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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index D > Pierre Duhem Quotes

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Pierre Duhem
(10 Jun 1861 - 14 Sep 1916)

French physicist, philosopher of science and mathematician.


Science Quotes by Pierre Duhem (9 quotes)

A theory of physics is not an explanation; it is a system of mathematical oppositions deduced from a small number of principles the aim of which is to represent as simply, as completely, and as exactly as possible, a group of experimental laws.
— Pierre Duhem
As quoted in Philipp Frank, Modern Science and its Philosophy (1949), 15, which cites Théorie Physique; Son Objet—Son Structure (1906), 24.
Science quotes on:  |  Aim (165)  |  Complete (204)  |  Completely (135)  |  Deduce (25)  |  Exact (68)  |  Experimental (192)  |  Explanation (234)  |  Group (78)  |  Law (894)  |  Mathematics (1328)  |  Number (699)  |  Opposition (48)  |  Physic (517)  |  Physics (533)  |  Possible (552)  |  Principle (507)  |  Represent (155)  |  Simply (53)  |  Small (477)  |  System (537)  |  Theory (970)

By the fruit one judges the tree; the tree of science grows exceedingly slowly; centuries elapse before one can pluck the ripe fruits; even today it is hardly possible for us to shell and appraise the kernel of the teachings that blossomed in the seventeenth century. He who sows cannot therefore judge the worth of the corn. He must have faith in the fruitfulness of the seed in order that he may follow untiringly his chosen furrow when he casts his ideas to the four winds of heaven.
— Pierre Duhem
As quoted in Philipp Frank, Modern Science and its Philosophy (1949), 62, which cites Évolution de la Mécanique (1903).
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If the aim of physical theories is to explain experimental laws, theoretical physics is not an autonomous science; it is subordinate to metaphysics.
— Pierre Duhem
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 10.
Science quotes on:  |  Aim (165)  |  Experiment (695)  |  Experimental (192)  |  Explain (322)  |  Law (894)  |  Metaphysics (50)  |  Physic (517)  |  Physical (508)  |  Physics (533)  |  Science (3879)  |  Theoretical Physics (25)  |  Theory (970)

The experimentum crucis is impossible in physics.
— Pierre Duhem
As quoted in Philipp Frank, Modern Science and its Philosophy (1949), 15, which cites Théorie Physique; Son Objet—Son Structure (1906), 285. [Note: the experimentum crucis is a “crucial experiment” to be a conclusive test to decide between different hypotheses.]
Science quotes on:  |  Experiment (695)  |  Impossible (251)  |  Physic (517)  |  Physics (533)

The experimental verifications are not the basis of the theory, but its culmination.
— Pierre Duhem
As quoted in Philipp Frank, Modern Science and its Philosophy (1949), 16, which cites Théorie Physique; Son Objet—Son Structure (1906), 285. [Note: the experimentum crucis is a “crucial experiment” to be a conclusive test to decide between different hypotheses.]
Science quotes on:  |  Basis (173)  |  Culmination (4)  |  Experimental (192)  |  Theory (970)  |  Verification (31)

The history of science alone can keep the physicist from the mad ambitions of dogmatism as well as the despair of pyrrhonian scepticism.
— Pierre Duhem
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 270.
Science quotes on:  |  Alone (311)  |  Ambition (43)  |  Despair (40)  |  Dogmatism (14)  |  History (673)  |  History Of Science (63)  |  Mad (53)  |  Physicist (259)  |  Scepticism (16)  |  Science (3879)

The physicist can never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses.
— Pierre Duhem
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 187.
Science quotes on:  |  Experiment (695)  |  Experimental (192)  |  Hypothesis (296)  |  Never (1087)  |  Physicist (259)  |  Subject (521)  |  Test (211)  |  Whole (738)

The watchmaker to whom one gives a watch that does not run will take it all apart and will examine each of the pieces until he finds out which one is damaged. The physician to whom one presents a patient cannot dissect him to establish the diagnosis. The physicist resembles a doctor, not a watchmaker.
— Pierre Duhem
In Revue des Questions Scientifiques, 1897.
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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.
— Pierre Duhem
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 70-1.
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See also:
  • 10 Jun - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Duhem'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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