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Today in Science History - Quickie Quiz
Who said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
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Fail Quotes (58 quotes)

A man who speaks out honestly and fearlessly that which he knows, and that which he believes, will always enlist the good will and the respect, however much he may fail in winning the assent, of his fellow men.
Reflection #295, Thomas Henry Huxley and Henrietta A. Huxley (ed.), Aphorisms and Reflections from the Works of T.H. Huxley (1907).
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A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.
First sentences in When Prophecy Fails (1956), 3.
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Any frontal attack on ignorance is bound to fail because the masses are always ready to defend their most precious possession: their ignorance.
Quote appears in Henry Wysham Lanier, The Golden Book Magazine (Feb 1933), 17, 10.
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As a rule, software systems do not work well until they have been used, and have failed repeatedly, in real applications.
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As he [Clifford] spoke he appeared not to be working out a question, but simply telling what he saw. Without any diagram or symbolic aid he described the geometrical conditions on which the solution depended, and they seemed to stand out visibly in space. There were no longer consequences to be deduced, but real and evident facts which only required to be seen. … So whole and complete was his vision that for the time the only strange thing was that anybody should fail to see it in the same way. When one endeavored to call it up again, and not till then, it became clear that the magic of genius had been at work, and that the common sight had been raised to that higher perception by the power that makes and transforms ideas, the conquering and masterful quality of the human mind which Goethe called in one word das Dämonische.
In Leslie Stephen and Frederick Pollock (eds.), Lectures and Essays by William Kingdon Clifford(1879), Vol. 1, Introduction, 4-5.
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Attaching significance to invariants is an effort to recognize what, because of its form or colour or meaning or otherwise, is important or significant in what is only trivial or ephemeral. A simple instance of failing in this is provided by the poll-man at Cambridge, who learned perfectly how to factorize a²-b² but was floored because the examiner unkindly asked for the factors of p²–q².
In 'Recent Developments in Invariant Theory', The Mathematical Gazette (Dec 1926), 13, No. 185, 217. [Note: A poll-man is a student who takes the ordinary university degree, without honours. -Webmaster]
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Clearly it is not reason that has failed. What has failed—as it has always failed—is the attempt to achieve certainty, to reach an absolute, to find the course of human events to a final end. ... It is not reason that has promised to eliminate risk in human undertakings; it is the emotional needs of men.
In The Quest For Identity (1958), 135.
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Commenting on Archimedes, for whom he also had a boundless admiration, Gauss remarked that he could not understand how Archimedes failed to invent the decimal system of numeration or its equivalent (with some base other than 10). … This oversight Gauss regarded as the greatest calamity in the history of science.
In Men of Mathematics (1937), 256.
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Despite the recurrence of events in which the debris-basin system fails in its struggle to contain the falling mountains, people who live on the front line are for the most part calm and complacent. It appears that no amount of front-page or prime-time attention will ever prevent such people from masking out the problem.
The Control of Nature
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Doubtless the reasoning faculty, the mind, is the leading and characteristic attribute of the human race. By the exercise of this, man arrives at the properties of the natural bodies. This is science, properly and emphatically so called. It is the science of pure mathematics; and in the high branches of this science lies the truly sublime of human acquisition. If any attainment deserves that epithet, it is the knowledge, which, from the mensuration of the minutest dust of the balance, proceeds on the rising scale of material bodies, everywhere weighing, everywhere measuring, everywhere detecting and explaining the laws of force and motion, penetrating into the secret principles which hold the universe of God together, and balancing worlds against worlds, and system against system. When we seek to accompany those who pursue studies at once so high, so vast, and so exact; when we arrive at the discoveries of Newton, which pour in day on the works of God, as if a second fiat had gone forth from his own mouth; when, further, we attempt to follow those who set out where Newton paused, making his goal their starting-place, and, proceeding with demonstration upon demonstration, and discovery upon discovery, bring new worlds and new systems of worlds within the limits of the known universe, failing to learn all only because all is infinite; however we may say of man, in admiration of his physical structure, that “in form and moving he is express and admirable,” it is here, and here without irreverence, we may exclaim, “In apprehension how like a god!” The study of the pure mathematics will of course not be extensively pursued in an institution, which, like this [Boston Mechanics’ Institute], has a direct practical tendency and aim. But it is still to be remembered, that pure mathematics lie at the foundation of mechanical philosophy, and that it is ignorance only which can speak or think of that sublime science as useless research or barren speculation.
