Discussion Quotes (47 quotes)

*Responding to the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce's question whether he traced his descent from an ape on his mother's or his father's side:*

If then, said I, the question is put to me would I rather have a miserable ape for a grandfather or a man highly endowed by nature and possessing great means and influence and yet who employs those faculties for the mere purpose of introducing ridicule into a grave scientific discussion—I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.

All discussion of the ultimate nature of things must necessarily be barren unless we have some extraneous standards against which to compare them.

All silencing of discussion is an assumption of infallibility.

Almost everyone... seems to be quite sure that the differences between the methodologies of history and of the natural sciences are vast. For, we are assured, it is well known that in the natural sciences we start from observation and proceed by induction to theory. And is it not obvious that in history we proceed very differently? Yes, I agree that we proceed very differently. But we do so in the natural sciences as well.

In both we start from myths—from traditional prejudices, beset with error—and from these we proceed by criticism: by the critical elimination of errors. In both the role of evidence is, in the main, to correct our mistakes, our prejudices, our tentative theories—that is, to play a part in the critical discussion, in the elimination of error. By correcting our mistakes, we raise new problems. And in order to solve these problems, we invent conjectures, that is, tentative theories, which we submit to critical discussion, directed towards the elimination of error.

In both we start from myths—from traditional prejudices, beset with error—and from these we proceed by criticism: by the critical elimination of errors. In both the role of evidence is, in the main, to correct our mistakes, our prejudices, our tentative theories—that is, to play a part in the critical discussion, in the elimination of error. By correcting our mistakes, we raise new problems. And in order to solve these problems, we invent conjectures, that is, tentative theories, which we submit to critical discussion, directed towards the elimination of error.

As, no matter what cunning system of checks we devise, we must in the end trust some one whom we do not check, but to whom we give unreserved confidence, so there is a point at which the understanding and mental processes must be taken as understood without further question or definition in words. And I should say that this point should be fixed pretty early in the discussion.

Brutes by their natural instinct have produced many discoveries, whereas men by discussion and the conclusions of reason have given birth to few or none.

Clarity about the aims and problems of socialism is of greatest significance in our age of transition. Since, under present circumstances, free and unhindered discussion of these problems has come under a powerful taboo, I consider the foundation of this magazine to be an important public service.

Definition of Mathematics.—It has now become apparent that the traditional field of mathematics in the province of discrete and continuous number can only be separated from the general abstract theory of classes and relations by a wavering and indeterminate line. Of course a discussion as to the mere application of a word easily degenerates into the most fruitless logomachy. It is open to any one to use any word in any sense. But on the assumption that “mathematics” is to denote a science well marked out by its subject matter and its methods from other topics of thought, and that at least it is to include all topics habitually assigned to it, there is now no option but to employ “mathematics” in the general sense of the “science concerned with the logical deduction of consequences from the general premisses of all reasoning.”

DISCUSSION,

*n.*A method of confirming others in their errors.
Doubly galling was the fact that at the same time my roommate was taking a history course … filled with excitement over a class discussion. … I was busy with Ampere’s law. We never had any fascinating class discussions about this law. No one, teacher or student, ever asked me what I thought about it.

For, the great enemy of knowledge is not error, but inertness. All that we want is discussion, and then we are sure to do well, no matter what our blunders may be. One error conflicts with another; each destroys its opponent, and truth is evolved.

Good lawyers know that in many cases where the decisions are correct, the reasons that are given to sustain them may be entirely wrong. This is a thousand times more likely to be true in the practice of medicine than in that of the law, and hence the impropriety, not to say the folly, in spending your time in the discussion of medical belief and theories of cure that are more ingenious and seductive than they are profitable.

However, before we come to [special] creation, which puts an end to all discussion: I think we should try everything else.

I first met J. Robert Oppenheimer on October 8, 1942, at Berkeley, Calif. There we discussed the theoretical research studies he was engaged in with respect to the physics of the bomb. Our discussions confirmed my previous belief that we should bring all of the widely scattered theoretical work together. … He expressed complete agreement, and it was then that the idea of the prompt establishment of a Los Alamos was conceived.”

I hear one day the word “mountain,” and I ask someone “what is a mountain? I have never seen one.”

I join others in discussions of mountains.

One day I see in a book a picture of a mountain.

And I decide I must climb one.

I travel to a place where there is a mountain.

