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Who said: “Genius is two percent inspiration, ninety-eight percent perspiration.”
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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index A > Category: Accident

Accident Quotes (66 quotes)

The Devil: Reformers … will thrust you first into religion, where you will sprinkle water on babies to save their souls from me ; then it will drive you from religion into science, where you will snatch the babies from the water sprinkling and inoculate them with disease to save them from catching it accidentally.
In Man and Superman: A Comedy and a Philosophy (1903), 135.
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A great surgeon performs operations for stone by a single method; later he makes a statistical summary of deaths and recoveries, and he concludes from these statistics that the mortality law for this operation is two out of five. Well, I say that this ratio means literally nothing scientifically and gives us no certainty in performing the next operation; for we do not know whether the next case will be among the recoveries or the deaths. What really should be done, instead of gathering facts empirically, is to study them more accurately, each in its special determinism. We must study cases of death with great care and try to discover in them the cause of mortal accidents so as to master the cause and avoid the accidents.
From An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), as translated by Henry Copley Greene (1957), 137-138. (Note that Bernard overlooks how the statistical method can be useful: a surgeon announcing a mortality rate of 40% invites comparison. A surgeon with worse outcomes should adopt this method. If a surgeon has a better results, that method should be adopted.)
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Algebra reverses the relative importance of the factors in ordinary language. It is essentially a written language, and it endeavors to exemplify in its written structures the patterns which it is its purpose to convey. The pattern of the marks on paper is a particular instance of the pattern to be conveyed to thought. The algebraic method is our best approach to the expression of necessity, by reason of its reduction of accident to the ghost-like character of the real variable.
In Science and Philosophy (1948), 116.
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Although species may be discrete, they have no immutable essence. Variation is the raw material of evolutionary change. It represents the fundamental reality of nature, not an accident about a created norm. Variation is primary; essences are illusory. Species must be defined as ranges of irreducible variation.
…...
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An evolutionary perspective of our place in the history of the earth reminds us that Homo sapiens sapiens has occupied the planet for the tiniest fraction of that planet's four and a half thousand million years of existence. In many ways we are a biological accident, the product of countless propitious circumstances. As we peer back through the fossil record, through layer upon layer of long-extinct species, many of which thrived far longer than the human species is ever likely to do, we are reminded of our mortality as a species. There is no law that declares the human animal to be different, as seen in this broad biological perspective, from any other animal. There is no law that declares the human species to be immortal.
Co-author with American science writer Roger Amos Lewin (1946), Origins: What New Discoveries Reveal about the Emergence of our Species and its Possible Future (1977), 256.
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Another great and special excellence of mathematics is that it demands earnest voluntary exertion. It is simply impossible for a person to become a good mathematician by the happy accident of having been sent to a good school; this may give him a preparation and a start, but by his own individual efforts alone can he reach an eminent position.
In Conflict of Studies (1873), 2.
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Anybody who looks at living organisms knows perfectly well that they can produce other organisms like themselves. This is their normal function, they wouldn’t exist if they didn’t do this, and it’s not plausible that this is the reason why they abound in the world. In other words, living organisms are very complicated aggregations of elementary parts, and by any reasonable theory of probability or thermodynamics highly improbable. That they should occur in the world at all is a miracle of the first magnitude; the only thing which removes, or mitigates, this miracle is that they reproduce themselves. Therefore, if by any peculiar accident there should ever be one of them, from there on the rules of probability do not apply, and there will be many of them, at least if the milieu is reasonable. But a reasonable milieu is already a thermodynamically much less improbable thing. So, the operations of probability somehow leave a loophole at this point, and it is by the process of self-reproduction that they are pierced.
From lecture series on self-replicating machines at the University of Illinois, Lecture 5 (Dec 1949), 'Re-evaluation of the Problems of Complicated Automata—Problems of Hierarchy and Evolution', Theory of Self-Reproducing Automata (1966).
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Could this have just happened? Was it an accident that a bunch of flotsam and jetsam suddenly started making these orbits of its own accord? I can't believe that. … Some power put all this into orbit and keeps it there.
Reflecting on the orderliness of the whole universe, printed in Reader’s Digest (Jul 1962), 38. As cited in Tiebet Joshua, Bible Versus Science: Which is More Authentic? (2015), Sec. 4.1.
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Crystallographic science does not consist in the scrupulous description of all the accidents of crystalline form, but in specifying, by the description of these forms, the more or less close relationship they have with each other.
