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Error Quotes (152 quotes)

'Why do you think it is...', I asked Dr. Cook ... 'that brain surgery, above all else—even rocket science—gets singled out as the most challenging of human feats, the one demanding the utmost of human intelligence?'
[Dr. Cook answered,] 'No margin for error.'
Lucky Man (2002), 208.
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...truth will sooner come out of error than from confusion.
The New Organon (1620) in James Spedding, Robert Ellis and Douglas Heath (eds.), The Works of Francis Bacon (1887-1901), Vol. 4, 149.
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Error has made man so deep, sensitive, and inventive that he has put forth such blossoms as religions and arts. Pure knowledge could not have been capable of it.
Human, All-To-Human, Vol. 1, 44-45. (1878), 140. In Willard Huntington Wright, What Nietzsche Taught? (1917), 78.
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La vérité ne diffère de l'erreur qu'en deux points: elle est un peu plus difficile à prouver et beaucoup plus difficile à faire admettre. (Dec 1880)
Truth is different from error in two respects: it is a little harder to prove and more difficult to admit.
In Recueil d'Œuvres de Léo Errera: Botanique Générale (1908), 193. Google translation by Webmaster.
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Wenn sich für ein neues Fossil kein, auf eigenthümliche Eigenschaften desselben hinweisender, Name auffinden lassen Will; als in welchem Falle ich mich bei dem gegenwärtigen zu befinden gestehe; so halte ich es für besser, eine solche Benennung auszuwählen, die an sich gar nichts sagt, und folglich auch zu keinen unrichtigen Begriffen Anlass geben kann. Diesem zufolge will ich den Namen für die gegenwärtige metallische Substanz, gleichergestalt wie bei dem Uranium geschehen, aus der Mythologie, und zwar von den Ursöhnen der Erde, den Titanen, entlehnen, und benenne also dieses neue Metallgeschlecht: Titanium.
Wherefore no name can be found for a new fossil [element] which indicates its peculiar and characteristic properties (in which position I find myself at present), I think it is best to choose such a denomination as means nothing of itself and thus can give no rise to any erroneous ideas. In consequence of this, as I did in the case of Uranium, I shall borrow the name for this metallic substance from mythology, and in particular from the Titans, the first sons of the earth. I therefore call this metallic genus TITANIUM.
Martin Heinrich Klaproth. Original German edition, Beiträge Zur Chemischen Kenntniss Der Mineralkörper (1795), Vol. 1 , 244. English edition, translator not named, Analytical Essays Towards Promoting the Chemical Knowledge of Mineral Substances (1801), Vol. 1, 210. Klaproth's use of the term fossil associates his knowledge of the metal as from ore samples dug out of a mine.
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A game is on, at the other end of this infinite distance, and heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason you cannot leave either; according to reason you cannot leave either undone... Yes, but wager you must; there is no option, you have embarked on it. So which will you have. Come. Since you must choose, let us see what concerns you least. You have two things to lose: truth and good, and two things to stake: your reason and your will, your knowledge and your happiness. And your nature has two things to shun: error and misery. Your reason does not suffer by your choosing one more than the other, for you must choose. That is one point cleared. But your happiness? Let us weigh gain and loss in calling heads that God is. Reckon these two chances: if you win, you win all; if you lose, you lose naught. Then do not hesitate, wager that He is.
Pensées (1670), Section I, aphorism 223. In H. F. Stewart (ed.), Pascal's Pensées (1950), 117-119.
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A hallucination is a fact, not an error; what is erroneous is a judgment based upon it.
The Monist (Apr 1914), 24:2, 173.
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A new truth is a truth, an old error is an error.
In Poor Richard's Almanack (1734).
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A scientist strives to understand the work of Nature. But with our insufficient talents as scientists, we do not hit upon the truth all at once. We must content ourselves with tracking it down, enveloped in considerable darkness, which leads us to make new mistakes and errors. By diligent examination, we may at length little by little peel off the thickest layers, but we seldom get the core quite free, so that finally we have to be satisfied with a little incomplete knowledge.
Lecture to the Royal Swedish Academy of Science, 23 May 1764. Quoted in J. A. Schufle 'Torbern Bergman, Earth Scientist', Chymia, 1967, 12, 78.
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A subtle thought that is in error may yet give rise to fruitful inquiry that can establish truths of great value.
In Steven D. Price, 1001 Smartest Things Ever Said (2005), 163.
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All Men are liable to Error, and most Men are in many Points, by Passion or Interest, under Temptation to it.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 20, Section 17, 718.
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All sorts of computer errors are now turning up. You'd be surprised to know the number of doctors who claim they are treating pregnant men.
Anonymous
Official of the Quebec Health Insurance Board, on Use of Computers in Quebec Province's Comprehensive Medical-care system. F. 19, 4:5. In Barbara Bennett and Linda Amster, Who Said What (and When, and Where, and How) in 1971: December-June, 1971 (1972), Vol. 1, 38. (Later sources cite Isaac Asimov.)
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Almost every major systematic error which has deluded men for thousands of years relied on practical experience. Horoscopes, incantations, oracles, magic, witchcraft, the cures of witch doctors and of medical practitioners before the advent of modern medicine, were all firmly established through the centuries in the eyes of the public by their supposed practical successes. The scientific method was devised precisely for the purpose of elucidating the nature of things under more carefully controlled conditions and by more rigorous criteria than are present in the situations created by practical problems.
Personal Knowledge (1958), 183.
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Almost everyone... seems to be quite sure that the differences between the methodologies of history and of the natural sciences are vast. For, we are assured, it is well known that in the natural sciences we start from observation and proceed by induction to theory. And is it not obvious that in history we proceed very differently? Yes, I agree that we proceed very differently. But we do so in the natural sciences as well.
In both we start from myths—from traditional prejudices, beset with error—and from these we proceed by criticism: by the critical elimination of errors. In both the role of evidence is, in the main, to correct our mistakes, our prejudices, our tentative theories—that is, to play a part in the critical discussion, in the elimination of error. By correcting our mistakes, we raise new problems. And in order to solve these problems, we invent conjectures, that is, tentative theories, which we submit to critical discussion, directed towards the elimination of error.
The Myth of the Framework: In Defence of Science and Rationality (1993), 140.
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Although this may seem a paradox, all exact science is dominated by the idea of approximation. When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in infering that he is an inexact man. Every careful measurement in science is always given with the probable error ... every observer admits that he is likely wrong, and knows about how much wrong he is likely to be.
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 42.
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An error is the more dangerous in proportion to the degree of truth which it contains. (26 Dec 1852)
Amiel's Journal: The Journal Intime of Henri-Frédéric Amiel, trans. Humphry Ward (1893), 34.
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Another error is a conceit that . . . the best has still prevailed and suppressed the rest: so as, if a man should begin the labor of a new search, he were but like to light upon somewhat formerly rejected, and by rejection brought into oblivion; as if the multitude, or the wisest for the multitude's sake, were not ready to give passage rather to that which is popular and superficial, than to that which is substantial and profound: for the truth is, that time seemeth to be of the nature of a river or stream, which carrieth down to us that which is light and blown up, and sinketh and drowneth that which is weighty and solid.
