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Who said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index P > Benjamin Peirce Quotes

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Benjamin Peirce
(4 Apr 1809 - 6 Oct 1880)

American astronomer, mathematician and educator remembered for his contributions to analytical mechanics, and his computations of the the general perturbations of the planets Uranus and Neptune, thus playing a role in the discovery of the latter.


Science Quotes by Benjamin Peirce (9 quotes)

Among your pupils, sooner or later, there must be one. who has a genius for geometry. He will be Sylvester’s special pupil—the one pupil who will derive from his master, knowledge and enthusiasm—and that one pupil will give more reputation to your institution than the ten thousand, who will complain of the obscurity of Sylvester, and for whom you will provide another class of teachers.
— Benjamin Peirce
Letter (18 Sep 1875) recommending the appointment of J.J. Sylvester to Daniel C. Gilman. In Daniel C. Gilman Papers, Ms. 1, Special Collections Division, Milton S. Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University. As quoted in Karen Hunger Parshall, 'America’s First School of Mathematical Research: James Joseph Sylvester at The Johns Hopkins University 1876—1883', Archive for History of Exact Sciences (1988), 38, No. 2, 167.
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Gentlemen, as we study the universe we see everywhere the most tremendous manifestations of force. In our own experience we know of but one source of force, namely will. How then can we help regarding the forces we see in nature as due to the will of some omnipresent, omnipotent being? Gentlemen, there must be a GOD.
— Benjamin Peirce
As quoted in W. E. Byerly (writing as a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, but a former student at a Peirce lecture on celestial mechanics), 'Benjamin Peirce: II. Reminiscences', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 6.
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Gentlemen, that is surely true, it is absolutely paradoxical; we cannot understand it, and we don’t know what it means. But we have proved it, and therefore we know it is the truth.
— Benjamin Peirce
In a lecture, after establishing the relation eπ/2 = ii in a lecture, “which evidently had a strong hold on his imagination. He dropped his chalk and rubber, put his hands in his pockets, and after contemplating the formula a few minutes turned to his class and said [this quote] very slowly and impressively.” As quoted in W. E. Byerly (writing as a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, but a former student of Peirce), 'Benjamin Peirce: II. Reminiscences', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 6.
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If you enquire about him [J.J. Sylvester], you will hear his genius universally recognized but his power of teaching will probably be said to be quite deficient. Now there is no man living who is more luminary in his language, to those who have the capacity to comprehend him than Sylvester, provided the hearer is in a lucid interval. But as the barn yard fowl cannot understand the flight of the eagle, so it is the eaglet only who will be nourished by his instruction.
— Benjamin Peirce
Letter (18 Sep 1875) to Daniel C. Gilman. In Daniel C. Gilman Papers, Ms. 1, Special Collections Division, Milton S. Eisenhower Library, Johns Hopkins University. As quoted in Karen Hunger Parshall, 'America’s First School of Mathematical Research: James Joseph Sylvester at The Johns Hopkins University 1876—1883', Archive for History of Exact Sciences (1988), 38, No. 2, 167.
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Mathematics is not the discoverer of laws, for it is not induction; neither is it the framer of theories, for it is not hypothesis; but it is the judge over both, and it is the arbiter to which each must refer its claims; and neither law can rule nor theory explain without the sanction of mathematics.
— Benjamin Peirce
In 'Linear Associative Algebra', American Journal of Mathematics (1881), 4, 97.
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Mathematics is the science which draws necessary conclusions.
— Benjamin Peirce
First line of Linear Associative Algebra: read before the National Academy of Sciences, Washington City (1870), 2.
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Mathematics … belongs to every inquiry, moral as well as physical. Even the rules of logic, by which it is rigidly bound, could not be deduced without its aid. The laws of argument admit of simple statement, but they must be curiously transposed before they can be applied to the living speech and verified by observation. In its pure and simple form the syllogism cannot be directly compared with all experience, or it would not have required an Aristotle to discover it. It must be transmuted into all the possible shapes in which reasoning loves to clothe itself. The transmutation is the mathematical process in the establishment of the law.
— Benjamin Peirce
From Memoir (1870) read before the National Academy of Sciences, Washington, printed in 'Linear Associative Algebra', American Journal of Mathematics (1881), 4, 97-98.
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Of possible quadruple algebras the one that had seemed to him by far the most beautiful and remarkable was practically identical with quaternions, and that he thought it most interesting that a calculus which so strongly appealed to the human mind by its intrinsic beauty and symmetry should prove to be especially adapted to the study of natural phenomena. The mind of man and that of Nature’s God must work in the same channels.
— Benjamin Peirce
As quoted in W. E. Byerly (writing as a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, but a former student at a Peirce lecture on Hamilton’s new calculus of quaternions), 'Benjamin Peirce: II. Reminiscences', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 6.
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The object of geometry in all its measuring and computing, is to ascertain with exactness the plan of the great Geometer, to penetrate the veil of material forms, and disclose the thoughts which lie beneath them? When our researches are successful, and when a generous and heaven-eyed inspiration has elevated us above humanity, and raised us triumphantly into the very presence, as it were, of the divine intellect, how instantly and entirely are human pride and vanity repressed, and, by a single glance at the glories of the infinite mind, are we humbled to the dust.
— Benjamin Peirce
From 'Mathematical Investigation of the Fractions Which Occur in Phyllotaxis', Proceedings of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1850), 2, 447, as quoted by R. C. Archibald in 'Benjamin Peirce: V. Biographical Sketch', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 12.
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Quotes by others about Benjamin Peirce (2)

The appearance of Professor Benjamin Peirce, whose long gray hair, straggling grizzled beard and unusually bright eyes sparkling under a soft felt hat, as he walked briskly but rather ungracefully across the college yard, fitted very well with the opinion current among us that we were looking upon a real live genius, who had a touch of the prophet in his make-up.
Writing as a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, a former student of Peirce, in 'Benjamin Peirce: II. Reminiscences', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 5.
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[Before the time of Benjamin Peirce it never occurred to anyone that mathematical research] was one of the things for which a mathematical department existed. Today it is a commonplace in all the leading universities. Peirce stood alone—a mountain peak whose absolute height might be hard to measure, but which towered above all the surrounding country.
In 'The Story of Mathematics at Harvard', Harvard Alumni Bulletin (3 Jan 1924), 26, 376. Cited by R. C. Archibald in 'Benjamin Peirce: V. Biographical Sketch', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 10.
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  • 4 Apr - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Peirce'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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