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Who said: “Politics is more difficult than physics.”
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Approximate Quotes (25 quotes)

A great man, [who] was convinced that the truths of political and moral science are capable of the same certainty as those that form the system of physical science, even in those branches like astronomy that seem to approximate mathematical certainty.
He cherished this belief, for it led to the consoling hope that humanity would inevitably make progress toward a state of happiness and improved character even as it has already done in its knowledge of the truth.
Describing administrator and economist Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot in Essai sur l’application de l’analyse à la probabilité des décisions rendues à la pluralité des voix (1785), i. Cited epigraph in Charles Coulston Gillispie, Science and Polity in France: The End of the Old Regime (2004), 3
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All the different classes of beings which taken together make up the universe are, in the ideas of God who knows distinctly their essential gradations, only so many ordinates of a single curve so closely united that it would be impossible to place others between any two of them, since that would imply disorder and imperfection. Thus men are linked with the animals, these with the plants and these with the fossils which in turn merge with those bodies which our senses and our imagination represent to us as absolutely inanimate. And, since the law of continuity requires that when the essential attributes of one being approximate those of another all the properties of the one must likewise gradually approximate those of the other, it is necessary that all the orders of natural beings form but a single chain, in which the various classes, like so many rings, are so closely linked one to another that it is impossible for the senses or the imagination to determine precisely the point at which one ends and the next begins?all the species which, so to say, lie near the borderlands being equivocal, at endowed with characters which might equally well be assigned to either of the neighboring species. Thus there is nothing monstrous in the existence zoophytes, or plant-animals, as Budaeus calls them; on the contrary, it is wholly in keeping with the order of nature that they should exist. And so great is the force of the principle of continuity, to my thinking, that not only should I not be surprised to hear that such beings had been discovered?creatures which in some of their properties, such as nutrition or reproduction, might pass equally well for animals or for plants, and which thus overturn the current laws based upon the supposition of a perfect and absolute separation of the different orders of coexistent beings which fill the universe;?not only, I say, should I not be surprised to hear that they had been discovered, but, in fact, I am convinced that there must be such creatures, and that natural history will perhaps some day become acquainted with them, when it has further studied that infinity of living things whose small size conceals them for ordinary observation and which are hidden in the bowels of the earth and the depth of the sea.
Lettre Prétendue de M. De Leibnitz, à M. Hermann dont M. Koenig a Cité le Fragment (1753), cxi-cxii, trans. in A. O. Lovejoy, Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea (1936), 144-5.
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Besides accustoming the student to demand, complete proof, and to know when he has not obtained it, mathematical studies are of immense benefit to his education by habituating him to precision. It is one of the peculiar excellencies of mathematical discipline, that the mathematician is never satisfied with à peu près. He requires the exact truth. Hardly any of the non-mathematical sciences, except chemistry, has this advantage. One of the commonest modes of loose thought, and sources of error both in opinion and in practice, is to overlook the importance of quantities. Mathematicians and chemists are taught by the whole course of their studies, that the most fundamental difference of quality depends on some very slight difference in proportional quantity; and that from the qualities of the influencing elements, without careful attention to their quantities, false expectation would constantly be formed as to the very nature and essential character of the result produced.
In An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1878), 611. [The French phrase, à peu près means “approximately”. —Webmaster]
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Engineers think that equations approximate the real world.
Physicists think that the real world approximates equations.
Mathematicians are unable to make the connection.
Anonymous
In Jon Fripp, Michael Fripp and Deborah Fripp, Speaking of Science (2000), 41.
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Far better an approximate answer to the right question, which is often vague, than an exact answer to the wrong question, which can always be made precise.
In 'The Future of Data Analysis', Annals of Mathematical Statistics (1962), 33, No. 1, 13-14.
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I have approximate answers and possible beliefs in different degrees of certainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything, and of many things I don’t know anything about but I don’t have to know an answer.
