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Who said: “I have no satisfaction in formulas unless I feel their arithmetical magnitude.”
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Explanation Quotes (88 quotes)

Dilbert: Maybe I'm unlucky in love because I'm so knowledgeable about science that I intimidate people. Their intimidation becomes low self-esteem, then they reject me to protect their egos.
Dogbert: Occam's Razor.
Dilbert: What is "Occam's Razor"?
Dogbert: A guy named Occam had a rule about the world. Basically he said that when there are multiple explanations for something the simplest explanation is usually correct. The simplest explanation for your poor love life is that you're immensely unattractive.
Dilbert: Maybe Occam had another rule that specifically exempted this situation, but his house burned down with all his notes. Then he forgot.
Dogbert: Occam's Razor.
Dilbert: I'm an idiot.
Dogbert: I don't think we can rule it out at this point.
Dilbert comic strip (11 Jul 1993).
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Neue Phaenomena zu erklären, dieses macht meine Sorgen aus, und wie froh ist der Forscher, wenn er das so fleissig Gesuche findet, eine Ergötzung wobei das Herz lacht.
To explain new phenomena, that is my task; and how happy is the scientist when he finds what he so diligently sought, a pleasure that gladdens the heart.
Letter to Johan Gahn. Original German quote in Mary Elivira Weeks, The Discovery of the Elements (1934), 153, citing Nordenskiöld, Scheeles nachgelassene Briefe und Aufzeichnungen (1892), 151. Translation in Mary Elvira Weeks and Henry M. Leicester (ed.)The Discovery of the Elements (6th ed. 1956), 223.
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Question: A hollow indiarubber ball full of air is suspended on one arm of a balance and weighed in air. The whole is then covered by the receiver of an air pump. Explain what will happen as the air in the receiver is exhausted.
Answer: The ball would expand and entirely fill the vessell, driving out all before it. The balance being of greater density than the rest would be the last to go, but in the end its inertia would be overcome and all would be expelled, and there would be a perfect vacuum. The ball would then burst, but you would not be aware of the fact on account of the loudness of a sound varying with the density of the place in which it is generated, and not on that in which it is heard.
Genuine student answer* to an Acoustics, Light and Heat paper (1880), Science and Art Department, South Kensington, London, collected by Prof. Oliver Lodge. Quoted in Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders (1893), 181, Question 21. (*From a collection in which Answers are not given verbatim et literatim, and some instances may combine several students' blunders.)
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Question: Account for the delicate shades of colour sometimes seen on the inside of an oyster shell. State and explain the appearance presented when a beam of light falls upon a sheet of glass on which very fine equi-distant parallel lines have been scratched very close to one another.
Answer: The delicate shades are due to putrefaction; the colours always show best when the oyster has been a bad one. Hence they are considered a defect and are called chromatic aberration.
The scratches on the glass will arrange themselves in rings round the light, as any one may see at night in a tram car.
Genuine student answer* to an Acoustics, Light and Heat paper (1880), Science and Art Department, South Kensington, London, collected by Prof. Oliver Lodge. Quoted in Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders (1893), 182, Question 27. (*From a collection in which Answers are not given verbatim et literatim, and some instances may combine several students' blunders.)
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Question: Explain how to determine the time of vibration of a given tuning-fork, and state what apparatus you would require for the purpose.
Answer: For this determination I should require an accurate watch beating seconds, and a sensitive ear. I mount the fork on a suitable stand, and then, as the second hand of my watch passes the figure 60 on the dial, I draw the bow neatly across one of its prongs. I wait. I listen intently. The throbbing air particles are receiving the pulsations; the beating prongs are giving up their original force; and slowly yet surely the sound dies away. Still I can hear it, but faintly and with close attention; and now only by pressing the bones of my head against its prongs. Finally the last trace disappears. I look at the time and leave the room, having determined the time of vibration of the common “pitch” fork. This process deteriorates the fork considerably, hence a different operation must be performed on a fork which is only lent.
Genuine student answer* to an Acoustics, Light and Heat paper (1880), Science and Art Department, South Kensington, London, collected by Prof. Oliver Lodge. Quoted in Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders (1893), 176-7, Question 4. (*From a collection in which Answers are not given verbatim et literatim, and some instances may combine several students' blunders.)
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Question: Explain why, in order to cook food by boiling, at the top of a high mountain, you must employ a different method from that used at the sea level.
Answer: It is easy to cook food at the sea level by boiling it, but once you get above the sea level the only plan is to fry it in its own fat. It is, in fact, impossible to boil water above the sea level by any amount of heat. A different method, therefore, would have to be employed to boil food at the top of a high mountain, but what that method is has not yet been discovered. The future may reveal it to a daring experimentalist.
Genuine student answer* to an Acoustics, Light and Heat paper (1880), Science and Art Department, South Kensington, London, collected by Prof. Oliver Lodge. Quoted in Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders (1893), 178-9, Question 11. (*From a collection in which Answers are not given verbatim et literatim, and some instances may combine several students' blunders.)
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Question: State what are the conditions favourable for the formation of dew. Describe an instrument for determining the dew point, and the method of using it.