In Works (1872), Vol. 1, 180.
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Every failure teaches a man something, to wit, that he will probably fail again next time.
In A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949, 1956), 617.
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Every great advance of science opens our eyes to facts which we had failed before to observe, and makes new demands on our powers of interpretation.
From The Grammar of Science (1892), 17.
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For nothing is fixed, forever and forever and forever, it is not fixed; the earth is always shifting, the light is always changing, the sea does not cease to grind down rock. Generations do not cease to be born, and we are responsible to them because we are the only witnesses they have. The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out.
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Generality of points of view and of methods, precision and elegance in presentation, have become, since Lagrange, the common property of all who would lay claim to the rank of scientific mathematicians. And, even if this generality leads at times to abstruseness at the expense of intuition and applicability, so that general theorems are formulated which fail to apply to a single special case, if furthermore precision at times degenerates into a studied brevity which makes it more difficult to read an article than it was to write it; if, finally, elegance of form has well-nigh become in our day the criterion of the worth or worthlessness of a proposition,—yet are these conditions of the highest importance to a wholesome development, in that they keep the scientific material within the limits which are necessary both intrinsically and extrinsically if mathematics is not to spend itself in trivialities or smother in profusion.
In Die Entwickdung der Mathematik in den letzten Jahrhunderten (1884), 14-15.
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Habit is a powerful means of advancement, and the habit of eternal vigilance and diligence, rarely fails to bring a substantial reward.
Quoted, without citation, in front matter to T. A. Edison Foundation, Lewis Howard Latimer: A Black Inventor: a Biography and Related Experiments You Can Do (1973). If you know the primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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Hardly a year passes that fails to find a new, oft-times exotic, research method or technique added to the armamentarium of political inquiry. Anyone who cannot negotiate Chi squares, assess randomization, statistical significance, and standard deviations
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I do hate sums. There is no greater mistake than to call arithmetic an exact science. There are permutations and aberrations discernible to minds entirely noble like mine; subtle variations which ordinary accountants fail to discover; hidden laws of number which it requires a mind like mine to perceive. For instance, if you add a sum from the bottom up, and then from the top down, the result is always different. Again if you multiply a number by another number before you have had your tea, and then again after, the product will be different. It is also remarkable that the Post-tea product is more likely to agree with other people’s calculations than the Pre-tea result.
Letter to Mrs Arthur Severn (Jul 1878), collected in The Letters of a Noble Woman (Mrs. La Touche of Harristown) (1908), 50. Also in 'Gleanings Far and Near', Mathematical Gazette (May 1924), 12, 95.
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I have before mentioned mathematics, wherein algebra gives new helps and views to the understanding. If I propose these it is not to make every man a thorough mathematician or deep algebraist; but yet I think the study of them is of infinite use even to grown men; first by experimentally convincing them, that to make anyone reason well, it is not enough to have parts wherewith he is satisfied, and that serve him well enough in his ordinary course. A man in those studies will see, that however good he may think his understanding, yet in many things, and those very visible, it may fail him. This would take off that presumption that most men have of themselves in this part; and they would not be so apt to think their minds wanted no helps to enlarge them, that there could be nothing added to the acuteness and penetration of their understanding.
In The Conduct of the Understanding, Sect. 7.
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I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
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I read them. Not to grade them. No, I read them to see how I am doing. Where am I failing? What don’t they understand? Why do they give wrong answers? Why do they have some point of view that I don’t think is right? Where am I failing? Where do I need to build up.
In The Essential Deming.
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If a photographic plate under the center of a lens focused on the heavens is exposed for hours, it comes to reveal stars so far away that even the most powerful telescopes fail to reveal them to the naked eye. In a similar way, time and concentration allow the intellect to perceive a ray of light in the darkness of the most complex problem.
From Reglas y Consejos sobre Investigacíon Cientifica: Los tónicos de la voluntad. (1897), as translated by Neely and Larry W. Swanson, in Advice for a Young Investigator (1999), 34.
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If a solution fails to appear … and yet we feel success is just around the corner, try resting for a while. … Like the early morning frost, this intellectual refreshment withers the parasitic and nasty vegetation that smothers the good seed. Bursting forth at last is the flower of truth.
From Reglas y Consejos sobre Investigacíon Cientifica: Los tónicos de la voluntad. (1897), as translated by Neely and Larry W. Swanson, in Advice for a Young Investigator (1999), 35.
