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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index C > William Kingdon Clifford Quotes

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William Kingdon Clifford
(4 May 1845 - 3 Mar 1879)

English mathematician and philosopher who presented the idea in On the Space Theory of Matter that energy and matter are simply different types of curvature of space, which was later fundamental in Einstein’s general theory of relativity.


Science Quotes by William Kingdon Clifford (16 quotes)

... If I let myself believe anything on insufficient evidence, there may be no great harm done by the mere belief; it may be true after all, or I may never have occasion to exhibit it in outward acts. But I cannot help doing this great wrong towards Man, that I make myself credulous. The danger to society is not merely that it should believe wrong things, though that is great enough; but that it should become credulous, and lose the habit of testing things and inquiring into them; for then it must sink back into savagery.
— William Kingdon Clifford
The Scientific Basis of Morals (1884), 28.
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Abstruse mathematical researches … are … often abused for having no obvious physical application. The fact is that the most useful parts of science have been investigated for the sake of truth, and not for their usefulness. A new branch of mathematics, which has sprung up in the last twenty years, was denounced by the Astronomer Royal before the University of Cambridge as doomed to be forgotten, on account of its uselessness. Now it turns out that the reason why we cannot go further in our investigations of molecular action is that we do not know enough of this branch of mathematics.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'Conditions of Mental Development', Lectures and Essays (1901), Vol. 1, 115.
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An atom must be at least as complex as a grand piano.
— William Kingdon Clifford
As quoted by Oliver Lodge in Atoms and Rays (1924, 1931), 78. Lodge refers to this as a saying of W. K. Clifford who was “my brilliant teacher of more than half a century ago.”
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Helmholtz—the physiologist who learned physics for the sake of his physiology, and mathematics for the sake of his physics, and is now in the first rank of all three.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought', Lectures and Essays, Vol. 1 (1901), 165.
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If a man, holding a belief which he was taught in childhood or persuaded of afterwards, keeps down and pushes away any doubts which arise about it in his mind, purposely avoids the reading of books and the company of men that call in question or discuss it, and regards as impious those questions which cannot easily be asked without disturbing it—the life of that man is one long sin against mankind.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'The Ethics of Belief', Contemporary Review (Jan 1877), collected in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays: By the Late William Kingdon Clifford, F.R.S. (1886), 346.
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It is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone to believe anything on insufficient evidence.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'The Ethics of Belief', Contemporary Review (Jan 1877), collected in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays: By the Late William Kingdon Clifford, F.R.S. (1886), 346.
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Newton supposed that the case of the planet was similar to that of [a ball spun around on the end of an elastic string]; that it was always pulled in the direction of the sun, and that this attraction or pulling of the sun produced the revolution of the planet, in the same way that the traction or pulling of the elastic string produces the revolution of the ball. What there is between the sun and the planet that makes each of them pull the other, Newton did not know; nobody knows to this day; and all we are now able to assert positively is that the known motion of the planet is precisely what would be produced if it were fastened to the sun by an elastic string, having a certain law of elasticity. Now observe the nature of this discovery, the greatest in its consequences that has ever yet been made in physical science:—
I. It begins with an hypothesis, by supposing that there is an analogy between the motion of a planet and the motion of a ball at the end of a string.
II. Science becomes independent of the hypothesis, for we merely use it to investigate the properties of the motion, and do not trouble ourselves further about the cause of it.
— William Kingdon Clifford
'On Some of the Conditions of Mental Development,' a discourse delivered at the Royal Institution, 6 Mar 1868, in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays, by the Late William Kingdon Clifford (1886), 56.
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Now this establishment of correspondence between two aggregates and investigation of the propositions that are carried over by the correspondence may be called the central idea of modern mathematics.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'Philosophy of the Pure Sciences', Lectures and Essays (1901), Vol. 1, 402.
