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Who said: “Nature does nothing in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”
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Bell Quotes (35 quotes)

Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.
First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones: I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful: such whales have I heard on o’ the land, who never leave gaping till they’ve swallowed the whole parish, church, steeple, bells, and all.
In Pericles (1609), Act 2, Scene 1, line 29-38.
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Thomasina: Every week I plot your equations dot for dot, x’s against y’s in all manner of algebraical relation, and every week they draw themselves as commonplace geometry, as if the world of forms were nothing but arcs and angles. God’s truth, Septimus, if there is an equation for a curve like a bell, there must be an equation for one like a bluebell, and if a bluebell, why not a rose? Do we believe nature is written in numbers?
Septimus: We do.
Thomasina: Then why do your shapes describe only the shapes of manufacture?
Septimus: I do not know.
Thomasina: Armed thus, God could only make a cabinet.
In the play, Acadia (1993), Scene 3, 37.
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A distinguished Princeton physicist on the occasion of my asking how he thought Einstein would have reacted to Bell’s theorem. He said that Einstein would have gone home and thought about it hard for several weeks … He was sure that Einstein would have been very bothered by Bell’s theorem. Then he added: “Anybody who’s not bothered by Bell’s theorem has to have rocks in his head.”
In 'Is the Moon There When Nobody Looks? Reality and the Quantum Theory', Physics Today (Apr 1985), 38-47.
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Are the humanistic and scientific approaches different? Scientists can calculate the torsion of a skyscraper at the wing-beat of a bird, or 155 motions of the Moon and 500 smaller ones in addition. They move in academic garb and sing logarithms. They say, “The sky is ours”, like priests in charge of heaven. We poor humanists cannot even think clearly, or write a sentence without a blunder, commoners of “common sense”. We never take a step without stumbling; they move solemnly, ever unerringly, never a step back, and carry bell, book, and candle.
Quoting himself in Stargazers and Gravediggers: Memoirs to Worlds in Collision (2012), 212.
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As to Bell’s talking telegraph, it only creates interest in scientific circles, and, as a toy it is beautiful; but … its commercial value will be limited.
Letter to William D. Baldwin, his attorney (1 Nov 1876). Telephone Investigating Committee, House of Representatives, United States 49th Congress, 1st Session, Miscellaneous Documents (1886), No. 355, 1186.
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Bell’s theorem is easy to understand but hard to believe.
…...
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Can we ring the bells backward? Can we unlearn the arts that pretend to civilize, and then burn the world? There is a march of science; but who shall beat the drums for its retreat?
Letter to George Dyer (20 Dec 1830). In Charles Lamb and Thomas Noon Talfourd (Ed.), Works: Including His Most Interesting Letters, (1867), 168.
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Chemistry without catalysis, would be a sword without a handle, a light without brilliance, a bell without sound.
R. B. Desper, 'Alwin Mittasch', Journal of Chemlca1 Education (1948), 25, 531-2.
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Dear Mr. Bell: … Sir Wm. Thomson … speaks with much enthusiasm of your achievement. What yesterday he would have declared impossible he has today seen realized, and he declares it the most wonderful thing he has seen in America. You speak of it as an embryo invention, but to him it seems already complete, and he declares that, before long, friends will whisper their secrets over the electric wire. Your undulating current he declares a great and happy conception.
Letter to Alexander Graham Bell (25 Jun 1876). Quoted in Alexander Graham Bell, The Bell Telephone: The Deposition of Alexander Graham Bell, in the Suit Brought by the United States to Annul the Bell Patents (1908), 101. Note: William Thomson is better known as Lord Kelvin.
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Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?
Anonymous
Thomas F. Shubnell, Greatest Jokes of the Century Book 2 (2008), 90.
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Dr Bell fell down the well
And broke his collar bone
Doctors should attend the sick
And leave the well alone.
Anonymous
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Geology, ethnology, what not?—(Greek endings, each the little passing bell
That signifies some faith’s about to die.)
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I can’t work well under the conditions at Bell Labs. Walter [Brattain] and I are looking at a few questions relating to point-contact transistors, but [William] Shockley keeps all the interesting problems for himself.
From conversation with Frederick Seitz as quoted in Lillian Hoddeson, 'John Bardeen: A Place to Win Two Nobel Prizes and Make a Hole in One', collected in Lillian Hoddeson (ed.), No Boundaries: University of Illinois Vignettes (2004), Chap. 16, 242.
