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Physicist Quotes (74 quotes)


Bin Chemiker der kein Physiker ist, ist gar nichts.
A chemist who is not a physicist is nothing at all.
J. R. Partington (ed.), A History of Chemistry (1961), Vol. 4, 282.
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L'analyse mathématique, n'est elle donc qu'un vain jeu d'esprit? Elle ne peut pas donner au physicien qu'un langage commode; n'est-ce pa là un médiocre service, dont on aurait pu se passer à la rigueur; et même n'est il pas à craindre que ce langage artificiel ne soit pas un voile interposé entre la réalité at l'oeil du physicien? Loin de là, sans ce langage, la pluspart des anaologies intimes des choses nous seraient demeurées à jamais inconnues; et nous aurions toujours ignoré l'harmonie interne du monde, qui est, nous le verrons, la seule véritable réalité objective.
So is not mathematical analysis then not just a vain game of the mind? To the physicist it can only give a convenient language; but isn't that a mediocre service, which after all we could have done without; and, it is not even to be feared that this artificial language be a veil, interposed between reality and the physicist's eye? Far from that, without this language most of the initimate analogies of things would forever have remained unknown to us; and we would never have had knowledge of the internal harmony of the world, which is, as we shall see, the only true objective reality.
La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 6.
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La determination de la relation & de la dépendance mutuelle de ces données dans certains cas particuliers, doit être le premier but du Physicien; & pour cet effet, il falloit one mesure exacte qui indiquât d’une manière invariable & égale dans tous les lieux de la terre, le degré de l'électricité au moyen duquel les expéiences ont été faites… Aussi, l'histoire de l'électricité prouve une vérité suffisamment reconnue; c'est que le Physicien sans mesure ne fait que jouer, & qu'il ne diffère en cela des enfans, que par la nature de son jeu & la construction de ses jouets.
The determination of the relationship and mutual dependence of the facts in particular cases must be the first goal of the Physicist; and for this purpose he requires that an exact measurement may be taken in an equally invariable manner anywhere in the world… Also, the history of electricity yields a well-known truth—that the physicist shirking measurement only plays, different from children only in the nature of his game and the construction of his toys.
'Mémoire sur la mesure de force de l'électricité', Journal de Physique (1782), 21, 191. English version by Google Translate tweaked by Webmaster.
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Quand les physiciens nous demandent la solution d'un problème, ce n'est pas une corvée qu'ils nous impsent, c'est nous au contraire qui leur doivent des remercîments.
When the physicists ask us for the solution of a problem, it is not drudgery that they impose on us, on the contrary, it is us who owe them thanks.
La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 111.
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A biophysicist talks physics to the biologists and biology to the physicists, but when he meets another biophysicist, they just discuss women.
Anonymous
In Alan Lindsay Mackay , A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (2nd Ed., 1991), 4.
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A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.
Attributed. Cited in R. B. Lindsay, 'On the Relation of Mathematics and Physics', The Scientific Monthly, Dec 1944, 59, 456.
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After Gibbs, one the most distinguished [American scientists] was Langley, of the Smithsonian. … He had the physicist's heinous fault of professing to know nothing between flashes of intense perception. … Rigidly denying himself the amusement of philosophy, which consists chiefly in suggesting unintelligible answers to insoluble problems, and liked to wander past them in a courteous temper, even bowing to them distantly as though recognizing their existence, while doubting their respectibility.
The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography? (1918), 377.
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Analogy is a wonderful, useful and most important form of thinking, and biology is saturated with it. Nothing is worse than a horrible mass of undigested facts, and facts are indigestible unless there is some rhyme or reason to them. The physicist, with his facts, seeks reason; the biologist seeks something very much like rhyme, and rhyme is a kind of analogy.... This analogizing, this fine sweeping ability to see likenesses in the midst of differences is the great glory of biology, but biologists don't know it.... They have always been so fascinated and overawed by the superior prestige of exact physical science that they feel they have to imitate it.... In its central content, biology is not accurate thinking, but accurate observation and imaginative thinking, with great sweeping generalizations.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 98-100.
