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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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Experimenter Quotes (40 quotes)


Question: Explain why, in order to cook food by boiling, at the top of a high mountain, you must employ a different method from that used at the sea level.
Answer: It is easy to cook food at the sea level by boiling it, but once you get above the sea level the only plan is to fry it in its own fat. It is, in fact, impossible to boil water above the sea level by any amount of heat. A different method, therefore, would have to be employed to boil food at the top of a high mountain, but what that method is has not yet been discovered. The future may reveal it to a daring experimentalist.
Genuine student answer* to an Acoustics, Light and Heat paper (1880), Science and Art Department, South Kensington, London, collected by Prof. Oliver Lodge. Quoted in Henry B. Wheatley, Literary Blunders (1893), 178-9, Question 11. (*From a collection in which Answers are not given verbatim et literatim, and some instances may combine several students' blunders.)
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As scientists the two men were contrasting types—Einstein all calculation, Rutherford all experiment ... There was no doubt that as an experimenter Rutherford was a genius, one of the greatest. He worked by intuition and everything he touched turned to gold. He had a sixth sense.
(Reminiscence comparing his friend, Ernest Rutherford, with Albert Einstein, whom he also knew.)
Trial and Error: The Autobiography of Chaim Weizman (1949), 118. Quoted in A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford (2007), 65-66.
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Before an experiment can be performed, it must be planned—the question to nature must be formulated before being posed. Before the result of a measurement can be used, it must be interpreted—nature's answer must be understood properly. These two tasks are those of the theorist, who finds himself always more and more dependent on the tools of abstract mathematics. Of course, this does not mean that the experimenter does not also engage in theoretical deliberations. The foremost classical example of a major achievement produced by such a division of labor is the creation of spectrum analysis by the joint efforts of Robert Bunsen, the experimenter, and Gustav Kirchoff, the theorist. Since then, spectrum analysis has been continually developing and bearing ever richer fruit.
'The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science', Science (30 Sep 1949), 110, No. 2857, 325. Advance reprinting of chapter from book Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (1949), 110.
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Common sense … may be thought of as a series of concepts and conceptual schemes which have proved highly satisfactory for the practical uses of mankind. Some of those concepts and conceptual schemes were carried over into science with only a little pruning and whittling and for a long time proved useful. As the recent revolutions in physics indicate, however, many errors can be made by failure to examine carefully just how common sense ideas should be defined in terms of what the experimenter plans to do.
In Science and Common Sense (1951), 32-33.
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Everyone believes in the law of errors, the experimenters because they think it is a mathematical theorem, and the mathematicians because they think it is an experimental fact.
Remark to Henri Poincaré about the Gaussian curve. From the original French, “Les expérimentateurs s’imaginent que c’est un théorème de mathématique, et les mathématiciens d’être un fait expérimental”, in Henri Poincaré, Calcul des Probabilités (1896), 149. Poincaré introduces it as, “me disait un jour M. Lippmann” (Mr. Lippman told me one day). Quote above as translated in F. Downton, 'Review: Nonparametric Methods in Statistics', The Mathematical Gazette (Feb 1959), 43, No. 343, 67.
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Examples ... show how difficult it often is for an experimenter to interpret his results without the aid of mathematics.
Quoted in E. T. Bell, Men of Mathematics, xvi.
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Experimentation is the least arrogant method of gaining knowledge. The experimenter humbly asks a question of nature.
[Unverified. Please contact Webmaster if you can identify the primary source.]
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Experimenters are the shock troops of science.
'The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science', Science (30 Sep 1949), 110, No. 2857, 325. Advance reprinting of chapter from book Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (1949), 110.
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Experimenters are the shocktroops of science.
In Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (1949).
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Experimenters don’t come in late—they never went home.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993), 14.
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For chemistry is no science form’d à priori; ’tis no production of the human mind, framed by reasoning and deduction: it took its rise from a number of experiments casually made, without any expectation of what follow’d; and was only reduced into an art or system, by collecting and comparing the effects of such unpremeditated experiments, and observing the uniform tendency thereof. So far, then, as a number of experimenters agree to establish any undoubted truth; so far they may be consider'd as constituting the theory of chemistry.
