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Today in Science History - Quickie Quiz
Who said: “The path towards sustainable energy sources will be long and sometimes difficult. But America cannot resist this transition, we must lead it... That is how we will preserve our planet, commanded to our care by God. That’s what will lend meaning to the creed our fathers once declared.”
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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index A > Category: Autobiography

Autobiography Quotes (55 quotes)

Jobs: I look at myself as an artist if anything. Sort of a trapeze artist.
Levy: With or without a net?
Jobs: Without.
Expressing the driving force behind his passion. Interview with Rolling Stone writer, Steven Levy (late Nov 1983). As quoted in Nick Bilton, 'The 30-Year-Old Macintosh and a Lost Conversation With Steve Jobs' (24 Jan 2014), on New York Times blog web page. Levy appended a transcript of the interview to an updated Kindle version of his book, Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything.
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Quinquies exscriptus, maneat tot millibus annis.
(I wrote it out five times, may it last the same number of millennia.)
final line of Ars magna

After a short period spent in Brussels as a guest of a neurological institute, I returned to Turin on the verge of the invasion of Belgium by the German army, Spring 1940, to join my family. The two alternatives left then to us were either to emigrate to the United States, or to pursue some activity that needed neither support nor connection with the outside Aryan world where we lived. My family chose this second alternative. I then decided to build a small research unit at home and installed it in my bedroom.
Autobiography, Nobel Foundation

All of my life, I have been fascinated by the big questions that face us, and have tried to find scientific answers to them. If, like me, you have looked at the stars, and tried to make sense of what you see, you too have started to wonder what makes the universe exist.
From website for PBS program, Stephen Hawking's Universe (1997).
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Any artist or novelist would understand—some of us do not produce their best when directed. We expect the artist, the novelist and the composer to lead solitary lives, often working at home. While a few of these creative individuals exist in institutions or universities, the idea of a majority of established novelists or painters working at the “National Institute for Painting and Fine Art” or a university “Department of Creative Composition” seems mildly amusing. By contrast, alarm greets the idea of a creative scientist working at home. A lone scientist is as unusual as a solitary termite and regarded as irresponsible or worse.
Homage to Gala: The Life of an Independent Scholar (2000), 2.
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As I look back over my efforts, I would characterize my contributions as being largely in the realm of model building. ... I perceive myself as rather uninhibited, with a certain mathematical facility and more interest in the broad aspect of a problem than the delicate nuances. I am more interested in discovering what is over the next rise than in assiduously cultivating the beautiful garden close at hand.
'Men, Mines and Molecules', Annual Review of Physical Chemistry, 1977, 28, 13.

At Arcueil ... I dined in distinguished company... There was a lot of very interesting discussion. It is these gatherings which are the joy of life.
Maurice Crosland, Gay-Lussac, Scientist and Bourgeois (1978), 21.

Consciously and systematically Klein sought to enthrall me with the problems of mathematical physics, and to win me over to his conception of these problems as developed it in lecture courses in previous years. I have always regarded Klein as my real teacher only in things mathematical, but also in mathematical physics and in my conception of mechanics.
As quoted in Paul Forman and Armin Hermann, 'Sommerfeld, Arnold (Johannes Wilhelm)', Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1975), Vol. 12, 526. Cited from 'Autobiographische Skizze', Gesammelte Schriften, Vol 4, 673–682.
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Everywhere in science the talk is of winners, patents, pressures, money, no money, the rat race, the lot; things that are so completely alien ... that I no longer know whether I can be classified as a modern scientist or as an example of a beast on the way to extinction.
An Imagined World: A Story of Scientific Discovery (1981), 213. Quoted in Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (1984), 207.

For I am actually not at all a man of science, not an observer, nor an experimenter, not a thinker. I am by temperament nothing but a conquistador—an adventurer... with all the curiosity, daring, and tenacity characteristic of a man of this sort.
Letter to Wilhelm Fliess, 1 Feb 1900. In Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson (ed.), The Complete Letters of Sigmund Freud to Wilhelm Fliess (1985), 398.