Interview, in BBC TV program, 'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out', Horizon (23 Nov 1981). As quoted in Caroline Baillie, Alice Pawley, Donna M. Riley, Engineering and Social Justice: In the University and Beyond (2012), 108.
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It is clear that in maize, seemingly blending is really segregating inheritance, but with entire absence of dominance, and it seems probably that the same will be found to be true among rabbits and other mammals; failure to observe it hitherto is probably due to the fact that the factors concerned are numerous. For the greater the number of factors concerned, the more nearly will the result obtained approximate a complete and permanent blend. As the number of factors approaches infinity, the result will become identical with a permanent blend.
Heredity: In Relation to Evolution and Animal Breeding (1911), 138-9.
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It is of interest to inquire what happens when the aviator’s speed… approximates to the velocity of light. Lengths in the direction of flight become smaller and smaller, until for the speed of light they shrink to zero. The aviator and the objects accompanying him shrink to two dimensions. We are saved the difficulty of imagining how the processes of life can go on in two dimensions, because nothing goes on. Time is arrested altogether. This is the description according to the terrestrial observer. The aviator himself detects nothing unusual; he does not perceive that he has stopped moving. He is merely waiting for the next instant to come before making the next movement; and the mere fact that time is arrested means that he does not perceive that the next instant is a long time coming.
In Space, Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory (1920, 1921), 26.
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Law springs from experiment, but not immediately. Experiment is individual, the law deduced from it is general; experiment is only approximate, the law is precise, or at least pretends to be. Experiment is made under conditions always complex, the enunciation of the law eliminates these complications. This is what is called ‘correcting the systematic errors’.
From La Valeur de la Science (1904), 142, as translated by George Bruce Halsted (trans.), in The Value of Science (1907), 77. From the French, “La loi sort de l’expérience, mais elle n’en sort pas immédiatement. L’expérience est individuelle, la loi qu’on en tire est générale, l’expérience n’est qu’approchée, la loi est précise ou du moins prétend l’élre. L’expérience se fait dans des conditions toujours complexes, l’énoncé de la loi élimine ces complications. C’est ce qu’on appelle ‘corriger les erreurs systématiques’.”
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Mathematics is the language of languages, the best school for sharpening thought and expression, is applicable to all processes in nature; and Germany needs mathematical gymnasia. Mathematics is God’s form of speech, and simplifies all things organic and inorganic. As knowledge becomes real, complete and great it approximates mathematical forms. It mediates between the worlds of mind and of matter.
Summarizing the ideas presented by Christian Heinrich Dillmann in Die Mathematik die Fackelträgerin einer neuen Zeit (1889). From book review, 'Recent Literature on Arithmetic and Arithmetical Teaching', in Granville Stanley Hall (ed.), The Pedagogical Seminary (1892), 2, 168. Dillmann’s book title translates as “Mathematics the Torchbearer of a New Era”. (However, Conant concluded that it was a “loosely-written, vague and incoherent book, which belies every anticipation awakened by its attractive title.”)
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Nature does not consist entirely, or even largely, of problems designed by a Grand Examiner to come out neatly in finite terms, and whatever subject we tackle the first need is to overcome timidity about approximating.
As co-author with Bertha Swirles Jeffreys, in Methods of Mathematical Physics (1946, 1999), 8.
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No known theory can be distorted so as to provide even an approximate explanation [of wave-particle duality]. There must be some fact of which we are entirely ignorant and whose discovery may revolutionize our views of the relations between waves and ether and matter. For the present we have to work on both theories. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we use the wave theory; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays we think in streams of flying energy quanta or corpuscles.
'Electrons and Ether Waves', The Robert Boyle Lecture 1921, Scientific Monthly, 1922, 14, 158.
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Quantum mechanics provides us with an approximate, plausible, conjectural explanation of what actually is, or was, or may be taking place inside a cyclotron during a dark night in February.
In 'Science and Technology', A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (Vox Clamantis in Deserto) (1989), 91.
