoever competence are made judges over experts and are granted authority to treat them as they please? These are the novelties which are apt to bring about the ruin of commonwealths and the subversion of the state. [On the margin of his own copy of Dialogue on the Great World Systems.]

Maria Goeppert-Mayer     (Göppert-Mayer)

Mathematics began to seem too much like puzzle solving. Physics is puzzle solving, too, but of puzzles created by nature, not by the mind of man.

For a long time I considered even the craziest ideas about the atomic nucleus... and suddenly I discovered the truth.

Donna Haraway

We unmasked the doctrines of objectivity because they threatened our budding sense of collective historical subjectivity and agency, and we ended up with one more excuse for not learning any post-Newtonian physics. ["Situated Knowledges", Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 1991]

Hermann von Helmholtz

Any pride I might have held in my conclusions was perceptibly lessened by the fact that I knew that the solution of these problems had almost always come to me as the gradual generalization of favorable examples, by a series of fortunate conjectures, after many errors.

Theodore   von Karman

Scientists study the world as it is; engineers create the world that has never been.

Irving Langmuir

plasma (term coined by Langmuir in 1923) [H. M. Mott-Smith, Nature, vol. 233, p. 219, 17 September 1971.]

Symptoms of Pathological Science
(from a Colloquium at the Knolls Research Laboratory, December 18, 1953; transcribed and edited by R. N. Hall; text at Kenneth Steiglitz's web site)
  1. The maximum effect that is observed is produced by a causative agent of barely detectable intensity, and the magnitude of the effect is substantially independent of the intensity of the cause.
  2. The effect is of a magnitude that remains close to the limit of detectability; or, many measurements are necessary because of the very low statistical significance of the results.
  3. Claims of great accuracy.
  4. Fantastic theories contrary to experience.
  5. Criticisms are met by ad hoc excuses thought up on the spur of the moment.
  6. Ratio of supporters to critics rises up to somewhere near 50% and then falls gradually to oblivion.

Pierre Simon Laplace

Je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse.

James Clerk Maxwell

...in order to understand the nature of things, we must begin by asking, not whether a thing is good or bad, [...] but of what kind it is? And how much is there of it?

Barbara   McClintock

The individual is not the exception to a general class but rather the harbinger of some easily neglected clue that must be deeply respected and understood.

John   McEnroe

You cannot be serious! [To umpire Eddie James at Wimbledon, 1981.]

Lise   Meitner

Otto Hahn in Berlin (who received the Nobel prize for this) to Meitner in exile in Stockholm (who did not), in December 1938: "Perhaps you can suggest some fantastic explanation. We understand that it (uranium) really can't break up into barium...so try and think of some other possibility. Barium isotopes with much higher atomic weights than 137? If you can think of anything that might be publishable, then the three of us would be together in this work after all."

Meitner and Frisch, Nature 143:239-240, 1939. On the basis of present ideas about the behavior of heavy nuclei, an entirely different and essentially classical picture of these new disintegration processes suggests itself. On account of their close packing and strong energy exchange, the particles in a heavy nucleus would be expected to move in a collective way which has some resemblance to the movement of a liquid drop. If the movement is made sufficiently violent by adding energy, such a drop may divide itself into two smaller drops.

It seems therefore possible that the uranium nucleus has only small stability of form, and may, after neutron capture, divide itself into two nuclei of roughly equal size... These two nuclei will repel each other and should gain a total kinetic energy of c. 200 Mev., as calculated from nuclear radius and charge. [...] The whole 'fission' process can thus be described in an essentially classical way, without having to consider quantum-mechanical 'tunnel effects', which would actually be extremely small, on account of the large masses involved.

As long as I don't read the newspapers, I feel fine. (June, 1959)

Albert A. Michelson

The more important fundamental laws and facts of physical science have all been discovered, and these are now so firmly established that the possibility of their ever being supplanted in consequence of new discoveries is exceedingly remote.... Our future discoveries must be looked for in the sixth place of decimals. [University of Chicago, 1894]

Jacques Monod

The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the universe's unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose. [Chance and Necessity, 1970]

In science, self-satisfaction is death. Personal self-satisfaction is the death of the scientist. Collective self-satisfaction is the death of the research. It is restlessness, anxiety, dissatisfaction, agony of mind that nourish science. [New Scientist, 1976]

Walther Nernst

Here again it was the quantum theory which came to the rescue. [Nobel lecture, December, 1921]

Louis   Pasteur

Dans les champs de l'observation le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés. [Lecture, Université de Lille, December, 1854]

Je touchais à des mystères et que le voile qui les couvre va diminuant de plus en plus. Aussi les nuits me paraissent trop longues. (I am on the verge of mysteries, and the veil which covers them is getting thinner and thinner. The nights seem to me too long.) [La Vie de Pasteur, René Vallery-Radot, 1900]

Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. [Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science, René Jules Dubos, 1960]

I am utterly convinced that science and peace will triumph over ignorance and war, that nations will eventually unite not to destroy but to edify, and that the future will belong to those who have done the most for the sake of suffering humanity. [Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science, René Jules Dubos, 1960]

Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal: my strength lies solely in my tenacity.

