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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index M > H. L. Mencken Quotes

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H. L. Mencken
(12 Sep 1880 - 29 Jan 1956)

American journalist and satirist , known as 'the Sage of Baltimore,' in whose satirical reports on the Scopes trial in Tennessee the "Monkey" trial name was coined. In 19 books and thousands of essays, his writings are a treasure of wisdom couched in a sparkling wit.

Science Quotes by H. L. Mencken (58 quotes)

A cynic is a man who, when he smells flowers, looks around for a coffin.
— H. L. Mencken
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A fool who, after plain warning, persists in dosing himself with dangerous drugs should be free to do so, for his death is a benefit to the race in general.
— H. L. Mencken
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A government, at bottom, is nothing more than a gang of men, and as a practical matter most of them are inferior men ... Government is actually the worst failure of civilized man. There has never been a really good one, and even those that are most tolerable are arbitrary, cruel, grasping and unintelligent. Indeed, it would not be far wrong to describe the best as the common enemy of all decent citizens.
— H. L. Mencken
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A great nation is any mob of people which produces at least one honest man a century.
— H. L. Mencken
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A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier.
— H. L. Mencken
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A society made up of individuals who were capable of original thought would probably be unendurable. The pressure of ideas would simply drive it frantic.
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report (1956, 2006 reprint), 10.
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All government, in its essence, is organized exploitation, and in virtually all its existing forms it is the implacable enemy of every industrious and well-disposed man ... The typical politician is not only a rascal but also a jackass, so he greatly values the puerile notoriety and adulation that sensible men try to avoid.
— H. L. Mencken
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All that Eddington and Millikan achieve, when they attempt their preposterous reconciliation of science and theology, is to prove that they themselves, for all their technical skill, are scientists only by trade, not by conviction. They practice science diligently and to some effect, but only in the insensate way in which Blind Tom played the piano. … they can’t get rid of a congenital incredulity. Science, to them, remains a bit strange and shocking. They are somewhat in the position of a Christian clergyman who finds himself unable to purge himself of a suspicion that Jonah, after all, probably did not swallow the whale.
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report (1956, 2006 reprint), 140.
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As for Lindbergh, another eminent servant of science, all he proved by his gaudy flight across the Atlantic was that God takes care of those who have been so fortunate as to come into the world foolish.
Expressing skepticism that adventure does not necessarily contribute to scientific knowledge.
— H. L. Mencken
'Penguin's Eggs'. From the American Mercury (Sep 1930), 123-24. Reprinted in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (2006), 167.
Science quotes on:  |  Atlantic (4)  |  Flight (45)  |  Charles A. Lindbergh (22)

As the arteries grow hard, the heart grows soft.
— H. L. Mencken
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Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians. Thus their speculations tend almost inevitably to depart from the field of true science, which is that of precise observation, and to become mere soaring in the empyrean. The process works backward, too. That is to say, their reports of what they pretend actually to see are often very unreliable. It is thus no wonder that, of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology. Nor is it remarkable that, in the popular belief, most astronomers end by losing their minds.
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks (1956), Sample 74, 60.
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But how is one to determine what is pleasing to God? ... Whatever is unpleasant to man is pleasant to God. The test is the natural instinct of man. If there arises within one’s dark recesses a hot desire to do this or that, then it is the paramount duty of a Christian to avoid doing this or that. And if, on the contrary, one cherishes an abhorrence of the business, then one must tackle it forthwith, all the time shouting ‘Hallelujah!’ A simple enough religion, surely–simple, satisfying and idiotic.
— H. L. Mencken
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By profession a biologist, [Thomas Henry Huxley] covered in fact the whole field of the exact sciences, and then bulged through its four fences. Absolutely nothing was uninteresting to him. His curiosity ranged from music to theology and from philosophy to history. He didn't simply know something about everything; he knew a great deal about everything.
— H. L. Mencken
'Thomas Henry Huxley.' In the Baltimore Evening Sun (4 May 1925). Reprinted in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (2006), 157.
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Conscience is the inner voice warning us that someone may be looking.
— H. L. Mencken
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Democracy is the art and science of running the circus from the monkey-cage.
— H. L. Mencken
Chrestomathy (1949), 622. In James E. Combs, Dan D. Nimmo, The Comedy of Democracy (1996), 19. by James E. Combs, Dan D. Nimmo
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Every complex problem has a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.