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As physicists have arranged an extensive series of effects under the general term of Heat, so they have named another series Light, and a third they have called Electricity. We find ... that all these principles are capable of being produced through the medium of living bodies, for nearly all animals have the power of evolving heat; many insects, moreover, can voluntarily emit light; and the property of producing electricity is well evinced in the terrible shock of the electric eel, as well as in that of some other creatures. We are indeed in the habit of talking of the Electric fluid, or the Galvanic fluid, but this in reality is nothing but a licence of expression suitable to our finite and material notions.
In the Third Edition of Elements of Electro-Metallurgy: or The Art of Working in Metals by the Galvanic Fluid (1851), 1.
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Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians. Thus their speculations tend almost inevitably to depart from the field of true science, which is that of precise observation, and to become mere soaring in the empyrean. The process works backward, too. That is to say, their reports of what they pretend actually to see are often very unreliable. It is thus no wonder that, of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology. Nor is it remarkable that, in the popular belief, most astronomers end by losing their minds.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks (1956), Sample 74, 60.
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Both Religion and science require faith in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations.
Anonymous
Sometimes seen attributed (doubtfully?) to Max Planck. Widely seen on the web, but always without citation. Webmaster has not yet found any evidence in print that this is a valid Planck quote, and must be skeptical that it is. Contact Webmaster if you know a primary source.
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Both the physicist and the mystic want to communicate their knowledge, and when they do so with words their statements are paradoxical and full of logical contradictions.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 46.
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Boundaries which mark off one field of science from another are purely artificial, are set up only for temporary convenience. Let chemists and physicists dig deep enough, and they reach common ground.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-Book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 183.
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But although in theory physicists realize that their conclusions are ... not certainly true, this ... does not really sink into their consciousness. Nearly all the time ... they ... act as if Science were indisputably True, and what's more, as if only science were true.... Any information obtained otherwise than by the scientific method, although it may be true, the scientists will call “unscientific,” using this word as a smear word, by bringing in the connotation from its original [Greek] meaning, to imply that the information is false, or at any rate slightly phony.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 176-77.
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Can a physicist visualize an electron? The electron is materially inconceivable and yet, it is so perfectly known through its effects that we use it to illuminate our cities, guide our airlines through the night skies and take the most accurate measurements. What strange rationale makes some physicists accept the inconceivable electrons as real while refusing to accept the reality of a Designer on the ground that they cannot conceive Him?
In letter to California State board of Education (14 Sep 1972).
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Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
The Open Mind (1955), 88.
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For those who want some proof that physicists are human, the proof is in the idiocy of all the different units which they use for measuring energy.
The Character of Physical Law (1967), 75.
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Four years ago nobody but nuclear physicists had ever heard of the Internet. Today even my cat, Socks, has his own web page. I'm amazed at that. I meet kids all the time, been talking to my cat on the Internet.
Referring to the Next Generation Internet initiative in Remarks at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio (29 Oct 1996). American Presidency Project web page. [Clinton took office 20 Jan 1993, and signed the Next Generation Internet Research Act of 1998 on 28 Oct 1998.]
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Hitherto the principle of causality was universally accepted as an indispensable postulate of scientific research, but now we are told by some physicists that it must be thrown overboard. The fact that such an extraordinary opinion should be expressed in responsible scientific quarters is widely taken to be significant of the all-round unreliability of human knowledge. This indeed is a very serious situation.
In Where is Science Going? (1932), 66.
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I am only a physicist with nothing material to show for my labours. I have never even seen the ionosphere, although I have worked on the subject for thirty years. That does show how lucky people can be. If there had been no ionosphere I would not have been standing here this morning.
Response to receiving an honour from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. As quoted in New Scientist (22 Nov 1956), 33.
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I had at one time a very bad fever of which I almost died. In my fever I had a long consistent delirium. I dreamt that I was in Hell, and that Hell is a place full of all those happenings that are improbable but not impossible. The effects of this are curious. Some of the damned, when they first arrive below, imagine that they will beguile the tedium of eternity by games of cards. But they find this impossible, because, whenever a pack is shuffled, it comes out in perfect order, beginning with the Ace of Spades and ending with the King of Hearts. There is a special department of Hell for students of probability. In this department there are many typewriters and many monkeys. Every time that a monkey walks on a typewriter, it types by chance one of Shakespeare's sonnets. There is another place of torment for physicists. In this there are kettles and fires, but when the kettles are put on the fires, the water in them freezes. There are also stuffy rooms. But experience has taught the physicists never to open a window because, when they do, all the air rushes out and leaves the room a vacuum.