Cristallographie (1793), 1, 91
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Every inhabitant of this planet must contemplate the day when this planet may no longer be habitable. Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculation or by madness. The weapons of war must be abolished before they abolish us.
Address to the United Nations General Assembly, (25 Sep 1961). On U.S. Department of State website.
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For what is that which we call evil but the absence of good? In the bodies of animals, disease and wounds mean nothing but the absence of health; for when a cure is effected, that does not mean that the evils which were present—namely, the diseases and wounds—go away from the body and dwell elsewhere: they altogether cease to exist; for the wound or disease is not a substance, but a defect in the fleshly substance,—the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils—that is, privations of the good which we call health—are accidents. Just in the same way, what are called vices in the soul are nothing but privations of natural good. And when they are cured, they are not transferred elsewhere: when they cease to exist in the healthy soul, they cannot exist anywhere else.
In Marcus Dods (ed.), J.F. Shaw (trans.), The Enchiridion of Augustine, Chap. 9, collected in The Works of Aurelius Augustine, Bishop of Hippo: A new translation (1873), Vol. 9, 181-182.
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Gravity is a contributing factor in nearly 73 percent of all accidents involving falling objects.
Syndicated column, 'Problems Of Utmost Gravity', seen, for example, in the Chicago Tribune (15 Mar 1998).
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How did I discover saccharin? Well, it was partly by accident and partly by study. I had worked a long time on the compound radicals and substitution products of coal tar... One evening I was so interested in my laboratory that I forgot about my supper till quite late, and then rushed off for a meal without stopping to wash my hands. I sat down, broke a piece of bread, and put it to my lips. It tasted unspeakably sweet. I did not ask why it was so, probably because I thought it was some cake or sweetmeat. I rinsed my mouth with water, and dried my moustache with my napkin, when, to my surprise the napkin tasted sweeter than the bread. Then I was puzzled. I again raised my goblet, and, as fortune would have it, applied my mouth where my fingers had touched it before. The water seemed syrup. It flashed on me that I was the cause of the singular universal sweetness, and I accordingly tasted the end of my thumb, and found it surpassed any confectionery I had ever eaten. I saw the whole thing at once. I had discovered some coal tar substance which out-sugared sugar. I dropped my dinner, and ran back to the laboratory. There, in my excitement, I tasted the contents of every beaker and evaporating dish on the table.
Interview with American Analyst. Reprinted in Pacific Record of Medicine and Surgery (1886), 1, No. 3, 78.
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I can see him [Sylvester] now, with his white beard and few locks of gray hair, his forehead wrinkled o’er with thoughts, writing rapidly his figures and formulae on the board, sometimes explaining as he wrote, while we, his listeners, caught the reflected sounds from the board. But stop, something is not right, he pauses, his hand goes to his forehead to help his thought, he goes over the work again, emphasizes the leading points, and finally discovers his difficulty. Perhaps it is some error in his figures, perhaps an oversight in the reasoning. Sometimes, however, the difficulty is not elucidated, and then there is not much to the rest of the lecture. But at the next lecture we would hear of some new discovery that was the outcome of that difficulty, and of some article for the Journal, which he had begun. If a text-book had been taken up at the beginning, with the intention of following it, that text-book was most likely doomed to oblivion for the rest of the term, or until the class had been made listeners to every new thought and principle that had sprung from the laboratory of his mind, in consequence of that first difficulty. Other difficulties would soon appear, so that no text-book could last more than half of the term. In this way his class listened to almost all of the work that subsequently appeared in the Journal. It seemed to be the quality of his mind that he must adhere to one subject. He would think about it, talk about it to his class, and finally write about it for the Journal. The merest accident might start him, but once started, every moment, every thought was given to it, and, as much as possible, he read what others had done in the same direction; but this last seemed to be his real point; he could not read without finding difficulties in the way of understanding the author. Thus, often his own work reproduced what had been done by others, and he did not find it out until too late.
A notable example of this is in his theory of cyclotomic functions, which he had reproduced in several foreign journals, only to find that he had been greatly anticipated by foreign authors. It was manifest, one of the critics said, that the learned professor had not read Rummer’s elementary results in the theory of ideal primes. Yet Professor Smith’s report on the theory of numbers, which contained a full synopsis of Kummer’s theory, was Professor Sylvester’s constant companion.
