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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index M > Sir Peter B. Medawar Quotes > Scientist

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Sir Peter B. Medawar
(28 Feb 1915 - 2 Oct 1987)

English immunologist and author who was awarded a Nobel Prize for making skin grafts possible without tissue rejection.


Sir Peter B. Medawar Quotes on Scientist (21 quotes)

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I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionally strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical examination.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
In Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), 39.
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There is no such thing as a Scientific Mind. Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers, and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
The Art of the Soluble: Creativity and Originality in Science (1967). Reprinted in Pluto’s Republic (1982), 116.
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Any scientist of any age who wants to make important discoveries must study important problems. Dull or piffling problems yield dull or piffling answers. It is not not enough that a problem should be “interesting.” … The problem must be such that it matters what the answer is—whether to science generally or to mankind.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
From 'What Shall I Do Research On?', Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), 13.
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Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be, and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty eyed: solemn because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty eyed because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare. If taunted he would probably mumble something about “Induction” and “Establishing the Laws of Nature”, but if anyone working in a laboratory professed to be trying to establish the Laws of Nature by induction, we should think he was overdue for leave.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
From a Jayne Lecture (1968), 'Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought', printed in Memoirs of the American Philosophical Society (1969), Vol. 75. Lecture republished as Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (2009), 11. Also included in Peter Medawar, Pluto’s Republic (1984), 80.
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For a scientist must indeed be freely imaginative and yet skeptical, creative and yet a critic. There is a sense in which he must be free, but another in which his thought must be very preceisely regimented; there is poetry in science, but also a lot of bookkeeping.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science (1996), 63.
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Haldane could have made a success of any one of half a dozen careers—as mathematician, classical scholar, philosopher, scientist, journalist or imaginative writer. On his life’s showing he could not have been a politician, administrator (heavens, no!), jurist or, I think, a critic of any kind. In the outcome he became one of the three or four most influential biologists of his generation.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
Essay, 'J.B.S.', in Pluto’s Republic: Incorporating The Art of the Soluble and Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (1982), collected in The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science (1996), 87.
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If the task of scientific methodology is to piece together an account of what scientists actually do, then the testimony of biologists should be heard with specially close attention. Biologists work very close to the frontier between bewilderment and understanding.
Biology is complex, messy and richly various, like real life; it travels faster nowadays than physics or chemistry (which is just as well, since it has so much farther to go), and it travels nearer to the ground. It should therefore give us a specially direct and immediate insight into science in the making.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (1969), 1.
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It is high time that laymen abandoned the misleading belief that scientific enquiry is a cold dispassionate enterprise, bleached of imaginative qualities, and that a scientist is a man who turns the handle of discovery; for at every level of endeavour scientific research is a passionate undertaking and the Promotion of Natural Knowledge depends above all on a sortee into what can be imagined but is not yet known.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
The Times Literary Supplement (London), 1963 October 25 (p. 850)
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It just so happens that during the 1950s, the first great age of molecular biology, the English schools of Oxford and particularly of Cambridge produced more than a score of graduates of quite outstanding ability—much more brilliant, inventive, articulate and dialectically skillful than most young scientists; right up in the Jim Watson class. But Watson had one towering advantage over all of them: in addition to being extremely clever he had something important to be clever about.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
From the postscript to 'Lucky Jim', New York Review of Books (28 Mar 1968). Also collected in 'Lucky Jim', Pluto’s Republic (1982), 275. Also excerpted in Richard Dawkins (ed.), The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008), 186.
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No scientist is admired for failing in the attempt to solve problems that lie beyond his competence. … Good scientists study the most important problems they think they can solve. It is, after all, their professional business to solve problems, not merely to grapple with them.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
The Art of the Soluble: Creativity and Originality in Science (1967), 7.
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Scientists are entitled to be proud of their accomplishments, and what accomplishments can they call ‘theirs’ except the things they have done or thought of first? People who criticize scientists for wanting to enjoy the satisfaction of intellectual ownership are confusing possessiveness with pride of possession. Meanness, secretiveness and, sharp practice are as much despised by scientists as by other decent people in the world of ordinary everyday affairs; nor, in my experience, is generosity less common among them, or less highly esteemed.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