For the second law [of thermodynamics], I will burn at the stake.
Comment made to H. Montgomery during his time at Harwell. In D. Shoenberg's obituary of H. London, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (1971), 17, 442.
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Had we lived, I should have had a tale to tell of the hardihood, endurance and courage of my companions which would have stirred the heart of every Englishman. These rough notes and our dead bodies must tell the tale, but surely, a great rich country like ours will see that those who are dependent on us are properly provided for.
[Final words in a 'Message to the Public' left written in his diary dated 25 March 1912, shortly before he died on the Ross Ice Barrier, Antarctica. When searchers found his body, on 12 Nov 1912, Scott was discovered sitting upright against the pole of the tent with the diary behind his head, as if for a pillow.]
Final words in a 'Message to the Public' left written in his diary dated 25 March 1912, shortly before he died on the Ross Ice Barrier, Antarctica. In Logan Marshall, The Story of Polar Conquest: The Complete History of Arctic and Antarctic (1913), 24-25. by Logan Marshall - Polar regions - 1913
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I am among those who think that science has great beauty. A scientist in his laboratory is not only a technician: he is also a child placed before natural phenomena which impress him like a fairy tale. We should not allow it to be believed that all scientific progress can be reduced to mechanisms, machines, gearings, even though such machinery has its own beauty.
During a debate in Madrid, ',The Future of Culture' (1933). In Eve Curie Labouisse, Eve Curie and Vincent Sheean, Madame Curie (1937), 341
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I am terribly proud of—I was born in Cambridge in 1952 and my initials are DNA!
In The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (2002), 126.
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I believe myself to possess a most singular combination of qualities exactly fitted to make me pre-eminently a discoverer of the hidden realities of nature… the belief has been forced upon me…
Firstly: Owing to some peculiarity in my nervous system, I have perceptions of some things, which no one else has… and intuitive perception of… things hidden from eyes, ears, & ordinary senses…
Secondly: my sense reasoning faculties;
Thirdly: my concentration faculty, by which I mean the power not only of throwing my whole energy & existence into whatever I choose, but also of bringing to bear on anyone subject or idea, a vast apparatus from all sorts of apparently irrelevant & extraneous sources…
Well, here I have written what most people would call a remarkably mad letter; & yet certainly one of the most logical, sober-minded, cool, pieces of composition, (I believe), that I ever framed.
Lovelace Papers, Bodleian Library, Oxford University, 42, folio 12 (6 Feb 1841). As quoted and cited in Dorothy Stein (ed.), 'This First Child of Mine', Ada: A Life and a Legacy (1985), 86.
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I cannot face with comfort the idea of life without work; work and the free play of the imagination are for me the same thing, I take no pleasure in anything else.
Letter to Oskar Pfister, 3 Jun 1910. Quoted in H. Meng and E. Freud (eds.), Psycho-Analysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oskar Pfister (1963), 146.
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I did enjoy the [CCNY geology] field trips. We went upstate and clambered over formations of synclines and anticlines. We had to diagram them, and figure out their mirror images. If you had an anticline here, you should be able to predict a complementing syncline bulging out somewhere else. Very satisfying when I got it right. Geology allowed me to display my brilliance to my non-college friends. “You know, the Hudson really isn't a river.” “What are you talking about? … Everybody knows the Hudson River's a river.” I would explain that the Hudson was a “drowned” river, up to about Poughkeepsie. The Ice Age had depressed the riverbed to a depth that allowed the Atlantic Ocean to flood inland. Consequently, the lower Hudson was really a saltwater estuary.[Powell graduated with a B.S. degree in Geology.]
My American Journey (1996), 30-31.
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Isaac Newton Quote: like a boy playing on the seashore [pebbles]…whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me
Click image for larger 800 x 500px version
I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
First reported in Joseph Spence, Anecdotes, Observations and Characters, of Books and Men (1820), Vol. 1 of 1966 edn, sect. 1259, p. 462. Purported to have been addressed by Newton in the final year of his life (1727) to Chevalier Andrew Michael Ramsey (which conflicts with the Dictionary of National Biography article giving that he was in France at the time). Quoted in David Brewster, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton (1855), Vol. 2, 407.
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I found the best ideas usually came, not when one was actively striving for them, but when one was in a more relaxed state… I used to take long solitary walks on Sundays, during which I tended to review the current situation in a leisurely way. Such occasions often proved fruitful, even though (or perhaps, because) the primary purpose of the walk was relaxation and not research.
'Methods in Theoretical Physics', From A Life of Physics: Evening Lectures at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy. A Special Supplement of the IAEA Bulletin (1968), 24.

I have not chosen a career that will lead me to a great fortune, but not my principal ambition.
In fact, later in life he enjoyed comfortable income from his science discoveries.
Letter to his father, 1803. In Maurice Crosland, Gay-Lussac, Scientist and Bourgeois (1978), 1.

I have not [a] metaphysical Head.
Letter to C. Lyell, 23 February 1860. In F. Burkhardt and S. Smith (eds.), The Correspondence of Charles Darwin 1860 (1993), Vol. 8, 103.