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In this respect mathematics fails to reproduce with complete fidelity the obvious fact that experience is not composed of static bits, but is a string of activity, or the fact that the use of language is an activity, and the total meanings of terms are determined by the matrix in which they are embedded.
In The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 58.
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It is now necessary to indicate more definitely the reason why mathematics not only carries conviction in itself, but also transmits conviction to the objects to which it is applied. The reason is found, first of all, in the perfect precision with which the elementary mathematical concepts are determined; in this respect each science must look to its own salvation .... But this is not all. As soon as human thought attempts long chains of conclusions, or difficult matters generally, there arises not only the danger of error but also the suspicion of error, because since all details cannot be surveyed with clearness at the same instant one must in the end be satisfied with a belief that nothing has been overlooked from the beginning. Every one knows how much this is the case even in arithmetic, the most elementary use of mathematics. No one would imagine that the higher parts of mathematics fare better in this respect; on the contrary, in more complicated conclusions the uncertainty and suspicion of hidden errors increases in rapid progression. How does mathematics manage to rid itself of this inconvenience which attaches to it in the highest degree? By making proofs more rigorous? By giving new rules according to which the old rules shall be applied? Not in the least. A very great uncertainty continues to attach to the result of each single computation. But there are checks. In the realm of mathematics each point may be reached by a hundred different ways; and if each of a hundred ways leads to the same point, one may be sure that the right point has been reached. A calculation without a check is as good as none. Just so it is with every isolated proof in any speculative science whatever; the proof may be ever so ingenious, and ever so perfectly true and correct, it will still fail to convince permanently. He will therefore be much deceived, who, in metaphysics, or in psychology which depends on metaphysics, hopes to see his greatest care in the precise determination of the concepts and in the logical conclusions rewarded by conviction, much less by success in transmitting conviction to others. Not only must the conclusions support each other, without coercion or suspicion of subreption, but in all matters originating in experience, or judging concerning experience, the results of speculation must be verified by experience, not only superficially, but in countless special cases.
In Werke [Kehrbach] (1890), Bd. 5, 105. As quoted, cited and translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-Book (1914), 19.
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It is strange, but the longer I live the more I am governed by the feeling of Fatalism, or rather predestination. The feeling or free-will, said to be innate in man, fails me more and more. I feel so deeply that however much I may struggle, I cannot change fate one jot. I am now almost resigned. I work because I feel I am at the worst. I can neither wish nor hope for anything. You have no idea how indifferent I am to everything.
In Letter to Anna Carlotta, collected in Anna Charlotte Leffler, Sonya Kovalevsky: A Biography (1895), 133, as translated by A. De Furuhjelm and A.M. Clive Bayley.
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It’s pretty hard to tell what does bring happiness. Poverty and wealth have both failed.
Unverified. Need primary source. Can you help?
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Men of science, fit to teach, hardly exist. There is no demand for such men. The sciences make up life; they are important to life. The highly educated man fails to understand the simplest things of science, and has no peculiar aptitude for grasping them. I find the grown-up mind coming back to me with the same questions over and over again.
Giving Evidence (18 Nov 1862) to the Public Schools Commission. As quoted in John L. Lewis, 125 Years: The Physical Society & The Institute of Physics (1999), 168.
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My judgment is that research in 'Star Wars' is going to fail, and I believe this so strongly that I'm willing to stake my professional reputation on this. I don't believe anybody is going to build this thing.
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Nature never “fails.” Nature complies with its own laws. Nature is the law. When Man lacks understanding of Nature’s laws and a Man-contrived structure buckles unexpectedly, it does not fail. It only demonstrates that Man did not understand Nature’s laws and behaviors. Nothing failed. Man’s knowledge or estimating was inadequate.
In "How Little I Know", in Saturday Review (12 Nov 1966), 152. Excerpted in Buckminster Fuller and Answar Dil, Humans in Universe (1983), 31.
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Now length of Fame (our second life) is lost,
And bare threescore is all ev’n that can boast;
Our sons their fathers’ failing language see.
In An Essay on Criticism (1749), 64. Note: first published anonymously in 1711 when Pope was 22 years old.
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Obvious facts are apt to be over-rated. System-makers see the gravitation of history, and fail to observe its chemistry, of greater though less evident power.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 179.
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Only the impossible is worth attempting. In everything else one is sure to fail.
In The Decline and Fall of Science (1976), 1.
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Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.
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Reason has seldom failed us because it has seldom been tried.
In 'Philosophy, Religion, and So Forth', A Voice Crying in the Wilderness (1989), 2.