Advancement of Learning, Book 1. Collected in The Works of Francis Bacon (1826), Vol 1, 36.
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Another source of fallacy is the vicious circle of illusions which consists on the one hand of believing what we see, and on the other in seeing what we believe.
Attributed. Peter McDonald, In The Oxford Dictionary of Medical Quotations (2004), 2.

Any experiment may be regarded as forming an individual of a 'population' of experiments which might be performed under the same conditions. A series of experiments is a sample drawn from this population.
Now any series of experiments is only of value in so far as it enables us to form a judgment as to the statistical constants of the population to which the experiments belong. In a great number of cases the question finally turns on the value of a mean, either directly, or as the mean difference between the two qualities.
If the number of experiments be very large, we may have precise information as to the value of the mean, but if our sample be small, we have two sources of uncertainty:— (I) owing to the 'error of random sampling' the mean of our series of experiments deviates more or less widely from the mean of the population, and (2) the sample is not sufficiently large to determine what is the law of distribution of individuals.
'The Probable Error of a Mean', Biometrika, 1908, 6, 1.
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Any one who has studied the history of science knows that almost every great step therein has been made by the “anticipation of Nature,” that is, by the invention of hypotheses, which, though verifiable, often had very little foundation to start with; and, not unfrequently, in spite of a long career of usefulness, turned out to be wholly erroneous in the long run.
In 'The Progress of Science 1837-1887' (1887), Collected Essays (1901), Vol. 1, 62.
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Are not all Hypotheses erroneous, in which Light is supposed to consist in Pression or Motion, propagated through a fluid Medium? For in all these Hypotheses the Phaenomena of Light have been hitherto explain'd by supposing that they arise from new Modifications of the Rays; which is an erroneous Supposition.
Opticks, 2nd edition (1718), Book 3, Query 28, 337.
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Art has a double face, of expression and illusion, just like science has a double face: the reality of error and the phantom of truth.
'The Lie of the Truth'. (1938) translated by Phil Powrie (1989). In Carol A. Dingle, Memorable Quotations (2000), 61.
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As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries-not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.
From A Logical Point of View (1953), 44.
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As in the experimental sciences, truth cannot be distinguished from error as long as firm principles have not been established through the rigorous observation of facts.
Ésur la maladie des vers ásoie (1870), 39.
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At the entrance to the observatory Stj?rneborg located underground, Tycho Brahe built a Ionic portal. On top of this were three sculptured lions. On both sides were inscriptions and on the backside was a longer inscription in gold letters on a porfyr stone: Consecrated to the all-good, great God and Posterity. Tycho Brahe, Son of Otto, who realized that Astronomy, the oldest and most distinguished of all sciences, had indeed been studied for a long time and to a great extent, but still had not obtained sufficient firmness or had been purified of errors, in order to reform it and raise it to perfection, invented and with incredible labour, industry, and expenditure constructed various exact instruments suitable for all kinds of observations of the celestial bodies, and placed them partly in the neighbouring castle of Uraniborg, which was built for the same purpose, partly in these subterranean rooms for a more constant and useful application, and recommending, hallowing, and consecrating this very rare and costly treasure to you, you glorious Posterity, who will live for ever and ever, he, who has both begun and finished everything on this island, after erecting this monument, beseeches and adjures you that in honour of the eternal God, creator of the wonderful clockwork of the heavens, and for the propagation of the divine science and for the celebrity of the fatherland, you will constantly preserve it and not let it decay with old age or any other injury or be removed to any other place or in any way be molested, if for no other reason, at any rate out of reverence to the creator's eye, which watches over the universe. Greetings to you who read this and act accordingly. Farewell!
(Translated from the original in Latin)
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Behold the mighty dinosaur,
Famous in prehistoric lore,
Not only for his power and strength
But for his intellectual length.
You will observe by these remains
The creature had two sets of brains—
One in his head (the usual place),
The other at his spinal base.
Thus he could reason 'A priori'
As well as 'A posteriori'.
No problem bothered him a bit
He made both head and tail of it.
So wise was he, so wise and solemn,
Each thought filled just a spinal column.
If one brain found the pressure strong
It passed a few ideas along.
If something slipped his forward mind
'Twas rescued by the one behind.
And if in error he was caught
He had a saving afterthought.
As he thought twice before he spoke
He had no judgment to revoke.
Thus he could think without congestion
Upon both sides of every question.
Oh, gaze upon this model beast
Defunct ten million years at least.
'The Dinosaur: A Poem' (1912). In E. H. Colbert (ed.), The Dinosaur Book (1951), 78.
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Buffon, who, with all his theoretical ingenuity and extraordinary eloquence, I suspect had little actual information in the science on which he wrote so admirably For instance, he tells us that the cow sheds her horns every two years; a most palpable error. ... It is wonderful that Buffon who lived so much in the country at his noble seat should have fallen into such a blunder I suppose he has confounded the cow with the deer.
In The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1826), Vol. 3, 70, footnote.
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But as no two (theoreticians) agree on this (skin friction) or any other subject, some not agreeing today with what they wrote a year ago, I think we might put down all their results, add them together, and then divide by the number of mathematicians, and thus find the average coefficient of error. (1908)
In Artificial and Natural Flight (1908), 3. Quoted in John David Anderson, Jr., Hypersonic and High Temperature Gas Dynamics (2000), 335.

But, as Bacon has well pointed out, truth is more likely to come out of error, if this is clear and definite, than out of confusion, and my experience teaches me that it is better to hold a well-understood and intelligible opinion, even if it should turn out to be wrong, than to be content with a muddle-headed mixture of conflicting views, sometimes miscalled impartiality, and often no better than no opinion at all.
Principles of General Physiology (1915), x.
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Crooked things may be as stiff and unflexible as streight: and Men may be as positive and peremptory in Error as in Truth.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 19, Section 11, 703.
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Dissections daily convince us of our ignorance of disease, and cause us to blush at our prescriptions. What mischief have we done under the belief of false facts and false theories! We have assisted in multiplying diseases; we have done more; we have increased their mortality. ... I am pursuing Truth, and am indifferent whither I am led, if she is my only leader.
From a public lecture by Rush. Quoted by Isaac Jennings, in Medical Reform; a Treatise on Man's Physical Being and Disorders (1847), 33.
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Error has indeed long darkened the horizon of medical science; and albeit there have been lightnings like coruscations of genius from time to time, still they have passed away, and left the atmosphere as dark as before.
Memoirs of John Abernethy (1854), 293.
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Error held as truth has much the effect of truth. In politics and religion this fact upsets many confident predictions.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-Book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 177.
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Error, never can be consistent, nor can truth fail of having support from the accurate examination of every circumstance.
'Theory of the Earth', Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1788), 1, 259.
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Errors using inadequate data are much less than those using no data at all.[?] Simplified restatement of another quotation by Babbage.