Answer: This is easily proved from question 1. A body of gas as it ascends expands, cools, and deposits moisture; so if you walk up a hill the body of gas inside you expands, gives its heat to you, and deposits its moisture in the form of dew or common sweat. Hence these are the favourable conditions; and moreover it explains why you get warm by ascending a hill, in opposition to the well-known law of the Conservation of Energy.
Genuine student answer* to an Acoustics, Light and Heat paper (1880), Science and Art Department, South Kensington, London, collected by Prof. Oliver Lodge. Quoted in Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders (1893), 179, Question 12. (*From a collection in which Answers are not given verbatim et literatim, and some instances may combine several students' blunders.)
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[When recording electrical impulses from a frog nerve-muscle preparation seemed to show a tiresomely oscillating electrical artefact—but only when the muscle was hanging unsupported.] The explanation suddenly dawned on me ... a muscle hanging under its own weight ought, if you come to think of it, to be sending sensory impulses up the nerves coming from the muscle spindles ... That particular day’s work, I think, had all the elements that one could wish for. The new apparatus seemed to be misbehaving very badly indeed, and I suddenly found it was behaving so well that it was opening up an entire new range of data ... it didn’t involve any particular hard work, or any particular intelligence on my part. It was just one of those things which sometimes happens in a laboratory if you stick apparatus together and see what results you get.
From 'Memorable experiences in research', Diabetes (1954), 3, 17-18. As cited in Alan McComa, Galvani's Spark: The Story of the Nerve Impulse (2011), 102-103.
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A multitude of words doth rather obscure than illustrate, they being a burden to the memory, and the first apt to be forgotten, before we come to the last. So that he that uses many words for the explaining of any subject, doth, like the cuttle-fish, hide himself, for the most part, in his own ink.
John Ray
The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691).
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A parable: A man was examining the construction of a cathedral. He asked a stone mason what he was doing chipping the stones, and the mason replied, “I am making stones.” He asked a stone carver what he was doing. “I am carving a gargoyle.” And so it went, each person said in detail what they were doing. Finally he came to an old woman who was sweeping the ground. She said. “I am helping build a cathedral.”
...Most of the time each person is immersed in the details of one special part of the whole and does not think of how what they are doing relates to the larger picture.
[For example, in education, a teacher might say in the next class he was going to “explain Young's modulus and how to measure it,” rather than, “I am going to educate the students and prepare them for their future careers.”]
In The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn (1975, 2005), 195.
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A premature attempt to explain something that thrills you will destroy your perceptivity rather than increase it, because your tendency will be to explain away rather than seek out.
Victor K. McElhenty, Insisting on the Impossible, 245.
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A superstition is a premature explanation that overstays its time.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 168.
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Any one whose disposition leads him to attach more weight to unexplained difficulties than to the explanation of facts will certainly reject my theory.
The Origin of Species (1859), 482.
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Casting off the dark fog of verbal philosophy and vulgar medicine, which inculcate names alone ... I tried a series of experiments to explain more clearly many phenomena, particularly those of physiology. In order that I might subject as far as possible the reasonings of the Galenists and Peripatetics to sensory criteria, I began, after trying experiments, to write dialogues in which a Galenist adduced the better-known and stronger reasons and arguments; these a mechanist surgeon refuted by citing to the contrary the experiments I had tried, and a third, neutral interlocutor weighed the reasons advanced by both and provided an opportunity for further progress.
'Malpighi at Pisa 1656-1659', in H. B. Adelmann (ed.), Marcello Malpighi and the Evolution of Embryology (1966), Vol. 1, 155-6.
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Chemists have made of phlogiston a vague principle which is not at all rigorously defined, and which, in consequence, adapts itself to all explanations in which it is wished it shall enter; sometimes it is free fire, sometimes it is fire combined with the earthy element; sometimes it passes through the pores of vessels, sometimes they are impenetrable to it; it explains both the causticity and non-causticity, transparency and opacity, colours and absence of colours. It is a veritable Proteus which changes its form every instant. It is time to conduct chemistry to a more rigorous mode of reasoning ... to distinguish fact and observation from what is systematic and hypothetical.
'Réflexions sur le phlogistique', Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, 1783, 505-38. Reprinted in Oeuvres de Lavoisier (1864), Vol. 2, 640, trans. M. P. Crosland.
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Darwin's book is very important and serves me as a basis in natural science for the class struggle in history. One has to put up with the crude English method of development, of course. Despite all deficiencies not only is the death-blow dealt here for the first time to 'teleology' in the natural sciences, but their rational meaning is empirically explained.
Karl Marx
Marx to Lasalle, 16 Jan 1861. In Marx-Engels Selected Correspondence, 1846-95, trans. Donna Torr (1934), 125.
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De Morgan was explaining to an actuary what was the chance that a certain proportion of some group of people would at the end of a given time be alive; and quoted the actuarial formula, involving p [pi], which, in answer to a question, he explained stood for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. His acquaintance, who had so far listened to the explanation with interest, interrupted him and exclaimed, 'My dear friend, that must be a delusion, what can a circle have to do with the number of people alive at a given time?'
Mathematical Recreations and Problems (1896), 180; See also De Morgan's Budget of Paradoxes (1872), 172.
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Don’t confuse hypothesis and theory. The former is a possible explanation; the latter, the correct one. The establishment of theory is the very purpose of science.