'The Metaphysician's Nightmare', Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories (1954), 38-9.
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I'm convinced that a controlled disrespect for authority is essential to a scientist. All the good experimental physicists I have known have had an intense curiosity that no Keep Out sign could mute. Physicists do, of course, show a healthy respect for High Voltage, Radiation, and Liquid Hydrogen signs. They are not reckless. I can think of only six who have been killed on the job.
Adventures of a Physicist (1987), 14.
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If a problem is clearly stated, it has no further interest to the physicist.
In Richard Hamming, Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers (1973), 704, footnote, without citation.
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If and when all the laws governing physical phenomena are finally discovered, and all the empirical constants occurring in these laws are finally expressed through the four independent basic constants, we will be able to say that physical science has reached its end, that no excitement is left in further explorations, and that all that remains to a physicist is either tedious work on minor details or the self-educational study and adoration of the magnificence of the completed system. At that stage physical science will enter from the epoch of Columbus and Magellan into the epoch of the National Geographic Magazine!
'Any Physics Tomorrow', Physics Today, January 1949, 2, 17.
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If physicists could not quote in the text, they would not feel that much was lost with respect to advancement of knowledge of the natural world. If historians could not quote, they would deem it a disastrous impediment to the communication of knowledge about the past. A luxury for physicists, quotation is a necessity for historians, indispensable to historiography.
Historiography (1968), 385.
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If these d'Hérelle bodies were really genes, fundamentally like our chromosome genes, they would give us an utterly new angle from which to attack the gene problem. They are filterable, to some extent isolable, can be handled in test-tubes, and their properties, as shown by their effects on the bacteria, can then be studied after treatment. It would be very rash to call these bodies genes, and yet at present we must confess that there is no distinction known between the genes and them. Hence we can not categorically deny that perhaps we may be able to grind genes in a mortar and cook them in a beaker after all. Must we geneticists become bacteriologists, physiological chemists and physicists, simultaneously with being zoologists and botanists? Let us hope so.
'Variation Due to Change in the Individual Gene', The American Naturalist (1922), 56, 48-9.
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If you want to be a physicist, you must do three things—first, study mathematics, second, study more mathematics, and third, do the same.
Interview with Paul H. Kirkpatrick, in Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (1978), 200.
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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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It does appear that on the whole a physicist… tries to reduce his theory at all times to as few parameters as possible and is inclined to feel that a theory is a “respectable” one, though by no means necessarily correct, if in principle it does offer reasonably specific means for its possible refutation. Moreover the physicist will generally arouse the irritation amongst fellow physicists if he is not prepared to abandon his theory when it clashes with subsequent experiments. On the other hand it would appear that the chemist regards theories—or perhaps better his theories (!) —as far less sacrosanct, and perhaps in extreme cases is prepared to modify them continually as each bit of new experimental evidence comes in.
'Discussion: Physics and Chemistry: Comments on Caldin's View of Chemistry', British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, 1960, 11, 222.
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It is told of Faraday that he refused to be called a physicist; he very much disliked the new name as being too special and particular and insisted on the old one, philosopher, in all its spacious generality: we may suppose that this was his way of saying that he had not over-ridden the limiting conditions of class only to submit to the limitation of a profession.
Commentary (Jun 1962), 33, 461-77. Cited by Sydney Ross in Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science (1991), 11.
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It may be appropriate to quote a statement of Poincare, who said (partly in jest no doubt) that there must be something mysterious about the normal law since mathematicians think it is a law of nature whereas physicists are convinced that it is a mathematical theorem.
Quoted in Mark Kac, Statistical Independence in Probability, Analysis and Number Theory (1959), 52.
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It startled him even more when just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute's Prize for Extreme Cleverness he got lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn't stand was a smart-ass.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979, 1997), 78.
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Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.
Epitaph
Tombstone inscription, St. James' Church, Bramley, Hampshire. In Ruth Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (1996), 380.
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My teacher, Hopkins, often commented on the craving for certainty that led so many physicists into mysticism or into the Church and similar organisations ... Faith seems to be an occupational hazard for physicists.