— H. L. Mencken
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Half the time of all medical men is wasted keeping life in human wrecks who have no more intelligible reason for hanging on than a cow has for giving milk.
— H. L. Mencken
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He leads a new crusade, his bald head glistening... One somehow pities him, despite his so palpable imbecilities... But let no one, laughing at him, underestimate the magic that lies in his black, malignant eye, his frayed but still eloquent voice. He can shake and inflame these poor ignoramuses as no other man among us...
[Describing William Jennings Bryan, orator, at the Scopes Monkey Trial.]
— H. L. Mencken
Henry Louis Mencken and S.T. Joshi (ed.), H.L. Mencken on Religion (2002), 18.
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Hygiene is the corruption of medicine by morality. It is impossible to find a hygienist who does not debase his theory of the healthful with a theory of the virtuous. ... The aim of medicine is surely not to make men virtuous; it is to safeguard them from the consequences of their vices.
— H. L. Mencken
In 'The Physician', Prejudices: third series (1922), 269.
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I believe in only one thing: liberty; but I do not believe in liberty enough to want to force it upon anyone.
— H. L. Mencken
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I had a dislike for [mathematics], and ... was hopelessly short in algebra. ... [One extraordinary teacher of mathematics] got the whole year's course into me in exactly six [after-school] lessons of half an hour each. And how? More accurately, why? Simply because he was an algebra fanatic—because he believed that algebra was not only a science of the utmost importance, but also one of the greatest fascination. ... [H]e convinced me in twenty minutes that ignorance of algebra was as calamitous, socially and intellectually, as ignorance of table manners—That acquiring its elements was as necessary as washing behind the ears. So I fell upon the book and gulped it voraciously. ... To this day I comprehend the binomial theorem.
— H. L. Mencken
In Prejudices: third series (1922), 261-262.
For a longer excerpt, see H. L. Mencken's Recollections of School Algebra.
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I know a good many men of great learning—that is, men born with an extraordinary eagerness and capacity to acquire knowledge. One and all, they tell me that they can't recall learning anything of any value in school. All that schoolmasters managed to accomplish with them was to test and determine the amount of knowledge that they had already acquired independently—and not infrequently the determination was made clumsily and inaccurately.
— H. L. Mencken
In Prejudices: third series (1922), 261.
For a longer excerpt, see H. L. Mencken's Recollections of School Algebra.
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It is hard to believe that a man is telling the truth when you know that you would lie if you were in his place.
— H. L. Mencken
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It is impossible to imagine the universe run by a wise, just and omnipotent God, but it is quite easy to imagine it run by a board of gods. If such a board actually exists it operates precisely like the board of a corporation that is losing money.
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken's Notebooks (1956), Sample 79, 63.
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It is inaccurate to say I hate everything. I am strongly in favor of common sense, common honesty, and common decency. This makes me forever ineligible for any public office.
— H. L. Mencken
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It is now quite lawful for a Catholic woman to avoid pregnancy by a resort to mathematics, though she is still forbidden to resort to physics and chemistry.
— H. L. Mencken
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It is still believed, apparently, that there is some thing mysteriously laudable about achieving viable offspring. I have searched the sacred and profane scriptures, for many years, but have yet to find any ground for this notion. To have a child is no more creditable than to have rheumatism–and no more discreditable. Ethically, it is absolutely meaningless. And practically, it is mainly a matter of chance.
— H. L. Mencken
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Let no one mistake it for comedy, farcical though it may be in all its details. It serves notice on the country that Neanderthal man is organizing in these forlorn backwaters of the land, led by a fanatic, rid of sense and devoid of conscience.
{Commenting on the Scopes Monkey Trial, while reporting for the Baltimore Sun.]
— H. L. Mencken
In Michael Shermer, Why Darwin Matters (2006), 26.
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Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
— H. L. Mencken
An Ideal Husband (1906), 82. In Lily Splane, Quantum Consciousness (2004), 309
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Mathematics contains much that will neither hurt one if one does not know it nor help one if one does know it.
— H. L. Mencken
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Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in proportion to their readiness to doubt.
— H. L. Mencken
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Metaphysics: An attempt to prove the incredible by an appeal to the unintelligible.
— H. L. Mencken
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My guess is that well over eighty per cent. of the human race goes through life without having a single original thought..
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report (1956, 2006 reprint), 10.