Martin H. Fischer, Howard Fabing (ed.) and Ray Marr (ed.), Fischerisms (1944).
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Einstein, twenty-six years old, only three years away from crude privation, still a patent examiner, published in the Annalen der Physik in 1905 five papers on entirely different subjects. Three of them were among the greatest in the history of physics. One, very simple, gave the quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect—it was this work for which, sixteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel prize. Another dealt with the phenomenon of Brownian motion, the apparently erratic movement of tiny particles suspended in a liquid: Einstein showed that these movements satisfied a clear statistical law. This was like a conjuring trick, easy when explained: before it, decent scientists could still doubt the concrete existence of atoms and molecules: this paper was as near to a direct proof of their concreteness as a theoretician could give. The third paper was the special eory of relativity, which quietly amalgamated space, time, and matter into one fundamental unity. This last paper contains no references and quotes no authority. All of them are written in a style unlike any other theoretical physicist's. They contain very little mathematics. There is a good deal of verbal commentary. The conclusions, the bizarre conclusions, emerge as though with the greatest of ease: the reasoning is unbreakable. It looks as though he had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.
Variety of Men (1966), 100-1.
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Enzymes are things invented by biologists that explain things which otherwise require harder thinking.
In Geoff Tibballs, The Mammoth Book of Zingers, Quips, and One-Liners (2004), 475, but without citation. If you know a primary print source, please contact Webmaster.
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Facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do not go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them. Einstein's theory of gravitation replaced Newton's, but apples did not suspend themselves in mid-air pending the outcome.
'Evolution as Fact and Theory', in Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes (1983, 1994), Chap. 19.
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Geologists have usually had recourse for the explanation of these changes to the supposition of sundry violent and extraordinary catastrophes, cataclysms, or general revolutions having occurred in the physical state of the earth's surface.
As the idea imparted by the term Cataclysm, Catastrophe, or Revolution, is extremely vague, and may comprehend any thing you choose to imagine, it answers for the time very well as an explanation; that is, it stops further inquiry. But it also has had the disadvantage of effectually stopping the advance of science, by involving it in obscurity and confusion.
Considerations on Volcanoes (1825), iv.
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Human personality resembles a coral reef: a large hard/dead structure built and inhabited by tiny soft/live animals. The hard/dead part of our personality consists of habits, memories, and compulsions and will probably be explained someday by some sort of extended computer metaphor. The soft/live part of personality consists of moment-to-moment direct experience of being. This aspect of personality is familiar but somewhat ineffable and has eluded all attempts at physical explanation.
Quoted in article 'Nick Herbert', in Gale Cengage Learning, Contemporary Authors Online (2002).
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I have repeatedly had cause to refer to certain resemblances between the phenomena of irritability in the vegetable kingdom and those of the animal body, thus touching a province of investigation which has hitherto been far too little cultivated. In the last instance, indeed, I might say animal and vegetable life must of necessity agree in all essential points, including the phenomena of irritability also, since it is established that the animal organism is constructed entirely and simply from the properties of these substances that all vital movements both of plants and animals are to be explained.
Lectures on the Physiology of Plants (1887), 600.
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I've found out so much about electricity that I've reached the point where I understand nothing and can explain nothing.
[Describing his experiments with the Leyden jar.]
Letter to Réamur (20 Jan 1746), in AS. Proc. verb., LXV (1746), 6. Cited in J. L. Heilbron, Electricity in the 17th and 18th Centuries: a Study of Early Modern Physics (1979), 314.
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If an explanation is so vague in its inherent nature, or so unskillfully molded in its formulation, that specific deductions subject to empirical verification or refutation can not be based upon it, then it can never serve as a working hypothesis. A hypothesis with which one can not work is not a working hypothesis.
'Role of Analysis in Scientific Investigation', Bulletin of the Geological Society of America (1933), 44, 479.
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If everything in chemistry is explained in a satisfactory manner without the help of phlogiston, it is by that reason alone infinitely probable that the principle does not exist; that it is a hypothetical body, a gratuitous supposition; indeed, it is in the principles of good logic, not to multiply bodies without necessity.
'Reflexions sur le phlogistique', Mémoires de l'Académie des Sciences, 1783, 505-38. Reprinted in Oeuvres de Lavoisier (1864), Vol. 2, 623, trans. M. P. Crosland.
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If history is any guide at all, it seems to me to suggest that there is a final theory. In this century we have seen a convergence of the arrows of explanation, like the convergence of meridians toward the North Pole.
In Dreams of a Final Theory: The Scientist's Search for the Ultimate Laws of Nature (1992), 232.
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If you do not agree with the prevalent point of view, be ready to explain why.
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In all matters of opinion and science ... the difference between men is ... oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance. An explication of the terms commonly ends the controversy, and the disputants are surprised to find that they had been quarrelling, while at bottom they agreed in their judgement.
Dissertation IV, 'Of the Standard of Taste', Four Dissertations (1757), 204.
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In considering God's power, we must not look for a God of the Gaps, a god who is called in for those phenomena for which there is yet no scientific explanation.
Essay 'Science Will Never Give Us the Answers to All Our Questions', collected in Henry Margenau, and Roy Abraham Varghese (eds.), Cosmos, Bios, Theos (1992), 66.