This weakness of Professor Sylvester, in not being able to read what others had done, is perhaps a concomitant of his peculiar genius. Other minds could pass over little difficulties and not be troubled by them, and so go on to a final understanding of the results of the author. But not so with him. A difficulty, however small, worried him, and he was sure to have difficulties until the subject had been worked over in his own way, to correspond with his own mode of thought. To read the work of others, meant therefore to him an almost independent development of it. Like the man whose pleasure in life is to pioneer the way for society into the forests, his rugged mind could derive satisfaction only in hewing out its own paths; and only when his efforts brought him into the uncleared fields of mathematics did he find his place in the Universe.
In Florian Cajori, Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States (1890), 266-267.
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I doubt that Fleming could have obtained a grant for the discovery of penicillin on that basis [a requirement for highly detailed research plans] because he could not have said, 'I propose to have an accident in a culture so that it will be spoiled by a mould falling on it, and I propose to recognize the possibility of extracting an antibiotic from this mould.'
Remarks to the Canadian Senate on Science Policy, in From Dream to Discovery: On Being a Scientist (1964). In Ken G. Smith (ed.) and Michael A. Hitt (ed), Great Minds in Management: the Theory of Process Development (2005), 368
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I never did anything worth doing entirely by accident and none of my inventions came about totally by accident. They came about by hard work.
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I view the major features of my own odyssey as a set of mostly fortunate contingencies. I was not destined by inherited mentality or family tradition to become a paleontologist. I can locate no tradition for scientific or intellectual careers anywhere on either side of my eastern European Jewish background ... I view my serious and lifelong commitment to baseball in entirely the same manner: purely as a contingent circumstance of numerous, albeit not entirely capricious, accidents.
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If more of our resources were invested in preventing sickness and accidents, fewer would have to be spent on costly cures. … In short, we should build a true “health” system—and not a “sickness” system alone.
'Special Message to the Congress Proposing a National Health Strategy' (18 Feb 1971), Public Papers of the Presidents of the United States: Richard M. Nixon (1972), 172.
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In 1945 J.A. Ratcliffe … suggested that I [join his group at Cavendish Laboratory, Cambridge] to start an investigation of the radio emission from the Sun, which had recently been discovered accidentally with radar equipment. … [B]oth Ratcliffe and Sir Lawrence Bragg, then Cavendish Professor, gave enormous support and encouragement to me. Bragg’s own work on X-ray crystallography involved techniques very similar to those we were developing for “aperture synthesis,” and he always showed a delighted interest in the way our work progressed.
From Autobiography in Wilhelm Odelberg (ed.), Les Prix Nobel en 1974/Nobel Lectures (1975)
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In order that an inventory of plants may be begun and a classification of them correctly established, we must try to discover criteria of some sort for distinguishing what are called “species”. After a long and considerable investigation, no surer criterion for determining species had occurred to me than distinguishing features that perpetuate themselves in propagation from seed. Thus, no matter what variations occur in the individuals or the species, if they spring from the seed of one and the same plant, they are accidental variations and not such as to distinguish a species. For these variations do not perpetuate themselves in subsequent seeding. Thus, for example, we do not regard caryophylli with full or multiple blossoms as a species distinct from caryophylli with single blossoms, because the former owe their origin to the seed of the latter and if the former are sown from their own seed, they once more produce single-blossom caryophylli. But variations that never have as their source seed from one and the same species may finally be regarded as distinct species. Or, if you make a comparison between any two plants, plants which never spring from each other's seed and never, when their seed is sown, are transmuted one into the other, these plants finally are distinct species. For it is just as in animals: a difference in sex is not enough to prove a difference of species, because each sex is derived from the same seed as far as species is concerned and not infrequently from the same parents; no matter how many and how striking may be the accidental differences between them; no other proof that bull and cow, man and woman belong to the same species is required than the fact that both very frequently spring from the same parents or the same mother. Likewise in the case of plants, there is no surer index of identity of species than that of origin from the seed of one and the same plant, whether it is a matter of individuals or species. For animals that differ in species preserve their distinct species permanently; one species never springs from the seed of another nor vice versa.
John Ray
Historia Plantarum (1686), Vol. 1, 40. Trans. Edmund Silk. Quoted in Barbara G. Beddall, 'Historical Notes on Avian Classification', Systematic Zoology (1957), 6, 133-4.
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In this physical world there is no real chaos; all is in fact orderly; all is ordered by the physical principles. Chaos is but unperceived order- it is a word indicating the limitations of the human mind and the paucity of observational facts. The words “chaos,” “accidental,” “chance,” “unpredictable," are conveniences behind which we hide our ignorance.