Penguin New Biology (1954), 16, 44
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Nature's economy shall be the base for our own, for it is immutable, but ours is secondary. An economist without knowledge of nature is therefore like a physicist without knowledge of mathematics.
'Tankar om grunden til oeconomien', 1740, 406. Trans. Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (1999), 103.
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Now [Michele Besso] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing in physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Letter of condolence to Michele Besso's family (21 Mar 1955). In Tabatha Yeatts, Albert Einstein (2007), 116. (Besso died on 15 Mar 1955. Einstein died 18 Apr 1955.)

On a perfect planet such as might be acceptable to a physicist, one might predict that from its origin the diversity of life would grow exponentially until the carrying capacity, however defined, was reached. The fossil record on Earth, however, tells a very different story.
In 'The Evolution of Diversity in AAncient Ecosystems: a Review', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (28 Feb 1998), 353, No. 1366, 327.
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Only mathematics and mathematical logic can say as little as the physicist means to say. (1931)
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 57.
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Physicists and astronomers see their own implications in the world being round, but to me it means that only one-third of the world is asleep at any given time and the other two-thirds is up to something.
Dean Rusk
Speech to American Bar Association, Atlanta, Ga. (22 Oct 1964), quoted in The Atlanta Constitution (23 Oct 1964), 10. In James H. Billington, Respectfully Quoted (2010), 380.
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Physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is the atom’s way of knowing about atoms.
In lecture, 'Life and Mind in the Universe', versions of which George Wald delivered throughout the 1980s. On the website of his son, Elijah Wald, who states it was the last of his father's major lectures.
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Physicists only talk to physicists, economists to economists—worse still, nuclear physicists only talk to nuclear physicists and econometricians to econometricians. One wonders sometimes if science will not grind to a stop in an assemblage of walled-in hermits, each mumbling to himself words in a private language that only he can understand.
In 'The Skeleton of Science', General Systems Theory (1956). Collected in 'General Systems Theory—The Skeleton of Science', Beyond Economics: Essays on Society, Religion, and Ethics (1968), 85.
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Physicists speak of the particle representation or the wave representation. Bohr's principle of complementarity asserts that there exist complementary properties of the same object of knowledge, one of which if known will exclude knowledge of the other. We may therefore describe an object like an electron in ways which are mutually exclusive—e.g., as wave or particle—without logical contradiction provided we also realize that the experimental arrangements that determine these descriptions are similarly mutually exclusive. Which experiment—and hence which description one chooses—is purely a matter of human choice.
The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature (1982), 94.
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Physics is becoming so unbelievably complex that it is taking longer and longer to train a physicist. It is taking so long, in fact, to train a physicist to the place where he understands the nature of physical problems that he is already too old to solve them.
As quoted by Colin Pittendrigh (1971). In George C. Beakley, Ernest G. Chilton, Introduction to Engineering Design and Graphics (1973), 40
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Science itself is badly in need of integration and unification. The tendency is more and more the other way ... Only the graduate student, poor beast of burden that he is, can be expected to know a little of each. As the number of physicists increases, each specialty becomes more self-sustaining and self-contained. Such Balkanization carries physics, and indeed, every science further away, from natural philosophy, which, intellectually, is the meaning and goal of science.
Science, The Center of Culture (1970), 92. Quoted by Victor F. Weisskopf, 'One Hundred Years of the Physical Review', in H. Henry Stroke, Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: a Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries, Vol. 1, 15.
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Since the seventeenth century, physical intuition has served as a vital source for mathematical porblems and methods. Recent trends and fashions have, however, weakened the connection between mathematics and physics; mathematicians, turning away from their roots of mathematics in intuition, have concentrated on refinement and emphasized the postulated side of mathematics, and at other times have overlooked the unity of their science with physics and other fields. In many cases, physicists have ceased to appreciate the attitudes of mathematicians. This rift is unquestionably a serious threat to science as a whole; the broad stream of scientific development may split into smaller and smaller rivulets and dry out. It seems therefore important to direct our efforts towards reuniting divergent trends by classifying the common features and interconnections of many distinct and diverse scientific facts.
In R. Courant and David Hilbert, Methods of Mathematical Physics (1937, 1989), Preface, v.
