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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index B > Percy W. Bridgman Quotes

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Percy W. Bridgman
(21 Apr 1882 - 20 Aug 1961)

American experimental physicist.

Science Quotes by Percy W. Bridgman (26 quotes)

But ... the working scientist ... is not consciously following any prescribed course of action, but feels complete freedom to utilize any method or device whatever which in the particular situation before him seems likely to yield the correct answer. ... No one standing on the outside can predict what the individual scientist will do or what method he will follow.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Science quotes on:  |  Action (185)  |  Answer (249)  |  Complete (87)  |  Consciously (6)  |  Correct (85)  |  Course (84)  |  Device (28)  |  Feel (167)  |  Follow (124)  |  Freedom (102)  |  Individual (221)  |  Likely (33)  |  Method (239)  |  Outside (48)  |  Particular (76)  |  Predict (21)  |  Prescribe (9)  |  Scientist (522)  |  Seem (143)  |  Situation (52)  |  Stand (108)  |  Utilize (9)  |  Work (635)  |  Yield (38)

By far the most important consequence of the conceptual revolution brought about in physics by relativity and quantum theory lies not in such details as that meter sticks shorten when they move or that simultaneous position and momentum have no meaning, but in the insight that we had not been using our minds properly and that it is important to find out how to do so.
— Percy W. Bridgman
'Quo Vadis'. In Gerald Holton (ed.), Science and the Modern Mind (1971), 84.
Science quotes on:  |  Enquiry (76)  |  Quantum Theory (57)  |  Relativity (56)

Every new theory as it arises believes in the flush of youth that it has the long sought goal; it sees no limits to its applicability, and believes that at last it is the fortunate theory to achieve the 'right' answer. This was true of electron theory—perhaps some readers will remember a book called The Electrical Theory of the Universe by de Tunzelman. It is true of general relativity theory with its belief that we can formulate a mathematical scheme that will extrapolate to all past and future time and the unfathomed depths of space. It has been true of wave mechanics, with its first enthusiastic claim a brief ten years ago that no problem had successfully resisted its attack provided the attack was properly made, and now the disillusionment of age when confronted by the problems of the proton and the neutron. When will we learn that logic, mathematics, physical theory, are all only inventions for formulating in compact and manageable form what we already know, like all inventions do not achieve complete success in accomplishing what they were designed to do, much less complete success in fields beyond the scope of the original design, and that our only justification for hoping to penetrate at all into the unknown with these inventions is our past experience that sometimes we have been fortunate enough to be able to push on a short distance by acquired momentum.
— Percy W. Bridgman
The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 136.
Science quotes on:  |  General Relativity (5)  |  Logic (260)  |  Neutron (11)  |  Proton (15)  |  Quantum Theory (57)  |  Theory (696)

I believe it to be of particular importance that the scientist have an articulate and adequate social philosophy, even more important than the average man should have a philosophy. For there are certain aspects of the relation between science and society that the scientist can appreciate better than anyone else, and if he does not insist on this significance no one else will, with the result that the relation of science to society will become warped, to the detriment of everybody.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 287.
Science quotes on:  |  Philosophy (259)

If a specific question has meaning, it must be possible to find operations by which an answer may be given to it ... I believe that many of the questions asked about social and philosophical subjects will be found to be meaningless when examined from the point of view of operations.
— Percy W. Bridgman
The Logic of Modern Physics (1960), 28.
Science quotes on:  |  Enquiry (76)

In general, we mean by any concept nothing more than a set of operations; the concept is synonymous with the corresponding set of operations.
— Percy W. Bridgman
The Logic of Modern Physics (1960), 5.
Science quotes on:  |  Concept (146)

In this respect mathematics fails to reproduce with complete fidelity the obvious fact that experience is not composed of static bits, but is a string of activity, or the fact that the use of language is an activity, and the total meanings of terms are determined by the matrix in which they are embedded.
— Percy W. Bridgman
In The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 58.
Science quotes on:  |  Activity (135)  |  Bit (22)  |  Complete (87)  |  Compose (17)  |  Determine (76)  |  Embed (7)  |  Experience (342)  |  Fact (733)  |  Fail (58)  |  Language (228)  |  Mathematics (1205)  |  Matrix (10)  |  Meaning (113)  |  Obvious (83)  |  Reproduce (11)  |  Respect (86)  |  Static (8)  |  String (20)  |  Term (122)  |  Total (36)

It is profitable nevertheless to permit ourselves to talk about 'meaningless' terms in the narrow sense if the preconditions to which all profitable operations are subject are so intuitive and so universally accepted as to form an almost unconscious part of the background of the public using the term. Physicists of the present day do constitute a homogenous public of this character; it is in the air that certain sorts of operation are valueless for achieving certain sorts of result. If one wants to know how many planets there are one counts them but does not ask a philosopher what is the perfect number.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 6.
Science quotes on:  |  Analysis (166)  |  Philosophy (259)

It is the merest truism, evident at once to unsophisticated observation, that mathematics is a human invention.
— Percy W. Bridgman
In The Logic of Modern Physics (1927, 1972), 60.
Science quotes on:  |  Evident (29)  |  Human (550)  |  Invention (324)  |  Mathematics (1205)  |  Mere (82)  |  Observation (450)  |  Truism (4)  |  Unsophisticated (2)