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Only to often on meeting scientific men, even those of genuine distiction, one finds that they are dull fellows and very stupid. They know one thing to excess; they know nothing else. Pursuing facts too doggedly and unimaginatively, they miss all the charming things that are not facts. ... Too much learning, like too little learning, is an unpleasant and dangerous thing.
— H. L. Mencken
A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (2006), 157.
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Penetrating so many secrets, we cease to believe in the Unknowable. But there it sits, nevertheless, calmly licking its chops.
— H. L. Mencken
John Mitchinson and John Lloyd, If Ignorance Is Bliss, Why Aren't There More Happy People?: Smart Quotes for Dumb Times (2009), 217.
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Progress is the process whereby the human race is getting rid of whiskers, the veriform appendix and God.
— H. L. Mencken
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Psychotherapy–the theory that the patient will probably get well anyhow.
— H. L. Mencken
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Religions, in fact, like castles, sunsets and women, never reach their maximum of beauty until they are touched by decay.
— H. L. Mencken
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Science, at bottom, is really anti-intellectual. It always distrusts pure reason, and demands the production of objective fact.
— H. L. Mencken
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That ability to impart knowledge … what does it consist of? … a deep belief in the interest and importance of the thing taught, a concern about it amounting to a sort of passion. A man who knows a subject thoroughly, a man so soaked in it that he eats it, sleeps it and dreams it—this man can always teach it with success, no matter how little he knows of technical pedagogy. That is because there is enthusiasm in him, and because enthusiasm is almost as contagious as fear or the barber’s itch. An enthusiast is willing to go to any trouble to impart the glad news bubbling within him. He thinks that it is important and valuable for to know; given the slightest glow of interest in a pupil to start with, he will fan that glow to a flame. No hollow formalism cripples him and slows him down. He drags his best pupils along as fast as they can go, and he is so full of the thing that he never tires of expounding its elements to the dullest.
This passion, so unordered and yet so potent, explains the capacity for teaching that one frequently observes in scientific men of high attainments in their specialties—for example, Huxley, Ostwald, Karl Ludwig, Virchow, Billroth, Jowett, William G. Sumner, Halsted and Osler—men who knew nothing whatever about the so-called science of pedagogy, and would have derided its alleged principles if they had heard them stated.
— H. L. Mencken
In Prejudices: third series (1922), 241-2.
For a longer excerpt, see H.L. Mencken on Teaching, Enthusiasm and Pedagogy.
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The aim of poetry is to give a high and voluptuous plausibility to what is palpably not true. I offer the Twenty-third Psalm as an example: ‘The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.’ It is immensely esteemed by the inmates of almshouses, and by gentlemen waiting to be hanged. I have to limit my own reading of it, avoiding soft and yielding moods, for I too, in my way, am a gentleman waiting to be hanged, as you are.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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The effort to reconcile science and religion is almost always made, not by theologians, but by scientists unable to shake off altogether the piety absorbed with their mother's milk.
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report (1956), 166.
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The ideal government of all reflective men, from Aristotle onward, is one which lets the individual alone–one which barely escapes being no government at all. This ideal, I believe, will be realized in the world twenty or thirty centuries after I have passed from these scenes and taken up my public duties in Hell.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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The plain fact is that education is itself a form of propaganda–a deliberate scheme to outfit the pupil, not with the capacity to weigh ideas, but with a simple appetite for gulping ideas readymade. The aim is to make ‘good’ citizens, which is to say, docile and uninquisitive citizens.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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The scientist who yields anything to theology, however slight, is yielding to ignorance and false pretenses, and as certainly as if he granted that a horse-hair put into a bottle of water will turn into a snake.
— H. L. Mencken
Minority Report (1956), 33.
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The so-called Marxian dialectic is simply an effort by third-rate men to give an air of profundity to balderdash. Christianity has gone the same way. There are some sound ideas in it, but its advocates always add a lot of preposterous nonsense. The result is theology.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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The truth is that the scientific value of Polar exploration is greatly exaggerated. The thing that takes men on such hazardous trips is really not any thirst for knowledge, but simply a yearning for adventure. ... A Polar explorer always talks grandly of sacrificing his fingers and toes to science. It is an amiable pretention, but there is no need to take it seriously.
— H. L. Mencken
'Penguin's Eggs'. From the American Mercury (Sep 1930), 123-24. Reprinted in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (2006), 166.