This seems to the webmaster to be derived from the sourced quotation: 'The errors which arise from the absence of facts are far more numerous and more durable than those which result from unsound reasoning respecting true data.' Although the simplified version is often see as a quote attributed to Babbage, the Webmaster has not yet found the short quote in a primary print source. [If you know a primary print source for Babbage making in his own words the shorter statement, please contact the webmaster.]
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Errors, like straws, upon the surface flow;
He who would search for pearls must dive below.
'Prologue to Anthony and Cleopatra'. All For Love (1678), edited by David M. Vieth (2001), 25.
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Even mistaken hypotheses and theories are of use in leading to discoveries. This remark is true in all the sciences. The alchemists founded chemistry by pursuing chimerical problems and theories which are false. In physical science, which is more advanced than biology, we might still cite men of science who make great discoveries by relying on false theories. It seems, indeed, a necessary weakness of our mind to be able to reach truth only across a multitude of errors and obstacles.
An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865, translation 1927, 1957), 170.
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Evolution triumphs because it turns to natural selection, the plodding accumulation of error.
Almost Like a Whale: The Origin of Species Updated (1999), 9.
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Experience is never at fault; it is only your judgment that is in error in promising itself such results from experience as are not caused by our experiments. For having given a beginning, what follows from it must necessarily be a natural development of such a beginning, unless it has been subject to a contrary influence, while, if it is affected by any contrary influence, the result which ought to follow from the aforesaid beginning will be found to partake of this contrary influence in a greater or less degree in proportion as the said influence is more or less powerful than the aforesaid beginning.
'Philosophy', in The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, trans. E. MacCurdy (1938), Vol. 1, 70.
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Experiment adds to knowledge, Credulity leads to error.
Anonymous
Arabic Proverb.
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False facts are highly injurious to the progress of science, for they often long endure; but false views, if supported by some evidence, do little harm, as every one takes a salutary pleasure in proving their falseness; and when this is done, one path towards error is closed and the road to truth is often at the same time opened.
The Descent of Man (1871), Vol. 2, 385.
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Falsity cannot keep an idea from being beautiful; there are certain errors of such ingenuity that one could regret their not ranking among the achievements of the human mind.
Pensées d'un Biologiste (1939). Translated in The Substance of Man (1962), 89.
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Finally, I aim at giving denominations to things, as agreeable to truth as possible. I am not ignorant that words, like money, possess an ideal value, and that great danger of confusion may be apprehended from a change of names; in the mean time it cannot be denied that chemistry, like the other sciences, was formerly filled with improper names. In different branches of knowledge, we see those matters long since reformed: why then should chemistry, which examines the real nature of things, still adopt vague names, which suggest false ideas, and favour strongly of ignorance and imposition? Besides, there is little doubt but that many corrections may be made without any inconvenience.
Physical and Chemical Essays (1784), Vol. I, xxxvii.
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For FRICTION is inevitable because the Universe is FULL of God's works.
For the PERPETUAL MOTION is in all works of Almighty GOD.
For it is not so in the engines of man, which are made of dead materials, neither indeed can be.
For the Moment of bodies, as it is used, is a false term—bless God ye Speakers on the Fifth of November.
For Time and Weight are by their several estimates.
For I bless GOD in the discovery of the LONGITUDE direct by the means of GLADWICK.
For the motion of the PENDULUM is the longest in that it parries resistance.
For the WEDDING GARMENTS of all men are prepared in the SUN against the day of acceptation.
For the wedding Garments of all women are prepared in the MOON against the day of their purification.
For CHASTITY is the key of knowledge as in Esdras, Sir Isaac Newton & now, God be praised, in me.
For Newton nevertheless is more of error than of the truth, but I am of the WORD of GOD.
From 'Jubilate Agno' (c.1758-1763), in N. Callan (ed.), The Collected Poems of Christopher Smart (1949), Vol. 1, 276.
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For the Members of the Assembly having before their eyes so many fatal Instances of the errors and falshoods, in which the greatest part of mankind has so long wandred, because they rely'd upon the strength of humane Reason alone, have begun anew to correct all Hypotheses by sense, as Seamen do their dead Reckonings by Cœlestial Observations; and to this purpose it has been their principal indeavour to enlarge and strengthen the Senses by Medicine, and by such outward Instruments as are proper for their particular works.
Micrographia, or some Physiological Descriptions of Minute Bodies made by Magnifying Glasses with Observations and Inquiries thereupon (1665), preface sig.
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Generally speaking, the errors in religion are dangerous; those in philosophy only ridiculous.
A Treatise on Human Nature (1739-40), ed. L. A. Selby-Bigge (1888), book 1, part 4, section 7, 272.
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Great is the power of steady misrepresentation - but the history of science shows how, fortunately, this power does not endure long.
Origin of Species (1878), 421.
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Great scientific discoveries have been made by men seeking to verify quite erroneous theories about the nature of things.
From 'Wordsworth in the Tropics', in Life and Letters and the London Mercury (1928), Vol. 1, 349.
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Here I most violently want you to
Avoid one fearful error, a vicious flaw.
Don't think that our bright eyes were made that we
Might look ahead; that hips and knees and ankles
So intricately bend that we might take
Big strides, and the arms are strapped to the sturdy shoulders
And hands are given for servants to each side
That we might use them to support our lives.
All other explanations of this sort
Are twisted, topsy-turvy logic, for
Nothing what is born produces its own use.
Sight was not born before the light of the eyes,
Nor were words and pleas created before the tongue
Rather the tongue's appearance long preceded
Speech, and the ears were formed far earlier than
The sound first heard. To sum up, all the members Existed, I should think, before their use, So use has not caused them to have grown.
On the Nature of Things, trans. Anthony M. Esolen (1995), Book 4, lines 820-8, 145.
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Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction.
Leonardo's Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms: Essays on Natural History (1998), 163.
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I am particularly concerned to determine the probability of causes and results, as exhibited in events that occur in large numbers, and to investigate the laws according to which that probability approaches a limit in proportion to the repetition of events. That investigation deserves the attention of mathematicians because of the analysis required. It is primarily there that the approximation of formulas that are functions of large numbers has its most important applications. The investigation will benefit observers in identifying the mean to be chosen among the results of their observations and the probability of the errors still to be apprehended. Lastly, the investigation is one that deserves the attention of philosophers in showing how in the final analysis there is a regularity underlying the very things that seem to us to pertain entirely to chance, and in unveiling the hidden but constant causes on which that regularity depends. It is on the regularity of the main outcomes of events taken in large numbers that various institutions depend, such as annuities, tontines, and insurance policies. Questions about those subjects, as well as about inoculation with vaccine and decisions of electoral assemblies, present no further difficulty in the light of my theory. I limit myself here to resolving the most general of them, but the importance of these concerns in civil life, the moral considerations that complicate them, and the voluminous data that they presuppose require a separate work.
Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1825), trans. Andrew I. Dale (1995), Introduction.
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I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken.
Letter, to General Assembly of the Church of Scotland (1650). In The Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England (1763), Vol. 19, 322.