From Of Stars and Men: The Human Response to an Expanding Universe (1958 Rev. Ed. 1964), Foreword.
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It has the property of detonating very violently in certain circumstances. On one occasion a small amount of ether solution of pyroglycerin condensed in a glass bowl. ... When the bowl was heated over a spirit lamp, an extremely violent explosion occurred, which shattered it into small fragments. On another occasion a drop was heated in a test-tube, and exploded with such violence that the glass splinters cut deep into my face and hands, and hurt other people who were standing some distance off in the room.
[Describing early experiments on his discovery of nitroglycerin.]
From speech to the Royal Academy of Turin (1847). In Robert Shaplen, 'Annals of Science, Adventures of a Pacifist,' The New Yorker (15 Mar 1958), 49.
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It is almost irresistible for humans to believe that we have some special relation to the universe, that human life is not just a more-or-less farcical outcome of a chain of accidents reaching back to the first three minutes, but that we were somehow built in from the beginning.
The First Three Minutes: A Modern View of the Origin of the Universe (1977), 154.
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It is tempting to wonder if our present universe, large as it is and complex though it seems, might not be merely the result of a very slight random increase in order over a very small portion of an unbelievably colossal universe which is virtually entirely in heat-death. Perhaps we are merely sliding down a gentle ripple that has been set up, accidently and very temporarily, in a quiet pond, and it is only the limitation of our own infinitesimal range of viewpoint in space and time that makes it seem to ourselves that we are hurtling down a cosmic waterfall of increasing entropy, a waterfall of colossal size and duration.
(1976). In Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations (1988), 331.
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It was not by any accident that the greatest thinkers of all ages were deeply religious souls.
In Max Planck and James Vincent Murphy (trans.), Where is Science Going?, (1932), 168.
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I’ve never made a discovery myself, unless by accident. If you write glibly, you fool people. When I first met Asimov, I asked him if he was a professor at Boston University. He said no and … asked me where I got my Ph.D. I said I didn’t have one and he looked startled. “You mean you’re in the same racket I am,” he said, “you just read books by the professors and rewrite them?” That’s really what I do.
Quoted in Sally Helgeson, 'Every Day', Bookletter (6 Dec 1976), 3, No. 8, 3. As quoted and cited in Dana Richards, 'Martin Gardner: A “Documentary”', collected in Elwyn R. Berlekamp and Tom Rodgers (ed.) The Mathemagician and Pied Puzzler: A Collection in Tribute to Martin Gardner (1999), 8-9.
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Life through many long periods has been manifested in a countless host of varying structures, all circumscribed by one general plan, each appointed to a definite place, and limited to an appointed duration. On the whole the earth has been thus more and more covered by the associated life of plants and animals, filling all habitable space with beings capable of enjoying their own existence or ministering to the enjoyment of others; till finally, after long preparation, a being was created capable of the wonderful power of measuring and weighing all the world of matter and space which surrounds him, of treasuring up the past history of all the forms of life, and considering his own relation to the whole. When he surveys this vast and co-ordinated system, and inquires into its history and origin, can he be at a loss to decide whether it be a work of Divine thought and wisdom, or the fortunate offspring of a few atoms of matter, warmed by the anima mundi, a spark of electricity, or an accidental ray of sunshine?
Life on the Earth: Its Origin and Succession (1860), 216-7.
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Like other departments of philosophy, medicine began with an age of wonder. The accidents of disease and the features of death aroused surprise and stimulated interest, and a beginning was made when man first asked in astonishment, Why should these things be?
In 'The Evolution of Internal Medicine', Modern Medicine: Its Theory and Practice, (1907), Vol. 1, xvi.
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Man, so far as natural science by itself is able to teach us, is no longer the final cause of the universe, the heaven-descended heir of all the ages. His very existence is an accident, his story a brief and discreditable episode in the life of one of the meanest of the planets. Of the combination of causes which first converted a piece or pieces of unorganised jelly into the living progenitors of humanity, science indeed, as yet, knows nothing.
In 'The Religion of Humanity', Essays and Addresses by the Right Hon. Arthur J. Balfour (1893), 307.