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In the modem interpretation of Mendelism, facts are being transformed into factors at a rapid rate. If one factor will not explain the facts, then two are involved; if two prove insufficient, three will sometimes work out. The superior jugglery sometimes necessary to account for the results may blind us, if taken too naively, to the common-place that the results are often so excellently 'explained' because the explanation was invented to explain them. We work backwards from the facts to the factors, and then, presto! explain the facts by the very factors that we invented to account for them. I am not unappreciative of the distinct advantages that this method has in handling the facts. I realize how valuable it has been to us to be able to marshal our results under a few simple assumptions, yet I cannot but fear that we are rapidly developing a sort of Mendelian ritual by which to explain the extraordinary facts of alternative inheritance. So long as we do not lose sight of the purely arbitrary and formal nature of our formulae, little harm will be done; and it is only fair to state that those who are doing the actual work of progress along Mendelian lines are aware of the hypothetical nature of the factor-assumption.
'What are 'Factors' in Mendelian Explanations?', American Breeders Association (1909), 5, 365.
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It appears that the extremely important papers that trigger a revolution may not receive a proportionately large number of citations. The normal procedures of referencing are not used for folklore. A real scientific revolution, like any other revolution, is news. The Origin of Species sold out as fast as it could be printed and was denounced from the pulpit almost immediately. Sea-floor spreading has been explained, perhaps not well, in leading newspapers, magazines, books, and most recently in a color motion picture. When your elementary school children talk about something at dinner, you rarely continue to cite it.
'Citations in a Scientific Revolution', in R. Shagam et al., Studies in Earth and Space Sciences: A Memoir in Honor of Harry Hammond Hess (1972), 4.
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It is scientists, not sceptics, who are most willing to consider explanations that conflict with their own. And far from quashing dissent, it is the scientists, not the sceptics, who do most to acknowledge gaps in their studies and point out the limitations of their data—which is where sceptics get much of the mud they fling at the scientists. By contrast, the [sceptics] are not trying to build a theory of anything. They have set the bar much lower, and are happy muddying the waters.
Editorial, Nature (28 Jul 2011), 475, 423-424.
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It is structure that we look for whenever we try to understand anything. All science is built upon this search; we investigate how the cell is built of reticular material, cytoplasm, chromosomes; how crystals aggregate; how atoms are fastened together; how electrons constitute a chemical bond between atoms. We like to understand, and to explain, observed facts in terms of structure. A chemist who understands why a diamond has certain properties, or why nylon or hemoglobin have other properties, because of the different ways their atoms are arranged, may ask questions that a geologist would not think of' formulating, unless he had been similarly trained in this way of thinking about the world.
‘The Place of Chemistry In the Integration of the Sciences’, Main Currents in Modern Thought (1950), 7, 110.
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It is the desire for explanations that are at once systematic and controllable by factual evidence that generates science; and it is the organization and classification of knowledge on the basis of explanatory principles that is the distinctive goal of the sciences.
The Structure of Science (1961), 4.
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It seems to me that every phenomenon, every fact, itself is the really interesting object. Whoever explains it, or connects it with other events, usually only amuses himself or makes sport of us, as, for instance, the naturalist or historian. But a single action or event is interesting, not because it is explainable, but because it is true.
Quoted in translated from Unterhaltungen deutscher Ausgewanderten in Franz Boas, 'The Study of Geography', Science Supplement (11 Feb 1881), 9, No. 210, 139.
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It was a dark and stormy night, so R. H. Bing volunteered to drive some stranded mathematicians from the fogged-in Madison airport to Chicago. Freezing rain pelted the windscreen and iced the roadway as Bing drove on—concentrating deeply on the mathematical theorem he was explaining. Soon the windshield was fogged from the energetic explanation. The passengers too had beaded brows, but their sweat arose from fear. As the mathematical description got brighter, the visibility got dimmer. Finally, the conferees felt a trace of hope for their survival when Bing reached forward—apparently to wipe off the moisture from the windshield. Their hope turned to horror when, instead, Bing drew a figure with his finger on the foggy pane and continued his proof—embellishing the illustration with arrows and helpful labels as needed for the demonstration.
In 'R. H. Bing', Biographical Memoirs: National Academy of Sciences (2002), 49. Anecdote based on the recollections of Bing's colleagues, Steve Armentrout and C. E. Burgess.
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It was my science that drove me to the conclusion that the world is much more complicated than can be explained by science. It is only through the supernatural that I can understand the mystery of existence.
As quoted in Sharon Begley, 'Science Finds God', Newsweek (1998).
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Magic is antiphysics, so it can't really exist. But is shares one thing with science. I can explain the principle behind a good science experiment in 15 seconds; the same way with magic.
As quoted in Eric Roston, The Carbon Age: How Life's Core Element Has Become Civilization's Greatest Threat (2009), 132. Nakaniski entertained with magic tricks for colleagues and to audiences at conferences.
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Many climate sceptics seem to review scientific data and studies not as scientists but as attorneys, magnifying doubts and treating incomplete explanations as falsehoods rather than signs of progress towards the truth.
Editorial, Nature (28 Jul 2011), 475, 423-424.