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Some years ago John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in an essay on his efforts at writing a history of economics: ‘As one approaches the present, one is filled with a sense of hopelessness; in a year and possibly even a month, there is now more economic comment in the supposedly serious literature than survives from the whole of the thousand years commonly denominated as the Middle Ages ... anyone who claims to be familiar with it all is a confessing liar.’ I believe that all physicists would subscribe to the same sentiments regarding their own professional literature. I do at any rate.
'The Physical Review Then and Now', in H. Henry Stroke, Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: a Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries, Vol. 1, 1.
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Suppose [an] imaginary physicist, the student of Niels Bohr, is shown an experiment in which a virus particle enters a bacterial cell and 20 minutes later the bacterial cell is lysed and 100 virus particles are liberated. He will say: “How come, one particle has become 100 particles of the same kind in 20 minutes? That is very interesting. Let us find out how it happens! How does the particle get in to the bacterium? How does it multiply? Does it multiply like a bacterium, growing and dividing, or does it multiply by an entirely different mechanism ? Does it have to be inside the bacterium to do this multiplying, or can we squash the bacterium and have the multiplication go on as before? Is this multiplying a trick of organic chemistry which the organic chemists have not yet discovered ? Let us find out. This is so simple a phenomenon that the answers cannot be hard to find. In a few months we will know. All we have to do is to study how conditions will influence the multiplication. We will do a few experiments at different temperatures, in different media, with different viruses, and we will know. Perhaps we may have to break into the bacteria at intermediate stages between infection and lysis. Anyhow, the experiments only take a few hours each, so the whole problem can not take long to solve.”
[Eight years later] he has not got anywhere in solving the problem he set out to solve. But [he may say to you] “Well, I made a slight mistake. I could not do it in a few months. Perhaps it will take a few decades, and perhaps it will take the help of a few dozen other people. But listen to what I have found, perhaps you will be interested to join me.”
From 'Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages)', Harvey Lecture (1946), 41, 161-162. As cited in Robert Olby, The Path of the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), 237.
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The chemists work with inaccurate and poor measuring services, but they employ very good materials. The physicists, on the other hand, use excellent methods and accurate instruments, but they apply these to very inferior materials. The physical chemists combine both these characteristics in that they apply imprecise methods to impure materials.
Quoted in R. Desper, The Human Side of Scientists (1975), 116.
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The discovery of the telephone has made us acquainted with many strange phenomena. It has enabled us, amongst other things, to establish beyond a doubt the fact that electric currents actually traverse the earth's crust. The theory that the earth acts as a great reservoir for electricity may be placed in the physicist's waste-paper basket, with phlogiston, the materiality of light, and other old-time hypotheses.
From Recent Progress in Telephony: British Association Report (1882). Excerpted in John Joseph Fahie, A History of Wireless Telegraphy (1902), 136.
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The goal is nothing other than the coherence and completeness of the system not only in respect of all details, but also in respect of all physicists of all places, all times, all peoples, and all cultures.
Acht Vorlesungen (1910), 'Vorwort': 4. Translated in J. L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man (1986), 51.
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The highest court is in the end one’s own conscience and conviction—that goes for you and for Einstein and every other physicist—and before any science there is first of all belief. For me, it is belief in a complete lawfulness in everything that happens.
Letter from Planck to Niels Bohr (19 Oct 1930). As cited in J. L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck As Spokesman for German Science (1987), 143.
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The investigation of causal relations between economic phenomena presents many problems of peculiar difficulty, and offers many opportunities for fallacious conclusions. Since the statistician can seldom or never make experiments for himself, he has to accept the data of daily experience, and discuss as best he can the relations of a whole group of changes; he cannot, like the physicist, narrow down the issue to the effect of one variation at a time. The problems of statistics are in this sense far more complex than the problems of physics.
Udny Yule
In 'On the Theory of Correlation', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (Dec 1897), 60, 812, as cited in Stephen M. Stigler, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900 (1986), 348.
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The mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which nature has chosen.
In Ian Stewart, Why Beauty is Truth (2007), 279.
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The mystic and the physicist arrive at the same conclusion; one starting from the inner realm, the other from the outer world. The harmony between their views confirms the ancient Indian wisdom that Brahman, the ultimate reality without, is identical to Atman, the reality within.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 305.
