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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index H > Sir John Herschel Quotes

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Sir John Herschel
(7 Mar 1792 - 11 May 1871)

English astronomer, chemist and chemist who continued after his father Sir William Herschel and found an additional 525 nebulae and clusters.

Science Quotes by Sir John Herschel (18 quotes)

A mind which has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry, and has learnt the habit of applying its principles readily to the cases which occur, has within itself an inexhaustable source of pure and exciting contemplations:— One would think that Shakespeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man as finding
    “Tongues in trees—books in running brooks—
    Sermons in stones—and good in everything.”
Accustomed to trace the operations of general causes and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and uninquiring eye, perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders; every object which falls in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order. Nor is it a mere passive pleasure which is thus communicated. A thousand questions are continually arising in his mind, a thousand objects of enquiry presenting themselves, which keep his faculties in constant exercise, and his thoughts perpetually on the wing, so that lassitude is excluded from his life, and that craving after artificial excitement and dissipation of the mind, which leads so many into frivolous, unworthy, and destructive pursuits, is altogether eradicated from his bosom.
— Sir John Herschel
In Dionysius Lardner (ed.), Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol 1, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), 14-15.

A mind which has once imbibed a taste for scientific enquiry, and has learnt the habit of applying its principles readily to the cases which occur, has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplations.
— Sir John Herschel
In Dionysius Lardner (ed.), Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol 1, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), 14-15.
Science quotes on:  |  Enquiry (76)

According to this view of the matter, there is nothing casual in the formation of Metamorphic Rocks. All strata, once buried deep enough, (and due TIME allowed!!!) must assume that state,—none can escape. All records of former worlds must ultimately perish.
— Sir John Herschel
Letter to Mr Murchison, In explanation of the views expressed in his previous letter to Mr Lyell, 15 Nov 1836. Quoted in the Appendix to Charles Babbage, The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment (1838), 240.
Science quotes on:  |  Geology (197)  |  Rock (125)

All human discoveries seem to be made only for the purpose of confirming more strongly the truths come from on high, and contained in the sacred writings.
— Sir John Herschel
Quoted in Marcel de Serres, 'On the Physical Facts in the Bible Compared with the Discoveries of the Modern Sciences', The Edinburgh New Philosophical Journal (1845), Vol. 38, 260.
Science quotes on:  |  Discovery (674)  |  Truth (899)

Almost all the greatest discoveries in astronomy have resulted from what we have elsewhere termed Residual Phenomena, of a qualitative or numerical kind, of such portions of the numerical or quantitative results of observation as remain outstanding and unaccounted for, after subducting and allowing for all that would result from the strict application of known principles.
— Sir John Herschel
Outlines of Astronomy (1876), 626.
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Every student who enters upon a scientific pursuit, especially if at a somewhat advanced period of life, will find not only that he has much to learn, but much also to unlearn.
— Sir John Herschel
Outlines of Astronomy (1871), 11th edn., 1.
Science quotes on:  |  Knowledge (1269)

First, In showing in how to avoid attempting impossibilities. Second, In securing us from important mistakes in attempting what is, in itself possible, by means either inadequate or actually opposed to the end in view. Thirdly, In enabling us to accomplish our ends in the easiest, shortest, most economical, and most effectual manner. Fourth, In inducing us to attempt, and enabling us to accomplish, object which, but for such knowledge, we should never have thought of understanding.
On the ways that a knowledge of the order of nature can be of use.
— Sir John Herschel
Quoted in Robert Routledge, Discoveries and Inventions of the 19th Century (1890), 665.
Science quotes on:  |  Knowledge (1269)

Geology, in the magnitude and sublimity of the objects of which it treats, undoubtedly ranks, in the scale of the sciences, next to astronomy.
— Sir John Herschel
In Dionysius Lardner (ed.), Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol 1, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), 287.