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I discovered that Johns Hopkins [University] was a lot like Bell Labs, where the doors were always open and we were free to collaborate with researchers in other disciplines. I like the fact that I won’t be locked into one small niche here.
Quoted in Johns Hopkins University News Release (9 Jan 2003) after he retired from Bell Labs and joined the faculty in Fall 2002. On jh.edu web site.
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I then shouted into M [the mouthpiece] the following sentence: “Mr. Watson—Come here—I want to see you.” To my delight he came and declared that he had heard and understood what I said. I asked him to repeat the words. He answered “You said—‘Mr. Watson—-come here—I want to see you.’” We then changed places and I listened at S [the reed receiver] while Mr. Watson read a few passages from a book into the mouth piece M. It was certainly the case that articulate sounds proceeded from S. The effect was loud but indistinct and muffled. If I had read beforehand the passage given by Mr. Watson I should have recognized every word. As it was I could not make out the sense—but an occasional word here and there was quite distinct. I made out “to” and “out” and “further”; and finally the sentence “Mr. Bell do you understand what I say? Do—you—un—der—stand—what—I—say” came quite clearly and intelligibly. No sound was audible when the armature S was removed.
Notebook, 'Experiments made by A. Graham Bell, vol. I'. Entry for 10 March 1876. Quoted in Robert V. Bruce, Bell: Alexander Graham Bell and the Conquest of Solitude (1973), 181.
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I think my most important work has been done on the borderlines between different areas of science. My first work was in geophysics, a combination of physics and geology, and then at the Bell Laboratories, it was more a combination of physics and electrical engineering. That’s what I’m following more or less as time goes on. My appointment here at the university relates to physics and electrical engineering, but I have also worked in the borderline areas between physics and chemistry. I think reading widely and being interested in many different areas in science is important.
In Robert L. Burtch, 'Interview with a Nobel Laureate: Fifth Graders Learn About a Scientist We All Should Know', Science and Children, (Nov/Dec 1990), 28, No. 3, 16-17.
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In structure these little animals were fashioned like a bell, and at the round opening they made such a stir, that the particles in the water thereabout were set in motion thereby. … And though I must have seen quite 20 of these little animals on their long tails alongside one another very gently moving, with outstretcht bodies and straitened-out tails; yet in an instant, as it were, they pulled their bodies and their tails together, and no sooner had they contracted their bodies and tails, than they began to stick their tails out again very leisurely, and stayed thus some time continuing their gentle motion: which sight I found mightily diverting.
[Describing the ciliate Vorticella.]
Letter to the Royal Society, London (25 Dec 1702). In Clifford Dobell (ed.), Anthony van Leewenhoek and his “Little Animals” (1932), 277.
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Most American citizens think that life without the telephone is scarcely worth living. The American public telephone system is therefore enormous. Moreover the system belongs to an organization, the Bell companies, which can both control it and make the equipment needed. There is no surer way of getting efficient functional design than having equipment designed by an organization which is going to have to use it. Humans who would have to live with their own mistakes tend to think twice and to make fewer mistakes.
In 'Musical Acoustics Today', New Scientist (1 Nov 1962), 16 No. 311, 256.
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My method consists in allowing the mind to play freely for a very brief period, until a couple or so of ideas have passed through it, and then, while the traces or echoes of those ideas are still lingering in the brain, to turn the attention upon them with a sudden and complete awakening; to arrest, to scrutinise them, and to record their exact appearance... The general impression they have left upon me is like that which many of us have experienced when the basement of our house happens to be under thorough sanitary repairs, and we realise for the first time the complex system of drains and gas and water pipes, flues, bell-wires, and so forth, upon which our comfort depends, but which are usually hidden out of sight, and with whose existence, so long as they acted well, we had never troubled ourselves.
Inquiries into Human Faculty and its Development (1883),185-6.
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Not long ago the head of what should be a strictly scientific department in one of the major universities commented on the odd (and ominous) phenomenon that persons who can claim to be scientists on the basis of the technical training that won them the degree of Ph.D. are now found certifying the authenticity of the painted rag that is called the “Turin Shroud” or adducing “scientific” arguments to support hoaxes about the “paranormal” or an antiquated religiosity. “You can hire a scientist [sic],” he said, “to prove anything.” He did not adduce himself as proof of his generalization, but he did boast of his cleverness in confining his own research to areas in which the results would not perturb the Establishment or any vociferous gang of shyster-led fanatics. If such is indeed the status of science and scholarship in our darkling age, Send not to ask for whom the bell tolls.
…...