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Remember that [scientific thought] is the guide of action; that the truth which it arrives at is not that which we can ideally contemplate without error, but that which we may act upon without fear; and you cannot fail to see that scientific thought is not an accompaniment or condition of human progress, but human progress itself.
— William Kingdon Clifford
'Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought,' a lecture delivered to the British Association on 19 Aug 1872. In Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays, by the Late William Kingdon Clifford (1886), 109.
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Science, though apparently transformed into pure knowledge, has yet never lost its character of being a craft; and that it is not the knowledge itself which can rightly be called science, but a special way of getting and of using knowledge. Namely, science is the getting of knowledge from experience on the assumption of uniformity in nature, and the use of such knowledge to guide the actions of men.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'On The Scientific Basis of Morals', Contemporary Review (Sep 1875), collected in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays: By the Late William Kingdon Clifford, F.R.S. (1886), 289.
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The aim of scientific thought, then, is to apply past experience to new circumstances; the instrument is an observed uniformity in the course of events. By the use of this instrument it gives us information transcending our experience, it enables us to infer things that we have not seen from things that we have seen; and the evidence for the truth of that information depends on our supposing that the uniformity holds good beyond our experience.
— William Kingdon Clifford
'On the Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought,' a Lecture delivered before the members of the British Association, at Brighton, on 19 Aug 1872, in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays, by the Late William Kingdon Clifford (1886), 90.
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The most abstract statements or propositions in science are to be regarded as bundles of hypothetical maxims packed into a portable shape and size. Every scientific fact is a short-hand expression for a vast number of practical directions: if you want so-and-so, do so-and-so.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In 'On The Scientific Basis of Morals', Contemporary Review (Sep 1875), collected in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays: By the Late William Kingdon Clifford, F.R.S. (1886), 289.
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The scientific discovery appears first as the hypothesis of an analogy; and science tends to become independent of the hypothesis.
— William Kingdon Clifford
'On Some of the Conditions of Mental Development,' a discourse delivered at the Royal Institution, 6 Mar 1868, in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays, by the Late William Kingdon Clifford (1886), 57.
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We may always depend on it that algebra, which cannot be translated into good English and sound common sense, is bad algebra.
— William Kingdon Clifford
In Common Sense in the Exact Sciences (1885), 21.
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[Euclid's Elements] has been for nearly twenty-two centuries the encouragement and guide of that scientific thought which is one thing with the progress of man from a worse to a better state. The encouragement; for it contained a body of knowledge that was really known and could be relied on, and that moreover was growing in extent and application. For even at the time this book was written—shortly after the foundation of the Alexandrian Museum—Mathematics was no longer the merely ideal science of the Platonic school, but had started on her career of conquest over the whole world of Phenomena. The guide; for the aim of every scientific student of every subject was to bring his knowledge of that subject into a form as perfect as that which geometry had attained. Far up on the great mountain of Truth, which all the sciences hope to scale, the foremost of that sacred sisterhood was seen, beckoning for the rest to follow her. And hence she was called, in the dialect of the Pythagoreans, ‘the purifier of the reasonable soul.’
— William Kingdon Clifford
From a lecture delivered at the Royal Institution (Mar 1873), collected postumously in W.K. Clifford, edited by Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock, Lectures and Essays, (1879), Vol. 1, 296.
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… scientific thought does not mean thought about scientific subjects with long names. There are no scientific subjects. The subject of science is the human universe; that is to say, everything that is, or has been, or may be related to man.
— William Kingdon Clifford
'On the Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought,' a Lecture delivered before the members of the British Association, at Brighton, on 19 Aug 1872, in Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays, by the Late William Kingdon Clifford (1886), 86.
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Quotes by others about William Kingdon Clifford (5)