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Medicine rests upon four pillars—philosophy, astronomy, alchemy, and ethics. The first pillar is the philosophical knowledge of earth and water; the second, astronomy, supplies its full understanding of that which is of fiery and airy nature; the third is an adequate explanation of the properties of all the four elements—that is to say, of the whole cosmos—and an introduction into the art of their transformations; and finally, the fourth shows the physician those virtues which must stay with him up until his death, and it should support and complete the three other pillars.
Vas Buch Paragranum (c.1529-30), in J. Jacobi (ed.), Paracelsus: Selected Writings (1951), 133-4.
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My Design in this Book is not to explain the Properties of Light by Hypotheses, but to propose and prove them by Reason and Experiments: In order to which, I shall premise the following Definitions and Axioms.
Opticks (1704), Book 1, Part 1, Introduction, 1.
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No anatomist ever discovered a system of organization, calculated to produce pain and disease; or, in explaining the parts of the human body, ever said, this is to irritate; this is to inflame; this duct is to convey the gravel to the kidneys; this gland to secrete the humour which forms the gout: if by chance he come at a part of which he knows not the use, the most he can say is, that it is useless; no one ever suspects that it is put there to incommode, to annoy, or torment.
The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785), Vol. 1, 79.
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No history of civilization can be tolerably complete which does not give considerable space to the explanation of scientific progress. If we had any doubts about this, it would suffice to ask ourselves what constitutes the essential difference between our and earlier civilizations. Throughout the course of history, in every period, and in almost every country, we find a small number of saints, of great artists, of men of science. The saints of to-day are not necessarily more saintly than those of a thousand years ago; our artists are not necessarily greater than those of early Greece; they are more likely to be inferior; and of course, our men of science are not necessarily more intelligent than those of old; yet one thing is certain, their knowledge is at once more extensive and more accurate. The acquisition and systematization of positive knowledge is the only human activity which is truly cumulative and progressive. Our civilization is essentially different from earlier ones, because our knowledge of the world and of ourselves is deeper, more precise, and more certain, because we have gradually learned to disentangle the forces of nature, and because we have contrived, by strict obedience to their laws, to capture them and to divert them to the gratification of our own needs.
Introduction to the History of Science (1927), Vol. 1, 3-4.
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No other explanation of living forms is allowed than heredity, and any which is founded on another basis must be rejected. The present fashion requires that even the smallest and most indifferent inquiry must be dressed in phylogenetic costume, and whilst in former centuries authors professed to read in every natural detail some intention of the creator mundi, modern scientists have the aspiration to pick out from every occasional observation a fragment of the ancestral history of the living world.
'On the Principles of Animal Morphology', Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (2 Apr 1888), 15, 294. Original as Letter to Mr John Murray, communicated to the Society by Professor Sir William Turner. Page given as in collected volume published 1889.
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Nominally a great age of scientific inquiry, ours has become an age of superstition about the infallibility of science; of almost mystical faith in its non-mystical methods; above all—which perhaps most explains the expert's sovereignty—of external verities; of traffic-cop morality and rabbit-test truth.
In Company Manners: A Cultural Inquiry into American Life (1954), 94.
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On the whole, I cannot help saying that it appears to me not a little extraordinary, that a theory so new, and of such importance, overturning every thing that was thought to be the best established in chemistry, should rest on so very narrow and precarious a foundation, the experiments adduced in support of it being not only ambiguous or explicable on either hypothesis, but exceedingly few. I think I have recited them all, and that on which the greatest stress is laid, viz. That of the formation of water from the decomposition of the two kinds of air, has not been sufficiently repeated. Indeed it required so difficult and expensive an apparatus, and so many precautions in the use of it, that the frequent repetition of the experiment cannot be expected; and in these circumstances the practised experimenter cannot help suspecting the accuracy of the result and consequently the certainty of the conclusion.
Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston (1796), 57-8.
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One's instinct is at first to try and get rid of a discrepancy, but I believe that experience shows such an endeavour to be a mistake. What one ought to do is to magnify a small discrepancy with a view to finding out the explanation.
General Monthly Meeting, on Argon, (1 Apr 1895), Proceedings of the Royal Institution (1895), 14, 525.
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Randomness scares people. Religion is a way to explain randomness.
Quoted in David Lane, Isn't Religion Weird? Quotations for Atheists (2008), 83.
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Religion has run out of justifications. Thanks to the telescope and the microscope, it no longer offers an explanation of anything important. Where once it used to able, by its total command of a worldview, to prevent the emergence of rivals, it can now only impede and retard—or try to turn back—the measureable advances that we have made.
In God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007, 2009), 282.
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Science has “explained” nothing; the more we know the more fantastic the world becomes and the profounder the surrounding darkness.
Along the Road: Notes and Essays of a Tourist (1928), 108.
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Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations. Examples include the double helix in biology, and the fundamental equations of physics.
[Answer to question: What are the things you find most beautiful in science?]
'Stephen Hawking: "There is no heaven; it's a fairy story"', interview in newspaper The Guardian (15 May 2011).
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Science is not a system of certain, or -established, statements; nor is it a system which steadily advances towards a state of finality... And our guesses are guided by the unscientific, the metaphysical (though biologically explicable) faith in laws, in regularities which we can uncover—discover. Like Bacon, we might describe our own contemporary science—'the method of reasoning which men now ordinarily apply to nature'—as consisting of 'anticipations, rash and premature' and as 'prejudices'.