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I could never have known so well how paltry men are, and how little they care for really high aims, if I had not tested them by my scientific researches. Thus I saw that most men only care for science so far as they get a living by it, and that they worship even error when it affords them a subsistence.
Wed 12 Oct 1825. Johann Peter Eckermann, Conversations with Goethe, ed. J. K. Moorhead and trans. J. Oxenford (1971), 119-20.
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I had made considerable advance ... in calculations on my favourite numerical lunar theory, when I discovered that, under the heavy pressure of unusual matters (two transits of Venus and some eclipses) I had committed a grievous error in the first stage of giving numerical value to my theory. My spirit in the work was broken, and I have never heartily proceeded with it since.
[Concerning his calculations on the orbital motion of the Moon.]
Private note (29 Sep 1890). In George Biddell Airy and Wilfrid Airy (ed.), Autobiography of Sir George Biddell Airy (1896), 350.
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I have been able to solve a few problems of mathematical physics on which the greatest mathematicians since Euler have struggled in vain ... But the 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. I am fain to compare myself with a wanderer on the mountains who, not knowing the path, climbs slowly and painfully upwards and often has to retrace his steps because he can go no further—then, whether by taking thought or from luck, discovers a new track that leads him on a little till at length when he reaches the summit he finds to his shame that there is a royal road by which he might have ascended, had he only the wits to find the right approach to it. In my works, I naturally said nothing about my mistake to the reader, but only described the made track by which he may now reach the sa,e heights without difficulty.
In L. Koenigsberger, Hermann von Helmholtz, 180-1.
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I have made many mistakes myself; in learning the anatomy of the eye I dare say, I have spoiled a hatfull; the best surgeon, like the best general, is he who makes the fewest mistakes.
Quoted in James Anthony Froude, John Tulloch and Thomas Carlyle, Fraser's Magazine (Nov 1862), 66, 574.
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I have taken the stand that nobody can be always wrong, but it does seem to me that I have approximated so highly that I am nothing short of a negative genius.
Wild Talents (1932). In The Complete Books of Charles Fort (1975), 1037.
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I know not what fatal calamity has invaded the sciences, for when an error is born with them and with the lapse of time becomes as it were fixed, those who profess the science will not suffer its withdrawal.
Jean Rey
Essays of Jean Rey, Doctor of Medicine, on an Enquiry into the Cause Wherefore Tin and Lead Increase in Weight on Calcination (1630). Translated in Alembic Club Reprint No. 11, (1895) 25.
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I know that certain minds would regard as audacious the idea of relating the laws which preside over the play of our organs to those laws which govern inanimate bodies; but, although novel, this truth is none the less incontestable. To hold that the phenomena of life are entirely distinct from the general phenomena of nature is to commit a grave error, it is to oppose the continued progress of science.
Leçons sur les Phenomenes Physiques de la Vie (1836-38), Vol. 1, 6. Trans. J. M. D. Olmsted, François Magendie (1944), 203.
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If someone points out to you that your pet theory of the universe is in disagreement with Maxwell’s equations—then so much the worse for Maxwell’s equations. If it is found to be contradicted by observation—well these experimentalists do bungle things sometimes. But if your theory is found to be against the second law of thermodynamics I can give you no hope; there is nothing for it but to collapse in deepest humiliation.
Gifford Lectures (1927), The Nature of the Physical World (1928), 74.
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If the Commission is to enquire into the conditions “to be observed,” it is to be presumed that they will give the result of their enquiries; or, in other words, that they will lay down, or at least suggest, “rules” and “conditions to be (hereafter) observed” in the construction of bridges, or, in other words, embarrass and shackle the progress of improvement to-morrow by recording and registering as law the prejudices or errors of to-day.
[Objecting to any interference by the State with the freedom of civil engineers in the conduct of their professional work.]
Letter (13 Mar 1848) to the Royal Commission on the Application of Iron in Railway Structures. Collected in The Life of Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Civil Engineer (1870), 487. The above verbatim quote may be the original source of the following statement as seen in books and on the web without citation: “I am opposed to the laying down of rules or conditions to be observed in the construction of bridges lest the progress of improvement tomorrow might be embarrassed or shackled by recording or registering as law the prejudices or errors of today.” Webmaster has not yet found a primary source for his latter form, and suspects it may be a synopsis, rather than a verbatim quote. If you know of such a primary source, please inform Webmaster.
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If the matter is one that can be settled by observation, make the observation yourself. Aristotle could have avoided the mistake of thinking that women have fewer teeth than men, by the simple device of asking Mrs. Aristotle to keep her mouth open while he counted.
In An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (1943), 22.
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If there is a wrong way to do something, then someone will do it.
[Subsequently became known as Murphy's Law: “If anything can go wrong, it will.”]
As quoted in Robert L. Forward, 'Murphy Lives!', Science (Jan-Feb 1983), 83, 78. Short form in J.A. Simpson (ed), The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Proverbs (1982).
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If you get all the facts, your judgment can be right. If you don't get all the facts, it can't be right.
Quoted in The St. Louis Dispatch (21 Jun 1965). In Alfred J. Kolatch, Great Jewish Quotations (1996), 38.
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If, in the course of a thousand or two thousand years, science arrives at the necessity of renewing its points of view, that will not mean that science is a liar. Science cannot lie, for it’s always striving, according to the momentary state of knowledge, to deduce what is true. When it makes a mistake, it does so in good faith. It's Christianity that's the liar. It’s in perpetual conflict with itself.
In Adolf Hitler, Hugh Redwald Trevor-Roper, translated by Norman Cameron and R. H. Stevens, '14 October 1941', Secret Conversations (1941 - 1944) (1953), 51
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In 1905, a physicist measuring the thermal conductivity of copper would have faced, unknowingly, a very small systematic error due to the heating of his equipment and sample by the absorption of cosmic rays, then unknown to physics. In early 1946, an opinion poller, studying Japanese opinion as to who won the war, would have faced a very small systematic error due to the neglect of the 17 Japanese holdouts, who were discovered later north of Saipan. These cases are entirely parallel. Social, biological and physical scientists all need to remember that they have the same problems, the main difference being the decimal place in which they appear.
In William G. Cochran, Frederick Mosteller and John W. Tukey, 'Principles of Sampling', Journal of the American Statistical Society, 1954, 49, 31. Collected in Selected Papers of Frederick Mosteller (2006), 290.
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In a sense Shapley’s telling me that space was transparent, which I shouldn’t have believed, illustrates a fundamental problem in science, believing what people tell you. Go and find it out for yourself. That same error has persisted in my life and in many other people’s. Authorities are not always authorities on everything; they often cling to their own mistakes.
Oral History Transcript of interview with Dr. Jesse Greenstein by Paul Wright (31 Jul 1974), on website of American Institute of Physics.
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In all science error precedes the truth, and it is better it should go first than last.
Quoted in Adam Wooléver (ed.), Encyclopædia of Quotations: A Treasury of Wisdom, Wit and Humor, Odd Comparisons and Proverbs (6th ed, 1876), 128.
