Asking Quotes (23 quotes)
A good many times I have been present at gatherings of people who, by the standards of the traditional culture, are thought highly educated and who have with considerable gusto been expressing their incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists. Once or twice I have been provoked and have asked the company how many of them could describe the Second Law of Thermodynamics. The response was cold: it was also negative. Yet I was asking something which is about the scientific equivalent of: Have you read a work of Shakespeare's?
But why, it has been asked, did you go there [the Antarctic]? Of what use to civilization can this lifeless continent be? ... [Earlier] expeditions contributed something to the accumulating knowledge of the Antarctic ... that helps us thrust back further the physical and spiritual shadows enfolding our terrestrial existence. Is it not true that one of the strongest and most continuously sustained impulses working in civilization is that which leads to discovery? As long as any part of the world remains obscure, the curiosity of man must draw him there, as the lodestone draws the mariner's needle, until he comprehends its secret.
Curiosity that inborn property of man, daughter of ignorance and mother of knowledge when wonder wakens our minds, has the habit, wherever it sees some extraordinary phenomenon of nature, a comet for example, a sun-dog, or a midday star, of asking straightway what it means.
During the time that [Karl] Landsteiner gave me an education in the field of imununology, I discovered that he and I were thinking about the serologic problem in very different ways. He would ask, What do these experiments force us to believe about the nature of the world? I would ask, What is the most. simple and general picture of the world that we can formulate that is not ruled by these experiments? I realized that medical and biological investigators were not attacking their problems the same way that theoretical physicists do, the way I had been in the habit of doing.
Frequently, I have been asked if an experiment I have planned is pure or applied science; to me it is more important to know if the experiment will yield new and probably enduring knowledge about nature. If it is likely to yield such knowledge, it is, in my opinion, good fundamental research; and this is more important than whether the motivation is purely aesthetic satisfaction on the part of the experimenter on the one hand or the improvement of the stability of a high-power transistor on the other.
Good work is no done by humble men. It is one of the first duties of a professor, for example, in any subject, to exaggerate a little both the importance of his subject and his own importance in it. A man who is always asking Is what I do worth while? and Am I the right person to do it? will always be ineffective himself and a discouragement to others. He must shut his eyes a little and think a little more of his subject and himself than they deserve. This is not too difficult: it is harder not to make his subject and himself ridiculous by shutting his eyes too tightly.
I have been asked whether I would agree that the tragedy of the scientist is that he is able to bring about great advances in our knowledge, which mankind may then proceed to use for purposes of destruction. My answer is that this is not the tragedy of the scientist; it is the tragedy of mankind.
In an examination those who do not wish to know ask questions of those who cannot tell.
In my personal view, a failure to discover unimagined objects and answer unasked questions, once HST functions properly, would indicate a lack of imagination in stocking the Universe on the part of the Deity.
In my youth I often asked what could be the use and necessity of smelting by putting powdered charcoal at the bottom of the furnace. Nobody could give me any other reason except that the metal and especially lead, could bury itself in the charcoal and so be protected against the action of the bellows which would calcine or dissipate it. Nevertheless it is evident that this does not answer the question. I accordingly examined the operation of a metallurgical furnace and how it was used. In assaying some litharge [lead oxide], I noticed each time a little charcoal fell into the crucible, I always obtained a bit of lead I do not think up to the present time foundry-men ever surmised that in the operation of founding with charcoal there was something [phlogiston] which became corporeally united with the metal.
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?
Scientists are supposed to make predictions, probably to prove they are human and can be as mistaken as anyone else. Long-range predictions are better to make because the audience to whom the prediction was made is no longer around to ask questions. The alternative... is to make conflicting predictions, so that one prediction may prove right.
The art and science of asking questions is the source of all knowledge.
The first rule to proper diet? Ask them what they want and then give it to them. There are few exceptions.
The greatest achievements in the science of this [twentieth] century are themselves the sources of more puzzlement than human beings have ever experienced. Indeed, it is likely that the twentieth century will be looked back at as the time when science provided the first close glimpse of the profundity of human ignorance. We have not reached solutions; we have only begun to discover how to ask questions.
The picture of scientific method drafted by modern philosophy is very different from traditional conceptions. Gone is the ideal of a universe whose course follows strict rules, a predetermined cosmos that unwinds itself like an unwinding clock. Gone is the ideal of the scientist who knows the absolute truth. The happenings of nature are like rolling dice rather than like revolving stars; they are controlled by probability laws, not by causality, and the scientist resembles a gambler more than a prophet. He can tell you only his best positshe never knows beforehand whether they will come true. He is a better gambler, though, than the man at the green table, because his statistical methods are superior. And his goal is staked higherthe goal of foretelling the rolling dice of the cosmos. If he is asked why he follows his methods, with what title he makes his predictions, he cannot answer that he has an irrefutable knowledge of the future; he can only lay his best bets. But he can prove that they are best bets, that making them is the best he can doand if a man does his best, what else can you ask of him?
There is a story that once, not long after he came to Berlin, Planck forgot which room had been assigned to him for a lecture and stopped at the entrance office of the university to find out. Please tell me, he asked the elderly man in charge, 'In which room does Professor Planck lecture today?' The old man patted him on the shoulder 'Don't go there, young fellow,' he said 'You are much too young to understand the lectures of our learned Professor Planck'.
There is one class of mind that loves to lean on rules and definitions, and another that discards them as far as possible. A faddist will generally ask for a definition of faddism, and one who is not a faddist will be impatient of being asked to give one.
We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens ... The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.
We do not ask what hope of gain makes a little bird warble, since we know that it takes delight in singing because it is for that very singing that the bird was made, so there is no need to ask why the human mind undertakes such toil in seeking out these secrets of the heavens. ... And just as other animals, and the human body, are sustained by food and drink, so the very spirit of Man, which is something distinct from Man, is nourished, is increased, and in a sense grows up on this diet of knowledge, and is more like the dead than the living if it is touched by no desire for these things.
When I received the Nobel Prize, the only big lump sum of money I have ever seen, I had to do something with it. The easiest way to drop this hot potato was to invest it, to buy shares. I knew that World War II was coming and I was afraid that if I had shares which rise in case of war, I would wish for war. So I asked my agent to buy shares which go down in the event of war. This he did. I lost my money and saved my soul.
You cannot ask us to take sides against arithmetic.
[Richard P.] Feynman's cryptic remark, “no one is that much smarter ...,” to me, implies something Feynman kept emphasizing: that the key to his achievements was not anything “magical” but the right attitude, the focus on nature's reality, the focus on asking the right questions, the willingness to try (and to discard) unconventional answers, the sensitive ear for phoniness, self-deception, bombast, and conventional but unproven assumptions.