It can hardly be pressed forcibly enough on the attention of the student of nature, that there is scarcely any natural phenomenon which can be fully and completely explained, in all its circumstances, without a union of several, perhaps of all, the sciences.
— Sir John Herschel
Quoted in John Lubbock, The Pleasures of Life (Appleton, 1887), 182.
Science quotes on:  |  Nature (1186)

Science is the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one. The knowledge of reasons and their conclusions constitutes abstract, that of causes and their effects, and of the laws of nature, natural science.
— Sir John Herschel
A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830).
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Speculations apparently the most unprofitable have almost invariably been those from which the greatest practical applications have emanated.
— Sir John Herschel
In Dionysius Lardner (ed.), Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol 1, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), 11.
Science quotes on:  |  Discovery (674)  |  Speculation (100)

Such is the tendency of the human mind to speculation, that on the least idea of an analogy between a few phenomena, it leaps forward, as it were, to a cause or law, to the temporary neglect of all the rest; so that, in fact, almost all our principal inductions must be regarded as a series of ascents and descents, and of conclusions from a few cases, verified by trial on many.
— Sir John Herschel
In A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), 164-165.
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The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century were remarkable for the small amount of scientific movement going on in this country, especially in its more exact departments. ... Mathematics were at the last gasp, and Astronomy nearly so—I mean in those members of its frame which depend upon precise measurement and systematic calculation. The chilling torpor of routine had begun to spread itself over all those branches of Science which wanted the excitement of experimental research.
— Sir John Herschel
Quoted in Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan, Memoir of Augustus De Morgan (1882), 41
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The history of aλronautic adventure affords a curious illustration of the same [dip of the horizon] principle. The late Mr. Sadler, the celebrated aeronaut, ascended on one occasion in a balloon from Dublin, and was wafted across the Irish Channel, when, on his approach to the Welsh coast, the balloon descended nearly to the surface of the sea. By this time the sun was set, and the shades of evening began to close in. He threw out nearly all his ballast, and suddenly sprang upwards to a great height, and by so doing brought his horizon to dip below the sun, producing the whole phenomenon of a western sunrise. Subsequently descending in Wales, he of course witnessed a second sunset on the same evening.
— Sir John Herschel
This describes how a rapidly ascending balloonist can see more of a setting sun, from the top down, as the viewer gradually rises more and thus sees further, beyond the curvature of the earth. The sun gradually appears as if at sunrise. It is the reverse of the view of a ship sailing toward the horizon which disappears from its hull up to the tip of the mast. In Outlines of Astronomy (1849), 20. A similar description appeared earlier, in Astronomy (1833), 36, which also footnoted Herschel's comment that he had this anecdote from Dr. Lardner, who was present at the ascent
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The sun's rays are the ultimate source of almost every motion which takes place on the surface of the earth. By their heat are produced all winds, and those disturbances in the electric equilibrium of the atmosphere which give rise to the phenomena of terrestrial magnetism. By their vivifying action vegetables are elaborated from inorganic matter, and become in their turn the support of animals and of man, and the sources of those great deposits of dynamical efficiency which are laid up for human use in our coal strata. By them the waters of the sea are made to circulate in vapor through the air, and irrigate the land, producing springs and rivers. By them are produced all disturbances of the chemical equilibrium of the elements of nature which, by a series of compositions and decompositions, give rise to new products, and originate a transfer of materials. Even the slow degradation of the solid constituents of the surface, in which its chief geological changes consist, and their diffusion among the waters of the ocean, are entirely due to the abrasion of the wind, rain, and tides, which latter, however, are only in part the effect of solar influence and the alternate action of the seasons.
— Sir John Herschel
from Outlines of Astronomy (1849), 237.
Science quotes on:  |  Photosynthesis (18)  |  Solar Energy (17)  |  Weather (32)

