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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index M > John McPhee Quotes

John McPhee
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Science Quotes by John McPhee (39 quotes)

A million years is a short time—the shortest worth messing with for most problems. You begin tuning your mind to a time scale that is the planet’s time scale. For me, it is almost unconscious now and is a kind of companionship with the earth.
— John McPhee
In Basin and Range (1981), 134.
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A quarter-horse jockey learns to think of a twenty-second race as if it were occurring across twenty minutes—in distinct parts, spaced in his consciousness. Each nuance of the ride comes to him as he builds his race. If you can do the opposite with deep time, living in it and thinking in it until the large numbers settle into place, you can sense how swiftly the initial earth packed itself together, how swiftly continents have assembled and come apart, how far and rapidly continents travel, how quickly mountains rise and how quickly they disintegrate and disappear.
— John McPhee
Annals of the Former World
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A small cabin stands in the Glacier Peak Wilderness, about a hundred yards off a trail that crosses the Cascade Range. In midsummer, the cabin looked strange in the forest. It was only twelve feet square, but it rose fully two stories and then had a high and steeply peaked roof. From the ridge of the roof, moreover, a ten-foot pole stuck straight up. Tied to the top of the pole was a shovel. To hikers shedding their backpacks at the door of the cabin on a cold summer evening—as the five of us did—it was somewhat unnerving to look up and think of people walking around in snow perhaps thirty-five feet above, hunting for that shovel, then digging their way down to the threshold.
— John McPhee
In Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), 3.
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Bradley is one of the few basketball players who have ever been appreciatively cheered by a disinterested away-from-home crowd while warming up. This curious event occurred last March, just before Princeton eliminated the Virginia Military Institute, the year’s Southern Conference champion, from the NCAA championships. The game was played in Philadelphia and was the last of a tripleheader. The people there were worn out, because most of them were emotionally committed to either Villanova or Temple-two local teams that had just been involved in enervating battles with Providence and Connecticut, respectively, scrambling for a chance at the rest of the country. A group of Princeton players shooting basketballs miscellaneously in preparation for still another game hardly promised to be a high point of the evening, but Bradley, whose routine in the warmup time is a gradual crescendo of activity, is more interesting to watch before a game than most players are in play. In Philadelphia that night, what he did was, for him, anything but unusual. As he does before all games, he began by shooting set shots close to the basket, gradually moving back until he was shooting long sets from 20 feet out, and nearly all of them dropped into the net with an almost mechanical rhythm of accuracy. Then he began a series of expandingly difficult jump shots, and one jumper after another went cleanly through the basket with so few exceptions that the crowd began to murmur. Then he started to perform whirling reverse moves before another cadence of almost steadily accurate jump shots, and the murmur increased. Then he began to sweep hook shots into the air. He moved in a semicircle around the court. First with his right hand, then with his left, he tried seven of these long, graceful shots-the most difficult ones in the orthodoxy of basketball-and ambidextrously made them all. The game had not even begun, but the presumably unimpressible Philadelphians were applauding like an audience at an opera.
— John McPhee
A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton
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Despite the recurrence of events in which the debris-basin system fails in its struggle to contain the falling mountains, people who live on the front line are for the most part calm and complacent. It appears that no amount of front-page or prime-time attention will ever prevent such people from masking out the problem.
— John McPhee
The Control of Nature
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Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, the roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane.
— John McPhee
Annals of the Former World
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George Sears, called Nessmuk, whose “Woodcraft,” published in 1884, was the first American book on forest camping, and is written with so much wisdom, wit, and insight that it makes Henry David Thoreau seem alien, humorless, and French.
— John McPhee
Coming into the Country
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going to have an industrial society you must have places that will look terrible. Other places you set aside—to say, ‘This is the way it was.’
— John McPhee
Assembling California
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He said, “Americans look upon water as an inexhaustible resource. It’s not, if you’re mining it. Arizona is mining groundwater.”
— John McPhee
Assembling California
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I used to sit in class and listen to the terms come floating down the room like paper airplanes. Geology was called a descriptive science, and with its pitted outwash plains and drowned rivers, its hanging tributaries and starved coastlines, it was nothing if not descriptive. It was a fountain of metaphor…
— John McPhee
In Basin and Range (1981), 25.
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I wrote a fair amount of poetry in college. It was really, really bad. I mean, bad. And that’s how I found out—by doing it.
— John McPhee
…...
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If basketball was going to enable Bradley to make friends, to prove that a banker’s son is as good as the next fellow, to prove that he could do without being the greatest-end-ever at Missouri, to prove that he was not chicken, and to live up to his mother’s championship standards, and if he was going to have some moments left over to savor his delight in the game, he obviously needed considerable practice, so he borrowed keys to the gym and set a schedule for himself that he adhereded to for four full years—in the school year, three and a half hours every day after school, nine to five on Saturday, one-thirty to five on Sunday, and, in the summer, about three hours a day.