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In the 1920s, there was a dinner at which the physicist Robert W. Wood was asked to respond to a toast ... "To physics and metaphysics." Now by metaphysics was meant something like philosophy—truths that you could get to just by thinking about them. Wood took a second, glanced about him, and answered along these lines: The physicist has an idea, he said. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it makes to him. He goes to the scientific literature, and the more he reads, the more promising the idea seems. Thus prepared, he devises an experiment to test the idea. The experiment is painstaking. Many possibilities are eliminated or taken into account; the accuracy of the measurement is refined. At the end of all this work, the experiment is completed and ... the idea is shown to be worthless. The physicist then discards the idea, frees his mind (as I was saying a moment ago) from the clutter of error, and moves on to something else. The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood concluded, is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.
In 'Wonder and Skepticism', Skeptical Enquirer (Jan-Feb 1995), 19, No. 1.
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Irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.
Science and Culture, and Other Essays (1890), 335.
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Is it not evident, in these last hundred years (when the Study of Philosophy has been the business of all the Virtuosi in Christendome) that almost a new Nature has been revealed to us? that more errours of the School have been detected, more useful Experiments in Philosophy have been made, more Noble Secrets in Opticks, Medicine, Anatomy, Astronomy, discover'd, than in all those credulous and doting Ages from Aristotle to us? So true it is that nothing spreads more fast than Science, when rightly and generally cultivated.
Of Dramatic Poesie (1684 edition), lines 258-67, in James T. Boulton (ed.) (1964), 44
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It is almost as difficult to make a man unlearn his errors, as his knowledge. Mal-information is more hopeless than non-information: for error is always more busy than ignorance. Ignorance is a blank sheet on which we may write; but error is a scribbled one on which we first erase. Ignorance is contented to stand still with her back to the truth; but error is more presumptuous, and proceeds, in the same direction. Ignorance has no light, but error follows a false one. The consequence is, that error, when she retraces her footsteps, has farther to go, before we can arrive at the truth, than ignorance.
Reflection 1, in Lacon: or Many things in Few Words; Addressed to Those Who Think (1820), Vol. 1, 15.
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It is an error to imagine that evolution signifies a constant tendency to increased perfection. That process undoubtedly involves a constant remodeling of the organism in adaptation to new conditions; but it depends on the nature of those conditions whether the direction of the modifications effected shall be upward or downward.
'The Struggle for Existence in Human Society' (1888). In Collected Essays (1894), Vol. 9, 199.
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It is curious how often erroneous theories have had a beneficial effect for particular branches of science.
The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution and Inheritance (1982), 847.
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It is in scientific honesty that I endorse the presentation of alternative theories for the origin of the universe, life and man in the science classroom. It would be an error to overlook the possibility that the universe was planned rather than happening by chance.
In letter to California State board of Education (14 Sep 1972).
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It is in the name of Moses that Bellarmin thunderstrikes Galileo; and this great vulgarizer of the great seeker Copernicus, Galileo, the old man of truth, the magian of the heavens, was reduced to repeating on his knees word for word after the inquisitor this formula of shame: “Corde sincera et fide non ficta abjuro maledico et detestor supradictos errores et hereses.” Falsehood put an ass's hood on science.
[With a sincere heart, and of faith unfeigned, I deny by oath, condemn and detest the aforesaid errors and heresies.]
In Victor Hugo and Lorenzo O'Rourke (trans.) Victor Hugo's Intellectual Autobiography: (Postscriptum de ma vie) (1907), 313.
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It is not error which opposes the progress of truth; it is indolence, obstinacy, the spirit of routine, every thing which favors inaction.
In Fielding Hudson Garrison, An Introduction to the History of Medicine (1929), 33.
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It is not hard to learn more. What is hard is to unlearn when you discover yourself wrong
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It is not so difficult a task as to plant new truths, as to root out old errors
Lacon: Many Things in Few Words (1820-22, 1866), 276.
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It is one thing, to shew a Man that he is in an Error; and another, to put him in possession of Truth.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690). Edited by Peter Nidditch (1975), Book 4, Chapter 7, Section 11, 602.
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It is sometimes well for a blatant error to draw attention to overmodest truths.
Pensées d'un Biologiste (1939). Translated in The Substance of Man (1962), 89.
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It often happens that men, even of the best understandings and greatest circumspection, are guilty of that fault in reasoning which the writers on logick call the insufficient, or imperfect enumeration of parts, or cases: insomuch that I will venture to assert, that this is the chief, and almost the only, source of the vast number of erroneous opinions, and those too very often in matters of great importance, which we are apt to form on all the subjects we reflect upon, whether they relate to the knowledge of nature, or the merits and motives of human actions. It must therefore be acknowledged, that the art which affords a cure to this weakness, or defect, of our understandings, and teaches us to enumerate all the possible ways in which a given number of things may be mixed and combined together, that we may be certain that we have not omitted anyone arrangement of them that can lead to the object of our inquiry, deserves to be considered as most eminently useful and worthy of our highest esteem and attention. And this is the business of the art, or doctrine of combinations ... It proceeds indeed upon mathematical principles in calculating the number of the combinations of the things proposed: but by the conclusions that are obtained by it, the sagacity of the natural philosopher, the exactness of the historian, the skill and judgement of the physician, and the prudence and foresight of the politician, may be assisted; because the business of all these important professions is but to form reasonable conjectures concerning the several objects which engage their attention, and all wise conjectures are the results of a just and careful examination of the several different effects that may possibly arise from the causes that are capable of producing them.
Ars conjectandi (1713). In F. Maseres, The Doctrine of Permutations and Combinations (1795), 36.
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It's not the critic who counts; not the man which points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again ... who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
In Joseph A. Califano, Jr., Inside: A Public and Private Life (2005), 356.
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Just as a physicist has to examine the telescope and galvanometer with which he is working; has to get a clear conception of what he can attain with them, and how they may deceive him; so, too, it seemed to me necessary to investigate likewise the capabilities of our power of thought.
'An Autobiographical Sketch' (1891). Trans. E. Atkinson, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects, Second Series, New Edition (1895), 284-5.
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Kepler's laws, although not rigidly true, are sufficiently near to the truth to have led to the discovery of the law of attraction of the bodies of the solar system. The deviation from complete accuracy is due to the facts, that the planets are not of inappreciable mass, that, in consequence, they disturb each other's orbits about the Sun, and, by their action on the Sun itself, cause the periodic time of each to be shorter than if the Sun were a fixed body, in the subduplicate ratio of the mass of the Sun to the sum of the masses of the Sun and Planet; these errors are appreciable although very small, since the mass of the largest of the planets, Jupiter, is less than 1/1000th of the Sun's mass.
In Isaac Newton and Percival Frost (ed.) Newton's Principia: Sections I, II, III (1863), 216.
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Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;
The proper study of Mankind is Man.
Plac'd on this isthmus of a middle state,
A being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic's pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a God, or Beast;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer,
Born but to die, and reas'ning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confus'd;
Still by himself abus'd, or disabus'd;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurl'd:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!