There does not exist a category of science to which one can give the name applied science. There are sciences and the application of sciences, bound together as the fruit of the tree which bears it. [Revue Scientifique, 1871]

Wolfgang Pauli

This paper is so bad, it is not even wrong.

Linus Pauling

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas [and throw the bad ones away].

Max   Planck

The outside world is something independent from man, something absolute, and the quest for the laws which apply to this absolute appeared to me as the most sublime scientific pursuit in life. [Scientific Autobiography, and Other Papers, 1949]

Eric Poisson and Werner Israel

A test field in the form of an initially uniform train of waves propagating into a Kerr-Newman black hole has its crests crowded together and magnified by gravitational and Doppler blueshifts that grow without bound at the Cauchy horizon. Such perturbative results suggest (though they do not prove) that inside a black hole formed in a generic collapse, an observer falling toward the inner horizon should be engulfed in a wall of (classically) infinite density immediately after seeing the entire future history of the outer universe pass before his eyes in a flash. [Poisson, E. and W. Israel, Inner-horizon instability and mass inflation in black holes, Phys. Rev. Lett. 63:1663-1666, 1989.]

Polonius   (William Shakespeare)

Find out the cause of this effect,
Or rather say, the cause of this defect,
For this effect defective comes by cause.
[Hamlet, Act ii. Sc. 2.]

Erwin   Schroedinger     (Schrödinger)

Thus, the task is, not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.


To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

James D. Watson

We have also been stimulated by a knowledge of the general nature of the unpublished experimental results and ideas of Dr. M. H. F. Wilkins, Dr. R. E. Franklin, and their co-workers at King's College, London. (Watson, J. D. and F. H. C. Crick, A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid, Nature 171:737--738, 1953.)

One could not be a successful scientist without realizing that, in contrast to the popular conception supported by newspapers and mothers of scientists, a goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull, but also just stupid.

It is essentially immoral not to get it [the human genome sequence] done as fast as possible. (Watson, J. D., The New York Times, 1990 June 5, p. C1.)

William of Conches (Guillaume de Conches; Guilelmus de Conchis)

Ignorant themselves of the forces of nature and wanting to have company in their ignorance, they do not want people to look into anything. They want us to believe like peasants and to not ask the reason behind things. [Philosophia Mundi 1:22, PL 172:56, 1120?]

[They say] "We do not know how this is, but we know that God can do it." You poor fools, God can make a cow out of a tree, but has he ever done so? Therefore show some reason why a thing is so, or cease to hold that it is so. [Dragmaticon Philosophiae, 1140?]

Pseudonymous Anonymous

If a nucleotide sequence can be patented, then can I patent the entries in a newly discovered dictionary of an ancient language? If an amino acid sequence can be patented, then can I patent the optical spectrum of a star?

I Before E in English (John Burkardt?)

The apparent perversity of English spelling is occasionally tamed by a simple rule. For example, I remember learning the famous poem:

I before E,
Except after C.

It didn't take too long for this rule to run into trouble, and I next had to learn the "revised" version:

I before E,
Except after C,
Or when sounded like A,
As in "neighbor" and "weigh".

But just when we fancied that spelling had become a science, a prescient foreign geisha woman named Deirdre Oppenheimer came down from the heights of a glacier, tore off her veil, seized an ancient financier, and shamed our consciences grievously. "This society is inefficient!", she inveighed. "I wasted my leisure becoming proficient in cuneiform hieroglyphs. Either reimburse me with the value of the Einstein coefficient, or I will drag this man back to my hacienda in Muncie, wherein he will forfeit his life!"

I feigned interest, but looked for our feisty concierge Neil, whom I might inveigle into reining in this weird being. But he had gone to Anaheim, Beijing, Madeira and Taipei with Alexei to shop for a beige geiger counter. His absenteeism made me feel like queueing for the exit. The only sound was the neighing of the sheik's eight reindeer, chewing their edelweiss.

I turned to Sheila, the Budweiser heiress. "Cease your surveillance of the sleigh and its freight! We must stop the reign of this plebeian atheist!" I must have hit a vein, because she deigned to put down her counterfeit kaleidoscope proficiently, albeit only to point out a weird Klein bottle full of nucleic proteins. "Therein is the skein of meiosis," she said, "the leitmotif of our species, of seismic importance to our homogeneity. It would surfeit a meistersinger, a sovereign, or even an omniscient deity like Poseidon."

Decreeing my obeisance, I offered the paperweight, a Meisterbrau stein, and a Holstein heifer to the heister. Agreeing that it was sufficient, she reinstated the old wisenheimer, fleeing with spontaneity via Boeing to Beirut.


  Science Quotation Books (with attributions!)
   by Carl C. Gaither and Alma E. Cavazos-Gaither

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Tom Vernier
Semiconductor and Electrobionic Engineer
Email: vernier@ieee.org
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