— John McPhee
A Sense of Where You Are: Bill Bradley at Princeton
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If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.
— John McPhee
In Basin and Range (1981), 135.
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In geologists’ own lives, the least effect of time is that they think in two languages, function on two different scales. … “A million years is a short time—the shortest worth messing with for most problems.”
— John McPhee
In Basin and Range (1981), 134.
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In six thousand years, you could never grow wings on a reptile. With sixty million, however, you could have feathers, too.
— John McPhee
Annals of the Former World
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Incandescent carbon particles, by the tens of millions, leap free of the log and wave like banners, as flame. Several hundred significantly different chemical reactions are now going on. For example, a carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms, coming out of the breaking cellulose, may lock together and form methane, natural gas. The methane, burning (combining with oxygen), turns into carbon dioxide and water, which also go up the flue. If two carbon atoms happen to come out of the wood with six hydrogen atoms, they are, agglomerately, ethane, which bums to become, also, carbon dioxide and water. Three carbons and eight hydrogens form propane, and propane is there, too, in the fire. Four carbons and ten hydrogens—butane. Five carbons … pentane. Six … hexane. Seven … heptane. Eight carbons and eighteen hydrogens—octane. All these compounds come away in the breaking of the cellulose molecule, and burn, and go up the chimney as carbon dioxide and water. Pentane, hexane, heptane, and octane have a collective name. Logs burning in a fireplace are making and burning gasoline.
— John McPhee
In 'Firewood', Pieces of the Frame (1975), 205-206.
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I’m addicted to the entire planet. I don’t want to leave it. I want to get down into it. I want to say hello. On the beach, I could have stopped all day long and looked at those damned shells, looked for all the messages that come not in bottles but in shells...
— John McPhee
In Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), 144.
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Now, at Suiattle Pass, Brower was still talking about butterflies. He said he had raised them from time to time and had often watched them emerge from the chrysalis—first a crack in the case, then a feeler, and in an hour a butterfly. He said he had felt that he wanted to help, to speed them through the long and awkward procedure; and he had once tried. The butterflies came out with extended abdomens, and their wings were balled together like miniature clenched fists. Nothing happened. They sat there until they died. ‘I have never gotten over that,’ he said. ‘That kind of information is all over in the country, but it’s not in town.”
— John McPhee
…...
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On each of two porches lie big chunks of serpentine—smooth as talc, mottled black and green. When you see rocks like that on a porch, a geologist is inside.
— John McPhee
Assembling California
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Only once in the historical record has a jump on the San Andreas exceeded the jump of 1906. In 1857, near Tejon Pass outside Los Angeles, the two sides shifted thirty feet.
— John McPhee
Assembling California
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Screw Machine Engineering, a magazine whose name a hyphen would have improved.
— John McPhee
In Uncommon Carriers.
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She has the sort of body you go to see in marble. She has golden hair. Quickly, deftly, she reaches with both hands behind her back and unclasps her top. Setting it on her lap, she swivels ninety degrees to face the towboat square. Shoulders back, cheeks high, she holds her pose without retreat. In her ample presentation there is defiance of gravity. There is no angle of repose. She is a siren and these are her songs.
— John McPhee
…...
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Since most callers have until moments before been completely unaware that there are bears in New Jersey, there is often in their voices a component of alarm, up to and including terror. McConnell’s response is calmer than pavement. She speaks in tones that range from ho to hum. “Yes, there are bears in your area,” she says, and goes on to say, with an added hint of congratulation, “You live in beautiful bear habitat.
— John McPhee
Table of Contents
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Some miners’ wives take in washing and make more money than their husbands do. In every gold rush from this one to the Klondike, the suppliers and service industries will gather up the dust while ninety-nine per cent of the miners go home with empty pokes.
— John McPhee
Assembling California
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Sooner or later in every talk, [David] Brower describes the creation of the world. He invites his listeners to consider the six days of Genesis as a figure of speech for what has in fact been 4 billion years. On this scale, one day equals something like six hundred and sixty-six million years, and thus, all day Monday and until Tuesday noon, creation was busy getting the world going. Life began Tuesday noon, and the beautiful organic wholeness of it developed over the next four days. At 4 p.m. Saturday, the big reptiles came on. At three minutes before midnight on the last day, man appeared. At one-fourth of a second before midnight Christ arrived. At one-fortieth of a second before midnight, the Industrial Revolution began. We are surrounded with people who think that what we have been doing for that one-fortieth of a second can go on indefinitely. They are considered normal, but they are stark. raving mad.
— John McPhee
In Encounters with the Archdruid (1971), 79-80.