... Superior beings, when of late they saw
A mortal Man unfold all Nature's law,
Admir'd such wisdom in an earthly shape,
And shew'd a NEWTON as we shew an Ape.
'An Essay on Man' (1733-4), Epistle II. In John Butt (ed.), The Poems of Alexander Pope (1965), 516-7.
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Langmuir is the most convincing lecturer that I have ever heard. I have heard him talk to an audience of chemists when I knew they did not understand more than one-third of what he was saying; but they thought they did. It's very easy to be swept off one's feet by Langmuir. You remember in [Kipling's novel] Kim that the water jar was broken and Lurgan Sahib was trying to hypnotise Kim into seeing it whole again. Kim saved himself by saying the multiplication table [so] I have heard Langmuir lecture when I knew he was wrong, but I had to repeat to myself: 'He is wrong; I know he is wrong; he is wrong', or I should have believed like the others.
'How to Ripen Time', Journal of Physical Chemistry 1931, 35, 1917.
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Man is made for science; he reasons from effects to causes, and from causes to effects; but he does not always reason without error. In reasoning, therefore, from appearances which are particular, care must be taken how we generalize; we should be cautious not to attribute to nature, laws which may perhaps be only of our own invention.
'Theory of the Earth', Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788, 1, 273.
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Many errors, of a truth, consist merely in the application of the wrong names of things. For if a man says that the lines which are drawn from the centre of the circle to the circumference are not equal, he understands by the circle, at all events for the time, something else than mathematicians understand by it.
In 'Prop. 47: The human mind possesses an adequate knowledge of the eternal and infinite essence of God', Ethic, translated by William Hale White (1883), 93-94. Collected in The English and Foreign Philosophical Library, Vol. 21.
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Mistakes are at the very base of human thought feeding the structure like root nodules. If we were not provided with the knack of being wrong, we could never get anything useful done.
In The Medusa and the Snail (1979), 37.

Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you'll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won't get started. It requires a lovely balance.
'You and Your Research', Bell Communications Research Colloquium Seminar, 7 Mar 1986.
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Nature gropes and blunders and performs the crudest acts. There is no steady advance upward. There is no design.
As quoted in Bob Fenster, Duh!: The Stupid History of the Human Race (2000) , 208. [No other source was found by Webmaster. If you have information on a primary source, please contact Webmaster.]
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Nature is a source of truth. Experience does not ever err, it is only your judgment that errs in promising itself results which are not caused by your experiments.
The Notebook. As cited in Edward Schwartz, One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward (2003), 38, with caption "examining objects in all their diversity." Also quoted in Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers (1983), 350.
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No one wants to learn by mistakes, but we cannot learn enough from successes to go beyond the state of the art
To Engineer is Human: The Role of Failure in Successful Design (1992), 62.
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One of my surgical giant friends had in his operating room a sign “If the operation is difficult, you aren’t doing it right.” What he meant was, you have to plan every operation You cannot ever be casual You have to realize that any operation is a potential fatality.
From Cornelia Dean, 'A Conversation with Joseph E. Murray', New York Times (25 Sep 2001), F5.
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One way of dealing with errors is to have friends who are willing to spend the time necessary to carry out a critical examination of the experimental design beforehand and the results after the experiments have been completed. An even better way is to have an enemy. An enemy is willing to devote a vast amount of time and brain power to ferreting out errors both large and small, and this without any compensation. The trouble is that really capable enemies are scarce; most of them are only ordinary. Another trouble with enemies is that they sometimes develop into friends and lose a great deal of their zeal. It was in this way the writer lost his three best enemies. Everyone, not just scientists, needs a good few enemies.
Quoted in George A. Olah, A Life of Magic Chemistry (2001), 146.
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People see the wrongness in an idea much quicker that the rightness.

Prejudice for regularity and simplicity is a source of error that has only too often infected philosophy.
'De litteraria expeditione per pontificiam ditionem', Accademia della scienze, Bologna, Commentarii, 1757, 4, 353, 361. Trans. J. L. Heilbron, Weighing Imponderables and Other Quantitative Science around 1800 (1993), 227.
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Reason and free inquiry are the only effectual agents against error.
Thomas Jefferson and Albert Ellery Bergh (ed.), The Writings of Thomas Jefferson (1905), Vols 1, 221.
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Remember that all models are wrong; the practical question is how wrong do they have to be to not be useful.
In George E.P. Box and Norman R. Draper, Empirical Model-Building and Response Surfaces (1987), 74.
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Running overtime is the one unforgivable error a lecturer can make. After fifty minutes (one microcentury as von Neumann used to say) everybody's attention will turn elsewhere.
In 'Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught', Indiscrete Thoughts (2008), 197.
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Science has hitherto been proceeding without the guidance of any rational theory of logic, and has certainly made good progress. It is like a computer who is pursuing some method of arithmetical approximation. Even if he occasionally makes mistakes in his ciphering, yet if the process is a good one they will rectify themselves. But then he would approximate much more rapidly if he did not commit these errors; and in my opinion, the time has come when science ought to be provided with a logic. My theory satisfies me; I can see no flaw in it. According to that theory universality, necessity, exactitude, in the absolute sense of these words, are unattainable by us, and do not exist in nature. There is an ideal law to which nature approximates; but to express it would require an endless series of modifications, like the decimals expressing surd. Only when you have asked a question in so crude a shape that continuity is not involved, is a perfectly true answer attainable.
Letter to G. F. Becker, 11 June 1893. Merrill Collection, Library of Congress. Quoted in Nathan Reingold, Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (1966), 231-2.
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Science in the modern world has many uses, its chief use, however, is to provide long words to cover the errors of the rich. The word “kleptomania” is a vulgar example of what I mean.
From 'Celts and Celtophiles', in Heretics (1905, 1909), 171.
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Science, my boy, is composed of errors, but errors that it is right to make, for they lead step by step to the truth.
Journey to the Centre of the Earth, translated by William Butcher (1992, 2008), 146.
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So-called extraordinary events always split into two extremes naturalists who have not witnessed them: those who believe blindly and those who do not believe at all. The latter have always in mind the story of the golden goose; if the facts lie slightly beyond the limits of their knowledge, they relegate them immediately to fables. The former have a secret taste for marvels because they seem to expand Nature; they use their imagination with pleasure to find explanations. To remain doubtful is given to naturalists who keep a middle path between the two extremes. They calmly examine facts; they refer to logic for help; they discuss probabilities; they do not scoff at anything, not even errors, because they serve at least the history of the human mind; finally, they report rather than judge; they rarely decide unless they have good evidence.
Quoted in Albert V. Carozzi, Histoire des sciences de la terre entre 1790 et 1815 vue à travers les documents inédités de la Societé de Physique et d'Histoire Naturelle de Genève, trans. Albert V. and Marguerite Carozzi. (1990), 175.
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Surely it must be admitted that if the conceptions of Physics are presented to the beginner in erroneous language, there is a danger that in many instances these conceptions will never be properly acquired. And is not accurate language as cheap as inaccurate?