It seems to me that there is a good deal of ballyhoo about scientific method. I venture to think that the people who talk most about it are the people who do least about it. Scientific method is what working scientists do, not what other people or even they themselves may say about it. No working scientist, when he plans an experiment in the laboratory, asks himself whether he is being properly scientific, nor is he interested in whatever method he may be using as method.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Science quotes on:  |  Ask (160)  |  Deal (49)  |  Experiment (602)  |  Good (345)  |  Interest (237)  |  Laboratory (132)  |  Least (74)  |  Method (239)  |  People (390)  |  Plan (87)  |  Properly (20)  |  Say (228)  |  Scientific (236)  |  Scientific Method (166)  |  Scientist (522)  |  Seem (143)  |  Talk (100)  |  Themselves (44)  |  Think (347)  |  Venture (18)  |  Work (635)

Man has never been a particularly modest or self-deprecatory animal, and physical theory bears witness to this no less than many other important activities. The idea that thought is the measure of all things, that there is such a thing as utter logical rigor, that conclusions can be drawn endowed with an inescapable necessity, that mathematics has an absolute validity and controls experience—these are not the ideas of a modest animal. Not only do our theories betray these somewhat bumptious traits of self-appreciation, but especially obvious through them all is the thread of incorrigible optimism so characteristic of human beings.
— Percy W. Bridgman
In The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 135-136.
Science quotes on:  |  Absolute (98)  |  Activity (135)  |  Animal (359)  |  Appreciation (26)  |  Bear (67)  |  Betray (8)  |  Characteristic (96)  |  Conclusion (160)  |  Control (114)  |  Endow (14)  |  Experience (342)  |  Human Being (73)  |  Idea (580)  |  Important (205)  |  Inescapable (6)  |  Logic (260)  |  Man (373)  |  Mathematics (1205)  |  Measure (104)  |  Modest (8)  |  Necessity (143)  |  Obvious (83)  |  Optimism (12)  |  Physical (134)  |  Rigor (23)  |  Theory (696)  |  Thought (546)  |  Thread (18)  |  Trait (22)  |  Utter (7)  |  Validity (31)  |  Witness (32)

My point of view is that science is essentially private, whereas the almost universal counter point of view, explicitly stated in many of the articles in the Encyclopaedia, is that it must be public.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 44.
Science quotes on:  |  Encyclopaedia (3)  |  Science (2067)

Not only are there meaningless questions, but many of the problems with which the human intellect has tortured itself turn out to be only 'pseudo problems,' because they can be formulated only in terms of questions which are meaningless. Many of the traditional problems of philosophy, of religion, or of ethics, are of this character. Consider, for example, the problem of the freedom of the will. You maintain that you are free to take either the right- or the left-hand fork in the road. I defy you to set up a single objective criterion by which you can prove after you have made the turn that you might have made the other. The problem has no meaning in the sphere of objective activity; it only relates to my personal subjective feelings while making the decision.
— Percy W. Bridgman
The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 12.
Science quotes on:  |  Decision (72)  |  Philosophy (259)

On careful examination the physicist finds that in the sense in which he uses language no meaning at all can be attached to a physical concept which cannot ultimately be described in terms of some sort of measurement. A body has position only in so far as its position can be measured; if a position cannot in principle be measured, the concept of position applied to the body is meaningless, or in other words, a position of the body does not exist. Hence if both the position and velocity of electron cannot in principle be measured, the electron cannot have the same position and velocity; position and velocity as expressions of properties which an electron can simultaneously have are meaningless.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 90.
Science quotes on:  |  Electron (72)  |  Language (228)  |  Measurement (161)

Science is what scientists do, and there are as many scientific methods as there are individual scientists.
— Percy W. Bridgman
'On Scientific Method' in Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 370.
Science quotes on:  |  Individual (221)  |  Science (2067)  |  Scientific Method (166)  |  Scientist (522)

The attitude which the man in the street unconsciously adopts towards science is capricious and varied. At one moment he scorns the scientist for a highbrow, at another anathematizes him for blasphemously undermining his religion; but at the mention of a name like Edison he falls into a coma of veneration. When he stops to think, he does recognize, however, that the whole atmosphere of the world in which he lives is tinged by science, as is shown most immediately and strikingly by our modern conveniences and material resources. A little deeper thinking shows him that the influence of science goes much farther and colors the entire mental outlook of modern civilised man on the world about him.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 81.
Science quotes on:  |  Civilization (175)  |  Thomas Edison (83)  |  Men Of Science (130)  |  Religion (239)

The feeling of understanding is as private as the feeling of pain. The act of understanding is at the heart of all scientific activity; without it any ostensibly scientific activity is as sterile as that of a high school student substituting numbers into a formula. For this reason, science, when I push the analysis back as far as I can, must be private.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 72.
Science quotes on:  |  Analysis (166)  |  Understanding (325)