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TELESCOPE, n. A device having a relation to the eye similar to that of the telephone to the ear, enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless details. Luckily it is unprovided with a bell summoning us to the sacrifice.
The Collected Works of Ambrose Bierce (1911), Vol. 7, The Devil's Dictionary,  342.
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The bell ringing for church, we went thither immediately, and with hearts full of gratitude, returned sincere thanks to God for the mercies we had received: were I a Roman Catholic, perhaps I should on this occasion vow to build a chapel to some saint, but as I am not, if I were to vow at all, it should be to build a light-house. [Upon narrowly missing a shipwreck on the Scilly rocks.]
[Frequently seen summarized as, though not Franklin's own wording: Lighthouses are more helpful than churches.
Letter written at Falmouth, England (17 Jul 1757) to Deborah Read Franklin (common-law wife). Quoted in Benjamin Franklin and William Temple Franklin, The Works of Dr. Benjamin Franklin (1818), 175 footnote added by W.T. Franklin.
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The bells which toll for mankind are—most of them, anyway—like the bells of Alpine cattle; they are attached to our own necks, and it must be our fault if they do not make a cheerful and harmonious sound.
From sixth and last lecture in series of Reith Lectures titled 'The Future of Man' on BBC Home Service radio (1959). Text printed in the magazine, The Listener. Also collected in book form as The Future of Man. This was the concluding sentence of the last lecture.
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The dog [in Pavlov’s experiments] does not continue to salivate whenever it hears a bell unless sometimes at least an edible offering accompanies the bell. But there are innumerable instances in human life where a single association, never reinforced, results in the establishment of a life-long dynamic system. An experience associated only once with a bereavement, an accident, or a battle, may become the center of a permanent phobia or complex, not in the least dependent on a recurrence of the original shock.
Personality: A Psychological Interpretation(1938), 199.
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The familiar idea of a god who is omniscient: someone who knows everything … does not immediately ring alarm bells in our brains; it is plausible that such a being could exist. Yet, when it is probed more closely one can show that omniscience of this sort creates a logical paradox and must, by the standards of human reason, therefore be judged impossible or be qualified in some way. To see this consider this test statement:
This statement is not known to be true by anyone.
Now consider the plight of our hypothetical Omniscient Being (“Big O”). Suppose first that this statement is true and Big O does not know it. Then Big O would not be omniscient. So, instead, suppose our statement is false. This means that someone must know the statement to be true; hence it must be true. So regardless of whether we assume at the outset that this statement is true or false, we are forced to conclude that it must be true! And therefore, since the statement is true, nobody (including Big O) can know that it is true. This shows that there must always be true statements that no being can know to be true. Hence there cannot be an Omniscient Being who knows all truths. Nor, by the same argument, could we or our future successors, ever attain such a state of omniscience. All that can be known is all that can be known, not all that is true.
In Impossibility: The Limits of Science and the Science of Limits (1999), 11.
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The images evoked by words being independent of their sense, they vary from age to age and from people to people, the formulas remaining identical. Certain transitory images are attached to certain words: the word is merely as it were the button of an electric bell that calls them up.
From Psychologie des Foules (1895), 91. English text in The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1897), Book 2, Chap. 2, 97. The original French text is, “Les images évoquées par les mots étant indépendantes de leur sens, varient d’âge en âge, de peuple à peuple, sous l’identité des formules. A certains mots s’attachent transitoirement certaines images: le mot n’est que le bouton d’appel qui les fait apparaître.” Notice the original French, “le bouton d’appel” translates more directly as “call button” and “of an electric bell” is added in translation for clarity, but is not in the French text. The ending could also be translated as “that makes them appear.”
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The position of the anthropologist of to-day resembles in some sort the position of classical scholars at the revival of learning. To these men the rediscovery of ancient literature came like a revelation, disclosing to their wondering eyes a splendid vision of the antique world, such as the cloistered of the Middle Ages never dreamed of under the gloomy shadow of the minster and within the sound of its solemn bells. To us moderns a still wider vista is vouchsafed, a greater panorama is unrolled by the study which aims at bringing home to us the faith and the practice, the hopes and the ideals, not of two highly gifted races only, but of all mankind, and thus at enabling us to follow the long march, the slow and toilsome ascent, of humanity from savagery to civilization. And as the scholar of the Renaissance found not merely fresh food for thought but a new field of labour in the dusty and faded manuscripts of Greece and Rome, so in the mass of materials that is steadily pouring in from many sides—from buried cities of remotest antiquity as well as from the rudest savages of the desert and the jungle—we of to-day must recognise a new province of knowledge which will task the energies of generations of students to master.