From 'The Author's Preface', in A New Method of Chemistry (1727), vi.
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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.
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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.
Quoted in Richard R. Nelson, 'The Link Between Science and Invention: The Case of the Transistor,' The Rate and Direction of the Inventive Activity (1962). In Daniel S. Greenberg, The Politics of Pure Science (1999), 32, footnote.
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From my father I learned to build things, to take them apart, and to fix mechanical and electrical equipment in general. I spent vast hours in a woodworking shop he maintained in the basement of our house, building gadgets, working both with my father and alone, often late into the night. … This play with building, fixing, and designing was my favorite activity throughout my childhood, and was a wonderful preparation for my later career as an experimentalist working on the frontiers of chemistry and physics.
From 'Richard E. Smalley: Biographical', collected in Tore Frängsmyr (ed.), Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes 1996 (1997).
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Edwin Grant Conklin quote: Heredity is to-day the central problem of biology. This problem may be approached from many sides—tha
Heredity is to-day the central problem of biology. This problem may be approached from many sides—that of the breeder, the experimenter, the statistician, the physiologist, the embryologist, the cytologist—but the mechanism of heredity can be studied best by the investigation of the germ cells and their development.
From Address of the vice-president and chairman of Section F, Zoology, American Association for the Advancement of Science, Chicago Meeting (1907-8). Published in 'The Mechanism of Heredity', Science (17 Jan 1908), 27, No. 691, 89-90.
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I am an experimenter, or rather I used to be one. Then I stopped working, and since then people think I am a theoretician.
Quoted in Otto Frisch, What Little I Remember (1979), 105.
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I have just received copies of “To-day” containing criticisms of my letter. I am in no way surprised to find that these criticisms are not only unfair and misleading in the extreme. They are misleading in so far that anyone reading them would be led to believe the exact opposite of the truth. It is quite possible that I, an old and trained engineer and chronic experimenter, should put an undue value upon truth; but it is common to all scientific men. As nothing but the truth is of any value to them, they naturally dislike things that are not true. ... While my training has, perhaps, warped my mind so that I put an undue value upon truth, their training has been such as to cause them to abhor exact truth and logic.
[Replying to criticism by Colonel Acklom and other religious parties attacking Maxim's earlier contribution to the controversy about the modern position of Christianity.]
In G.K. Chesterton, 'The Maxims of Maxim', Daily News (25 Feb 1905). Collected in G. K. Chesterton and Dale Ahlquist (ed.), In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (2011), 86.
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In France, where an attempt has been made to deprive me of the originality of these discoveries, experiments without number and without mercy have been made on living animals; not under the direction of anatomical knowledge, or the guidance of just induction, but conducted with cruelty and indifference, in hope to catch at some of the accidental facts of a system, which, is evident, the experimenters did not fully comprehend.
An Exposition of the Natural System of the Nerves of the Human Body (1824), 2-3.
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In my considered opinion the peer review system, in which proposals rather than proposers are reviewed, is the greatest disaster visited upon the scientific community in this century. No group of peers would have approved my building the 72-inch bubble chamber. Even Ernest Lawrence told me he thought I was making a big mistake. He supported me because he knew my track record was good. I believe that U.S. science could recover from the stultifying effects of decades of misguided peer reviewing if we returned to the tried-and-true method of evaluating experimenters rather than experimental proposals. Many people will say that my ideas are elitist, and I certainly agree. The alternative is the egalitarianism that we now practice and I’ve seen nearly kill basic science in the USSR and in the People's Republic of China.
Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987), 200-1.
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In one person he [Isaac Newton] combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition.
In 'Foreword' to Isaac Newton, Opticks (1952), lix.
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Investigators are commonly said to be engaged in a search for the truth. I think they themselves would usually state their aims less pretentiously. What the experimenter is really trying to do is to learn whether facts can be established which will be recognized as facts by others and which will support some theory that in imagination he has projected. But he must be ingenuously honest. He must face facts as they arise in the course of experimental procedure, whether they are favourable to his idea or not. In doing this he must be ready to surrender his theory at any time if the facts are adverse to it.
