Quotations about   science

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Believe in truth. To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

Timothy Snyder (b. 1969) American historian, author
On Tyranny, ch. 10 (2017)
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Added on 7-Jun-18 | Last updated 7-Jun-18
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An answer is invariably the parent of a great family of new questions.

John Steinbeck (1902-1968) American writer
The Log from the Sea of Cortez, ch. 16, March 25 (1951)
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Added on 13-Apr-18 | Last updated 13-Apr-18
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Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
“Papyrus to Paperbacks: The World That Books Made,” Washington Post (30 Dec 1979)
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Added on 15-Feb-18 | Last updated 15-Feb-18
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The saddest aspect of life right now is that science gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Questions (1988) [with Jason A. Schulman]
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The flip side … the flip side is that scientific research is a bottomless money pit. You can approximate Doing Science to standing on the Crack of Doom throwing banknotes down it by the double-handful, in the hope that if you choke the volcano with enough paper it will cough up the One Ring. Unless you’re doing pure mathematics or philosophy, of course, in which case it’s HB pencils and ruled A4 notepads all the way down.

Charles "Charlie" Stross (b. 1964) British writer
The Annihilation Score (2015)
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Added on 20-Jun-17 | Last updated 20-Jun-17
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It is a good morning exercise for a research scientist to discard a pet hypothesis every day before breakfast. It keeps him young.

Konrad Lorenz (1903-1989) Austrian zoologist, ethologist, ornithologist
On Aggression, ch. 2 (1966)
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Added on 9-May-17 | Last updated 9-May-17
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And the great danger facing us today is not so much the atomic bomb that was created by physical science. Not so much that atomic bomb that you can put in an aeroplane and drop on the heads of hundreds and thousands of people — as dangerous as that is. But the real danger confronting civilization today is that atomic bomb which lies in the hearts and souls of men, capable of exploding into the vilest of hate and into the most damaging selfishness — that’s the atomic bomb that we’ve got to fear today. Problem is with the men. Within the heart and the souls of men. That is the real basis of our problem.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Rediscovering Lost Values,” Sermon, Second Baptist Church, Detroit (28 Feb 1954)
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There is something wrong with our world, something fundamentally and basically wrong. I don’t think we have to look too far to see that. I’m sure that most of you would agree with me in making that assertion. And when we stop to analyze the cause of our world’s ills, many things come to mind. We begin to wonder if it is due to the fact that we don’t know enough. But it can’t be that. Because in terms of accumulated knowledge we know more today than men have known in any period of human history. We have the facts at our disposal. We know more about mathematics, about science, about social science, and philosophy than we’ve ever known in any period of the world’s history. So it can’t be because we don’t know enough. And then we wonder if it is due to the fact that our scientific genius lags behind. That is, if we have not made enough progress scientifically. Well then, it can’t be that. For our scientific progress over the past years has been amazing. Man through his scientific genius has been able to warp distance and place time in chains, so that today it’s possible to eat breakfast in New York City and supper in London, England. Back in about 1753 it took a letter three days to go from New York City to Washington, and today you can go from here to China in less time than that. It can’t be because man is stagnant in his scientific progress. Man’s scientific genius has been amazing. I think we have to look much deeper than that if we are to find the real cause of man’s problems and the real cause of the world’s ills today. If we are to really find it I think we will have to look in the hearts and souls of men.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Rediscovering Lost Values,” Sermon, Second Baptist Church, Detroit (28 Feb 1954)
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The real problem is that through our scientific genius we’ve made of the world a neighborhood, but through our moral and spiritual genius we’ve failed to make of it a brotherhood.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (1929-1968) American clergyman, civil rights leader, orator
“Rediscovering Lost Values,” sermon, Second Baptist Church, Detroit (28 Feb 1954)
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As the man put it: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Any sufficiently advanced alien intelligence is indistinguishable from God — the angry monotheistic sadist subtype. And the elder ones … aren’t friendly. (See? I told you I’d rather be an atheist!)