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Speaking of libraries: A big open-stack academic or public library is no small pleasure to work in. You’re, say, trying to do a piece on something in Nevada, and you go down to C Floor, deep in the earth, and out to what a miner would call a remote working face. You find 10995.497S just where the card catalog and the online computer thought it would be, but that is only the initial nick. The book you knew about has led you to others you did not know about. To the ceiling the shelves are loaded with books about Nevada. You pull them down, one at a time, and sit on the floor and look them over until you are sitting on a pile five feet high, at which point you are late home for dinner and you get up and walk away. It’s an incomparable boon to research, all that; but it is also a reason why there are almost no large open-stack libraries left in the world.
— John McPhee
…...
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The authors of literary works may not have intended all the subtleties, complexities, undertones, and overtones that are attributed to them by critics and by students writing doctoral theses.” That’s what God says about geologists, I told him...
— John McPhee
Basin and Range
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the Courts of Justice had once ruled that a man carrying bagpipes was a man carrying a weapon—so inspiring was the music of the pipers to the clans in battle.
— John McPhee
The Reader
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The doctor listens in with a stethoscope and hears sounds of a warpath Indian drum.
— John McPhee
…...
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The Himalayas are the crowning achievement of the Indo-Australian plate. India in the Oligocene crashed head on into Tibet, hit so hard that it not only folded and buckled the plate boundaries but also plowed into the newly created Tibetan plateau and drove the Himalayas five and a half miles into the sky. The mountains are in some trouble. India has not stopped pushing them, and they are still going up. Their height and volume are already so great they are beginning to melt in their own self-generated radioactive heat. When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in a warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as 20,000 feet below the sea floor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth.
If by some fiat, I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence; this is the one I would choose: the summit of Mount Everest is marine limestone.
— John McPhee
Annals of the Former World
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The routine produces. But each day, nevertheless, when you try to get started you have to transmogrify, transpose yourself; you have to go through some kind of change from being a normal human being, into becoming some kind of slave.
I simply don’t want to break through that membrane. I’d do anything to avoid it. You have to get there and you don’t want to go there because there’s so much pressure and so much strain and you just want to stay on the outside and be yourself. And so the day is a constant struggle to get going.
And if somebody says to me, You’re a prolific writer—it seems so odd. It’s like the difference between geological time and human time. On a certain scale, it does look like I do a lot. But that’s my day, all day long, sitting there wondering when I’m going to be able to get started. And the routine of doing this six days a week puts a little drop in a bucket each day, and that’s the key. Because if you put a drop in a bucket every day, after three hundred and sixty-five days, the bucket’s going to have some water in it.
— John McPhee
https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/5997/john-mcphee-the-art-of-nonfiction-no-3-john-mcphee
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The sea is not all that responds to the moon. Twice a day the solid earth bobs up and down, as much as a foot. That kind of force and that kind of distance are more than enough to break hard rock. Wells will flow faster during lunar high tides.
— John McPhee
Annals of the Former World
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There are dark, hard, cherty silt-stones from some deep ocean trench full of rapidly accumulating Pennsylvanian guck.
— John McPhee
In Basin and Range (1981), 61.
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Travel by canoe is not a necessity, and will nevermore be the most efficient way to get from one region to another, or even from one lake to another anywhere. A canoe trip has become simply a rite of oneness with certain terrain, a diversion off the field, an art performed not because it is a necessity but because there is value in the art itself.
— John McPhee
…...
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When the climbers in 1953 planted their flags on the highest mountain, they set them in snow over the skeletons of creatures that had lived in the warm clear ocean that India, moving north, blanked out. Possibly as much as twenty thousand feet below the seafloor, the skeletal remains had turned into rock. This one fact is a treatise in itself on the movements of the surface of the earth. If by some fiat I had to restrict all this writing to one sentence, this is the one I would choose: The summit of Mt. Everest is marine limestone.
— John McPhee
Annals of the Former World
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Wood was the main source of energy in the world until the eighteen-fifties, and it still could be. Roughly a tenth of the annual growth of all the trees on earth could yield alcohol enough to run everything that now uses coal and petroleum—every airplane, every industry, every automobile.
— John McPhee
Pieces of the Frame
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Young writers find out what kinds of writers they are by experiment. If they choose from the outset to practice exclusively a form of writing because it is praised in the classroom or otherwise carries appealing prestige, they are vastly increasing the risk inherent in taking up writing in the first place.
— John McPhee
…...
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[Is the Loch Ness Monster] a magnified newt, a long‐necked variety of giant seal, an unextinct Elasmosaurus?
— John McPhee
In 'Pieces of the Frame', The Atlantic (1970), collected in Pieces of the Frame (1975), 103.
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“Mother like son” is a saying so true, the world will judge largely of mother by you.
— John McPhee
In Silk Parachute.
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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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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
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
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton


by Ian Ellis
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