…...
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Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poets–scientists and philosopher–scientists and even a few mystics. ... and most people who are in fact scientists could easily have been something else instead.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
'Hypothesis and Imagination', The Art of the Soluble (1967), 132.
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Scientists should not be ashamed to admit, as many of them apparently are ashamed to admit, that hypotheses appear in their minds along uncharted by-ways of thought; that they are imaginative and inspirational in character; that they are indeed adventures of the mind.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
In 'Is the Scientific Paper Fraudulent?', The Saturday Review (1 Aug 1964), 43.
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Simultaneous discovery is utterly commonplace, and it was only the rarity of scientists, not the inherent improbability of the phenomenon, that made it remarkable in the past. Scientists on the same road may be expected to arrive at the same destination, often not far apart.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
From review '[Arthur] Koestler’s Theory of the Creative Act: “The Act of Creation”', in New Statesman (19 Jun 1964). According to Michael Scammell in his biography (Koestler: The Literary and Political Odyssey of a Twentieth-Century Skeptic (2009), 491 and 654), Medawar eviscerated the book as “amateurish” with “overstretched metaphors” and “fatuous epigrams” while Koestler’s psychological insights were “in the style of the nineteenth century.” The review, with follow-ups, were reprinted in Medawar’s The Art of the Soluble: Creativity and Originality in Science (1967), 85-98.
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The fact that scientists do not consciously practice a formal methodology is very poor evidence that no such methodology exists. It could be said—has been said—that there is a distinctive methodology of science which scientists practice unwittingly, like the chap in Moliere who found that all his life, unknowingly, he had been speaking prose.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought (1969), 9.
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The lives of scientists, considered as Lives, almost always make dull reading. For one thing, the careers of the famous and the merely ordinary fall into much the same pattern, give or take an honorary degree or two, or (in European countries) an honorific order. It could be hardly otherwise. Academics can only seldom lead lives that are spacious or exciting in a worldly sense. They need laboratories or libraries and the company of other academics. Their work is in no way made deeper or more cogent by privation, distress or worldly buffetings. Their private lives may be unhappy, strangely mixed up or comic, but not in ways that tell us anything special about the nature or direction of their work. Academics lie outside the devastation area of the literary convention according to which the lives of artists and men of letters are intrinsically interesting, a source of cultural insight in themselves. If a scientist were to cut his ear off, no one would take it as evidence of a heightened sensibility; if a historian were to fail (as Ruskin did) to consummate his marriage, we should not suppose that our understanding of historical scholarship had somehow been enriched.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
'J.B.S: A Johnsonian Scientist', New York Review of Books (10 Oct 1968), reprinted in Pluto's Republic (1982), and inThe Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science (1996), 86.
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The scientist values research by the size of its contribution to that huge, logically articulated structure of ideas which is already, though not yet half built, the most glorious accomplishment of mankind.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
In The Art of the Soluble (1967), 126. Also 'Two Conceptions of Science', collected in The Strange Case of the Spotted Mice and Other Classic Essays on Science (1996), 70.
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There is no spiritual copyright in scientific discoveries, unless they should happen to be quite mistaken. Only in making a blunder does a scientist do something which, conceivably, no one might ever do again.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
In Pluto’s Republic (1976).
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To be creative, scientists need libraries and laboratories and the company of other scientists; certainly a quiet and untroubled life is a help. A scientist's work is in no way deepened or made more cogent by privation, anxiety, distress, or emotional harassment. To be sure, the private lives of scientists may be strangely and even comically mixed up, but not in ways that have any special bearing on the nature and quality of their work. If a scientist were to cut off an ear, no one would interpret such an action as evidence of an unhappy torment of creativity; nor will a scientist be excused any bizarrerie, however extravagant, on the grounds that he is a scientist, however brilliant.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
In Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), 40.
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Twice in my life I have spent two weary and scientifically profitless years seeking evidence to corroborate dearly loved hypotheses that later proved to be groundless; times such as these are hard for scientists—days of leaden gray skies bringing with them a miserable sense of oppression and inadequacy.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
From Advice to a Young Scientist (1979), 6.
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[Scientists who think science consists of unprejudiced data-gathering without speculation are merely] cows grazing on the pasture of knowledge.
— Sir Peter B. Medawar
In The Art of the Soluble: Creativity and Originality in Science (1969). As cited in New Scientist (16 April 2008), 198, 49.
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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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