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Science is the golden road out of poverty and backwardness for emerging nations. The corollary, one that the United States sometimes fails to grasp, is that abandoning science is the road back into poverty and backwardness.
In 'With Science on Our Side', Washington Post (9 Jan 1994).
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Skepticism and debate are always welcome and are critically important to the advancement of science, [but] skepticism that fails to account for evidence is no virtue.
Letter (21 Jun 2017) to climate change skeptic, U.S. Energy Secretary, Rick Perry. As quoted in Dino Grandoni, 'The Energy 202: Trump takes on Wind Energy, Talks Solar-Powered Border Wall in Iowa Speech', Washington Post (22 Jun 2017).
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So far as modern science is concerned, we have to abandon completely the idea that by going into the realm of the small we shall reach the ultimate foundations of the universe. I believe we can abandon this idea without any regret. The universe is infinite in all directions, not only above us in the large but also below us in the small. If we start from our human scale of existence and explore the content of the universe further and further, we finally arrive, both in the large and in the small, at misty distances where first our senses and then even our concepts fail us.
To the German Society of Scientists and Physicists, Braunschweig, Germany (Sep 1896). As quoted in Anton Z. Capri, Quips, Quotes, and Quanta: An Anecdotal History of Physics (2011), 20. Wiechert was reporting his measurement of the mass of the moving particles in a cathode ray beam (electrons).
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Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.
As quoted in Carla Lind, Wright Style (1992), 23.
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That radioactive elements created by us are found in nature is an astounding event in the history of the earth. And of the Human race. To fail to consider its importance and its consequences would be a folly for which humanity would have to pay a terrible price. When public opinion has been created in the countries concerned and among all the nations, an opinion informed of the dangers involved in going on with the tests and led by the reason which this information imposes, then the statesmen may reach an agreement to stop the experiments.
In 'Excerpts from Message by Schweitzer', New York Times (24 Apr 1957), 4, translated from a letter issued by Schweitzer through the Nobel Committee, asking that public opinion demand an end to nuclear tests.
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The Christian church, in its attitude toward science, shows the mind of a more or less enlightened man of the Thirteenth Century. It no longer believes that the earth is flat, but it is still convinced that prayer can cure after medicine fails.
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The dispute between evolutionists and creation scientists offers textbook writers and teachers a wonderful opportunity to provide students with insights into the philosophy and methods of science. … What students really need to know is … how scientists judge the merit of a theory. Suppose students were taught the criteria of scientific theory evaluation and then were asked to apply these criteria … to the two theories in question. Wouldn’t such a task qualify as authentic science education? … I suspect that when these two theories are put side by side, and students are given the freedom to judge their merit as science, creation theory will fail ignominiously (although natural selection is far from faultless). … It is not only bad science to allow disputes over theory to go unexamined, but also bad education.
In Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future (1999), 168.
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The great enemy of communication, we find, is the illusion of it. We have talked enough; but we have not listened. And by not listening we have failed to concede the immense complexity of our society–and thus the great gaps between ourselves and those with whom we seek understanding.
In magazine article, 'Is Anybody Listening?', Fortune magazine (Sep 1950), 174.
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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.
From Cosmology (), 152.
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The man or corporation who has not determined at the outset to do good to others while doing good to himself will fail in the end.
As quoted in Edward J. Wheeler (ed.), 'The Demeanor of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., Under Fire,' Current Opinion (Jul 1914), 57, No. 1, 21. This quote was one out of a collation in the article, “from his many talks to the Bible Class he formerly conducted and from various interviews.”
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The mathematician requires tact and good taste at every step of his work, and he has to learn to trust to his own instinct to distinguish between what is really worthy of his efforts and what is not; he must take care not to be the slave of his symbols, but always to have before his mind the realities which they merely serve to express. For these and other reasons it seems to me of the highest importance that a mathematician should be trained in no narrow school; a wide course of reading in the first few years of his mathematical study cannot fail to influence for good the character of the whole of his subsequent work.
In Presidential Address British Association for the Advancement of Science, Section A, (1890), Nature, 42, 467.
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The university’s business is the conservation of useless knowledge; and what the university itself apparently fails to see is that this enterprise is not only noble but indispensable as well, that society can not exist unless it goes on.
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There is a river in the ocean. In the severest droughts it never fails, and in the mightiest floods it never overflows. Its banks and its bottom are of cold water, while its current is of warm. The Gulf of Mexico is its fountain, and its mouth is in the Arctic Seas. It is the Gulf Stream. There is in the world no other such majestic flow of waters. Its current is more rapid than the Mississippi or the Amazon.