The first business of a man of science is to proclaim the truth as he finds it, and let the world adjust itself as best it can to the new knowledge.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Letter to R. M. Hunter, 23 October 1919. In Maila L. Walter, Science and Cultural Crisis: An Intellectual Biography of Percy Williams Bridgman (1990), 32.
Science quotes on:  |  Knowledge (1306)  |  Men Of Science (130)  |  Truth (928)

The man in the street will, therefore, twist the statement that the scientist has come to the end of meaning into the statement that the scientist has penetrated as far as he can with the tools at his command, and that there is something beyond the ken of the scientist. This imagined beyond, which the scientist has proved he cannot penetrate, will become the playground of the imagination of every mystic and dreamer. The existence of such a domain will be made the basis of an orgy of rationalizing. It will be made the substance of the soul; the spirits of the dead will populate it; God will lurk in its shadows; the principle of vital processes will have its seat here; and it will be the medium of telepathic communication. One group will find in the failure of the physical law of cause and effect the solution of the age-long problem of the freedom of the will; and on the other hand the atheist will find the justification of his contention that chance rules the universe.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950),102-3.
Science quotes on:  |  Atheist (15)  |  God (535)  |  Unknown (107)

The operational approach demands that we make our reports and do our thinking in the freshest terms of which we are capable, in which we strip off the sophistications of millenia of culture and report as directly as we can on what happens.
— Percy W. Bridgman
'Rejoinders and Second Thoughts'. In a Symposium on Operationism, Psychological Review, 1945, 52, 283.
Science quotes on:  |  Thinking (231)

The process that I want to call scientific is a process that involves the continual apprehension of meaning, the constant appraisal of significance accompanied by a running act of checking to be sure that I am doing what I want to do, and of judging correctness or incorrectness. This checking and judging and accepting, that together constitute understanding, are done by me and can be done for me by no one else. They are as private as my toothache, and without them science is dead.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 50.
Science quotes on:  |  Scientific Method (166)

The result is that a generation of physicists is growing up who have never exercised any particular degree of individual initiative, who have had no opportunity to experience its satisfactions or its possibilities, and who regard cooperative work in large teams as the normal thing. It is a natural corollary for them to feel that the objectives of these large teams must be something of large social significance.
— Percy W. Bridgman
In 'Science and Freedom: Reflections of a Physicist', Isis, 1947, 37, 130.
Science quotes on:  |  Cooperation (30)  |  Initiative (13)

The results have exhibited one striking feature which has been frequently emphasized, namely that at high pressures all twelve liquids become more nearly like each other. This suggests that it might be useful in developing a theory of liquids to arbitrarily construct a 'perfect liquid' and to discuss its properties. Certainly the conception of a 'perfect gas' has been of great service in the kinetic theory of gases; and the reason is that all actual gases approximate closely to the 'perfect gas.' In the same way, at high pressures all liquids approximate to one and the same thing, which may be called by analogy the 'perfect liquid.' It seems to offer at least a promising line of attack to discuss the properties of this 'perfect liquid,' and then to invent the simplest possible mechanism to explain them.
— Percy W. Bridgman
'Thermodynamic Properties of Twelve Liquids Between 200 and 800 and up to 1200 KGM. Per Sq. Cm.', Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1913, 49, 113.
Science quotes on:  |  Gas (50)  |  Kinetic Theory (7)  |  Liquid (25)  |  Pressure (34)

We have here no esoteric theory of the ultimate nature of concepts, nor a philosophical championing of the primacy of the 'operation'. We have merely a pragmatic matter, namely that we have observed after much experience that if we want to do certain kinds of things with our concepts, our concepts had better be constructed in certain ways. In fact one can see that the situation here is no different from what we always find when we push our analysis to the limit; operations are not ultimately sharp or irreducible any more than any other sort of creature. We always run into a haze eventually, and all our concepts are describable only in spiralling approximation.
— Percy W. Bridgman
Reflections of a Physicist (1950 ), 9.
Science quotes on:  |  Analysis (166)  |  Philosophy (259)

We may summarize … the fundamental characteristics and limitations of mathematics as follows: mathematics is ultimately an experimental science, for freedom from contradiction cannot be proved, but only postulated and checked by observation, and similarly existence can only be postulated and checked by observation. Furthermore, mathematics requires the fundamental device of all thought, of analyzing experience into static bits with static meanings.
— Percy W. Bridgman
In The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 58.
Science quotes on:  |  Analyze (10)  |  Characteristic (96)  |  Check (24)  |  Contradiction (54)  |  Existence (299)  |  Experience (342)  |  Experimental (20)  |  Follow (124)  |  Freedom (102)  |  Fundamental (164)  |  Limitation (30)  |  Mathematics (1205)  |  Meaning (113)  |  Observation (450)  |  Postulate (31)  |  Prove (109)  |  Require (85)  |  Science (2067)  |  Static (8)  |  Summarize (10)  |  Thought (546)  |  Ultimately (15)

… the fact has always been for the physicist the one ultimate thing from which there is no appeal, and in the face of which the only possible attitude is a humility almost religious.
— Percy W. Bridgman
In The Logic of Modern Physics (1927).

See also:
  • 21 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Bridgman's birth.

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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