'Author’s Introduction' (1900). In Dr Theodor H. Gaster (ed.), The New Golden Bough (1959), xxv-xxvi.
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The stories of Whitney’s love for experimenting are legion. At one time he received a letter asking if insects could live in a vacuum. Whitney took the letter to one of the members of his staff and asked the man if he cared to run an experiment on the subject. The man replied that there was no point in it, since it was well established that life could not exist without a supply of oxygen. Whitney, who was an inveterate student of wild life, replied that on his farm he had seen turtles bury themselves in mud each fall, and, although the mud was covered with ice and snow for months, emerge again in the spring. The man exclaimed, “Oh, you mean hibernation!” Whitney answered, “I don’t know what I mean, but I want to know if bugs can live in a vacuum.”
He proceeded down the hall and broached the subject to another member of the staff. Faced with the same lack of enthusiasm for pursuing the matter further, Whitney tried another illustration. “I’ve been told that you can freeze a goldfish solidly in a cake of ice, where he certainly can’t get much oxygen, and can keep him there for a month or two. But if you thaw him out carefully he seems none the worse for his experience.” The second scientist replied, “Oh, you mean suspended animation.” Whitney once again explained that his interest was not in the terms but in finding an answer to the question.
Finally Whitney returned to his own laboratory and set to work. He placed a fly and a cockroach in a bell jar and removed the air. The two insects promptly keeled over. After approximately two hours, however, when he gradually admitted air again, the cockroach waved its feelers and staggered to its feet. Before long, both the cockroach and the fly were back in action.
'Willis Rodney Whitney', National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs (1960), 357-358.
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The truth is, Pavlov’s dog trained Pavlov to ring this bell just before the dog salivated.
Brain Droppings (1998), 187.
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There may be a golden ignorance. If Professor Bell had known how difficult a task he was attempting, he would never have given us the telephone.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 178.
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To me, it [the 1962 space flight of Friendship 7] is not something that happened a long time ago. It seems like a couple of days ago, really. It’s a rare day I don’t think about it, relive it in my mind. I can remember every switch I flipped, every move I made, every word I spoke and every word spoken to me. Clear as a bell.
As reported by Howard Wilkinson in 'John Glenn Had the Stuff U.S. Heroes are Made of', The Cincinnati Enquirer (20 Feb 2002).
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[1665-06-20] ...This day I informed myself that there died four or five at Westminster of the Plague, in one alley in several houses upon Sunday last - Bell Alley, over against the Palace gate. yet people do think that the number will be fewer in the town then it was last week. ...
Diary of Samuel Pepys (20 Jun 1665)
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[1665-08-31] Up, and after putting several things in order to my removal to Woolwich, the plague having a great increase this week beyond all expectation, of almost 2000 - making the general Bill 7000, odd 100 and the plague above 6000 .... Thus this month ends, with great sadness upon the public through the greateness of the plague, everywhere through the Kingdom almost. Every day sadder and sadder news of its increase. In the City died this week 7496; and all of them, 6102 of the plague. But it is feared that the true number of the dead this week is near 10000 - partly from the poor that cannot be taken notice of through the greatness of the number, and partly from the Quakers and others that will not have any bell ring for them. As to myself, I am very well; only, in fear of the plague, and as much of an Ague, by being forced to go early and late to Woolwich, and my family to lie there continually.
Diary of Samuel Pepys (31 August 1665)
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[Benjamin Peirce's] lectures were not easy to follow. They were never carefully prepared. The work with which he rapidly covered the blackboard was very illegible, marred with frequent erasures, and not infrequent mistakes (he worked too fast for accuracy). He was always ready to digress from the straight path and explore some sidetrack that had suddenly attracted his attention, but which was likely to have led nowhere when the college bell announced the close of the hour and we filed out, leaving him abstractedly staring at his work, still with chalk and eraser in his hands, entirely oblivious of his departing class.
Writing as a Professor Emeritus at Harvard University, a former student of Peirce, in 'Benjamin Peirce: II. Reminiscences', The American Mathematical Monthly (Jan 1925), 32, No. 1, 6.
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[Volta’s battery is] an alarm-bell to experimenters in every part of Europe.
In Humphry Davy, 'Historical Sketch of Electrical Discovery' (1810), in John Davy (ed.), The Collected Works of Sir Humphry Davy (1840), Vol. 8, 271.
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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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- 90 -
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- 80 -
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- 70 -
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- 60 -
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- 50 -
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- 40 -
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- 30 -
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- 20 -
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