Charles "Charlie" Stross (b. 1964) British writer
The Fuller Memorandum (2010)

See Clarke. .
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Dissent is the native activity of the scientist, and it has got him into a good deal of trouble in the last years. But if that is cut off, what is left will not be a scientist. And I doubt whether it will be a man.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Lecture, MIT (19 Mar 1953)
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Reprinted as Science and Human Values, Part 3, sec. 5 "The Sense of Human Dignity" (1961).
Added on 6-Feb-17 | Last updated 6-Feb-17
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Man masters nature not by force but by understanding. This is why science has succeeded where magic failed: because it has looked for no spell to cast over nature.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Lecture, MIT (26 Feb 1953)

Reprinted in "The Creative Mind," Sec. 4, Science and Human Values (1961).
Added on 30-Jan-17 | Last updated 30-Jan-17
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Fifty years from now, if an understanding of man’s origins, his evolution, his history, his progress is not in the common place of the school books, we shall not exist.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
The Ascent of Man, Ep. 13 “The Long Childhood” (1973)
Added on 23-Jan-17 | Last updated 23-Jan-17
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It’s said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That’s false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance, it was done by dogma, it was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
The Ascent of Man, Ep. 11 “Knowledge or Certainty” (1973)
Added on 16-Jan-17 | Last updated 16-Jan-17
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Nature is more subtle, more deeply intertwined and more strangely integrated than any of our pictures of her — than any of our errors. It is not merely that our pictures are not full enough; each of our pictures in the end turns out to be so basically mistaken that the marvel is that it worked at all.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Science and Human Values, Part 4 “The Abacus and the Rose” (1956)
Added on 26-Dec-16 | Last updated 26-Dec-16
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No fact in the world is instant, infinitesimal and ultimate, a single mark. There are, I hold, no atomic facts. In the language of science, every fact is a field — a crisscross of implications, those that lead to it and those that lead from it. We condense the laws around concepts. Science takes its coherence, its intellectual and imaginative strength together, from the concepts at which its laws cross, like knots in a mesh.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Science and Human Values, Part 3: “The Sense of Human Dignity”, §1 (1956)
Added on 19-Dec-16 | Last updated 19-Dec-16
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That which seems the height of absurdity in one generation often becomes the height of wisdom in the next.

mill-height-of-absurdity-wisdom-wist_info-quote

John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) English philosopher and economist
(Attributed)
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Often cited from a quote in Adlai Stevenson, Call to Greatness (1954), but appears earlier in, e.g., National Magazine (Nov 1911). Unverified in Mills' writings.
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In effect what Luther said in 1517 was that we may appeal to a demonstrable work of God, the Bible, to override any established authority. The Scientific Revolution begins when Nicolaus Copernicus implied the bolder proposition that there is another work of God to which we may appeal even beyond this: the great work of nature. No absolute statement is allowed to be out of reach of the test, that its consequence must conform to the facts of nature.

Jacob Bronowski (1908-1974) Polish-English humanist and mathematician
Science and Human Values, Part 2 “The Habit of Truth”, §11 (1956)
Added on 5-Dec-16 | Last updated 5-Dec-16
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To furnish the means of acquiring knowledge is the greatest benefit that can be conferred upon mankind. It prolongs life itself and enlarges the sphere of existence.

John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) US President (1825-29)
Report on the Establishment of the Smithsonian Institution (c. 1846)
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Histories make men wise; poets, witty; the mathematics, subtle; natural philosophy, deep; moral, grave; logic and rhetoric, able to contend.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
“Of Studies,” Essays (1625)
Added on 29-Sep-16 | Last updated 29-Sep-16
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Again, we should notice the force, effect, and consequences of inventions, which are nowhere more conspicuous than in those three which were unknown to the ancients; namely, printing, gunpowder, and the compass. For these three have changed the appearance and state of the whole world; first in literature, then in warfare, and lastly in navigation: and innumerable changes have been thence derived, so that no empire, sect, or star, appears to have exercised a greater power and influence on human affairs than these mechanical discoveries.

Francis Bacon (1561-1626) English philosopher, scientist, author, statesman
Novum Organum, Book 2, Aphorism 129 (1620)
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Observe the invincible tendency of the mind to unify. It is a law of our constitution that we should not contemplate things apart without the effort to arrange them in order with known facts and ascribe them to the same law.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1836)
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Let us tenderly and kindly cherish therefore, the means of knowledge. Let us dare to read, think, speak and write.