At the base of the mountain I see there are lots of paths to climb.

I start on a path that leads to the top of the mountain.

I see that the higher I climb, the more the paths join together.

After much climbing the many paths join into one.

I climb till I am almost exhausted but I force myself and continue to climb.

Finally I reach the top and far above me there are stars.

I look far down and the village twinkles far below.

It would be easy to go back down there but it is so beautiful up here.

I am just below the stars.

I join others in discussions of mountains.

One day I see in a book a picture of a mountain.

And I decide I must climb one.

I travel to a place where there is a mountain.

At the base of the mountain I see there are lots of paths to climb.

I start on a path that leads to the top of the mountain.

I see that the higher I climb, the more the paths join together.

After much climbing the many paths join into one.

I climb till I am almost exhausted but I force myself and continue to climb.

Finally I reach the top and far above me there are stars.

I look far down and the village twinkles far below.

It would be easy to go back down there but it is so beautiful up here.

I am just below the stars.

I make many of my friends by lecturing. I keep the lectures informal, if I can, with lots of discussion, and I never give the same one twice—I’d die of boredom if I did.

I remember discussions with Bohr which went through many hours till very late at night and ended almost in despair; and when at the end of the discussion I went alone for a walk in the neighboring park I repeated to myself again and again the question: Can nature possibly be as absurd as it seemed to us in these atomic experiments?

If I have sometimes disturbed our academies by somewhat livelier discussions, it is because I was passionately defending truth.

If we do discover a complete unified theory, it should be in time understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists. Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of why it is that we and the universe exist. If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason—for then we would know the mind of God.

In our popular discussions, unwise ideas must have a hearing as well as wise ones, dangerous ideas as well as safe.

In the company of friends, writers can discuss their books, economists the state of the economy, lawyers their latest cases, and businessmen their latest acquisitions, but mathematicians cannot discuss their mathematics at all. And the more profound their work, the less understandable it is.

In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. … The old problems, such as the relation of science and religion, are still with us, and I believe present as difficult dilemmas as ever, but they are not often publicly discussed because of the limitations of specialization.

It is exceptional that one should be able to acquire the understanding of a process without having previously acquired a deep familiarity with running it, with using it, before one has assimilated it in an instinctive and empirical way. Thus any discussion of the nature of intellectual effort in any field is difficult, unless it presupposes an easy, routine familiarity with that field. In mathematics this limitation becomes very severe.

It is sometimes asserted that a surgical operation is or should be a work of art … fit to rank with those of the painter or sculptor. … That proposition does not admit of discussion. It is a product of the intellectual innocence which I think we surgeons may fairly claim to possess, and which is happily not inconsistent with a quite adequate worldly wisdom.

It might interest you that when we made the experiments that we did not read the literature well enough—and you know how that happens. On the other hand, one would think that other people would have told us about it. For instance, we had a colloquium at the time in Berlin at which all the important papers were discussed. Nobody discussed Bohr’s paper. Why not? The reason is that fifty years ago one was so convinced that nobody would, with the state of knowledge we had at that time, understand spectral line emission, so that if somebody published a paper about it, one assumed “probably it is not right.” So we did not know it.

It was his [Leibnitz’s] love of method and order, and the conviction that such order and harmony existed in the real world, and that our success in understanding it depended upon the degree and order which we could attain in our own thoughts, that originally was probably nothing more than a habit which by degrees grew into a formal rule.* This habit was acquired by early occupation with legal and mathematical questions. We have seen how the theory of combinations and arrangements of elements had a special interest for him. We also saw how mathematical calculations served him as a type and model of clear and orderly reasoning, and how he tried to introduce method and system into logical discussions, by reducing to a small number of terms the multitude of compound notions he had to deal with. This tendency increased in strength, and even in those early years he elaborated the idea of a general arithmetic, with a universal language of symbols, or a characteristic which would be applicable to all reasoning processes, and reduce philosophical investigations to that simplicity and certainty which the use of algebraic symbols had introduced into mathematics.

A mental attitude such as this is always highly favorable for mathematical as well as for philosophical investigations. Wherever progress depends upon precision and clearness of thought, and wherever such can be gained by reducing a variety of investigations to a general method, by bringing a multitude of notions under a common term or symbol, it proves inestimable. It necessarily imports the special qualities of number—viz., their continuity, infinity and infinite divisibility—like mathematical quantities—and destroys the notion that irreconcilable contrasts exist in nature, or gaps which cannot be bridged over. Thus, in his letter to Arnaud, Leibnitz expresses it as his opinion that geometry, or the philosophy of space, forms a step to the philosophy of motion—i.e., of corporeal things—and the philosophy of motion a step to the philosophy of mind.