The Logic of Scientific Discovery (1959), 278.
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Science was false by being unpoetical. It assumed to explain a reptile or a mollusk, and isolated it—which is hunting for life in graveyards. Reptile or mollusk or man or angel only exists in system, in relation.
In 'Letters and Social Aims: Poetry and Imagination', Prose works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1880), Vol. 3, 199.
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Scientists are the easiest to fool. ... They think in straight, predictable, directable, and therefore misdirectable, lines. The only world they know is the one where everything has a logical explanation and things are what they appear to be. Children and conjurors—they terrify me. Scientists are no problem; against them I feel quite confident.
Code of the Lifemaker (1983, 2000),Chapter 1.
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Scientists can only carry on with their work, addressing legitimate questions as they arise and challenging misinformation. … Scientists work to fill the gaps in human knowledge and to build a theory that can explain observations of the world. Climate sceptics revel in such gaps, sometimes long after they have been filled.
Editorial, Nature (28 Jul 2011), 475, 423-424.
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Since we think we understand when we know the explanation, and there are four types of explanation (one, what it is to be a thing; one, that if certain things hold it is necessary that this does; another, what initiated the change; and fourth, the aim), all these are proved through the middle term.
Aristotle
Posterior Analytics, 94a, 20-4. In Jonathan Barnes (ed.), The Complete Works of Aristotle (1984), Vol. I, 155.

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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Something is as little explained by means of a distinctive vital force as the attraction between iron and magnet is explained by means of the name magnetism. We must therefore firmly insist that in the organic natural sciences, and thus also in botany, absolutely nothing has yet been explained and the entire field is still open to investigation as long as we have not succeeded in reducing the phenomena to physical and chemical laws.
Grundzüge der Wissenschaftlichen Botanik nebst einer Methodologischen Einleitung als Anleitung zum Studium der Planze [Principles of Scientific Botany] (1842-3), Vol. 1, 49. Trans. Kenneth L. Caneva, Robert Mayer and the Conservation of Energy (1993), 108.
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The argument advanced by the supporters of the theory of hereditary transmission does not furnish a satisfactory explanation of the cause of the inequalities and diversities of the universe.
Vedanta Philosophy: Five Lectures on Reincarnation (1902), 41.
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The Big Idea that had been developed in the seventeenth century ... is now known as the scientific method. It says that the way to proceed when investigating how the world works is to first carry out experiments and/or make observations of the natural world. Then, develop hypotheses to explain these observations, and (crucially) use the hypothesis to make predictions about the future outcome of future experiments and/or observations. After comparing the results of those new observations with the predictions of the hypotheses, discard those hypotheses which make false predictions, and retain (at least, for the time being) any hypothesis that makes accurate predictions, elevating it to the status of a theory. Note that a theory can never be proved right. The best that can be said is that it has passed all the tests applied so far.
In The Fellowship: the Story of a Revolution (2005), 275.
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The effect of a concept-driven revolution is to explain old things in new ways. The effect of a tool-driven revolution is to discover new things that have to be explained.
In Imagined Worlds (1997), 50-51.
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The fate of all explanation is to close one door only to have another fly wide open.
The Book of the Damned (1932). In The Complete Books of Charles Fort (1975), 30.

The first effect of the mind growing cultivated is that processes once multiple get to be performed in a single act. Lazarus has called this the progressive “condensation” of thought. ... Steps really sink from sight. An advanced thinker sees the relations of his topics is such masses and so instantaneously that when he comes to explain to younger minds it is often hard ... Bowditch, who translated and annotated Laplace's Méchanique Céleste, said that whenever his author prefaced a proposition by the words “it is evident,” he knew that many hours of hard study lay before him.
In The Principles of Psychology (1918), Vol. 2, 369-370.
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The generalized theory of relativity has furnished still more remarkable results. This considers not only uniform but also accelerated motion. In particular, it is based on the impossibility of distinguishing an acceleration from the gravitation or other force which produces it. Three consequences of the theory may be mentioned of which two have been confirmed while the third is still on trial: (1) It gives a correct explanation of the residual motion of forty-three seconds of arc per century of the perihelion of Mercury. (2) It predicts the deviation which a ray of light from a star should experience on passing near a large gravitating body, the sun, namely, 1".7. On Newton's corpuscular theory this should be only half as great. As a result of the measurements of the photographs of the eclipse of 1921 the number found was much nearer to the prediction of Einstein, and was inversely proportional to the distance from the center of the sun, in further confirmation of the theory. (3) The theory predicts a displacement of the solar spectral lines, and it seems that this prediction is also verified.
Studies in Optics (1927), 160-1.
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The great masters of modern analysis are Lagrange, Laplace, and Gauss, who were contemporaries. It is interesting to note the marked contrast in their styles. Lagrange is perfect both in form and matter, he is careful to explain his procedure, and though his arguments are general they are easy to follow. Laplace on the other hand explains nothing, is indifferent to style, and, if satisfied that his results are correct, is content to leave them either with no proof or with a faulty one. Gauss is as exact and elegant as Lagrange, but even more difficult to follow than Laplace, for he removes every trace of the analysis by which he reached his results, and studies to give a proof which while rigorous shall be as concise and synthetical as possible.