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Science gains from it [the pendulum] more than one can expect. With its huge dimensions, the apparatus presents qualities that one would try in vain to communicate by constructing it on a small [scale], no matter how carefully. Already the regularity of its motion promises the most conclusive results. One collects numbers that, compared with the predictions of theory, permit one to appreciate how far the true pendulum approximates or differs from the abstract system called 'the simple pendulum'.
In 'Demonstration Experimentale du Movement de Rotation de la Terre' (31 May 1851). In C.M. Gariel (ed.), J. Bertrand (ed.) and Harold Burstyn (trans.), Recueil des Travaux Scientifiques de Lion Foucault (1878), Vol. 2, 527.
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Science has hitherto been proceeding without the guidance of any rational theory of logic, and has certainly made good progress. It is like a computer who is pursuing some method of arithmetical approximation. Even if he occasionally makes mistakes in his ciphering, yet if the process is a good one they will rectify themselves. But then he would approximate much more rapidly if he did not commit these errors; and in my opinion, the time has come when science ought to be provided with a logic. My theory satisfies me; I can see no flaw in it. According to that theory universality, necessity, exactitude, in the absolute sense of these words, are unattainable by us, and do not exist in nature. There is an ideal law to which nature approximates; but to express it would require an endless series of modifications, like the decimals expressing surd. Only when you have asked a question in so crude a shape that continuity is not involved, is a perfectly true answer attainable.
Letter to G. F. Becker, 11 June 1893. Merrill Collection, Library of Congress. Quoted in Nathan Reingold, Science in Nineteenth-Century America: A Documentary History (1966), 231-2.
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That our knowledge only illuminates a small corner of the Universe, that it is incomplete, approximate, tentative and merely probable need not concert us. It is genuine nevertheless. Physical science stands as one of the great achievements of the human spirit.
Scientific Method: An Inquiry into the Character and Validy of Natural Law (1923), 201-202.
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The belief that mathematics, because it is abstract, because it is static and cold and gray, is detached from life, is a mistaken belief. Mathematics, even in its purest and most abstract estate, is not detached from life. It is just the ideal handling of the problems of life, as sculpture may idealize a human figure or as poetry or painting may idealize a figure or a scene. Mathematics is precisely the ideal handling of the problems of life, and the central ideas of the science, the great concepts about which its stately doctrines have been built up, are precisely the chief ideas with which life must always deal and which, as it tumbles and rolls about them through time and space, give it its interests and problems, and its order and rationality. That such is the case a few indications will suffice to show. The mathematical concepts of constant and variable are represented familiarly in life by the notions of fixedness and change. The concept of equation or that of an equational system, imposing restriction upon variability, is matched in life by the concept of natural and spiritual law, giving order to what were else chaotic change and providing partial freedom in lieu of none at all. What is known in mathematics under the name of limit is everywhere present in life in the guise of some ideal, some excellence high-dwelling among the rocks, an “ever flying perfect” as Emerson calls it, unto which we may approximate nearer and nearer, but which we can never quite attain, save in aspiration. The supreme concept of functionality finds its correlate in life in the all-pervasive sense of interdependence and mutual determination among the elements of the world. What is known in mathematics as transformation—that is, lawful transfer of attention, serving to match in orderly fashion the things of one system with those of another—is conceived in life as a process of transmutation by which, in the flux of the world, the content of the present has come out of the past and in its turn, in ceasing to be, gives birth to its successor, as the boy is father to the man and as things, in general, become what they are not. The mathematical concept of invariance and that of infinitude, especially the imposing doctrines that explain their meanings and bear their names—What are they but mathematicizations of that which has ever been the chief of life’s hopes and dreams, of that which has ever been the object of its deepest passion and of its dominant enterprise, I mean the finding of the worth that abides, the finding of permanence in the midst of change, and the discovery of a presence, in what has seemed to be a finite world, of being that is infinite? It is needless further to multiply examples of a correlation that is so abounding and complete as indeed to suggest a doubt whether it be juster to view mathematics as the abstract idealization of life than to regard life as the concrete realization of mathematics.