I have seen many phases of life; I have moved in imperial circles, I have been a Minister of State; but if I had to live my life again, I would always remain in my laboratory, for the greatest joy of my life has been to accomplish original scientific work, and, next to that, to lecture to a set of intelligent students.
Quoted in R. Desper, The Human Side of Scientists (1975), 55.
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I no longer count as one of my merits that I always tell the truth as much as possible; it has become my metier.
Letter to Albert Einstein, 8 Dec 1932. Quoted in P. Gay, Freud: A Life for Our Time (1988), xvii.
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I start with the seedling, and I don't want to leave it. I don't feel I really know the story if I don't watch the plant all the way along. So I know every plant in the field. I know them intimately, and I find it a real pleasure to know them.
In Jay B. McDaniel, 'Christian Spirituality as Openness to Fellow Creatures', Environmental Ethics (1986) 8(1), 34. Quoted in Charles Birch, Biology and the Riddle of Life (1999), 56.

I was just so interested in what I was doing I could hardly wait to get up in the morning and get at it. One of my friends, a geneticist, said I was a child, because only children can't wait to get up in the morning to get at what they want to do.
Quoted in Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (1984), 70.
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I was then in Germany, where I had been drafted because of the wars that are still going on there, and as I was returning to the army from the emperor's coronation, the arrival of winter delayed me in quarters where, finding no company to distract me and, luckily, having no cares or passions to trouble me, I used to spend the whole day alone in a room, that was heated by a stove, where I had plenty of time to concentrate on my own thoughts.
Discourse on Method in Discourse, on Method and Related Writings (1637), trans. Desmond M. Clarke, Penguin edition (1999), Part 2, 11.

If there’s one thing in physics I feel more responsible for than any other, it’s this perception of how everything fits together. I like to think of myself as having a sense of judgment. I’m willing to go anywhere, talk to anybody, ask any question that will make headway. I confess to being an optimist about things, especially about someday being able to understand how things are put together. So many young people are forced to specialize in one line or another that a young person can’t afford to try and cover this waterfront — only an old fogy who can afford to make a fool of himself. If I don't, who will?
Stated during a 1983 interview. Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).

If you know you're right, you don't care. You know that sooner or later, it will come out in the wash.
When asked about the long delay in recognition for her discovery.
Quoted in Thomson Gale (Online), 'Barbara McClintock', World of Biology. Also quoted in Claudia Wallis, 'Honoring a Modern Mendel', Time (24 Oct 1983), 43-4.

It makes me feel both proud and rather humble that it shall be called Lonsdaleite. Certainly the name seems appropriate since the mineral only occurs in very small quantities (perhaps rare would be too flattering) and it is generally rather mixed up!
From Letter to Clifford Frondel, who had named a meteoritic form of diamond after Lonsdale (a petite person). As quoted in Maureen M. Julian, 'Women in Crystallography', in G. Kass-Simon and P. Farnes (eds.), Women of Science: Righting the Record (1990), 356.
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It never occurred to me that there was going to be any stumbling block. Not that I had the answer, but [I had] the joy of going at it. When you have that joy, you do the right experiments. You let the material tell you where to go, and it tells you at every step what the next has to be because you're integrating with an overall brand new pattern in mind.
When asked how she could have worked for two years without knowing the outcome.
Quoted in Evelyn Fox Keller, A Feeling for the Organism: The Life and Work of Barbara McClintock (1984), 125.
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It was like a new world opened to me, the world of science, which I was at last permitted to know in all liberty.
As quoted in Marie and Pierre Curie and the Discovery of Polonium and Radium, Nobel Lecture
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It was quite the most incredible event that has ever happened to me in my life. It was almost as incredible as if you fired a 15-inch shell at a piece of tissue paper and it came back and hit you.
[Recalling in 1936 the discovery of the nucleus in 1909, when some alpha particles were observed instead of travelling through a very thin gold foil were seen to rebound backward, as if striking something much more massive than the particles themselves.]
Quoted in Abraham Pais, Inward Bound (1986), 189, from E. N. da C. Andrade, Rutherford and the nature of the atom, (1964) 111.
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Jim and I hit it off immediately, partly because our interests were astonishingly similar and partly, I suspect, because a certain youthful arrogance, a ruthlessness, an impatience with sloppy thinking can naturally to both of us.
What Mad Pursuit (1990), 66.
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My books have sold largely in England, have been translated into many languages, and passed through several editions in foreign countries. I have heard it said that the success of a work abroad is the best test of its enduring value. I doubt whether this is at all trustworthy; but judged by this standard my name ought to last for a few years.
The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1896), 81-82.