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The physicist is like someone who’s watching people playing chess and, after watching a few games, he may have worked out what the moves in the game are. But understanding the rules is just a trivial preliminary on the long route from being a novice to being a grand master. So even if we understand all the laws of physics, then exploring their consequences in the everyday world where complex structures can exist is a far more daunting task, and that’s an inexhaustible one I'm sure.
In Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards, A Passion For Science (1988), 37.
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The physicist's problem is the problem of ultimate origins and ultimate natural laws. The biologist's problem is the problem of complexity.
The Blind Watchmaker (1996), 15.
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The quantum entered physics with a jolt. It didn’t fit anywhere; it made no sense; it contradicted everything we thought we knew about nature. Yet the data seemed to demand it. ... The story of Werner Heisenberg and his science is the story of the desperate failures and ultimate triumphs of the small band of brilliant physicists who—during an incredibly intense period of struggle with the data, the theories, and each other during the 1920s—brought about a revolutionary new understanding of the atomic world known as quantum mechanics.
Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb (2009), 90. Selected and contributed to this website by the author.
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The story is told of Lord Kelvin, a famous Scotch physicist of the last century, that after he had given a lecture on atoms and molecules, one of his students came to him with the question, “Professor, what is your idea of the structure of the atom.”
“What,” said Kelvin, “The structure of the atom? Why, don’t you know, the very word ‘atom’ means the thing that can’t be cut. How then can it have a structure?”
“That,” remarked the facetious young man, “shows the disadvantage of knowing Greek.”
As described in 'Assault on Atoms' (Read 23 Apr 1931 at Symposium—The Changing World) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1931), 70, No. 3, 219.
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The strength and weakness of physicists is that we believe in what we can measure. And if we can't measure it, then we say it probably doesn't exist. And that closes us off to an enormous amount of phenomena that we may not be able to measure because they only happened once. For example, the Big Bang. ... That's one reason why they scoffed at higher dimensions for so many years. Now we realize that there's no alternative...
Quoted in Nina L. Diamond, Voices of Truth (2000), 333-334.
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The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them.
Address (1918) for Max Planck's 60th birthday, at Physical Society, Berlin, 'Principles of Research' in Essays in Science (1934), 4.
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Theoretical and experimental physicists are now studying nothing at all—the vacuum. But that nothingness contains all of being.
The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature (1982), 279.
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There is now a feeling that the pieces of physics are falling into place, not because of any single revolutionary idea or because of the efforts of any one physicist, but because of a flowering of many seeds of theory, most of them planted long ago.
In 'The Forces of Nature', Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Jan 1976), 29:4, 14.
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This is the Jurassic Park for particle physicists... [The Large Hadron Collider is a time machine] ... Some of the particles they are making now or are about to make haven't been around for 14 billion years.
As quoted by Alexander G. Higgins and Seth Borenstein (AP) in 'Atom Smasher Will Help Reveal "The Beginning" ', Bloomberg Businessweek (30 Mar 2010).
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This whole theory of electrostatics constitutes a group of abstract ideas and general propositions, formulated in the clear and precise language of geometry and algebra, and connected with one another by the rules of strict logic. This whole fully satisfies the reason of a French physicist and his taste for clarity, simplicity and order. The same does not hold for the Englishman. These abstract notions of material points, force, line of force, and equipotential surface do not satisfy his need to imagine concrete, material, visible, and tangible things. 'So long as we cling to this mode of representation,' says an English physicist, 'we cannot form a mental representation of the phenomena which are really happening.' It is to satisfy the need that he goes and creates a model.
The French or German physicist conceives, in the space separating two conductors, abstract lines of force having no thickness or real existence; the English physicist materializes these lines and thickens them to the dimensions of a tube which he will fill with vulcanised rubber. In place of a family of lines of ideal forces, conceivable only by reason, he will have a bundle of elastic strings, visible and tangible, firmly glued at both ends to the surfaces of the two conductors, and, when stretched, trying both to contact and to expand. When the two conductors approach each other, he sees the elastic strings drawing closer together; then he sees each of them bunch up and grow large. Such is the famous model of electrostatic action imagined by Faraday and admired as a work of genius by Maxwell and the whole English school.