In 'The Humanization of Teaching of Mathematics', Science, New Series, 35, 645-46.
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The first steps in the path of discovery, and the first approximate measures, are those which add most to the existing knowledge of mankind.
Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), 167.
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The laws of thermodynamics, as empirically determined, express the approximate and probable behavior of systems of a great number of particles, or, more precisely, they express the laws of mechanics for such systems as they appear to beings who have not the fineness of perception to enable them to appreciate quantities of the order of magnitude of those which relate to single particles, and who cannot repeat their experiments often enough to obtain any but the most probable results.
Elementary Principles in Statististical Mechanics (1902), Preface, viii.
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The results have exhibited one striking feature which has been frequently emphasized, namely that at high pressures all twelve liquids become more nearly like each other. This suggests that it might be useful in developing a theory of liquids to arbitrarily construct a 'perfect liquid' and to discuss its properties. Certainly the conception of a 'perfect gas' has been of great service in the kinetic theory of gases; and the reason is that all actual gases approximate closely to the 'perfect gas.' In the same way, at high pressures all liquids approximate to one and the same thing, which may be called by analogy the 'perfect liquid.' It seems to offer at least a promising line of attack to discuss the properties of this 'perfect liquid,' and then to invent the simplest possible mechanism to explain them.
'Thermodynamic Properties of Twelve Liquids Between 200 and 800 and up to 1200 KGM. Per Sq. Cm.', Memoirs of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 1913, 49, 113.
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There is no sharp boundary line separating the reactions of the immune bodies from chemical processes between crystalloids, just as in nature there exists every stage between crystalloid and colloid. The nearer the colloid particle approximates to the normal electrolyte, the nearer its compounds must obviously come to conforming to the law of simple stoichiometric proportions, and the compounds themselves to simple chemical compounds. At this point, it should be recalled that Arrhenius has shown that the quantitative relationship between toxin and antitoxin is very similar to that between acid and base.
Landsteiner and Nicholas von Jagic, 'Uber Reaktionen anorganischer Kolloide und Immunkorper', Münchener medizinischer Wochenschrift (1904), 51, 1185-1189. Trans. Pauline M. H. Mazumdar.
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We come now to the question: what is a priori certain or necessary, respectively in geometry (doctrine of space) or its foundations? Formerly we thought everything; nowadays we think nothing. Already the distance-concept is logically arbitrary; there need be no things that correspond to it, even approximately.
In article he wrote, 'Space-Time', for Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th ed., 1929), Vol. 21, 106.
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[It] may be laid down as a general rule that, if the result of a long series of precise observations approximates a simple relation so closely that the remaining difference is undetectable by observation and may be attributed to the errors to which they are liable, then this relation is probably that of nature.
'Mémoire sur les Inégalites Séculaires des Planètes et des Satellites' (I 785, published 1787). In Oeuvres completes de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 11, 57, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 130.
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[S]uppose you make a hole in an ordinary evacuated electric light bulb and allow the air molecules to pass in at the rate of 1,000,000 a second, the bulb will become full of air in approximately 100,000,000 years.
In Lecture (1936) on 'Forty Years of Atomic Theory', collected in Needham and Pagel (eds.) in Background to Modern Science: Ten Lectures at Cambridge Arranged by the History of Science Committee, (1938), 99.
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George E.P. Box quote: …all models are approximations. Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful. However,
[Co-author with Norman R. Draper] (source)
…all models are approximations. Essentially, all models are wrong, but some are useful. However, the approximate nature of the model must always be borne in mind… [Co-author with Norman R. Draper]
In George E.P. Box, Norman R. Draper, Response Surfaces, Mixtures, and Ridge Analyses (2nd ed. 2007), 414.
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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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