My father, the practicing physician, … was a passionate collector of natural objects (amber, shells, minerals, beetles, etc.) and a great friend of the natural sciences. … To my energetic and intellectually vigorous mother I owe an infinite debt.
As quoted in Paul Forman and Armin Hermann, 'Sommerfeld, Arnold (Johannes Wilhelm)', Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1975), Vol. 12, 525. Cited from 'Autobiographische Skizze', Gesammelte Schriften, Vol 4, 673–682.
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My father’s collection of fossils was practically unnamed, but the appearance of Phillips’ book [Geology of the Yorkshire Coast], in which most of our specimens were figured, enabled us to remedy this defect. Every evening was devoted by us to accomplishing the work. This was my first introduction to true scientific study. ... Phillips’ accurate volume initiated an entirely new order of things. Many a time did I mourn over the publication of this book, and the consequences immediately resulting from it. Instead of indulging in the games and idleness to which most lads are prone, my evenings throughout a long winter were devoted to the detested labour of naming these miserable stones. Such is the short-sightedness of boyhood. Pursuing this uncongenial work gave me in my thirteenth year a thorough practical familiarity with the palaeontological treasures of Eastern Yorkshire. This early acquisition happily moulded the entire course of my future life.
In Reminiscences of a Yorkshire naturalist (1896), 12.
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My final word, before I'm done,
Is “Cancer can be rather fun”—
Provided one confronts the tumour
with a sufficient sense of humour.
I know that cancer often kills,
But so do cars and sleeping pills;
And it can hurt till one sweats,
So can bad teeth and unpaid debts.
A spot of laughter, I am sure,
Often accelerates one's cure;
So let us patients do our bit
To help the surgeons make us fit.
'Cancer's a Funny Thing'. Quoted in Richard Dawkins, The Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing (2008), 175-6.
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My interest in chemistry was started by reading Robert Kennedy Duncan’s popular books while a high school student in Des Moines, Iowa, so that after some delay when it was possible for me to go to college I had definitely decided to specialize in chemistry.
Letter (4 Apr 1932) to Pauline G. Beery. Hagley Museum and Library Collection, Wilmington, Delaware. 1784.) As cited in Matthew E. Hermes, Enough for One Lifetime: Wallace Carothers, Inventor of Nylon (1996), 13.
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My two Jamaican cousins ... were studying engineering. 'That's where the money is,' Mom advised. ... I was to be an engineering major, despite my allergy to science and math. ... Those who preceded me at CCNY include the polio vaccine discoverer, Dr. Jonas Salk ... and eight Nobel Prize winners. ... In class, I stumbled through math, fumbled through physics, and did reasonably well in, and even enjoyed, geology. All I ever looked forward to was ROTC.
Autobiographical comments on his original reason for going to the City College of New York, where he shortly turned to his military career.
My American Journey (1996), 23-26. ROTC is the Reserve Officers' Training Corps (ROTC) school-based program of the U.S. military. From there, the self-described 'C-average student out of middling Morris High School' went on to become a four-star general.
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Nature did not make me willowy.
Quoted in 'Defeat for Dixy Lee Ray', Time (29 Sep 1980).