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The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves some of the greatest men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigators. What animates a great pathologist? Is it the desire to cure disease, to save life? Surely not, save perhaps as an afterthought. He is too intelligent, deep down in his soul, to see anything praiseworthy in such a desire. He knows by life-long observation that his discoveries will do quite as much harm as good, that a thousand scoundrels will profit to every honest man, that the folks who most deserve to be saved will probably be the last to be saved. No man of self-respect could devote himself to pathology on such terms. What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity–his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.
— H. L. Mencken
Prejudices (1923), 269-70.
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The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.
— H. L. Mencken
Essay, 'The Smart Set' (Dec 1921), 29. As cited in A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949, 2012), p. 29 (1949).
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The world always makes the assumption that the exposure of an error is identical with the discovery of truth that the error and truth are simply opposite. They are nothing of the sort. What the world turns to, when it is cured on one error, is usually simply another error, and maybe one worse than the first one.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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There is, it appears, a conspiracy of scientists afoot. Their purpose is to break down religion, propagate immorality, and so reduce mankind to the level of brutes. They are the sworn and sinister agents of Beelzebub, who yearns to conquer the world, and has his eye especially upon Tennessee.
[Report on the Scopes Monkey Trial.]
— H. L. Mencken
Baltimore Evening Sun (11 Jul 1925). In H.L. Mencken, S. T. Joshi (Ed.), H.L. Mencken on Religion (2002), 178.
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Too many heretics are simply witch-hunters off on an unaccustomed tangent.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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We cannot hope to fill the schools with persons of high intelligence, for persons of high intelligence simply refuse to spend their lives teaching such banal things as spelling and arithmetic. Among the teachers male we may safely assume that 95% are of low mentality, el se they would depart for more appetizing pastures. And even among the teachers female the best are inevitably weeded out by marriage, and only the worst (with a few romantic exceptions) survive.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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What animates a great pathologist? Is it the desire to cure disease, to save life? Surely not, save perhaps as an afterthought. He is too intelligent, deep in his soul, to see anything praiseworthy in such a desire. He knows from life-long observation that his discoveries will do quite as much harm as good, that a thousand scoundrels will profit to every honest man, that the folks who most deserve to be saved will probably be the last to be saved. ... What actually moves him is his unquenchable curiosity—his boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. ... [like] the dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes. ... And yet he stands in the very front rank of the race
— H. L. Mencken
In 'The Scientist', Prejudices: third series (1922), 269-70.
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Women decide the larger questions of life correctly and quickly, not because they are lucky guessers, not because they practise a magic inherited from savagery, but simply and solely because they have sense. They see at a glance what most men could not see with searchlights and telescopes.
— H. L. Mencken
…...
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[The] erroneous assumption is to the effect that the aim of public education is to fill the young of the species with knowledge and awaken their intelligence, and so make them fit to discharge the duties of citizenship in an enlightened and independent manner. Nothing could be further from the truth. The aim of public education is not to spread enlightenment at all; it is simply to reduce as many individuals as possible to the same safe level, to breed and train a standardised citizenry, to put down dissent and originality.
— H. L. Mencken
The American Mercury (24 Apr 1924).
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[Thomas Henry] Huxley, I believe, was the greatest Englishman of the Nineteenth Century—perhaps the greatest Englishman of all time. When one thinks of him, one thinks inevitably of such men as Goethe and Aristotle. For in him there was that rich, incomparable blend of intelligence and character, of colossal knowledge and high adventurousness, of instinctive honesty and indomitable courage which appears in mankind only once in a blue moon. There have been far greater scientists, even in England, but there has never been a scientist who was a greater man.
— H. L. Mencken
'Thomas Henry Huxley.' In the Baltimore Evening Sun (4 May 1925). Reprinted in A Second Mencken Chrestomathy: A New Selection from the Writings of America's Legendary Editor, Critic, and Wit (2006), 157.
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See also:
  • H.L. Mencken - Recollections of School Algebra, Chemistry, Physics and an Extraordinary Mathematics Teacher
  • H.L. Mencken - Teaching and Enthusiasm, from Scientific Men of Great Attainment.
  • Prejudices: The Complete Series, by H.L. Mencken. - book suggestion.
  • Booklist for H.L. Mencken.

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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Sophie Germain
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Johann Goethe
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Carl Gauss
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- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
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Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
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Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
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- 70 -
Samuel Morse
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Pierre Laplace
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Thomas Edison
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- 60 -
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Karl Popper
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- 50 -
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- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
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JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
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- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
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Richard Feynman
James Hutton
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- 20 -
Carl Sagan
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- 10 -
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