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Many Species of Animals have been lost out of the World, which Philosophers and Divines are unwilling to admit, esteeming the Destruction of anyone Species a Dismembring of the Universe, and rendring the World imperfect; whereas they think the Divine Providence is especially concerned, and solicitous to secure and preserve the Works of the Creation. And truly so it is, as appears, in that it was so careful to lodge all Land Animals in the Ark at the Time of the general Deluge; and in that, of all Animals recorded in Natural Histories, we cannot say that there hath been anyone Species lost, no not of the most infirm, and most exposed to Injury and Ravine. Moreover, it is likely, that as there neither is nor can be any new Species of Animals produced, all proceeding from Seeds at first created; so Providence, without which one individual Sparrow falls not to the ground, doth in that manner watch over all that are created, that an entire Species shall not be lost or destroyed by any Accident. Now, I say, if these Bodies were sometimes the Shells and Bones of Fish, it will thence follow, that many Species have been lost out of the World... To which I have nothing to reply, but that there may be some of them remaining some where or other in the Seas, though as yet they have not come to my Knowledge. Far though they may have perished, or by some Accident been destroyed out of our Seas, yet the Race of them may be preserved and continued still in others.
John Ray
Three Physico-Theological Discourses (1713), Discourse II, 'Of the General Deluge, in the Days of Noah; its Causes and Effects', 172-3.
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Maybe we have to accept that after reaching the deepest possible level of understanding science can offer, there will nevertheless be aspects of the universe that remain unexplained. Maybe we will have to accept that certain features of the universe are the way they are because of happenstance, accident, or divine choice.
In The Elegant Universe: Superstrings, Hidden Dimensions, and the Quest for the Ultimate Theory (2000), 385.
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Name the greatest of all inventors: Accident.
From Mark Twain’s Notebook (1935), 374. As cited in Mark Twain and Caroline Thomas Hamsberger (ed.), Everyone’s Mark Twain (1972) 288.
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Nature is the principle of movement of its own accord and not by accident.
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Ninety-nine [students] out of a hundred are automata, careful to walk in prescribed paths, careful to follow the prescribed custom. This is not an accident but the result of substantial education, which, scientifically defined, is the subsumption of the individual.
As quoted in various 21st century books, each time cited only as from the The Philosophy of Education (1906), with no page number. For example, in John Taylor Gatto, A Different Kind of Teacher: Solving the Crisis of American Schooling (2000), 61. Note: Webmaster is suspicious of the attribution of this quote. The Library of Congress lists no such title by Harris in 1906. The LOC does catalog this title by Harris for 1893, which is a 9-page pamphlet printing the text of a series of five lectures. These lectures do not contain this quote. William Torrey Harris was editor of the International Education Series of books, of which Vol. 1 was the translation by Anna Callender Bracket of The Philosophy of Education by Johann Karl Friedrich Rosenkranz (2nd ed. rev. 1886). The translation was previously published in The Journal of Speculative Philosophy (1872, -73, -74), Vols vi-viii. Webmaster does not find the quote in that book, either. Webmaster has so far been unable to verify this quote, in these words, or even find the quote in any 19th or 20th century publication (which causes more suspicion). If you have access to the primary source for this quote, please contact Webmaster.
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No discovery is the work of accident.
Aphorism 3, 'Aphorisms Concerning Science', The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. 1, xxxvii.
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Nothing drives progress like the imagination. The idea precedes the deed. The only exceptions are accidents and natural selection.
In The Marketing Imagination (1983, 1986), 127.
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Nothing is accidental in the universe— this is one of my Laws of Physics—except the entire universe itself, which is Pure Accident, pure divinity.
In ‘The Summing Up: Meredith Dawe’, Do What You Will, (1970). As cited in Robert Andrews, The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations (1993), 946.
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On May 7, a few weeks after the accident at Three-Mile Island, I was in Washington. I was there to refute some of that propaganda that Ralph Nader, Jane Fonda and their kind are spewing to the news media in their attempt to frighten people away from nuclear power. I am 71 years old, and I was working 20 hours a day. The strain was too much. The next day, I suffered a heart attack. You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous.
From statement, published as a two-page advertisement, 'I Was the Only Victim of Three-Mile Island', placed by Dresser Industries in The Wall Street Journal (31 Jul 1979), U.S. Representative Larry McDonald entered the entire content of the ad, as Extensions of Remarks, into the Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the Congress (18 Dec 1979), 36876. [Note: The Three Mile Island accident happened on 28 Mar 1979. —Webmaster]
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One hardly knows where, in the history of science, to look for an important movement that had its effective start in so pure and simple an accident as that which led to the building of the great Washington telescope, and went on to the discovery of the satellites of Mars.