History of Mathematics (3rd Ed., 1901), 468.
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The hypotheses which we accept ought to explain phenomena which we have observed. But they ought to do more than this; our hypotheses ought to foretell phenomena which have not yet been observed; ... because if the rule prevails, it includes all cases; and will determine them all, if we can only calculate its real consequences. Hence it will predict the results of new combinations, as well as explain the appearances which have occurred in old ones. And that it does this with certainty and correctness, is one mode in which the hypothesis is to be verified as right and useful.
Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1847), Vol. 2, 62-63.
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The one thing that scientists ought to be is humble because they, more than anyone, know how little they can explain.
Quoted by Sean O'Hagan, in 'End of sperm report', The Observer (14 Sep 2002).
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The sciences do not try to explain, they hardly even try to interpret, they mainly make models. By a model is meant a mathematical construct which, with the addition of certain verbal interpretations, describes observed phenomena. The justification of such a mathematical construct is solely and precisely that it is expected to work—that is, correctly to describe phenomena from a reasonably wide area.
'Method in the Physical Sciences', in The Unity of Knowledge, editted by L. Leary (1955), 158. Reprinted in John Von Neumann, F. Bródy (ed.) and Tibor Vámos (ed.), The Neumann Compendium (2000), 628.
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The theory of the earth is the science which describes and explains changes that the terrestrial globe has undergone from its beginning until today, and which allows the prediction of those it shall undergo in the future. The only way to understand these changes and their causes is to study the present-day state of the globe in order to gradually reconstruct its earlier stages, and to develop probable hypotheses on its future state. Therefore, the present state of the earth is the only solid base on which the theory can rely.
In Albert V. Carozzi, 'Forty Years of Thinking in Front of the Alps: Saussure's (1796) Unpublished Theory of the Earth', Earth Sciences History (1989), 8 136.
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There is no art so difficult as the art of observation: it requires a skillful, sober spirit and a well-trained experience, which can only be acquired by practice; for he is not an observer who only sees the thing before him with his eyes, but he who sees of what parts the thing consists, and in what connexion the parts stand to the whole. One person overlooks half from inattention; another relates more than he sees while he confounds it with that which he figures to himself; another sees the parts of the whole, but he throws things together that ought to be separated. ... When the observer has ascertained the foundation of a phenomenon, and he is able to associate its conditions, he then proves while he endeavours to produce the phenomena at his will, the correctness of his observations by experiment. To make a series of experiments is often to decompose an opinion into its individual parts, and to prove it by a sensible phenomenon. The naturalist makes experiments in order to exhibit a phenomenon in all its different parts. When he is able to show of a series of phenomena, that they are all operations of the same cause, he arrives at a simple expression of their significance, which, in this case, is called a Law of Nature. We speak of a simple property as a Law of Nature when it serves for the explanation of one or more natural phenomena.
'The Study of the Natural Sciences: An Introductory Lecture to the Course of Experimental Chemistry in the University of Munich, for the Winter Session of 1852-53,' as translated and republished in The Medical Times and Gazette (22 Jan 1853), N.S. Vol. 6, 82.
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These principles have given me a way of explaining naturally the union or rather the mutual agreement [conformité] of the soul and the organic body. The soul follows its own laws, and the body likewise follows its own laws; and they agree with each other in virtue of the pre-established harmony between all substances, since they are all representations of one and the same universe.
The Monadology and Other Philosophical Writings (1714), trans. Robert Latta (1898), 262.
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Thus far I have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the force of gravity, but I have not yet assigned a cause to gravity. Indeed, this force arises from some cause that penetrates as far as the centers of the sun and planets without any diminution of its power to act, and that acts not in proportion to the quantity of the surfaces of the particles on which it acts (as mechanical causes are wont to do) but in proportion to the quantity of solid matter, and whose action is extended everywhere to immense distances, always decreasing as the squares of the distances.
The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), 3rd edition (1726), trans. I. B. Cohen and Anne Whitman (1999), General Scholium, 943.
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To trace the series of these revolutions, to explain their causes, and thus to connect together all the indications of change that are found in the mineral kingdom, is the proper object of a THEORY OF THE EARTH.
Illustrations of the Huttonian Theory of the Earth (1802), 2.
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Twenty years ago many chemists would have defended the theory of bond arms as a satisfactory explanation because they had become accustomed to thinking of it as unique and as ultimate.
The Nature of Physical Reality: A Philosophy of Modern Physics (1950), 99, n.1.
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We achieve more than we know. We know more than we understand. We understand more than we can explain.
In AI: The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence (1999), 159, but without citation. If you know a primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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We think we understand the regular reflection of light and X rays - and we should understand the reflections of electrons as well if electrons were only waves instead of particles ... It is rather as if one were to see a rabbit climbing a tree, and were to say ‘Well, that is rather a strange thing for a rabbit to be doing, but after all there is really nothing to get excited about. Cats climb trees - so that if the rabbit were only a cat, we would understand its behavior perfectly.’ Of course, the explanation might be that what we took to be a rabbit was not a rabbit at all but was actually a cat. Is it possible that we are mistaken all this time in supposing they are particles, and that actually they are waves?