When we have amassed a great store of such general facts, they become the objects of another and higher species of classification, and are themselves included in laws which, as they dispose of groups, not individuals have a far superior degree of generality, till at length, by continuing the process, we arrive at axioms of the highest degree of generality of which science is capable. This process is what we mean by induction.
— Sir John Herschel
In A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1830), 102.
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Words are to the Anthropologist what rolled pebbles are to the Geologist—Battered relics of past ages often containing within them indelible records capable of intelligible interpretion—and when we see what amount of change 2000 years has been able to produce in the languages of Greece & Italy or 1000 in those of Germany, France & Spain we naturally begin to ask how long a period must have lapsed since the Chinese, the Hebrew, the Delaware & the Malesass had a point in common with the German & Italian & each other.—Time! Time! Time!—we must not impugn the Scripture Chronology, but we must interpret it in accordance with whatever shall appear on fair enquiry to be the truth for there cannot be two truths. And really there is scope enough: for the lives of the Patriarchs may as reasonably be extended to 5000 or 50000 years apiece as the days of Creation to as many thousand millions of years.
— Sir John Herschel
Letter to Charles Lyell, 20 Feb 1836, In Walter F. Cannon, 'The Impact of Uniformitarianism', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 1961, 105, 308.
Science quotes on:  |  Age Of The Earth (11)  |  Language (213)  |  Truth (899)

[When nature appears complicated:] The moment we contemplate it as it is, and attain a position from which we can take a commanding view, though but of a small part of its plan, we never fail to recognize that sublime simplicity on which the mind rests satisfied that it has attained the truth.
— Sir John Herschel
Concluding remark in Dionysius Lardner (ed.), Cabinet Cyclopaedia, Vol 1, Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831), 361.
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Quotes by others about Sir John Herschel (5)

[Herschel and Humboldt] stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two. I copied out from Humboldt long passages about Teneriffe and read them aloud on one of [my walking excursions].
Autobiographies, (eds.) Michael Neve and Sharon Messenger (2002), Penguin edn., 36.
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But in the heavens we discover by their light, and by their light alone, stars so distant from each other that no material thing can ever have passed from one to another; and yet this light, which is to us the sole evidence of the existence of these distant worlds, tells us also that each of them is built up of molecules of the same kinds as those which we find on earth. A molecule of hydrogen, for example, whether in Sirius or in Arcturus, executes its vibrations in precisely the same time. Each molecule, therefore, throughout the universe, bears impressed on it the stamp of a metric system as distinctly as does the metre of the Archives at Paris, or the double royal cubit of the Temple of Karnac ... the exact quantity of each molecule to all others of same kind gives it, as Sir John Herschel has well said, the essential character of a manufactured article and precludes the idea of its being external and self-existent.
'Molecules', 1873. In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 375-6.
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It is usual to say that the two sources of experience are Observation and Experiment. When we merely note and record the phenomena which occur around us in the ordinary course of nature we are said to observe. When we change the course of nature by the intervention of our will and muscular powers, and thus produce unusual combinations and conditions of phenomena, we are said to experiment. [Sir John] Herschel has justly remarked that we might properly call these two modes of experience passive and active observation. In both cases we must certainly employ our senses to observe, and an experiment differs from a mere observation in the fact that we more or less influence the character of the events which we observe. Experiment is thus observation plus alteration of conditions.
Principles of Science: A Treatise on Logic and Scientific Method (1874, 2nd ed., 1913), 400.
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Oh! But I have better news for you, Madam, if you have any patriotism as citizen of this world and wish its longevity. Mr. Herschel has found out that our globe is a comely middle-aged personage, and has not so many wrinkles as seven stars, who are evidently our seniors. Nay, he has discovered that the Milky Way is not only a mob of stars, but that there is another dairy of them still farther off, whence, I conclude, comets are nothing but pails returning from milking, instead of balloons filled with inflammable air.
Letter to the Countess of Upper Ossory (4 Jul 1785) in W. S. Lewis (ed.), Horace Walpole's Correspondence with the Countess of Upper Ossory (1965), Vol. 33, 474.
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As Herschel ruminated long ago, particles moving in mutual gravitational interaction are, as we human investigators see it forever solving differential equations which, if written out in full, might circle the earth.
In Forbidden Knowledge: And Other Essays on the Philosophy of Cognition (2012), 55.John Herschel. Rescher was not quoting, but restating from John Herschel, 'On Atoms', Familiar Lectures on Scientific Subjects (1867, 1872), 458. (Previously published in Fortnightly Review)
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See also:
  • 7 Mar - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Herschel's birth.
  • The Shadow of the Telescope: A Biography of John Herschel, by Gόnther Buttmann. - book suggestion.

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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