In The Reminiscences of an Astronomer (1903), Vol. 3, 128.
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One wonders whether the rare ability to be completely attentive to, and to profit by, Nature’s slightest deviation from the conduct expected of her is not the secret of the best research minds and one that explains why some men turn to most remarkably good advantage seemingly trivial accidents. Behind such attention lies an unremitting sensitivity.
In The Furtherance of Medical Research (1941), 98.
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Organs, faculties, powers, capacities, or whatever else we call them; grow by use and diminish from disuse, it is inferred that they will continue to do so. And if this inference is unquestionable, then is the one above deduced from it—that humanity must in the end become completely adapted to its conditions—unquestionable also. Progress, therefore, is not an accident, but a necessity.
Social Statics: Or, The Conditions Essential to Human Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed (1851), 65.
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PLAN, v. t. To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (1911), Vol. 7, The Devil's Dictionary,  256.
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Scholarship, save by accident, is never the measure of a man's power.
Plain Talks on Familiar Subjects: a Series of Popular Lectures (1873), 19.
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Seldom has there occurred a more pitifully tragic disaster than the sudden fall of the Wright aeroplane, involving the death of that promising young officer Lieut. Thomas Selfridge, and inflicting shocking injuries on the talented inventor, Orville Wright. But although the accident is deplorable, it should not be allowed to discredit the art of aeroplane navigation. If it emphasizes the risks, there is nothing in the mishap to shake our faith in the principles upon which the Wright brothers built their machine, and achieved such brilliant success.
Magazine
In Scientific American (Sep 1908). As cited in '50, 100 & 150 Years Ago', Scientific American (Sep 2008), 299, No. 3, 14.
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Significant inventions are not mere accidents. The erroneous view [that they are] is widely held, and it is one that the scientific and technical community, unfortunately, has done little to dispel. Happenstance usually plays a part, to be sure, but there is much more to invention than the popular notion of a bolt out of the blue. Knowledge in depth and in breadth are virtual prerequisites. Unless the mind is thoroughly charged beforehand, the proverbial spark of genius, if it should manifest itself, probably will find nothing to ignite.
Speech, at award of Perkin Medal. As quoted in 'Introduction', Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989), x.
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Suddenly there was an enormous explosion, like a violent volcano. The nuclear reactions had led to overheating in the underground burial grounds. The explosion poured radioactive dust and materials high up into the sky. It was just the wrong weather for such a tragedy. Strong winds blew the radioactive clouds hundreds of miles away. It was difficult to gauge the extent of the disaster immediately, and no evacuation plan was put into operation right away. Many villages and towns were only ordered to evacuate when the symptoms of radiation sickness were already quite apparent. Tens of thousands of people were affected, hundreds dying, though the real figures have never been made public. The large area, where the accident happened, is still considered dangerous and is closed to the public.
'Two Decades of Dissidence', New Scientist (4 Nov 1976), 72, No. 72, 265.
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That the Universe was formed by a fortuitous Concourse of Atoms, I will no more believe than that the accidental Jumbling of the Letters of the Alphabet would fall by Chance into a most ingenious and learned Treatise of Philosophy, Risum teneatis Amici, Hor.
In 'A Tritical Essay Upon the Faculties of the Mind' (6 Aug 1707), collected in various volumes and editions, for example, The Works of J.S, D.D, D.S.P.D.: Volume 1: Miscellanies in Prose (1739), 173. An earlier, undated, fourth volume of Miscellanies gives the 6 Aug 1707 date the essay was written. The final Latin phrase can be translated as, “Can you help laughing, friends?” attributed to Horace.
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The constructions of the mathematical mind are at the same time free and necessary. The individual mathematician feels free to define his notions and set up his axioms as he pleases. But the question is will he get his fellow-mathematician interested in the constructs of his imagination. We cannot help the feeling that certain mathematical structures which have evolved through the combined efforts of the mathematical community bear the stamp of a necessity not affected by the accidents of their historical birth. Everybody who looks at the spectacle of modern algebra will be struck by this complementarity of freedom and necessity.
In 'A Half-Century of Mathematics',The American Mathematical Monthly (Oct 1951), 58, No. 8, 538-539.