A mental attitude such as this is always highly favorable for mathematical as well as for philosophical investigations. Wherever progress depends upon precision and clearness of thought, and wherever such can be gained by reducing a variety of investigations to a general method, by bringing a multitude of notions under a common term or symbol, it proves inestimable. It necessarily imports the special qualities of number—viz., their continuity, infinity and infinite divisibility—like mathematical quantities—and destroys the notion that irreconcilable contrasts exist in nature, or gaps which cannot be bridged over. Thus, in his letter to Arnaud, Leibnitz expresses it as his opinion that geometry, or the philosophy of space, forms a step to the philosophy of motion—i.e., of corporeal things—and the philosophy of motion a step to the philosophy of mind.

*[* This sentence has been reworded for the purpose of this quotation.]*
Kant, discussing the various modes of perception by which the human mind apprehends nature, concluded that it is specially prone to see nature through mathematical spectacles. Just as a man wearing blue spectacles would see only a blue world, so Kant thought that, with our mental bias, we tend to see only a mathematical world.

Modern discoveries have not been made by large collections of facts, with subsequent discussion, separation, and resulting deduction of a truth thus rendered perceptible. A few

*facts*have suggested an*hypothesis*, which means a*supposition*, proper to explain them. The necessary results of this supposition are worked out, and then, and not till then, other facts are examined to see if their ulterior results are found in Nature.
Much later, when I discussed the problem with Einstein, he remarked that the introduction of the cosmological term was the biggest blunder he ever made in his life. But this “blunder,” rejected by Einstein, is still sometimes used by cosmologists even today, and the cosmological constant denoted by the Greek letter Λ rears its ugly head again and again and again.

On May 15, 1957 Linus Pauling made an extraordinary speech to the students of Washington University. ... It was at this time that the idea of the scientists' petition against nuclear weapons tests was born. That evening we discussed it at length after dinner at my house and various ones of those present were scribbling and suggesting paragraphs. But it was Linus Pauling himself who contributed the simple prose of the petition that was much superior to any of the suggestions we were making.

One cannot ignore half of life for the purposes of science, and then claim that the results of science give a full and adequate picture of the meaning of life. All discussions of “life” which begin with a description of man's place on a speck of matter in space, in an endless evolutionary scale, are bound to be half-measures, because they leave out most of the experiences which are important to use as human beings.

One evening at a Joint Summer Research Congerence in the early 1990’s Nicholai Reshetikhin and I [David Yetter] button-holed Flato, and explained at length Shum’s coherence theorem and the role of categories in “quantum knot invariants”. Flato was persistently dismissive of categories as a “mere language”. I retired for the evening, leaving Reshetikhin and Flato to the discussion. At the next morning’s session, Flato tapped me on the shoulder, and, giving a thumbs-up sign, whispered, “Hey! Viva les categories! These new ones, the braided monoidal ones.”

One point at which our magicians attempt their sleight-of-hand is when they slide quickly from the Hubble, redshift-distance relation to redshift-velocity of expansion. There are now five or six whole classes of objects that violate this absolutely basic assumption. It really gives away the game to realize how observations of these crucial objects have been banned from the telescope and how their discussion has met with desperate attempts at suppression.

Religion, in contrast to science, deploys the repugnant view that the world is too big for our understanding. Science, in contrast to religion, opens up the great questions of being to rational discussion, to discussion with the prospect of resolution and elucidation.

Science, history and politics are not suited for discussion except by experts. Others are simply in the position of requiring more information; and, till they have acquired all available information, cannot do anything but accept on authority the opinions of those better qualified.

So-called extraordinary events always split into two extremes naturalists who have not witnessed them: those who believe blindly and those who do not believe at all. The latter have always in mind the story of the golden goose; if the facts lie slightly beyond the limits of their knowledge, they relegate them immediately to fables. The former have a secret taste for marvels because they seem to expand Nature; they use their imagination with pleasure to find explanations. To remain doubtful is given to naturalists who keep a middle path between the two extremes. They calmly examine facts; they refer to logic for help; they discuss probabilities; they do not scoff at anything, not even errors, because they serve at least the history of the human mind; finally, they report rather than judge; they rarely decide unless they have good evidence.