The most remarkable thing was his [Clifford’s] great strength as compared with his weight, as shown in some exercises. At one time he could pull up on the bar with either hand, which is well known to be one of the greatest feats of strength. His nerve at dangerous heights was extraordinary. I am appalled now to think that he climbed up and sat on the cross bars of the weathercock on a church tower, and when by way of doing something worse I went up and hung by my toes to the bars he did the same.
Anonymous
Quoted from a letter by one of Clifford’s friends to F. Pollock, in Clifford’s Lectures and Essays (1901), Vol. 1, Introduction, 8.
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It is not surprising, in view of the polydynamic constitution of the genuinely mathematical mind, that many of the major heros of the science, men like Desargues and Pascal, Descartes and Leibnitz, Newton, Gauss and Bolzano, Helmholtz and Clifford, Riemann and Salmon and Plücker and Poincaré, have attained to high distinction in other fields not only of science but of philosophy and letters too. And when we reflect that the very greatest mathematical achievements have been due, not alone to the peering, microscopic, histologic vision of men like Weierstrass, illuminating the hidden recesses, the minute and intimate structure of logical reality, but to the larger vision also of men like Klein who survey the kingdoms of geometry and analysis for the endless variety of things that flourish there, as the eye of Darwin ranged over the flora and fauna of the world, or as a commercial monarch contemplates its industry, or as a statesman beholds an empire; when we reflect not only that the Calculus of Probability is a creation of mathematics but that the master mathematician is constantly required to exercise judgment—judgment, that is, in matters not admitting of certainty—balancing probabilities not yet reduced nor even reducible perhaps to calculation; when we reflect that he is called upon to exercise a function analogous to that of the comparative anatomist like Cuvier, comparing theories and doctrines of every degree of similarity and dissimilarity of structure; when, finally, we reflect that he seldom deals with a single idea at a tune, but is for the most part engaged in wielding organized hosts of them, as a general wields at once the division of an army or as a great civil administrator directs from his central office diverse and scattered but related groups of interests and operations; then, I say, the current opinion that devotion to mathematics unfits the devotee for practical affairs should be known for false on a priori grounds. And one should be thus prepared to find that as a fact Gaspard Monge, creator of descriptive geometry, author of the classic Applications de l’analyse à la géométrie; Lazare Carnot, author of the celebrated works, Géométrie de position, and Réflections sur la Métaphysique du Calcul infinitesimal; Fourier, immortal creator of the Théorie analytique de la chaleur; Arago, rightful inheritor of Monge’s chair of geometry; Poncelet, creator of pure projective geometry; one should not be surprised, I say, to find that these and other mathematicians in a land sagacious enough to invoke their aid, rendered, alike in peace and in war, eminent public service.
In Lectures on Science, Philosophy and Art (1908), 32-33.
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Much of his [Clifford’s] best work was actually spoken before it was written. He gave most of his public lectures with no visible preparation beyond very short notes, and the outline seemed to be filled in without effort or hesitation. Afterwards he would revise the lecture from a shorthand writer’s report, or sometimes write down from memory almost exactly what he had said. It fell out now and then, however, that neither of these things was done; in such cases there is now no record of the lecture at all.
In Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays by William Kingdon Clifford(1879), Vol. 1, Introduction, 8.
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As he [Clifford] spoke he appeared not to be working out a question, but simply telling what he saw. Without any diagram or symbolic aid he described the geometrical conditions on which the solution depended, and they seemed to stand out visibly in space. There were no longer consequences to be deduced, but real and evident facts which only required to be seen. … So whole and complete was his vision that for the time the only strange thing was that anybody should fail to see it in the same way. When one endeavored to call it up again, and not till then, it became clear that the magic of genius had been at work, and that the common sight had been raised to that higher perception by the power that makes and transforms ideas, the conquering and masterful quality of the human mind which Goethe called in one word das Dämonische.
In Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays by William Kingdon Clifford(1879), Vol. 1, Introduction, 4-5.
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I cannot find anything showing early aptitude for acquiring languages; but that he [Clifford] had it and was fond of exercising it in later life is certain. One practical reason for it was the desire of being able to read mathematical papers in foreign journals; but this would not account for his taking up Spanish, of which he acquired a competent knowledge in the course of a tour to the Pyrenees. When he was at Algiers in 1876 he began Arabic, and made progress enough to follow in a general way a course of lessons given in that language. He read modern Greek fluently, and at one time he was furious about Sanskrit. He even spent some time on hieroglyphics. A new language is a riddle before it is conquered, a power in the hand afterwards: to Clifford every riddle was a challenge, and every chance of new power a divine opportunity to be seized. Hence he was likewise interested in the various modes of conveying and expressing language invented for special purposes, such as the Morse alphabet and shorthand. … I have forgotten to mention his command of French and German, the former of which he knew very well, and the latter quite sufficiently; …
In paper, 'William Kingdon Clifford', The Fortnightly Review (1879), 31, 671. Published in advance of Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Clifford’s Lectures and Essays (1879), Vol. 1, Introduction, 9. The 'Introduction' was written by Pollock.
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See also:
  • 4 May - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Clifford'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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