The employment of similar mechanical models, recalling by certain more or less rough analogies the particular features of the theory being expounded, is a regular feature of the English treatises on physics. Here is a book* [by Oliver Lodge] intended to expound the modern theories of electricity and to expound a new theory. In it are nothing but strings which move around pulleys, which roll around drums, which go through pearl beads, which carry weights; and tubes which pump water while others swell and contract; toothed wheels which are geared to one another and engage hooks. We thought we were entering the tranquil and neatly ordered abode of reason, but we find ourselves in a factory.
*Footnote: O. Lodge, Les Théories Modernes (Modern Views on Electricity) (1889), 16.
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 70-1.
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Though much new light is shed by ... studies in radioactivity, the nucleus of the atom, with its hoard of energy, thus continues to present us with a fascinating mystery. ... Our assault on atoms has broken down the outer fortifications. We feel that we know the fundamental rules according to which the outer part of the atom is built. The appearance and properties of the electron atmosphere are rather familiar. Yet that inner citadel, the atomic nucleus, remains unconquered, and we have reason to believe that within this citadel is secreted a great treasure. Its capture may form the main objective of the physicists’ next great drive.
'Assault on Atoms' (Read 23 Apr 1931 at Symposium—The Changing World) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1931), 70, No. 3, 229.
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To produce a really good biological theory one must try to see through the clutter produced by evolution to the basic mechanisms lying beneath them, realizing that they are likely to be overlaid by other, secondary mechanisms. What seems to physicists to be a hopelessly complicated process may have been what nature found simplest, because nature could only build on what was already there.
What Mad Pursuit (1990), 139.
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Ultra-modern physicists [are tempted to believe] that Nature in all her infinite variety needs nothing but mathematical clothing [and are] strangely reluctant to contemplate Nature unclad. Clothing she must have. At the least she must wear a matrix, with here and there a tensor to hold the queer garment together.
As quoted by Stephen T. Keith and Pierre Quédec, in 'Magnetism and Magnetic Materials', an article collected in Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from The History of Solid State Physics (1992), 361.
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Until now, physical theories have been regarded as merely models with approximately describe the reality of nature. As the models improve, so the fit between theory and reality gets closer. Some physicists are now claiming that supergravity is the reality, that the model and the real world are in mathematically perfect accord.
Superforce (1985), 149.
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[George] Uhlenbeck was a highly gifted physicist. One of his remarkable traits was he would read every issue of T%he Physical Review from cover to cover.
'The Physical Review Then and Now', in H. Henry Stroke, Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: a Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries, Vol. 1, 3.
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[Newton is the] British physicist linked forever in the schoolboy mind with an apple that fell and bore fruit throughout physics.
Anonymous
As given in Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius (2004), 192.
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[Niels Bohr] is a national pride to his fellow Danes. In Denmark, Bohr's standing is only slightly less than that of the royal family and Hans Christian Anderson. When the wife of an American physicist casually told a gentleman seated next to her on a Copenhagen streetcar that her husband was studying under Professor Bohr, the old man jumped to his feet, swept off his hat with a flourish and bowed deeply.
Quoted in Bill Becker, 'Pioneer of the Atom', New York Times Sunday Magazine (20 Oct 1957), 52.
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[On the practical applications of particle physics research with the Large Hadron Collider.] Sometimes the public says, 'What's in it for Numero Uno? Am I going to get better television reception? Am I going to get better Internet reception?' Well, in some sense, yeah. ... All the wonders of quantum physics were learned basically from looking at atom-smasher technology. ... But let me let you in on a secret: We physicists are not driven to do this because of better color television. ... That's a spin-off. We do this because we want to understand our role and our place in the universe.
As quoted in Alan Boyle, 'Discovery of Doom? Collider Stirs Debate', article (8 Sep 2008) on a msnbc.com web page. The article writer included the information that Kaku noted that past discoveries from the world of particle physics ushered in many of the innovations we enjoy today, ranging from satellite communications and handheld media players to medical PET scanners (which put antimatter to practical use)."
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[S]ome physicists describe gravity in terms of ten dimensions all curled up. But those aren't real words—just placeholders, used to refer to parts of abstract equations.
In God's Debris: A Thought Experiment (2004), 20-21.
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[The new term] Physicist is both to my mouth and ears so awkward that I think I shall never use it. The equivalent of three separate sounds of i in one word is too much.
Quoted in Sydney Ross, Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science (1991), 10.
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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