The Way of an Investigator: A Scientist's Experiences in Medical Research (1945), 34.
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John Dalton was a very singular Man, a quaker by profession & practice: He has none of the manners or ways of the world. A tolerable mathematician He gained his livelihood I believe by teaching the mathematics to young people. He pursued science always with mathematical views. He seemed little attentive to the labours of men except when they countenanced or confirmed his own ideas... He was a very disinterested man, seemed to have no ambition beyond that of being thought a good Philosopher. He was a very coarse Experimenter & almost always found the results he required.—Memory & observation were subordinate qualities in his mind. He followed with ardour analogies & inductions & however his claims to originality may admit of question I have no doubt that he was one of the most original philosophers of his time & one of the most ingenious.
J. Z. Fullmer, 'Davy's Sketches of his Contemporaries', Chymia, 1967, 12, 133-134.
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Just now nuclear physicists are writing a great deal about hypothetical particles called neutrinos supposed to account for certain peculiar facts observed in β-ray disintegration. We can perhaps best describe the neutrinos as little bits of spin-energy that have got detached. I am not much impressed by the neutrino theory. In an ordinary way I might say that I do not believe in neutrinos… But I have to reflect that a physicist may be an artist, and you never know where you are with artists. My old-fashioned kind of disbelief in neutrinos is scarcely enough. Dare I say that experimental physicists will not have sufficient ingenuity to make neutrinos? Whatever I may think, I am not going to be lured into a wager against the skill of experimenters under the impression that it is a wager against the truth of a theory. If they succeed in making neutrinos, perhaps even in developing industrial applications of them, I suppose I shall have to believe—though I may feel that they have not been playing quite fair.
From Tarner Lecture, 'Discovery or Manufacture?' (1938), in The Philosophy of Physical Science (1939, 2012), 112.
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Mere numbers cannot bring out … the intimate essence of the experiment. This conviction comes naturally when one watches a subject at work. … What things can happen! What reflections, what remarks, what feelings, or, on the other hand, what blind automatism, what absence of ideas! … The experimenter judges what may be going on in [the subject’s] mind, and certainly feels difficulty in expressing all the oscillations of a thought in a simple, brutal number, which can have only a deceptive precision. How, in fact, could it sum up what would need several pages of description!
In La Suggestibilité (1900), 119-20.
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Nature is an experimenter.
Prometheus (1961). In Down in the Black Gang: And Others; a Story Collection (1971), 141.
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No one believes an hypothesis except its originator but everyone believes an experiment except the experimenter. Most people are ready to believe something based on experiment but the experimenter knows the many little things that could have gone wrong in the experiment. For this reason the discoverer of a new fact seldom feels quite so confident of it as others do. On the other hand other people are usually critical of an hypothesis, whereas the originator identifies himself with it and is liable to become devoted to it.
The Art of Scientific Investigation (1950), 47.
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No one believes the results of the computational modeler except the modeler, for only he understands the premises. No one doubts the experimenter’s results except the experimenter, for only he knows his mistakes.
Anonymous
See a similar idea expressed by W.I.B. Beveredge, beginning “No one believes an hypothesis…” on the W.I.B. Beveredge Quotes web page on this site.
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On the whole, I cannot help saying that it appears to me not a little extraordinary, that a theory so new, and of such importance, overturning every thing that was thought to be the best established in chemistry, should rest on so very narrow and precarious a foundation, the experiments adduced in support of it being not only ambiguous or explicable on either hypothesis, but exceedingly few. I think I have recited them all, and that on which the greatest stress is laid, viz. That of the formation of water from the decomposition of the two kinds of air, has not been sufficiently repeated. Indeed it required so difficult and expensive an apparatus, and so many precautions in the use of it, that the frequent repetition of the experiment cannot be expected; and in these circumstances the practised experimenter cannot help suspecting the accuracy of the result and consequently the certainty of the conclusion.
Considerations on the Doctrine of Phlogiston (1796), 57-8.