In The Physical Geography of the Sea and Its Meteorology (1855), 25.
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To find the cause of our ills in something outside ourselves, something specific that can be spotted and eliminated, is a diagnosis that cannot fail to appeal. To say that the cause of our troubles is not in us but in the Jews, and pass immediately to the extermination of the Jews, is a prescription likely to find a wide acceptance.
In The Passionate State of Mind (1955), 79.
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To introduce something altogether new would mean to begin all over, to become ignorant again, and to run the old, old risk of failing to learn.
Isaac Asimov, Patricia S. Warrick, Martin Harry Greenberg, Machines That Think: The Best Science Fiction Stories About Robots and Computers? (1984), 2.
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We might expect that as we come close upon living nature the characters of our old records would grow legible and clear; but just when we begin to enter on the history of the physical changes going on before our eyes, and in which we ourselves bear a part, our chronicle seems to fail us: a leaf has been torn out from Nature’s book, and the succession of events is almost hidden from our eyes. [On gaps in the Pleistocene fossil record.]
As quoted by Hugh Miller in Lecture First, collected in Popular Geology: A Series of Lectures Read Before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, with Descriptive Sketches from a Geologist's Portfolio (1859), 82-83.
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What distinguishes the straight line and circle more than anything else, and properly separates them for the purpose of elementary geometry? Their self-similarity. Every inch of a straight line coincides with every other inch, and of a circle with every other of the same circle. Where, then, did Euclid fail? In not introducing the third curve, which has the same property—the screw. The right line, the circle, the screw—the representations of translation, rotation, and the two combined—ought to have been the instruments of geometry. With a screw we should never have heard of the impossibility of trisecting an angle, squaring the circle, etc.
From Letter (15 Feb 1852) to W.R. Hamilton, collected in Robert Perceval Graves, Life of W.R. Hamilton (1889), Vol. 3, 343.
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What is it to see, in an Eagle glide
Which fills a human heart with so much pride?
Is it that it soars effortless above the Earth
That steals us from our own limits & dearth?
Trapped in our seas of befuddling sludge
We try and try but cannot budge.
And then to see a mortal; with such ease take wing
Up in a breeze that makes our failing spirits sing?
Do we, vicarious birds, search in it our childishness -
When we too were young & yearned in heart to fly?
Taking flights of fancy through adolescent nights
Listening little, heeding less, knowing not why?
From its highest perch in the forest of snow
Majestic - the Eagle soars alone.
Riding thermals, lording clouds
Till dropping silent from the sky as a stone
But we, so quick and ready to fold
Give up our wings at the whiff of age
Losing years, cursing time, wasting spirit
Living out entire lives in futile rage!
…...
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When legacy firms fail to innovate, start-ups jump into the market and thrive at the establishment’s expense. That’s disruption.
(SpaceX President)
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When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large, scientific method in most cases fails us. One need only think of the weather, in which case prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible. Nevertheless no one doubts that we are confronted with a causal connection whose causal components are in the main known to us.
Out of My Later Years (1995), 28.
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When we try to imagine a chaos we fail. ... In its very fiber the mind is an order and refuses to build a chaos.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-Book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 170.
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Who can fail to be uplifted by the kind of vision that the laureates in physics have provided into the outer reaches of space?
Speech at the Nobel Banquet (10 Dec 1983) for his Nobel Prize in Chemistry. In Wilhelm Odelberg (ed.), Les Prix Nobel: The Nobel Prizes (1984), 43.
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Without initiation into the scientific spirit one is not in possession of the best tools humanity has so far devised for effectively directed reflection. [Without these one] fails to understand the full meaning of knowledge.
Democracy and Education: an Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (1916), 223.
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You’re aware the boy failed my grade school math class, I take it? And not that many years later he’s teaching college. Now I ask you: Is that the sorriest indictment of the American educational system you ever heard? [pauses to light cigarette.] No aptitude at all for long division, but never mind. It’s him they ask to split the atom. How he talked his way into the Nobel prize is beyond me. But then, I suppose it’s like the man says, it’s not what you know...
Karl Arbeiter (former teacher of Albert Einstein)
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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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Euclid
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Winston Churchill
- 80 -
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Bible
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- 70 -
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- 60 -
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Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
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William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
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John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
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- 30 -
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- 20 -
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- 10 -
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