Wednesday, October 01, 2008


Today I was asked to provide some quotations by scientists about science. I'm not sure what the purpose of this exercise was -- perhaps the construction of yet another motivational poster featuring Albert Einstein?

I spent a few minutes investigating, and found lots of quotations by non-scientists about science and scientists. In terms of quotable quotations -- the kind one might put in an email sig file, for example, if one were that sort of person -- I wonder what the quotable scientists : quotable non-scientists is for famous quotations about Science.

If you search the internet for "Who is the most quoted scientist", the answer you get is Bert Vogelstein, cancer researcher. I do not consider being cited the same as being quoted, so, with all due respect to Bert and his gazillion citations, that answer is unsatisfactory.

It wouldn't surprise me if Albert Einstein were the real #1 most quoted scientist, especially since he seems to have spoken mostly in quotations. Richard Feynman is probably high in the ranking as well.

I don't typically find quotations very inspiring, but as I grazed the internet for quotations today I found one I kind of like, mostly because it is a tad more cynical than the average quotation:

If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility.
Peter B. Medawar (zoologist, 1915-1987)


Anonymous said...

I like "Who ordered that?!" (Rabi, on the discovery of the muon)

Anonymous said...

"A goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid."
--James Watson (draw your own conclusions)

Anonymous said...

The important thing in science is not so much to obtain new facts as to discover new ways of thinking about them.

-Sir William Bragg

and I think this is relevant to science, too...

“An optimist may see a light where there is none, but why must the pessimist always run to blow it out?”

-Rene Descartes

Anonymous said...

"a turkey with a PhD is still a turkey"

oft quoted by me, but taken from a mug a colleague once had.

chall said...

Would you count "most quoted" beig "with the most different qoutes" or just " the one people use the most".

Not trying to be cheeky but I think I've only heard like three Einstein qoutes but boy, are those repeated a lot?!

My vote goes to Aristotle :)

Anonymous said...

"Don't worry about people stealing an idea. If it's original, you will have to ram it down their throats."

--Howard Aiken

Unknown said...

Particularly apt these days:

"Growth for the sake of growth is the ideology of the cancer cell"

-- Edward Abbey

Rosie Redfield said...

"True love will break your heart, but good science will see you through."


Anonymous said...

I thought this one was inspiring when I was a grad student.

"Science is a lot like sex. Sometimes something useful comes of it, but that's not the reason we're doing it." (Richard Feynman)

Anonymous said...

"A goodly number of scientists are not only narrow-minded and dull but also just stupid."

A better statement of that quote would be:

"Most scientists are specialists. As such their opinions should carry little weight outside their area of specialty. This includes the present opinion."

Female Science Professor said...

Avoid using sarcasm on an unsuspecting victim

-- My fortune cookie, dinner, last night

Anonymous said...

I was checking out a new online database on eighteen century letters (just call me curious) and came across this quote:

"He and I are now upon a new sort of chemistry, i.e. extracting money out of the scholars pockets; and if we can do that, you need not fear but in time we shall have the lapis; for he that can get gold and silver out of scholars, cannot doubt to extract it any where else. "

John Locke to Robert Boyle, dated
Christ Church, Feb. 24, 1666.

Minos said...

"The world is my country, science my religion"

Christiaan Huygens

Anonymous said...

The quotation craze is silly. Most people don't bother to verify if the quotes actually come from the people they are supposed to be from - and usually, they are not!

I wrote to the author of an article in a MostRespectedJournal who had a great quote about education not being about filling a vessel, but about lighting a fire. It was attributed to Longfellow, but I couldn't find it in Longfellow.

Turned out, he was quoting a *calendar*.... and the saying was actually from Plutarch.

Another one I wanted to use and I looked for the author. I found 5 different authors listed, 2 women and 3 men. I chose one.

Other than that - I check Wikiquote, or try and find the correct source.

My current unchecked favorite is attributed to the physicist Wernher Freiherr von Braun, 1912-1977:

"Bei der Eroberung des Weltraums sind zwei Probleme zu lösen: die Schwerkraft und der Papierkrieg. Mit der Schwerkraft wären wir fertig geworden."

[In conquering outer space there are two problems to be solved - gravity and paperwork. Gravity is solvable.]

Anonymous said...

"filling a pail/lighting a fire" appears to be widely attributed to Yeats, as well.

I like quotes (not just sarcastic ones) and enjoy them, like poetry. But, I hate it when they are falsely attributed.

I think the Yeats attribution has morphed 'cause Yeats actually did quote (or paraphrase) Plutarch somewhere. In those days, though, Yeats and his listeners might have understood that he was quoting.

Anonymous said...

If computer science counts as science....

On two occasions, I have been asked [by members of Parliament], 'Pray, Mr. Babbage, if you put into the machine wrong figures, will the right answers come out?' I am not able to rightly apprehend the kind of confusion of ideas that could provoke such a question.
-Charles Babbage (1791-1871)

I wake up in the morning with ideas that please me, and some of those ideas actually please me also later in the day when I've entered them into my computer.
-Donald Knuth

I would like to talk informally about myself, my personal experiences, my hopes and fears, my modest successes, and my rather less modest failures. I have learned more from my failures than can ever be revealed in the cold
print of a scientific article and now I would like you to learn from them, too. Besides, failures are much more fun to hear about afterwards; they are not so funny at the time.
-C.A.R. Hoare

The hardest thing for many people to learn, especially in a subject that they've never seriously encountered before, is that they _don't_ know what's going on, that their opinions are _not_ facts, that their intuition is _not_ proof.
-Jeff Erickson

Anonymous said...

Science is organized common sense where many a beautiful theory was killed by an ugly fact.
--Thomas Huxley

Anonymous said...

“Science is the game we play with God to find out what His rules are”. — Cornelius Krasel.

barbara said...

My favorite ever:

"Philosophy is written in this grand book, the universe, which stands continually open to our gaze. But the book cannot be understood unless one first learns to comprehend the language and read the letters in which it is composed. It is written in the language of mathematics, and its characters are triangles, circles, and other geometric figures without which it is humanly impossible to understand a single word of it."

Yes, it's a bit long, but it is in my opinion the birth certificate of modern science.

Galilei's style is so beautiful that he's part of the italian literature canon; the translation above is from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

And to honor female scientists and their supporters, here is what Hilbert said when his colleagues didn't want to nominate Emmy Noether as Privatdozent (unpaid professor): I do not see that the sex of the candidate is an argument against her admission as privatdozent. After all, we are a university, not a bath house.

Tom said...

If you can't do it, give up!
-attributed to Sigmund Freud

Anonymous said...

"health is the most important thing for a physicist to have, for you cannot do physics once you are dead."

Female Science Professor said...

But you can publish after you die.

EliRabett said...


Chemists: Biologists with brains, physicists with social skills