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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index D > Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück Quotes

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Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
(4 Sep 1906 - 9 Mar 1981)

German-American microbiologist , who pioneered in the study of molecular genetics. He shared the 1969 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for work on the replication mechanism and the genetic structure of bacteriophages (a type of virus that infects bacteria, rather than ordinary cells).


Science Quotes by Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück (19 quotes)

[About the structure of DNA] [T]he whole business was like a child's toy that you could buy at the dime store, all built in this wonderful way that you could explain in Life magazine so that really a five-year-old can understand what's going on...This was the greatest surprise for everyone.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
Quoted in Horace Freeland Judson, Eighth Day of Creation (1979)
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[My research] throve best under adversity … in Germany in the middle 1930s under the Nazis when things became quite unpleasant and official seminars became dull. … We had a little private club… theoretical physicists and biologists. The discussions we had at that time have had a remarkable long-range effect, an effect that astonished us all. This was one adverse situation. Like the great Plague in Florence in 1348, which is the background setting for Bocaccio's Decameron.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett', collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.),Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135-. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 278.
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[Physicists] feel that the field of bacterial viruses is a fine playground for serious children who ask ambitious questions.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From 'Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages)', Harvey Lecture (1946), 41, 161. As cited in Robert Olby, The Path of the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), 237.
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A strong feeling of adventure is animating those who are working on bacterial viruses, a feeling that they have a small part in the great drive towards a fundamental problem in biology.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From 'Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages)', Harvey Lecture (1946), 41, 187. As cited in Robert Olby, The Path of the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), 238.
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Any living cell carries with it the experience of a billion years of experimentation by its ancestors. (1949)
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (Dec 1949), 38. Used as epigraph (without citation) to Chap 6, in Arnold Jay Levine, Viruses: A Scientific American Library Book (1991), 113.
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I found out at an early age that science is a haven for the timid, the freaks, the misfits. That is more true perhaps for the past than now. If you were a student in Göttingen in the 1920s and went to the seminar “Structure of Matter” which was under the joint auspices of David Hilbert and Max Born, you could well imagine that you were in a madhouse as you walked in. Every one of the persons there was obviously some kind of a severe case. The least you could do was put on some kind of a stutter. Robert Oppenheimer as a graduate student found it expedient to develop a very elegant kind of stutter, the "njum-njum-njum" technique. Thus, if you were an oddball you felt at home.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
Answering the question, “Why did you choose science as your life’s work?” In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett," collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.)Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 278.
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I would not want to generalize to the extent that adversity is the only road to effective innovative science, or art, but the progress of science is often spectacularly disorderly. James Joyce once commented that he survived by “cunning and exile”.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett', collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.),Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135-. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 278.
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If you’re too sloppy, then you never get reproducible results, and then you never can draw any conclusions; but if you are just a little sloppy, then when you see something startling, you say, “Oh, my God, what did I do, what did I do different this time?” And if you really accidentally varied only one parameter, you nail it down, and that’s exactly what happened [to produce new experimental discoveries]. So I called it the "Principle of Limited Sloppiness".
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From Interview (1978) for Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives, Pasadena, California (oralhistories.library.caltech.edu), Online PDF version, 76-77. Delbrück also stated he first made a casual remark about the “Principle of Limited Sloppiness” as chairman at a meeting in Oak Ridge after the war.
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Is pure science to be considered as something potentially harmful? Answer: Most certainly! Every child knows that it is potentially exceedingly harmful. … The menace of blowing ourselves up by atom bombs, doing ourselves in by chemical or biological warfare, or by population explosion, is certainly with us. I consider the environment thing a trivial question, by comparison—like housekeeping. In any home, the dishes have to be washed, the floors swept, the beds made, and there must be rules as to who is allowed to produce how much stink and noise, and where in the house: When the garbage piles up, these questions become pressing. But they are momentary problems. Once the house is in order, you still want to live in it, not just sit around enjoying its orderliness. I would be sorry to see Caltech move heavily into this type of applied research. … SCIENCE POTENTIALLY HARMFUL? DEFINITELY.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett," collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.)Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 277.
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Is pure science to be regarded as overall beneficial to society? Answer: It depends much on what you consider benefits. If you look at health, long life, transportation, communication, education, you might be tempted to say yes. If you look at the enormous social-economic dislocations, at the prospect of an immense famine in India, brought on by the advances of public health science and nutrition science, at strains on our psyches due to the imbalance between technical developments and our limited ability to adjust to the pace of change, you might be tempted to say no. Clearly, the present state of the world—to which science has contributed much—leaves a great deal to be desired, and much to be feared. So I write down … SCIENCE BENEFICIAL? DOUBTFUL.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett," collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.)Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 276.
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Jacques Hadamard, the French mathematician, has written a little book … and describes how intuition wells up from completely unfathomable depths, first appears in a peculiar guise, and then suddenly breaks out with lightning clarity.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett', collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.),Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135-. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 285. (Hadamard’s book is An Essay on the Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field.)