Franklin Institute Journal Vol. 205, 597. Cited in New Scientist (14 Apr 1977), 66.
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Well-established theories collapse under the weight of new facts and observations which cannot be explained, and then accumulate to the point where the once useful theory is clearly obsolete.
[Using Thomas S. Kuhn's theories to frame his argument about the relationship beween science and technology: as new facts continue to accumulate, a new, more accurate paradigm must replace the old one.]
Al Gore
Commencement address at M.I.T. (7 Jun 1996). In obituary, 'Thomas S. Kuhn', The Tech (26 Jun 1996), 9.
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What certainty can there be in a Philosophy which consists in as many Hypotheses as there are Phaenomena to be explained. To explain all nature is too difficult a task for any one man or even for any one age. 'Tis much better to do a little with certainty, & leave the rest for others that come after you, than to explain all things by conjecture without making sure of any thing.
Quoted in Richard S. Westfall, The Life of Isaac Newton (1994), 256.
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When experimental results are found to be in conflict with those of an earlier investigator, the matter is often taken too easily and disposed of for an instance by pointing out a possible source of error in the experiments of the predessessor, but without enquiring whether the error, if present, would be quantitatively sufficient to explain the discrepancy. I think that disagreement with former results should never be taken easily, but every effort should be made to find a true explanation. This can be done in many more cases than it actually is; and as a result, it can be done more easily by the man “on the spot” who is already familiar with the essential details. But it may require a great deal of imagination, and very often it will require supplementary experiments.
From 'August Krogh' in Festkrift Københavns Universitet 1950 (1950), 18, as cited by E. Snorrason, 'Krogh, Schack August Steenberg', in Charles Coulton Gillispie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1973), Vol 7, 501. The DSB quote is introduced, “All his life Krogh was more interested in physical than in chemiical problems in biology, and he explained his critical attitude thus.”
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When there is no explanation, then give it a name, which immediately explains everything
Martin H. Fischer, Howard Fabing (ed.) and Ray Marr (ed.), Fischerisms (1944).
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Why it is that animals, instead of developing in a simple and straightforward way, undergo in the course of their growth a series of complicated changes, during which they often acquire organs which have no function, and which, after remaining visible for a short time, disappear without leaving a trace ... To the Darwinian, the explanation of such facts is obvious. The stage when the tadpole breathes by gills is a repetition of the stage when the ancestors of the frog had not advanced in the scale of development beyond a fish.
In The Works of Francis Maitland Balfour (1885), Vol. 1, 702.
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With moth cytochrome C there are 30 differences and 74 identities. With bread yeast and humans, there are about 45 amino acids that are different and about 59 that are identical. Think how close together man and this other organism, bread yeast, are. What is the probability that in 59 positions the same choice out of 20 possibilities would have been made by accident? It is impossibly small. There is, there must be, a developmental explanation of this. The developmental explanation is that bread yeast and man have a common ancestor, perhaps two billion years ago. And so we see that not only are all men brothers, but men and yeast cells, too, are at least close cousins, to say nothing about men and gorillas or rhesus monkeys. It is the duty of scientists to dispel ignorance of such relationships.
'The Social Responsibilities of Scientists and Science', The Science Teacher (1933), 33, 15.
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With old inflation riding the headlines, I have read till I am bleary-eyed, and I can't get head from tails of the whole thing. ... Now we are living in an age of explanations—and plenty of ’em, too—but no two things that’s been done to us have been explained twice the same way, by even the same man. It's and age of in one ear and out the other.
Newspaper column, for example in 'Complete Heads and Tails', St. Petersburgh Times (28 Jan 1934), 4. Collected in Will Rogers' Weekly Articles: The Roosevelt Years (1933-1935) (1982), 91-92.
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[Misquotation; not by Einstein.] You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.
No evidence exists that this was ever said or written by Einstein, yet is often seen attribued to him, for example, in Rosemarie Jarski, Words from the Wise: Over 6,000 of the Smartest Things Ever Said (2007), 515. However, see a similar quote by Ernest Rutherford about explaining to a “barmaid.”
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[N]o scientist likes to be criticized. ... But you don't reply to critics: "Wait a minute, wait a minute; this is a really good idea. I'm very fond of it. It's done you no harm. Please don't attack it." That's not the way it goes. The hard but just rule is that if the ideas don't work, you must throw them away. Don't waste any neurons on what doesn't work. Devote those neurons to new ideas that better explain the data. Valid criticism is doing you a favor.
In 'Wonder and Skepticism', Skeptical Enquirer (Jan-Feb 1995), 19, No. 1.
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[When I was a child] I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, and I was a street kid. ... [T]here was one aspect of that environment that, for some reason, struck me as different, and that was the stars. ... I could tell they were lights in the sky, but that wasn't an explanation. I mean, what were they? Little electric bulbs on long black wires, so you couldn't see what they were held up by? What were they? ... My mother said to me, "Look, we've just got you a library card ... get out a book and find the answer." ... It was in there. It was stunning. The answer was that the Sun was a star, except very far away. ... The dazzling idea of a universe vast beyond imagining swept over me. ... I sensed awe.
In 'Wonder and Skepticism', Skeptical Enquirer (Jan-Feb 1995), 19, No. 1.
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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