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The first concept of continental drift first came to me as far back as 1910, when considering the map of the world, under the direct impression produced by the congruence of the coast lines on either side of the Atlantic. At first I did not pay attention to the ideas because I regarded it as improbable. In the fall of 1911, I came quite accidentally upon a synoptic report in which I learned for the first time of palaeontological evidence for a former land bridge between Brazil and Africa. As a result I undertook a cursory examination of relevant research in the fields of geology and palaeontology, and this provided immediately such weighty corroboration that a conviction of the fundamental soundness of the idea took root in my mind.
In The Origins of Continents and Oceans (4th ed. 1929), trans. John Biram (1966), 1.
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The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London was still planted with booths in formal streets … so that it see’d to be a bacchanalian triumph or carnival on the water, whilst it was a severe judgement on the land, the trees not only splitting as if lightning-struck, but men and cattle perishing in diverse places, and the very seas so lock’d up with ice, that no vessels could stir out or come in. London, by reason of the smoke, was so filled with the fuliginous steame of the sea-coale, that hardly could one see crosse the streets, and this filling the breast, so as one could hardly breath. Here was no water to be had from the pipes and engines, nor could the brewers and divers other tradesmen worke, and every moment was full of disastrous accidents.
Writing about the Great Frost (1683-84).
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The mathematicians are well acquainted with the difference between pure science, which has only to do with ideas, and the application of its laws to the use of life, in which they are constrained to submit to the imperfections of matter and the influence of accidents.
In Samuel Johnson and W. Jackson Bate (Ed.), ',The Rambler, No. 14, Saturday, 5 May 1750.' The Selected Essays from the Rambler, Adventurer, and Idler (1968), 40.
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The proof given by Wright, that non-adaptive differentiation will occur in small populations owing to “drift,” or the chance fixation of some new mutation or recombination, is one of the most important results of mathematical analysis applied to the facts of neo-mendelism. It gives accident as well as adaptation a place in evolution, and at one stroke explains many facts which puzzled earlier selectionists, notably the much greater degree of divergence shown by island than mainland forms, by forms in isolated lakes than in continuous river-systems.
Evolution: The Modern Synthesis (1942), 199-200.
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The reduced variability of small populations is not always due to accidental gene loss, but sometimes to the fact that the entire population was started by a single pair or by a single fertilized female. These “founders” of the population carried with them only a very small proportion of the variability of the parent population. This “founder” principle sometimes explains even the uniformity of rather large populations, particularly if they are well isolated and near the borders of the range of the species.
Systematics and the Origin of Species: From the Viewpoint of a Zoologist (1942), 237.
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The Sun is no lonelier than its neighbors; indeed, it is a very common-place star,—dwarfish, though not minute,—like hundreds, nay thousands, of others. By accident the brighter component of Alpha Centauri (which is double) is almost the Sun's twin in brightness, mass, and size. Could this Earth be transported to its vicinity by some supernatural power, and set revolving about it, at a little less than a hundred million miles' distance, the star would heat and light the world just as the Sun does, and life and civilization might go on with no radical change. The Milky Way would girdle the heavens as before; some of our familiar constellations, such as Orion, would be little changed, though others would be greatly altered by the shifting of the nearer stars. An unfamiliar brilliant star, between Cassiopeia and Perseus would be—the Sun. Looking back at it with our telescopes, we could photograph its spectrum, observe its motion among the stars, and convince ourselves that it was the same old Sun; but what had happened to the rest of our planetary system we would not know.
The Solar System and its Origin (1935), 2-3.
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The world is very complicated and it is clearly impossible for the human mind to understand it completely. Man has therefore devised an artifice which permits the complicated nature of the world to be blamed on something which is called accidental and thus permits him to abstract a domain in which simple laws can be found.
In Floyd Merrell, Unthinking Thinking: Jorge Luis Borges, Mathematics, and the New Physics (1991), 156.
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There is a science which investigates being as being and the attributes which belong to this in virtue of its own nature. Now this is not the same as any of the so-called special sciences; for none of these treats universally of being as being. They cut off a part of being and investigate the attribute of this part; this is what the mathematical sciences for instance do. Now since we are seeking the first principles and the highest causes, clearly there must be some thing to which these belong in virtue of its own nature. If then those who sought the elements of existing things were seeking these same principles, it is necessary that the elements must be elements of being not by accident but just because it is being. Therefore it is of being as being that we also must grasp the first causes.
Aristotle
'Book Gamma (1003a17-1011b23' in Metaphysics, trans. W.D. Ross (1924). Excerpt 'Being Qua Being', in Joseph Margolis and Jacques Catudal, The Quarrel between Invariance and Flux (2001), 18-19.