A paper read at the Association for the Improvement of Geometrical Teaching (19 Jan 1889), 'The Vices of our Scientific Education', in Nature (6 Jun 1889), 40, 128.
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The Mathematics are Friends to Religion, inasmuch as they charm the Passions, restrain the Impetuosity of the Imagination, and purge the Mind from Error and Prejudice. Vice is Error, Confusion, and false Reasoning; and all Truth is more or less opposite to it. Besides, Mathematical Studies may serve for a pleasant Entertainment for those Hours which young Men are apt to throw away upon their Vices; the Delightfulness of them being such as to make Solitude not only easy, but desirable.
On the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning, (3rd Ed., 1745) 8.
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The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.
Play, The Life of Galileo (1939, 1994), scene 9, 74.
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The body of science is not, as it is sometimes thought, a huge coherent mass of facts, neatly arranged in sequence, each one attached to the next by a logical string. In truth, whenever we discover a new fact it involves the elimination of old ones. We are always, as it turns out, fundamentally in error.
In 'On Science and Certainty', Discover Magazine (Oct 1980)
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The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.
In The Medusa and the Snail (1974, 1979), 23.
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The difference between the amoeba and Einstein is that, although both make use of the method of trial and error elimination, the amoeba dislikes erring while Einstein is intrigued by it.
In Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach (1972), 70. As cited in Alexander Naraniecki, Returning to Karl Popper: A Reassessment of his Politics and Philosophy (2014), 89, footnote.
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The errors of a wise man are literally more instructive than the truths of a fool. The wise man travels in lofty, far-seeing regions; the fool in low-lying, high-fenced lanes; retracing the footsteps of the former, to discover where he diviated, whole provinces of the universe are laid open to us; in the path of the latter, granting even that he has not deviated at all, little is laid open to us but two wheel-ruts and two hedges.
In James Wood, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources (1893), 425:26.

The errors of great men are venerable because they are more fruitful than the truths of little men.
Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche and Walter Kaufmann (ed. & trans.), The Portable Nietzsche (1954), 30.
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The errors which arise from the absence of facts are far more numerous and more durable than those which result from unsound reasoning respecting true data.
On the Economy of Machinery and Manufactures (1832), 119.

The history of science teaches only too plainly the lesson that no single method is absolutely to be relied upon, that sources of error lurk where they are least expected, and that they may escape the notice of the most experienced and conscientious worker.
Transactions of the Sections', Reports of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1883), 438.
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The history of science, like the history of all human ideas, is a history of irresponsible dreams, of obstinacy, and of error. But science is one of the very few human activities—perhaps the only one—in which errors are systematically criticized and fairly often, in time, corrected. This is why we can say that, in science, we often learn from our mistakes, and why we can speak clearly and sensibly about making progress there. In most other fields of human endeavour there is change, but rarely progress ... And in most fields we do not even know how to evaluate change.
From Conjectures and Refutations: The Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1963), 216. Reproduced in Karl Popper, Truth, Rationality and the Growth of Scientific Knowledge (1979), 9.
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The logic now in use serves rather to fix and give stability to the errors which have their foundation in commonly received notions than to help the search for truth. So it does more harm than good.
Aphorism 7,' Novum Organum, Book I (1620)
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The most erroneous stories are those we think we know best—and therefore never scrutinize or question.
Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin (1997), 57.
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The old fashioned family physician and general practitioner ... was a splendid figure and useful person in his day; but he was badly trained, he was often ignorant, he made many mistakes, for one cannot by force of character and geniality of person make a diagnosis of appendicitis, or recognize streptococcus infection.
New York Medical Journal (1913), 97, 1.
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The role of hypothesis in research can be discussed more effectively if we consider first some examples of discoveries which originated from hypotheses. One of the best illustrations of such a discovery is provided by the story of Christopher Columbus' voyage; it has many of the features of a classic discovery in science. (a) He was obsessed with an idea—that since the world is round he could reach the Orient by sailing West, (b) the idea was by no means original, but evidently he had obtained some additional evidence from a sailor blown off his course who claimed to have reached land in the west and returned, (c) he met great difficulties in getting someone to provide the money to enable him to test his idea as well as in the actual carrying out of the experimental voyage, (d) when finally he succeeded he did not find the expected new route, but instead found a whole new world, (e) despite all evidence to the contrary he clung to the bitter end to his hypothesis and believed that he had found the route to the Orient, (f) he got little credit or reward during his lifetime and neither he nor others realised the full implications of his discovery, (g) since his time evidence has been brought forward showing that he was by no means the first European to reach America.
The Art of Scientific Investigation (1950), 41.
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The scientific method is a potentiation of common sense, exercised with a specially firm determination not to persist in error if any exertion of hand or mind can deliver us from it. Like other exploratory processes, it can be resolved into a dialogue between fact and fancy, the actual and the possible; between what could be true and what is in fact the case. The purpose of scientific enquiry is not to compile an inventory of factual information, nor to build up a totalitarian world picture of Natural Laws in which every event that is not compulsory is forbidden. We should think of it rather as a logically articulated structure of justifiable beliefs about nature. It begins as a story about a Possible World—a story which we invent and criticise and modify as we go along, so that it ends by being, as nearly as we can make it, a story about real life.
Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (1969), 59.
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The scientific spirit is of more value than its products, and irrationally held truths may be more harmful than reasoned errors.
'The Coming of Age of the Origin of Species' (1880). In Collected Essays (1893), Vol. 2, 229.
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The scientific value of truth is not, however, ultimate or absolute. It rests partly on practical, partly on aesthetic interests. As our ideas are gradually brought into conformity with the facts by the painful process of selection,—for intuition runs equally into truth and into error, and can settle nothing if not controlled by experience,—we gain vastly in our command over our environment. This is the fundamental value of natural science
In The Sense of Beauty: Being the Outlines of Aesthetic Theory (1896), 22.
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The self-fulfilling prophecy is, in the beginning, a false definition of the situation evoking a new behavior which makes the originally false conception come true. The specious validity of the self-fulfilling prophecy perpetuates a reign of error. For the prophet will cite the actual course of events as proof that he was right from the very beginning... Such are the perversities of social logic.
The Self-Fulfilling Prophecy (1948), 477. Merton is credited with coining the modern use of the expression “self-fulfilling prophecy.”
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There are infinite possibilities of error, and more cranks take up fashionable untruths than unfashionable truths.
Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916). Also in An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish (1943), reprinted in Unpopular Essays (1950) and collected in 'An Outline of Intellectual Rubbish', The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell (2009), 61.
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There are no mistakes. The events we bring upon ourselves, no matter how unpleasant, are necessary in order to learn what we need to learn; whatever steps we take, they're necessary to reach the places we've chosen to go.
The Bridge across Forever (1984). In Gary Westfahl, Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits (2006), 2.
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There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth.
Quotation translated by A.L. Mackay in Alan Lindsay Mackay and Maurice Ebison, The Harvest of a Quiet Eye (1977), 40.