Adams - read think speak and write - wist_info quote

John Adams (1735-1826) American lawyer, Founding Father, statesman, US President (1797-1801)
“A Dissertation on the Canon and Feudal Law” (1765)
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At its core, therefore, science is a form of arrogance control.

Carol Tavris (b. 1944) American social psychologist and author
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts (2008) [with Elliot Aronson]
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The sun shines and warms and lights us and we have no curiosity to know why this is so; but we ask the reason of all evil, of pain, and hunger, and mosquitoes and silly people

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (18 Aug 1830)
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Was I to believe him in earnest in his intention to penetrate to the centre of this massive globe? Had I been listening to the mad speculations of a lunatic, or to the scientific conclusions of a lofty genius? Where did truth stop? Where did error begin?

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
Journey to the Center of the Earth, ch. 7 “A Woman’s Courage” (1864) [tr. Malleson]
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Science doesn’t purvey absolute truth. Science is a mechanism. It’s a way of trying to improve your knowledge of nature. It’s a system for testing your thoughts against the universe and seeing whether they match. And this works, not just for the ordinary aspects of science, but for all of life. I should think people would want to know that what they know is truly what the universe is like, or at least as close as they can get to it.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
Interview, Bill Moyers’ World Of Ideas (21 Oct 1988)
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Added on 14-Jun-16 | Last updated 14-Jun-16
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Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
Around the World in Eighty Days (1873)
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Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Tom Lehrer (b. 1928) American mathematician, satirist, songwriter
“Wernher von Braun,” That Was The Year That Was (1965)
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I believe that only scientists can understand the universe. It is not so much that I have confidence in scientists being right, but that I have so much in nonscientists being wrong.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
Quasar, Quasar, Burning Bright (1978)
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Inspect every piece of pseudoscience and you will find a security blanket, a thumb to suck, a skirt to hold. What does the scientist have to offer in exchange? Uncertainty! Insecurity!

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
Asimov’s Guide to Science (1972)
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It is a profound mistake to imagine that Christianity ever intended to dissipate the bewilderment and even the terror, the sense of our own nothingness, which come upon us when we think about the nature of things. It comes to intensify them. Without such sensations there is no religion. Many a man, brought up in the glib profession of some shallow form of Christianity, who comes through reading Astronomy to realise for the first time how majestically indifferent most reality is to man, and who perhaps abandons his religion on that account, may at that moment be having his first genuinely religious experience.

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) English writer and scholar [Clive Staples Lewis]
Miracles (1947)
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To rebel against a powerful political, economic, religious, or social establishment is very dangerous and very few people do it, except, perhaps, as part of a mob. To rebel against the “scientific” establishment, however, is the easiest thing in the world, and anyone can do it and feel enormously brave, without risking as much as a hangnail. Thus, the vast majority, who believe in astrology and think that the planets have nothing better to do than form a code that will tell them whether tomorrow is a good day to close a business deal or not, become all the more excited and enthusiastic about the bilge when a group of astronomers denounces it.

Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) Russian-American author, polymath, biochemist
(Attributed)
Added on 19-Apr-16 | Last updated 19-Apr-16
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Don’t say that he’s hypocritical,
Say rather that he’s apolitical.
“Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?
That’s not my department,” says Wernher von Braun.

Tom Lehrer (b. 1928) American mathematician, satirist, songwriter
“Wernher Von Braun,” That Was the Year That Was (1965)
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Science, my lad, has been built upon many errors; but they are errors which it was good to fall into, for they led to the truth.

[La science, mon garçon, est faite d’erreurs, mais d’erreurs qu’il est bon de commettre, car elles mènent peu à peu à la vérité.]

Verne - science and error - wist_info quote

Jules Verne (1828-1905) French novelist, poet, playwright
Journey to the Center of the Earth, ch. 31 (1864) [tr. Malleson (1877)]
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Alt. trans.: "Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth."
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Every fact depends for its value on how much we already know.

Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882) American essayist, lecturer, poet
Journal (1831)
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If my theory of relativity is proven successful, Germany will claim me as a German and France will declare that I am a citizen of the world. Should my theory prove untrue, France will say that I am a German and Germany will declare that I am a Jew.

Albert Einstein (1879-1955) German-American physicist
Speech, French Philosophical Society, Paris (6 Apr 1922)
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The ink of the scholar is more sacred than the blood of the martyr.