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There may be instances of mere accidental discovery; but, setting these aside, the great advances made in the inductive sciences are, for the most part, preceded by a more or less probable hypothesis. The imagination, having some small light to guide it, goes first. Further observation, experiment, and reason follow.
Presidential Address to Anniversary meeting of the Royal Society (30 Nov 1859), Proceedings of the Royal Society of London (1860), 10, 166.
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This discovery, indeed, is almost of that kind which I call serendipity, a very expressive word, which as I have nothing better to tell you, I shall endeavour to explain to you: you will understand it better by the derivation than by the definition. I once read a silly fairy tale, called The Three Princes of Serendip: as their highnesses travelled, they were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of: for instance, one of them discovered that a mule blind of the right eye had travelled the same road lately, because the grass was eaten only on the left side, where it was worse than on the right—now do you understand serendipity?
Letter to Sir Horace Mann (28 Jan 1754), in W. S. Lewis, Warren Hunting Smith and George L. Lam (eds.), Horace Walpole's Correspondence with Sir Horace Mann (1960), Vol. 20, 407-408.
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Today there is a wide measure of agreement, which on the physical side of science approaches almost to unanimity, that the stream of knowledge is heading towards a non-mechanical reality; the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine. Mind no longer appears as an accidental intruder into the realm of matter; we are beginning to suspect that we ought rather to hail it as a creator and governor of the realm of matter. …
In The Mysterious Universe (1930, 1932), 181.
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Uh-oh.
Last recorded words (73 seconds after launch) from Space Shuttle Challenger, which exploded after taking off (28 Jan 1986). The flight deck tape recorder was recovered from the ocean floor two months later.
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We fooled ourselves into thinking this thing wouldn’t crash. When I was in astronaut training I asked, “what is the likelihood of another accident?” The answer I got was: one in 10,000, with an asterisk. The asterisk meant, “we don’t know.”
…...
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We have seen that a proton of energy corresponding to 30,000 volts can effect the transformation of lithium into two fast α-particles, which together have an energy equivalent of more than 16 million volts. Considering the individual process, the output of energy in the transmutation is more than 500 times greater than the energy carried by the proton. There is thus a great gain of energy in the single transmutation, but we must not forget that on an average more than 1000 million protons of equal energy must be fired into the lithium before one happens to hit and enter the lithium nucleus. It is clear in this case that on the whole the energy derived from transmutation of the atom is small compared with the energy of the bombarding particles. There thus seems to be little prospect that we can hope to obtain a new source of power by these processes. It has sometimes been suggested, from analogy with ordinary explosives, that the transmutation of one atom might cause the transmutation of a neighbouring nucleus, so that the explosion would spread throughout all the material. If this were true, we should long ago have had a gigantic explosion in our laboratories with no one remaining to tell the tale. The absence of these accidents indicates, as we should expect, that the explosion is confined to the individual nucleus and does not spread to the neighbouring nuclei, which may be regarded as relatively far removed from the centre of the explosion.
The Transmutation of the Atom (1933), 23-4
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We must regard it rather as an accident that the Earth (and presumably the whole solar system) contains a preponderance of negative electrons and positive protons. It is quite possible that for some of the stars it is the other way about.
(1902)
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When scientists discovered that liquid water, which brought forth life on Earth, exists nowhere else in great quantities in the solar system, the most significant lesson they taught was not that water, or the life that depends on it, is necessarily the result of some chemical accident in space; their most important revelation was that water is rare in infinity, that we should prize it, preserve it, conserve it.
In Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World (2007), 201-202.
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When the most abstract and “useless” disciplines have been cultivated for a time, they are often seized upon as practical tools by other departments of science. I conceive that this is no accident, as if one bought a top hat for a wedding, and discovered later when a fire broke out, that it could be used as a water bucket.
In James R. Newman (ed.), 'Commentary on The Use of a Top Hat as a Water Bucket', The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol.4, 2051.
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You can be a thorough-going Neo-Darwinian without imagination, metaphysics, poetry, conscience, or decency. For “Natural Selection” has no moral significance: it deals with that part of evolution which has no purpose, no intelligence, and might more appropriately be called accidental selection, or better still, Unnatural Selection, since nothing is more unnatural than an accident. If it could be proved that the whole universe had been produced by such Selection, only fools and rascals could bear to live.
Back to Methuselah: A Metabiological Pentateuch (1921), lxi-lxii.
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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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