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Preconceived ideas are like searchlights which illumine the path of experimenter and serve him as a guide to interrogate nature. They become a danger only if he transforms them into fixed ideas – this is why I should like to see these profound words inscribed on the threshold of all the temples of science: “The greatest derangement of the mind is to believe in something because one wishes it to be so.”
Speech (8 Jul 1876), to the French Academy of Medicine. As translated in René J. Dubos, Louis Pasteur, Free Lance of Science (1950, 1986), 376. Date of speech identified in Maurice B. Strauss, Familiar Medical Quotations (1968), 502.
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Progress is made by trial and failure; the failures are generally a hundred times more numerous than the successes; yet they are usually left unchronicled. The reason is that the investigator feels that even though he has failed in achieving an expected result, some other more fortunate experimenter may succeed, and it is unwise to discourage his attempts.
From 'Radium and its Products', Harper’s Magazine (Dec 1904), 110, No. 655, 52.
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The calculus of probabilities, when confined within just limits, ought to interest, in an equal degree, the mathematician, the experimentalist, and the statesman.
In François Arago, trans. by William Henry Smyth, Baden Powell and Robert Grant, 'Laplace', Biographies of Distinguished Scientific Men (1859), Vol. 1, 364. This comment introduces how the calculus of probabilities, being used in preparing tables of, for example, population and mortality, can give information for use by government and businesses deciding reserves for pensions, or premiums for life insurance.
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The experimenter who does not know what he is looking for will never understand what he finds.
Attributed. Also seen as, “He who does not know what he is looking for will not lay hold of what he has found when he gets it.” If you know a primary source, perhaps in the original French, please contact Webmaster.
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The job of theorists, especially in biology, is to suggest new experiments. A good theory makes not only predictions, but surprising predictions that then turn out to be true. (If its predictions appear obvious to experimentalists, why would they need a theory?)
In What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988), 142.
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The observer listens to nature: the experimenter questions and forces her to reveal herself.
Attributed.
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The sequence of theorist, experimenter, and discovery has occasionally been compared to the sequence of farmer, pig, truffle. The farmer leads the pig to an area where there might be truffles. The pig searches diligently for the truffles. Finally, he locates one, and just as he is about to devour it, the farmer snatches it away.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993, 2006), 16.
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The true worth of an experimenter consists in his pursuing not only what he seeks in his experiment, but also what he did not seek.
Unverified in these exact words. Contact webmaster if you know the primary source. Perhaps the quote is a summary of a longer passage. Claude lays out his experimental philosophy in An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865).
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There was one quality of mind which seemed to be of special and extreme advantage in leading him [Charles Darwin] to make discoveries. It was the power of never letting exceptions pass unnoticed. Everybody notices a fact as an exception when it is striking or frequent, but he had a special instinct for arresting an exception. A point apparently slight and unconnected with his present work is passed over by many a man almost unconsciously with some half-considered explanation, which is in fact no explanation. It was just these things that he seized on to make a start from. In a certain sense there is nothing special in this procedure, many discoveries being made by means of it. I only mention it because, as I watched him at work, the value of this power to an experimenter was so strongly impressed upon me.
In Charles Darwin: His Life Told in an Autobiographical Chapter, and in a Selected Series of his Published Letters (1908), 94-95.
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Thought experiment is in any case a necessary precondition for physical experiment. Every experimenter and inventor must have the planned arrangement in his head before translating it into fact.
'On Thought Experiments' (1897), in Erwin H. Hiebert (ed.), Erkenntnis und Irrtum (1905), trans. Thomas J. McCormack and Paul Foulkes (1976), 184.
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To be worthy of the name, an experimenter must be at once theorist and practitioner. While he must completely master the art of establishing experimental facts, which are the materials of science, he must also clearly understand the scientific principles which guide his reasoning through the varied experimental study of natural phenomena. We cannot separate these two things: head and hand. An able hand, without a head to direct it, is a blind tool; the head is powerless without its executive hand.
In Claude Bernard and Henry Copley Greene (trans.), An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1927, 1957), 3.
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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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