Suppose then I want to give myself a little training in the art of reasoning; suppose I want to get out of the region of conjecture and probability, free myself from the difficult task of weighing evidence, and putting instances together to arrive at general propositions, and simply desire to know how to deal with my general propositions when I get them, and how to deduce right inferences from them; it is clear that I shall obtain this sort of discipline best in those departments of thought in which the first principles are unquestionably true. For in all our thinking, if we come to erroneous conclusions, we come to them either by accepting false premises to start with—in which case our reasoning, however good, will not save us from error; or by reasoning badly, in which case the data we start from may be perfectly sound, and yet our conclusions may be false. But in the mathematical or pure sciences,—geometry, arithmetic, algebra, trigonometry, the calculus of variations or of curves,— we know at least that there is not, and cannot be, error in our first principles, and we may therefore fasten our whole attention upon the processes. As mere exercises in logic, therefore, these sciences, based as they all are on primary truths relating to space and number, have always been supposed to furnish the most exact discipline. When Plato wrote over the portal of his school. “Let no one ignorant of geometry enter here,” he did not mean that questions relating to lines and surfaces would be discussed by his disciples. On the contrary, the topics to which he directed their attention were some of the deepest problems,— social, political, moral,—on which the mind could exercise itself. Plato and his followers tried to think out together conclusions respecting the being, the duty, and the destiny of man, and the relation in which he stood to the gods and to the unseen world. What had geometry to do with these things? Simply this: That a man whose mind has not undergone a rigorous training in systematic thinking, and in the art of drawing legitimate inferences from premises, was unfitted to enter on the discussion of these high topics; and that the sort of logical discipline which he needed was most likely to be obtained from geometry—the only mathematical science which in Plato’s time had been formulated and reduced to a system. And we in this country [England] have long acted on the same principle. Our future lawyers, clergy, and statesmen are expected at the University to learn a good deal about curves, and angles, and numbers and proportions; not because these subjects have the smallest relation to the needs of their lives, but because in the very act of learning them they are likely to acquire that habit of steadfast and accurate thinking, which is indispensable to success in all the pursuits of life.

The fact that, with respect to size, the viruses overlapped with the organisms of the biologist at one extreme and with the molecules of the chemist at the other extreme only served to heighten the mystery regarding the nature of viruses. Then too, it became obvious that a sharp line dividing living from non-living things could not be drawn and this fact served to add fuel for discussion of the age-old question of “What is life?”

The hypothetical character of continual creation has been pointed out, but why is it more of a hypothesis to say that creation is taking place now than that it took place in the past? On the contrary, the hypothesis of continual creation is more fertile in that it answers more questions and yields more results, and results that are, at least in principle, observable. To push the entire question of creation into the past is to restrict science to a discussion of what happened after creation while forbidding it to examine creation itself. This is a counsel of despair to be taken only if everything else fails.

The intensity and quantity of polemical literature on scientific problems frequently varies inversely as the number of direct observations on which the discussions are based: the number and variety of theories concerning a subject thus often form a coefficient of our ignorance. Beyond the superficial observations, direct and indirect, made by geologists, not extending below about one two-hundredth of the Earth's radius, we have to trust to the deductions of mathematicians for our ideas regarding the interior of the Earth; and they have provided us successively with every permutation and combination possible of the three physical states of matter—solid, liquid, and gaseous.

The mathematical universe is already so large and diversified that it is hardly possible for a single mind to grasp it, or, to put it in another way, so much energy would be needed for grasping it that there would be none left for creative research. A mathematical congress of today reminds one of the Tower of Babel, for few men can follow profitably the discussions of sections other than their own, and even there they are sometimes made to feel like strangers.

These parsons are so in the habit of dealing with the abstractions of doctrines as if there was no difficulty about them whatever, so confident, from the practice of having the talk all to themselves for an hour at least every week with no one to gainsay a syllable they utter, be it ever so loose or bad, that they gallop over the course when their field is Botany or Geology as if we were in the pews and they in the pulpit ... There is a story somewhere of an Englishman, Frenchman, and German being each called on to describe a camel. The Englishman immediately embarked for Egypt, the Frenchman went to the Jardin des Plantes, and the German shut himself up in his study and thought it out!