Muhammad (570-632) Arabian merchant, prophet, founder of Islam [Mohammed]
Hadith
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In Syed Ameer Ali, A Critical Examination of the Life and Teachings of Mohammed (1873), cited to The Kitâb-ul-Mustarif, ch. 2, and The Mishkât, Bk 22, ch. 18, pt. 3 (from Abu Hurairah)
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PASTORE: Is there anything connected in the hopes of this accelerator that in any way involves the security of this country?

WILSON: No sir; I do not believe so.

PASTORE: Nothing at all?

WILSON: Nothing at all.

PASTORE: It has no value in that respect?

WILSON: It only has to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with those things. It has nothing to do with the military, I am sorry.

PASTORE: Don’t be sorry for it.

WILSON: I am not, but I cannot in honesty say it has any such application.

PASTORE: Is there anything here that projects us in a position of being competitive with the Russians, with regard to this race?

WILSON: Only from a long-range point of view, of a developing technology. Otherwise, it has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things that we really venerate and honor in our country and are patriotic about. In that sense, this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country, except to make it worth defending.

Robert R. Wilson (1914-2000) American physicist
Testimony, Joint Committee on Atomic Energy (17 Apr 1969)

Dialog between Senator John Pastore (D-RI) and Wilson regarding the funding for FY 1970 of Fermilab's first particle accelerator. Pastore was actually a proponent of Fermilab, but was seeking arguments to use with some of his colleagues.

The exchange is frequently portrayed as more hostile, and Wilson's answer is often paraphrased / elided as: "It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."

See here for more background.

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ANDREA: The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set some limit on infinite error.
Brecht - science and infinite error - wist_info

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
Life of Galileo [Leben des Galilei], sc. 13 (1939)
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No one really starts anything new, Mrs Nemur. Everyone builds on other men’s failures. There is nothing really original in science. What each man contributes to the sum of knowledge is what counts.

Daniel F. Keyes (1927-2014) American author
Flowers for Algernon (novel) (1966)
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ANDREA: Science has only one commandment: contribution.

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) German poet, playwright, director, dramaturgist
Life of Galileo [Leben des Galilei], sc. 13 (1939)

Alt. trans.: "Science knows only one commandment -- contribute to science." [tr. Brenton (1980)]
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SPOCK: Physical reality is consistent with universal laws. Where the laws do not operate, there is no reality.

Gene L. Coon (1924-1973) American screenwriter and television producer
Star Trek, 3×06 “Spectre of the Gun” (25 Oct 1968) [writing as Lee Cronin]
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HAMLET: There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.

William Shakespeare (1564-1616) English dramatist and poet
Hamlet, Act 1, sc. 5, l. 166 (1600)
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Books are the carriers of civilization. Without books, history is silent, literature, dumb, science crippled, thought and speculation at a standstill. Without books, the development of civilization would have been impossible. The are engines of change (as the poet said), windows on the world, and lighthouses erected in the sea of time. They are companions, teachers, magicians, bankers of the treasures of the mind. Books are humanity in print.

Barbara W. Tuchman (1912-1989) American historian and author
“The Book,” Lecture, Library of Congress (17 Oct 1979)
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Reprinted in Authors' League Bulletin (Nov-Dec 1979)
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The true value of a man is not determined by his possession, supposed or real, of Truth, but rather by his sincere exertion to get to the Truth. It is not possession of the Truth, but rather the pursuit of Truth by which he extends his powers and in which his ever-growing perfectibility is to be found. Possession makes one passive, indolent, and proud. If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say: Father, I will take this one — the pure Truth is for You alone.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) German playwright, philosopher, dramiturg, writer
Anti-Goeze (1778)
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Indeed I reply in a single word to the sentiments of the saints on these questions about nature; in theology, to be sure, the force of authorities is to be weighed, in philosophy, however, that of causes. Therefore, a saint is Lactantius, who denied the rotundity of the earth; a saint is Augustine, who, admitting the rotundity, yet denied the antipodes; worthy of sainthood is the dutiful performance of moderns who, admitting the meagreness of the earth, yet deny its motion. But truth is more saintly for me, who demonstrate by philosophy, without violating my due respect for the doctors of the church, that the earth is both round and inhabited at the antipodes, and of the most despicable size, and finally is moved among the stars.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) German astronomer
Astronomi Opera Omnia, Vol. 1 (1858) [ed. Frisch (1858), tr. Burtt (1925)]
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Man can learn nothing unless he proceeds from the known to the unknown.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) French physiologist, scientist
Bulletin of New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 4 (1928)
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Now because 18 months ago the first dawn, three months ago broad daylight, but a very few days ago the full sun of the most highly remarkable spectacle has risen — nothing holds me back. I can give myself up to the sacred frenzy, I can have the insolence to make a full confession to mortal men that I have stolen the golden vessel of the Egyptians to make from them a tabernacle for my God far from the confines of the land of Egypt. If you forgive me I shall rejoice; if you are angry, I shall bear it; I am indeed casting the die and writing the book, either for my contemporaries or for posterity to read, it matters not which: let the book await its reader for a hundred years; God himself has waited six thousand years for his work to be seen.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) German astronomer
The Harmonies of the World [Harmonices Mundi], Book 5, Introduction (1618)