Nothing will ever equal that moment of joyous excitement which filled my whole being when I felt myself flying away from the earth. It was not mere pleasure; it was perfect bliss. Escaped from the frightful torments of persecution and of calumny, I felt that I was answering all in rising above all.
after making man's first ascent by hydrogen balloon in 1783 quoted in Wonderful Balloon Ascents: Or, the Conquest of the Skies by F. Marion
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Private patients, if they do not like me, can go elsewhere; but the poor devils in the hospital I am bound to take care of.
Stating the courtesy he felt obliged to give to charity patients.
In George Macilwain, Memoirs of John Abernethy (1854), 37.
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Recollections [his autobiographical work] might possibly interest my children or their children. I know that it would have interested me greatly to have read even so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather, written by himself, and what he thought and did, and how he worked. I have attempted to write the following account of myself as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me.
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Sometimes my courage fails me and I think I ought to stop working, live in the country and devote myself to gardening. But I am held by a thousand bonds, and I don't know when I shall be able to arrange things otherwise. Nor do I know whether, even by writing scientific books, I could live without the laboratory.
Letter to her sister Bronya, September 1927. In Eve Curie, Madame Curie (1938), 388.
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That brain of mine is something more than merely mortal; as time will show; (if only my breathing & some other etceteras do not make too rapid a progress towards instead of from mortality).
Before ten years are over, the Devil’s in it if I haven’t sucked out some of the life-blood from the mysteries of this universe, in a way that no purely mortal lips or brains could do.
In letter to Charles Babbage (5 Jul 1843). British Library Additional Manuscripts, MSS 37192, folio 349. As quoted and cited in Dorothy Stein (ed.), 'This First Child of Mine', Ada: A Life and a Legacy (1985), 110.
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The first observation of cancer cells in the smear of the uterine cervix gave me one of the greatest thrills I ever experienced during my scientific career.
Quoted on web page http://www.whonamedit.com/doctor.cfm/2402.html
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The major credit I think Jim and I deserve ... is for selecting the right problem and sticking to it. It's true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold. Both of us had decided, quite independently of each other, that the central problem in molecular biology was the chemical structure of the gene. ... We could not see what the answer was, but we considered it so important that we were determined to think about it long and hard, from any relevant point of view.
What Mad Pursuit (1990), 74-75.
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The night before Easter Sunday of that year (1920) I awoke, turned on the light, and jotted down a few notes on a tiny slip of thin paper. Then I fell asleep again. It occurred to me at six o’clock in the morning that during the night I had written down something most important, but I was unable to decipher the scrawl. The next night, at three o’clock, the idea returned. It was the design of an experiment to determine whether the hypothesis of chemical transmission that I had uttered seventeen years ago was correct. I got up immediately, went to the laboratory, and performed a simple experiment on a frog heart according to the nocturnal design. I have to describe this experiment briefly since its results became the foundation of the theory of chemical transmission of the nervous impulse. The hearts of two frogs were isolated, the first with its nerves, the second without. Both hearts were attached to Straub cannulas filled with a little Ringer solution. The vagus nerve of the first heart was stimulated for a few minutes. Then the Ringer solution that had been in the first heart during the stimulation of the vagus was transferred to the second heart. It slowed and its beats diminished just as if its vagus had been stimulated. Similarly, when the accelerator nerve was stimulated and the Ringer from this period transferred, the second heart speeded up and its beats increased. These results unequivocally proved that the nerves do not influence the heart directly but liberate from their terminals specific chemical substances which, in their turn, cause the well-known modifications of the function of the heart characteristic of the stimulation of its nerves.
'An Autobiographic Sketch', Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1960), 4, 17.
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To me there never has been a higher source of honour or distinction than that connected with advances in science. I have not possessed enough of the eagle in my character to make a direct flight to the loftiest altitudes in the social world; and I certainly never endeavored to reach those heights by using the creeping powers of the reptile, who in ascending, generally chooses the dirtiest path, because it is the easiest.
Consolations in Travel (1830), Dialogue 5, The Chemical Philosopher, 225.
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What a weak, credulous, incredulous, unbelieving, superstitious, bold, frightened, what a ridiculous world ours is, as far as concerns the mind of man. How full of inconsistencies, contradictions and absurdities it is. I declare that taking the average of many minds that have recently come before me ... I should prefer the obedience, affections and instinct of a dog before it.
Letter to C. Schoenbein, 25 Jul 1853. In Georg W. A. Kahlbaum and Francis Darbishire (eds.), The Letters of Faraday and Schoenbein, 1836-1862 (1899), 215.
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What attracted me to immunology was that the whole thing seemed to revolve around a very simple experiment: take two different antibody molecules and compare their primary sequences. The secret of antibody diversity would emerge from that. Fortunately at the time I was sufficiently ignorant of the subject not to realise how naive I was being.
From Nobel Lecture (8 Dec 1984), collected in Tore Frängsmyr and ‎Jan Lindsten (eds.), Nobel Lectures in Physiology Or Medicine: 1981-1990 (1993), 248.
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When I was a little over eight years old,… I was sent to a day-school…. [By this time] my taste for natural history, and more especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make out the names of plants, and collected all sorts of things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me.
In Charles Darwin and Francis Darwin (ed.), 'Autobiography', The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin (1887, 1896), Vol. 1, 26.
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You too can win Nobel Prizes. Study diligently. Respect DNA. Don't smoke. Don't drink. Avoid women and politics. That's my formula.
As given in David Pratt, 'What makes a Nobel laureate?', Los Angeles Times (9 Oct 2013). Cited as the response to telegram of congratulations from Caltech students (Oct 1958) in David Pratt, The Impossible Takes Longer: The 1,000 Wisest Things Ever Said by Nobel Prize Laureates (2007), 10 and 178.
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[Before college] I was almost more interested in literature and history than in the exact sciences; I was equally good in all subjects including the classical languages.
As quoted in Paul Forman and Armin Hermann, 'Sommerfeld, Arnold (Johannes Wilhelm)', Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1975), Vol. 12, 526. Cited from 'Autobiographische Skizze', Gesammelte Schriften, Vol 4, 673–682.
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[Franklin always found it a] pleasure ... to see good workmen handle their tools.
Autobiography.


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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