Thus, remarkably, we do not know the true number of species on earth even to the nearest order of magnitude. My own guess, based on the described fauna and flora and many discussions with entomologists and other specialists, is that the absolute number falls somewhere between five and thirty million.

To emphasize this opinion that mathematicians would be unwise to accept practical issues as the sole guide or the chief guide in the current of their investigations, ... let me take one more instance, by choosing a subject in which the purely mathematical interest is deemed supreme, the theory of functions of a complex variable. That at least is a theory in pure mathematics, initiated in that region, and developed in that region; it is built up in scores of papers, and its plan certainly has not been, and is not now, dominated or guided by considerations of applicability to natural phenomena. Yet what has turned out to be its relation to practical issues? The investigations of Lagrange and others upon the construction of maps appear as a portion of the general property of conformal representation; which is merely the general geometrical method of regarding functional relations in that theory. Again, the interesting and important investigations upon discontinuous two-dimensional fluid motion in hydrodynamics, made in the last twenty years, can all be, and now are all, I believe, deduced from similar considerations by interpreting functional relations between complex variables. In the dynamics of a rotating heavy body, the only substantial extension of our knowledge since the time of Lagrange has accrued from associating the general properties of functions with the discussion of the equations of motion. Further, under the title of conjugate functions, the theory has been applied to various questions in electrostatics, particularly in connection with condensers and electrometers. And, lastly, in the domain of physical astronomy, some of the most conspicuous advances made in the last few years have been achieved by introducing into the discussion the ideas, the principles, the methods, and the results of the theory of functions. … the refined and extremely difficult work of Poincare and others in physical astronomy has been possible only by the use of the most elaborate developments of some purely mathematical subjects, developments which were made without a thought of such applications.

Two extreme views have always been held as to the use of mathematics. To some, mathematics is only measuring and calculating instruments, and their interest ceases as soon as discussions arise which cannot benefit those who use the instruments for the purposes of application in mechanics, astronomy, physics, statistics, and other sciences. At the other extreme we have those who are animated exclusively by the love of pure science. To them pure mathematics, with the theory of numbers at the head, is the only real and genuine science, and the applications have only an interest in so far as they contain or suggest problems in pure mathematics.

Of the two greatest mathematicians of modern tunes, Newton and Gauss, the former can be considered as a representative of the first, the latter of the second class; neither of them was exclusively so, and Newton’s inventions in the science of pure mathematics were probably equal to Gauss’s work in applied mathematics. Newton’s reluctance to publish the method of fluxions invented and used by him may perhaps be attributed to the fact that he was not satisfied with the logical foundations of the Calculus; and Gauss is known to have abandoned his electro-dynamic speculations, as he could not find a satisfying physical basis. …

Newton’s greatest work, the

The country of Newton is still pre-eminent for its culture of mathematical physics, that of Gauss for the most abstract work in mathematics.

Of the two greatest mathematicians of modern tunes, Newton and Gauss, the former can be considered as a representative of the first, the latter of the second class; neither of them was exclusively so, and Newton’s inventions in the science of pure mathematics were probably equal to Gauss’s work in applied mathematics. Newton’s reluctance to publish the method of fluxions invented and used by him may perhaps be attributed to the fact that he was not satisfied with the logical foundations of the Calculus; and Gauss is known to have abandoned his electro-dynamic speculations, as he could not find a satisfying physical basis. …

Newton’s greatest work, the

*Principia*, laid the foundation of mathematical physics; Gauss’s greatest work, the*Disquisitiones Arithmeticae*, that of higher arithmetic as distinguished from algebra. Both works, written in the synthetic style of the ancients, are difficult, if not deterrent, in their form, neither of them leading the reader by easy steps to the results. It took twenty or more years before either of these works received due recognition; neither found favour at once before that great tribunal of mathematical thought, the Paris Academy of Sciences. …The country of Newton is still pre-eminent for its culture of mathematical physics, that of Gauss for the most abstract work in mathematics.

We must not overlook the role that extremists play. They are the gadflies that keep society from being too complacent or self-satisfied; they are, if sound, the spearhead of progress. If they are fundamentally wrong, free discussion will in time put an end to them.

[To a man expecting a scientific proof of the impossibility of flying saucers] I might have said to him: “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely, that is all. It is a good guess. And we always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in the back of the mind the fact that if it does not work we must discuss the other possibilities.