Alt. trans.:
  • "It may well wait a century for a reader, as God has waited six thousand years for an observer." [in David Brewster, The Martyrs of Science; or, the Lives of Galileo, Tycho Brahe, and Kepler (1841)]
  • "It may be well to wait a century for a reader, as God has waited six thousand years for an observer."
  • "I feel carried away and possessed by an unutterable rapture over the divine spectacle of heavenly harmony ... I write a book for the present time, or for posterity. It is all the same to me. It may wait a hundred years for its readers, as God has also waited six thousand years for an onlooker." [in S Krantz and B Blank, Calculus: Multivariable (2006)]
  • "I am stealing the golden vessels of the Egyptians to build a tabernacle to my God from them, far far away from the boundaries of Egypt. If you forgive me, I shall rejoice.; if you are enraged with me, I shall bear it. See, I cast the die, and I write the book. Whether it is to be read by the people of the present or of the future makes no difference: let it await its reader for a hundred years, if God himself has stood ready for six thousand years for one to study him."
Added on 18-Feb-15 | Last updated 18-Feb-15
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Humor can be dissected, as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the purely scientific mind.

E.B. White (1899-1985) American author, critic, humorist [Elwyn Brooks White]
“The Preaching Humorist,” The Saturday Review of Literature (18 Oct 1941)

The apparent origin of "Analyzing humor is a bit like dissecting a frog: You learn how it works but you end up with a dead frog" (and variants). Also attributed to Mark Twain (not found in his writing) and André Maurois (who said something similar in 1960). See here for more.
Added on 16-Feb-15 | Last updated 16-Feb-15
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Science increases our power in proportion as it lowers our pride.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) French physiologist, scientist
Bulletin of New York Academy of Medicine, Vol. 4 (1928)
Added on 6-Feb-15 | Last updated 6-Feb-15
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Indeed, proof that a given condition always precedes or accompanies a phenomenon does not warrant concluding with certainty that a given condition is the immediate cause of that phenomenon. It must still be established that when this condition is removed, the phenomenon will no longer appear.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) French physiologist, scientist
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine [Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Expérimentale] (1865)
Added on 30-Jan-15 | Last updated 30-Jan-15
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Theories are only verified hypotheses, verified by more or less numerous facts. Those verified by the most facts are the best, but even then they are never final, never to be absolutely believed.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) French physiologist, scientist
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine [Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Expérimentale] (1865)
Added on 23-Jan-15 | Last updated 23-Jan-15
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He who will please the crowd and for the sake of the most ephemeral renown will either proclaim those things which nature does not display or even will publish genuine miracles of nature without regard to deeper causes is a spiritually corrupt person.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) German astronomer
De fundamentis astrologiae certioribus, Foreward (1601)
Added on 21-Jan-15 | Last updated 21-Jan-15
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When we meet a fact which contradicts a prevailing theory, we must accept the fact and abandon the theory, even when the theory is supported by great names and generally accepted.

Claude Bernard (1813-1878) French physiologist, scientist
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine [Introduction à l’Étude de la Médecine Expérimentale] (1865)
Added on 16-Jan-15 | Last updated 16-Jan-15
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