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Molecular genetics, our latest wonder, has taught us to spell out the connectivity of the tree of life in such palpable detail that we may say in plain words, “This riddle of life has been solved.”
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From Nobel Lecture (10 Dec 1969), 'A Physicist's Renewed Look at Biology – Twenty Years Later.' in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1963-1970 (1972), 405.
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Should a scientist consider possible ramifications of his research and their effects on society,…? Answer: I think it is impossible for anybody, scientist or not, to foresee the ramifications. We might say that that is a definition of basic science. Vide Einstein’s discovery of 1905 of the equivalence of mass and energy and the development of atomic weaponry. … CONSIDER RAMIFICATIONS? IMPOSSIBLE.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett," collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.)Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 277.
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Society can, and does, and must control research enormously, negatively and positively, by selectively cutting off or supplying funds. At present it cuts—not so selectively. That is all right with me, as far as my own research is concerned. I certainly do not think society owes me a living or support for my research. If it does not support my research, I can always do something else and not be worse off, perhaps better. However, the question, from society's point of view, is exceedingly complicated.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett', collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.),Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135-. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 279.
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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.”
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
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 books of the great scientists are gathering dust on the shelves of learned libraries. ... While the artist's communication is linked forever with its original form, that of the scientist is modified, amplified, fused with the ideas and results of others and melts into the stream of knowledge and ideas which forms our culture. The scientist has in common with the artist only this: that he can find no better retreat from the world than his work and also no stronger link with the world than his work.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From Nobel Lecture (10 Dec 1969), 'A Physicist's Renewed Look at Biology – Twenty Years Later.' in Nobel Lectures, Physiology or Medicine 1963-1970 (1972), 409.
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The curiosity remains… to grasp more clearly how the same matter, which in physics and chemistry displays orderly and reproducible and relatively simple properties, arranges itself in the most astounding fashions as soon as it is drawn into the orbit of the living organism. The closer one looks at these performances of matter in living organisms the more impressive the show becomes. The meanest living cell becomes a magic puzzle box full of elaborate and changing molecules.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From 'Life: The Magic Puzzle Box', Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences (Dec 1949), 38, 173-190.
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The original Hippocratic oath… says that you should keep the patient alive under all circumstances. … And that’s a reasonably well defined goal since keeping the patient alive is biologically unambiguous. But to use science for the good of society is not so well defined, therefore I think [a scientific oath analogous to the Hippocratic oath] could never be written. The only unwritten oath is, of course, that you should be reasonably honest. That is, in fact, carried out to the extent that, although many things you read in the journals are wrong, it is assumed that the author at least believed that he was right. So much so that if somebody deliberately sets out to cheat he can get away with it for years. The number of celebrated cases of cheating or hoaxes would make a long story. But our whole scientific discourse is based on the premise that everybody is trying at least to tell the truth, within the limits of his personality; that can be some limit. … HIPPOCRATIC OATH FOR SCIENTISTS? IMPOSSIBLE TO BE UNAMBIGUOUS.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
In 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett', collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.),Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135-. Excerpted in Ann E. Kammer, Science, Sex, and Society (1979), 279-280.
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The progress of science is tremendously disorderly, and the motivations that lead to this progress are tremendously varied, and the reasons why scientists go into science, the personal motivations, are tremendously varied. I have said … in the Beckett lecture, at least one particular point that seems to be missed; that science is a haven for freaks, that people go into science because they are misfits, and that it is a sheltered place where they can spin their own yarn and have recognition, be tolerated and happy, and have approval for it.
— Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück
From Interview (1978) for Oral History Project, California Institute of Technology Archives, Pasadena, California (oralhistories.library.caltech.edu), Online PDF version, 87. Footnoted as Max Delbruck, 'Homo Scientificus According to Beckett," collected in William Beranek, Jr. (ed.)Science, Scientists, and Society, (1972), 135.
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Quotes by others about Max Ludwig Henning Delbrück (1)

In 1944 Erwin Schroedinger, stimulated intellectually by Max Delbruck, published a little book called What is life? It was an inspiration to the first of the molecular biologists, and has been, along with Delbruck himself, credited for directing the research during the next decade that solved the mystery of how 'like begat like.' Max was awarded this Prize in 1969, and rejoicing in it, he also lamented that the work for which he was honored before all the peoples of the world was not something which he felt he could share with more than a handful. Samuel Beckett's contributions to literature, being honored at the same time, seemed to Max somehow universally accessible to anyone. But not his. In his lecture here Max imagined his imprisonment in an ivory tower of science.
'The Polymerase Chain Reaction', Nobel Lecture (8 Dec 1993). In Nobel Lectures: Chemistry 1991-1995 (1997), 103.
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  • 4 Sep - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Delbrück'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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Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
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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
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Robert Fulton
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Thomas Edison
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Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
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Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
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William Shakespeare
- 50 -
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Rachel Carson
Max Planck
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Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
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Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
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Archimedes
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- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
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Richard Feynman
James Hutton
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Benjamin Franklin
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- 20 -
Carl Sagan
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- 10 -
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