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There cannot always be fresh fields of conquest by the knife; there must be portions of the human frame that will ever remain sacred from its intrusions, at least in the surgeon's hands. That we have already, if not quite, reached these final limits, there can be little question. The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will be forever shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.
Quoted in C. Cerf and V. Navasky (eds.), I Wish I hadn't Said That: The Experts Speak and Get it Wrong! (2000), 31.
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There is hardly a more common error than that of taking the man who has but one talent for a genius.
Louis Klopsch, Many Thoughts of Many Minds (1896), 105.
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There is no such source of error as the pursuit of absolute truth.
Samuel Butler, Henry Festing Jones (ed.), The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1917), 298.
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There is no such thing as absolute truth and absolute falsehood. The scientific mind should never recognise the perfect truth or the perfect falsehood of any supposed theory or observation. It should carefully weigh the chances of truth and error and grade each in its proper position along the line joining absolute truth and absolute error.
'The Highest Aim of the Physicist: Presidential Address Delivered at the 2nd Meeting of the Society, October 28th, 1899', Bulletin of the American Physical Society (1899), 1, 13.
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There must be no barriers to freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. ... Our political life is also predicated on openness. We know that the only way to avoid error is to detect it and that the only way to detect it is to be free to inquire. And we know that as long as men are free to ask what they must, free to say what they think, free to think what they will, freedom can never be lost, and science can never regress.
Life (10 Oct 1949), 136.
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To err is human; to try to prevent recurrence of error is science.
Anonymous
Saying. In Ashton Applewhite, William R. Evans and Andrew Frothingham, And I Quote (2003), 32.
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Truth is better disengaged from error than torn from it.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-Book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 177.
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Truth is not by nature free—nor error servile—its production is thoroughly imbued with relations of power.
History of Sexuality (1976), trans. Robert Hurley (1978), Vol. 1, 60.
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Truth more easily comes out of error than out of confusion.
As quoted by Thomas Huxley, Address delivered to the Working Men's Club and Institute, 'Technical Education' (1 Dec 1877), in Nineteenth Century (1878), 65-85. Collected in Science and Culture, and Other Essays (1881), 66.
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Ultimately there can be no disagreement between history, science, philosophy, and theology. Where there is disagreement, there is either ignorance or error.
As quoted on title page of Max Weisman (ed.), Center for the Study of The Great Ideas, Philosphy is Everybody's Business, (Spring/Summer 2001), 8, No. 1, 1.
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Upon the whole, Chymistry is as yet but an opening science, closely connected with the usefull and ornamental arts, and worthy the attention of the liberal mind. And it must always become more and more so: for though it is only of late, that it has been looked upon in that light, the great progress already made in Chymical knowledge, gives us a pleasant prospect of rich additions to it. The Science is now studied on solid and rational grounds. While our knowledge is imperfect, it is apt to run into error: but Experiment is the thread that will lead us out of the labyrinth.
In Alexander Law, Notes of Black's Lectures, vol. 3, 88. Cited in Charles Coulston Gillispie, Dictionary of Scientific Biography: Volumes 1-2 (1981), 181.
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We are built to make mistakes, coded for error.

We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn't any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work, although, there has been in these days, some interest in this kind, thing.
'The Development of Space-time View of Quantum Electrodynamics', Nobel Lecture, 11 Dec 1965. In Nobel Lectures: Physics 1963-1970 (1972), 155.
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We should greatly err, if we endeavoured to force all ancient nature into a close comparison with existing operations.
Siluria (1854), 481.
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We speak erroneously of “artificial” materials, “synthetics”, and so forth. The basis for this erroneous terminology is the notion that Nature has made certain things which we call natural, and everything else is “man-made”, ergo artificial. But what one learns in chemistry is that Nature wrote all the rules of structuring; man does not invent chemical structuring rules; he only discovers the rules. All the chemist can do is find out what Nature permits, and any substances that are thus developed or discovered are inherently natural. It is very important to remember that.
From 'The Comprehensive Man', Ideas and Integrities: A Spontaneous Autobiographical Disclosure (1963), 75-76.
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We've all seen Apollo 13. NASA guys always have the old 'plastic bag, cardboard tubing, and duct tape' option to fall back on when the shit hits the fan. Neurosurgeons have no such leeway. What it comes down to is this: if a brain surgeon screws up, it means a multi-million-dollar malpractice suit, but if a rocket scientist screws up, it means a multi-million-dollar hit movie starring Tom Hanks.
Lucky Man (2002), 209.
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When a scientist is ahead of his times, it is often through misunderstanding of current, rather than intuition of future truth. In science there is never any error so gross that it won't one day, from some perspective, appear prophetic.
Pensées d'un Biologiste (1939). Translated in The Substance of Man (1962), Chap. 7.
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When you're talking deaths in clinical trials, mistakes are not an option. It's just an area where we have to have absolute, foolproof reporting in place.
Stephanie Saul, 'U.S. Not Told of 2 Deaths During Study of Heart Drug ', New York Times (4 Jan 2006).
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Wherever modern Science has exploded a superstitious fable or even a picturesque error, she has replaced it with a grander and even more poetical truth.
'The Study of Nature', The Christian Examiner, 1860, 67, 40.
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You can hardly convince a man of error in a life-time, but must content yourself with the reflection that the progress of science is slow. If he is not convinced, his grand-children may be. The geologists tell us that it took one hundred years to prove that fossils are organic, and one hundred and fifty more, to prove that they are not to be referred to the Noachian deluge.
A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers (1921), 44.
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[It] may be laid down as a general rule that, if the result of a long series of precise observations approximates a simple relation so closely that the remaining difference is undetectable by observation and may be attributed to the errors to which they are liable, then this relation is probably that of nature.
'Mémoire sur les Inégalites Séculaires des Planètes et des Satellites' (I 785, published 1787). In Oeuvres completes de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 11, 57, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 130.
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[I]f in other sciences we should arrive at certainty without doubt and truth without error, it behooves us to place the foundations of knowledge in mathematics, in so far as disposed through it we are able to reach certainty in other sciences and truth by the exclusion of error. (c.1267)
Translation by Robert Burke, Opus Majus of Roger Bacon (1928), vol 1, 124. In Fred R. Shapiro, The Yale Book of Quotations (2006), 39.
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[Science] dissipates errors born of ignorance about our true relations with nature, errors the more damaging in that the social order should rest only on those relations. TRUTH! JUSTICE! Those are the immutable laws. Let us banish the dangerous maxim that it is sometimes useful to depart from them and to deceive or enslave mankind to assure its happiness.
Exposition du Système du Monde (1796), 2, 312, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 175.
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[The] erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardised citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.
The American Mercury (24 Apr 1924).
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“I had,” said he, “come to an entirely erroneous conclusion which shows, my dear Watson, how dangerous it always is to reason from insufficient data.”
From 'VIII—The Adventure of the Speckled Band', Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, in The Strand Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly (Feb 1892), Vol. 3, 156.


Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton