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Physicist Quotes (259 quotes)


The supreme task of the physicist is to arrive at those universal elementary laws from which the cosmos can be built up by pure deduction. There is no logical path to these laws; only intuition, resting on sympathetic understanding of experience, can reach them. In this methodological uncertainty, one might suppose that there were any number of possible systems of theoretical physics all equally well justified; and this opinion is no doubt correct, theoretically. But the development of physics has shown that at any given moment, out of all conceivable constructions, a single one has always proved itself decidedly superior to all the rest.
Address (1918) for Max Planck's 60th birthday, at Physical Society, Berlin, 'Principles of Research' in Essays in Science (1934), 4.
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Bin Chemiker der kein Physiker ist, ist gar nichts.
A chemist who is not a physicist is nothing at all.
J. R. Partington (ed.), A History of Chemistry (1961), Vol. 4, 282.
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La determination de la relation & de la dépendance mutuelle de ces données dans certains cas particuliers, doit être le premier but du Physicien; & pour cet effet, il falloit one mesure exacte qui indiquât d’une manière invariable & égale dans tous les lieux de la terre, le degré de l'électricité au moyen duquel les expéiences ont été faites… Aussi, l'histoire de l'électricité prouve une vérité suffisamment reconnue; c'est que le Physicien sans mesure ne fait que jouer, & qu'il ne diffère en cela des enfans, que par la nature de son jeu & la construction de ses jouets.
The determination of the relationship and mutual dependence of the facts in particular cases must be the first goal of the Physicist; and for this purpose he requires that an exact measurement may be taken in an equally invariable manner anywhere in the world… Also, the history of electricity yields a well-known truth—that the physicist shirking measurement only plays, different from children only in the nature of his game and the construction of his toys.
'Mémoire sur la mesure de force de l'électricité', Journal de Physique (1782), 21, 191. English version by Google Translate tweaked by Webmaster.
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Neumann, to a physicist seeking help with a difficult problem: Simple. This can be solved by using the method of characteristics.
Physicist: I'm afraid I don’t understand the method of characteristics.
Neumann: In mathematics you don't understand things. You just get used to them.
Attributed, as related by Dr. Felix Smith (Head of Molecular Physics, Stanford Research Institute) to author Gary Zukav, who quoted it in The Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics (1979, 2001), 208, footnote. The physicist (a friend of Dr. Smith) worked at Los Alamos after WW II. It should be noted that although the author uses quotation marks around the spoken remarks, that they represent the author's memory of Dr. Smith's recollection, who heard it from the physicist. Therefore the fourth-hand wording is very likely not verbatim. Webmaster finds Zukav's book seems to be the only source for this quote.
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Quand les physiciens nous demandent la solution d'un problème, ce n'est pas une corvée qu'ils nous impsent, c'est nous au contraire qui leur doivent des remercîments.
When the physicists ask us for the solution of a problem, it is not drudgery that they impose on us, on the contrary, it is us who owe them thanks.
La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 111.
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Von Theorie wild man nicht heller.
Gott geb' täglich unsern Teller.

When theory's light is less than stellar.
Give us, O Lord, our daily Teller.
This rhyme from an alphabet ditty describing various physicists was written for a party at Göttingen.
Quoted in Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 75. The first clause, translated more literally than poetically, is given as, 'When theory does not enlighten us,' in Nina Byers and Gary Williams, Out of the Shadows (2006),130.
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A biophysicist talks physics to the biologists and biology to the physicists, but when he meets another biophysicist, they just discuss women.
Anonymous
In Alan Lindsay Mackay , A Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (2nd Ed., 1991), 4.
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A century ago astronomers, geologists, chemists, physicists, each had an island of his own, separate and distinct from that of every other student of Nature; the whole field of research was then an archipelago of unconnected units. To-day all the provinces of study have risen together to form a continent without either a ferry or a bridge.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 182-183.
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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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A good deal of my research in physics has consisted in not setting out to solve some particular problem, but simply examining mathematical quantities of a kind that physicists use and trying to fit them together in an interesting way, regardless of any application that the work may have. It is simply a search for pretty mathematics. It may turn out later to have an application. Then one has good luck. At age 78.
International Journal of Theoretical Physics (1982), 21, 603. In A. Pais, 'Playing With Equations, the Dirac Way'. Behram N. Kursunoglu (Ed.) and Eugene Paul Wigner (Ed.), Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac: Reminiscences about a Great Physicist (1990), 110.
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A good theoretical physicist today might find it useful to have a wide range of physical viewpoints and mathematical expressions of the same theory (for example, of quantum electrodynamics) available to him. This may be asking too much of one man. Then new students should as a class have this. If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction—a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory—who will find it?
In his Nobel Prize Lecture (11 Dec 1965), 'The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics'. Collected in Stig Lundqvist, Nobel Lectures: Physics, 1963-1970 (1998), 177.
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A mathematician may say anything he pleases, but a physicist must be at least partially sane.
Attributed. Cited in R. B. Lindsay, 'On the Relation of Mathematics and Physics', The Scientific Monthly, Dec 1944, 59, 456.
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A mathematician thinks that two points are enough to define a straight line, while a physicist wants more data.
Anonymous
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A physicist learns more and more about less and less, until he knows everything about nothing; whereas a philosopher learns less and less about more and more, until he knows nothing about everything.
Anonymous
Saying.
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A theoretical physicist can spend his entire lifetime missing the intellectual challenge of experimental work, experiencing none of the thrills and dangers — the overhead crane with its ten-ton load, the flashing skull and crossbones and danger, radioactivity signs. A theorist’s only real hazard is stabbing himself with a pencil while attacking a bug that crawls out of his calculations.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993), 15.
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After Gibbs, one the most distinguished [American scientists] was Langley, of the Smithsonian. … He had the physicist’s heinous fault of professing to know nothing between flashes of intense perception. … Rigidly denying himself the amusement of philosophy, which consists chiefly in suggesting unintelligible answers to insoluble problems, and liked to wander past them in a courteous temper, even bowing to them distantly as though recognizing their existence, while doubting their respectability.
The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography? (1918), 377.
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After that cancellation [of the Superconducting Super Collider in Texas, after $2 billion had been spent on it], we physicists learned that we have to sing for our supper. ... The Cold War is over. You can't simply say “Russia!” to Congress, and they whip out their checkbook and say, “How much?” We have to tell the people why this atom-smasher is going to benefit their lives.
As quoted in Alan Boyle, 'Discovery of Doom? Collider Stirs Debate', article (8 Sep 2008) on a msnbc.com web page.
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After the discovery of spectral analysis no one trained in physics could doubt the problem of the atom would be solved when physicists had learned to understand the language of spectra. So manifold was the enormous amount of material that has been accumulated in sixty years of spectroscopic research that it seemed at first beyond the possibility of disentanglement. An almost greater enlightenment has resulted from the seven years of Röntgen spectroscopy, inasmuch as it has attacked the problem of the atom at its very root, and illuminates the interior. What we are nowadays hearing of the language of spectra is a true 'music of the spheres' in order and harmony that becomes ever more perfect in spite of the manifold variety. The theory of spectral lines will bear the name of Bohr for all time. But yet another name will be permanently associated with it, that of Planck. All integral laws of spectral lines and of atomic theory spring originally from the quantum theory. It is the mysterious organon on which Nature plays her music of the spectra, and according to the rhythm of which she regulates the structure of the atoms and nuclei.
Atombau und Spektrallinien (1919), viii, Atomic Structure and Spectral Lines, trans. Henry L. Brose (1923), viii.
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All the good experimental physicists I have known have had an intense curiosity that no Keep Out sign could mute.
In Adventures of a Physicist (1987), 14.
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Although I am primarily an experimental physicist, theoretical physics is my hobby.
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An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician find themselves in an anecdote, indeed an anecdote quite similar to many that you have no doubt already heard.
After some observations and rough calculations the engineer realizes the situation and starts laughing.
A few minutes later the physicist understands too and chuckles to himself happily, as he now has enough experimental evidence to publish a paper.
This leaves the mathematician somewhat perplexed, as he had observed right away that he was the subject of an anecdote, and deduced quite rapidly the presence of humor from similar anecdotes, but considers this anecdote to be too trivial a corollary to be significant, let alone funny.
Anonymous
In 'Zero Gravity: The Lighter Side of Science' APS News (Jun 2003), 12 No. 6.
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An optical unit has been devised which will convey optical images along a flexible axis. The unit comprises a bundle of fibres of glass, or other transparent material, and it therefore appears appropriate to introduce the term 'fibrescope' to denote it.
Co-author with Indian-American physicist Narinder Singh Kapany..
'A Flexible Fibrescope, using Static Scanning', Nature (1954), 173, 39.
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Analogy is a wonderful, useful and most important form of thinking, and biology is saturated with it. Nothing is worse than a horrible mass of undigested facts, and facts are indigestible unless there is some rhyme or reason to them. The physicist, with his facts, seeks reason; the biologist seeks something very much like rhyme, and rhyme is a kind of analogy.... This analogizing, this fine sweeping ability to see likenesses in the midst of differences is the great glory of biology, but biologists don't know it.... They have always been so fascinated and overawed by the superior prestige of exact physical science that they feel they have to imitate it.... In its central content, biology is not accurate thinking, but accurate observation and imaginative thinking, with great sweeping generalizations.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 98-100.
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And even your atom, my dear mechanists and physicists—how much error, how much rudimentary psychology is still residual in your atom!
From 'The Four Great Errors', The Twilight of the Idols (1888), collected in Thomas Common (trans.), The Works of Friedrich Nietzsche (1896), Vol. 11, 139.
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As an empiricist I continue to think of the conceptual scheme of science as a tool, ultimately, for predicting future experience in the light of past experience. Physical objects are conceptually imported into the situation as convenient intermediaries—not by definition in terms of experience, but simply as irreducible posits comparable, epistemologically, to the gods of Homer. For my part I do, qua lay physicist, believe in physical objects and not in Homer's gods; and I consider it a scientific error to believe otherwise. But in point of epistemological footing the physical objects and the gods differ only in degree and not in kind. Both sorts of entities enter our conception only as cultural posits. The myth of physical objects is epistemologically superior to most in that it has proved more efficacious than other myths as a device for working a manageable structure into the flux of experience.
From A Logical Point of View (1953), 44. [Note: “qua” means “in the character or role of,” thus “qua lay physicist” means “in the role of lay physicist,” or perhaps even (?) “putting on my lay physicist hat.” —Webmaster]
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As I strayed into the study of an eminent physicist, I observed hanging against the wall, framed like a choice engraving, several dingy, ribbon-like strips of, I knew not what... My curiosity was at once aroused. What were they? ... They might be shreds of mummy-wraps or bits of friable bark-cloth from the Pacific, ... [or] remnants from a grandmother’s wedding dress... They were none of these... He explained that they were carefully-prepared photographs of portions of the Solar Spectrum. I stood and mused, absorbed in the varying yet significant intensities of light and shade, bordered by mystic letters and symbolic numbers. As I mused, the pale legend began to glow with life. Every line became luminous with meaning. Every shadow was suffused with light shining from behind, suggesting some mighty achievement of knowledge; of knowledge growing more daring in proportion to the remoteness of the object known; of knowledge becoming more positive in its answers, as the questions which were asked seemed unanswerable. No Runic legend, no Babylonish arrowhead, no Egyptian hieroglyph, no Moabite stone, could present a history like this, or suggest thoughts of such weighty import or so stimulate and exalt the imagination.
The Sciences of Nature Versus the Science of Man: A Plea for the Science of Man (1871), 7-9.
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As physicists have arranged an extensive series of effects under the general term of Heat, so they have named another series Light, and a third they have called Electricity. We find ... that all these principles are capable of being produced through the medium of living bodies, for nearly all animals have the power of evolving heat; many insects, moreover, can voluntarily emit light; and the property of producing electricity is well evinced in the terrible shock of the electric eel, as well as in that of some other creatures. We are indeed in the habit of talking of the Electric fluid, or the Galvanic fluid, but this in reality is nothing but a licence of expression suitable to our finite and material notions.
In the Third Edition of Elements of Electro-Metallurgy: or The Art of Working in Metals by the Galvanic Fluid (1851), 1.
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As we cannot use physician for a cultivator of physics, I have called him a physicist. We need very much a name to describe a cultivator of science in general. I should incline to call him a Scientist. Thus we might say, that as an Artist is a Musician, Painter or Poet, a Scientist is a Mathematician, Physicist, or Naturalist.
The Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences (1840), Vol. I, cxiii.
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Astronomers and physicists, dealing habitually with objects and quantities far beyond the reach of the senses, even with the aid of the most powerful aids that ingenuity has been able to devise, tend almost inevitably to fall into the ways of thinking of men dealing with objects and quantities that do not exist at all, e.g., theologians and metaphysicians. Thus their speculations tend almost inevitably to depart from the field of true science, which is that of precise observation, and to become mere soaring in the empyrean. The process works backward, too. That is to say, their reports of what they pretend actually to see are often very unreliable. It is thus no wonder that, of all men of science, they are the most given to flirting with theology. Nor is it remarkable that, in the popular belief, most astronomers end by losing their minds.
Minority Report: H. L. Mencken’s Notebooks (1956), Sample 74, 60.
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At the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory, we have long had a tradition of close cooperation between physicists and technicians.
From Nobel Lecture (11 Dec 1968). Collected in Yong Zhou (ed.), Nobel Lecture: Physics, 1963-1970 (2013), 250.
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At the present time it is of course quite customary for physicists to trespass on chemical ground, for mathematicians to do excellent work in physics, and for physicists to develop new mathematical procedures. … Trespassing is one of the most successful techniques in science.
In Dynamics in Psychology (1940, 1973), 116.
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Away from their laboratories, physicist and chemist are but disarmed soldiers on a battlefield.
Hors de leurs laboratoires, le physicien et le chimiste sont des soldats sans armes sur le champ de bataille.
In article 'The Budget of Science', Revue des Cours Scientifiques (1 Feb 1868) and published as a pamphlet, Some Reflections on Science in France. Original French quote in René Vallery-Radot, La Vie de Pasteur (1900), 215. As translated in René Vallery-Radot and Mrs R. L. Devonshire (trans.) The Life of Pasteur (1902), 199. Also translated as “Outside their laboratories, the physicist and chemist are soldiers without arms on the field of battle.”
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Behind the artisan is the chemist, behind the chemist a physicist, behind the physicist a mathematician.
In A Scrap-book of Elementary Mathematics: Notes, Recreations, Essays (1908), 217.
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Boltzmann was both a wizard of a mathematician and a physicist of international renown. The magnitude of his output of scientific papers was positively unnerving. He would publish two, three, sometimes four monographs a year; each one was forbiddingly dense, festooned with mathematics, and as much as a hundred pages in length.
In 'The Bulldog: A Profile of Ludwig Boltzmann', The American Scholar (1 Jan 1999), 99.
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Both Religion and science require faith in God. For believers, God is in the beginning, and for physicists He is at the end of all considerations.
Anonymous
Sometimes seen attributed (doubtfully?) to Max Planck. Widely seen on the web, but always without citation. Webmaster has not yet found any evidence in print that this is a valid Planck quote, and must be skeptical that it is. Contact Webmaster if you know a primary source.
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Both the physicist and the mystic want to communicate their knowledge, and when they do so with words their statements are paradoxical and full of logical contradictions.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 46.
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Boundaries which mark off one field of science from another are purely artificial, are set up only for temporary convenience. Let chemists and physicists dig deep enough, and they reach common ground.
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-Book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 183.
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But although in theory physicists realize that their conclusions are ... not certainly true, this ... does not really sink into their consciousness. Nearly all the time ... they ... act as if Science were indisputably True, and what's more, as if only science were true.... Any information obtained otherwise than by the scientific method, although it may be true, the scientists will call “unscientific,” using this word as a smear word, by bringing in the connotation from its original [Greek] meaning, to imply that the information is false, or at any rate slightly phony.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 176-77.
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Can a physicist visualize an electron? The electron is materially inconceivable and yet, it is so perfectly known through its effects that we use it to illuminate our cities, guide our airlines through the night skies and take the most accurate measurements. What strange rationale makes some physicists accept the inconceivable electrons as real while refusing to accept the reality of a Designer on the ground that they cannot conceive Him?
In letter to California State board of Education (14 Sep 1972).
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Chemistry has been termed by the physicist as the messy part of physics, but that is no reason why the physicists should be permitted to make a mess of chemistry when they invade it.
Attributed. As quoted in American Journal of Physics (1946),14 248. Also in Robert L. Weber, More Random Walks in Science: An Anthology (1982), 64, without citation. Contact Webmaster if you know any primary source.
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Coming to the question of life being found on other planets, Professor Haldane apologized for discoursing, as a mere biologist, on a subject on which we had been expecting a lecture by a physicist [J. D. Bernal]. He mentioned three hypotheses:
(a) That life had a supernatural origin,
(b) That it originated from inorganic materials, and (c) That life is a constituent of the Universe and can only arise from pre-existing life. The first hypothesis, he said, should be taken seriously, and he would proceed to do so. From the fact that there are 400,000 species of beetle on this planet, but only 8,000 species of mammals, he concluded that the Creator, if he exists, has a special preference for beetles, and so we might be more likely to meet them than any other type of animal on a planet which would support life.
In Mark Williamson, 'Haldane’s Special Preference', The Linnean, 1992, 8, 14.
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Despite the vision and the far-seeing wisdom of our wartime heads of state, the physicists felt a peculiarly intimate responsibility for suggesting, for supporting, and in the end, in large measure, for achieving the realization of atomic weapons. Nor can we forget that these weapons, as they were in fact used, dramatized so mercilessly the inhumanity and evil of modern war. In some sort of crude sense which no vulgarity, no humor, no overstatement can quite extinguish, the physicists have known sin; and this is a knowledge which they cannot lose.
In Arthur Dehon Little Memorial Lecture (25 Nov 1947) to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 'Physics in the Contemporary World'. Collected in J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (1955), 88.
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Does it mean, if you don’t understand something, and the community of physicists don’t understand it, that means God did it? Is that how you want to play this game? Because if it is, here’s a list of the things in the past that the physicists—at the time—didn’t understand … [but now we do understand.] If that’s how you want to invoke your evidence for God, then God is an ever-receding pocket of scientific ignorance, that’s getting smaller and smaller and smaller, as time moves on. So just be ready for that to happen, if that’s how you want to come at the problem. That’s simply the “God of the Gaps” argument that’s been around for ever.
From interview, The Science Studio video series of The Science Network website, episode 'The Moon, the Tides and why Neil DeGrasse Tyson is Colbert’s God' (20 Jan 2011), time 26:58-27:55.
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During the time that [Karl] Landsteiner gave me an education in the field of imununology, I discovered that he and I were thinking about the serologic problem in very different ways. He would ask, What do these experiments force us to believe about the nature of the world? I would ask, What is the most. simple and general picture of the world that we can formulate that is not ruled by these experiments? I realized that medical and biological investigators were not attacking their problems the same way that theoretical physicists do, the way I had been in the habit of doing.
‘Molecular Disease’, Pfizer Spectrum (1958), 6:9, 234.
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Einstein, twenty-six years old, only three years away from crude privation, still a patent examiner, published in the Annalen der Physik in 1905 five papers on entirely different subjects. Three of them were among the greatest in the history of physics. One, very simple, gave the quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect—it was this work for which, sixteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel prize. Another dealt with the phenomenon of Brownian motion, the apparently erratic movement of tiny particles suspended in a liquid: Einstein showed that these movements satisfied a clear statistical law. This was like a conjuring trick, easy when explained: before it, decent scientists could still doubt the concrete existence of atoms and molecules: this paper was as near to a direct proof of their concreteness as a theoretician could give. The third paper was the special eory of relativity, which quietly amalgamated space, time, and matter into one fundamental unity. This last paper contains no references and quotes no authority. All of them are written in a style unlike any other theoretical physicist's. They contain very little mathematics. There is a good deal of verbal commentary. The conclusions, the bizarre conclusions, emerge as though with the greatest of ease: the reasoning is unbreakable. It looks as though he had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.
Variety of Men (1966), 100-1.
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Electronic calculators can solve problems which the man who made them cannot solve but no government-subsidized commission of engineers and physicists could create a worm.
In 'March', The Twelve Seasons: A Perpetual Calendar for the Country (1949), 184.
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Engineers think that equations approximate the real world.
Physicists think that the real world approximates equations.
Mathematicians are unable to make the connection.
Anonymous
In Jon Fripp, Michael Fripp and Deborah Fripp, Speaking of Science (2000), 41.
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Even for the physicist the description in plain language will be a criterion of the degree of understanding that has been reached.
In Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958, 1962), 168.
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Every theoretical physicist who is any good knows six or seven different theoretical representations for exactly the same physics. He knows that they are all equivalent, and that nobody is ever going to be able to decide which one is right at that level, but he keeps them in his head, hoping that they will give him different ideas for guessing.
In The Character of Physical Law (1965, 2001), 168.
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Experimental physicists … walk a narrow path with pitfalls on either side. If we spend all our time developing equipment, we risk the appellation of “plumber,” and if we merely use the tools developed by others, we risk the censure of our peers for being parasitic.
In Nobel Lecture (11 Dec 1968), 'Recent Developments in Particle Physics', collected in Nobel Lectures: Physics 1963-1970 (1972), 241.
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For a physicist mathematics is not just a tool by means of which phenomena can be calculated, it is the main source of concepts and principles by means of which new theories can be created.
In 'Mathematics in the Physical Sciences', Scientific American (Sep 1964), 211, No. 3, 129.
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For it is the same whether you take it that the Earth is in motion or the Sky. For, in both the cases, it does not affect the Astronomical Science. It is just for the Physicist to see if it is possible to refute it.
In Syed Hasan Barani, 'Al-Biruni's Scientific Achievements', Indo-Iranica, 1952, S (4), 47.
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For more than ten years, my theory was in limbo. Then, finally, in the late 1980s, physicists at Princeton said, “There’s nothing wrong with this theory. It’s the only one that works, and we have to open out minds to hyperspace.” We weren’t destined to discover this theory for another 100 years because it’s so bizarre, so different from everything we’d been doing. We didn’t use the normal sequence of discoveries to get to it.
Describing reaction to his superstring theory of hyperspace which mathematically relates the universe’s basic forces.
Quoted in Nina L. Diamond, Voices of Truth (2000), 326.
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For more than two years, ever since August 6, 1945, I have been looking at physicists as science writer for The New York Herald Tribune.
The context of this quote makes it interesting. White had been a staff reporter at the newspaper since 1943. The day he became science writer is notable. The first atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan on 6 Aug 1945. The newspaper immediately responded to the need to provide information on science for the public’s interest stimulated by that event. (The newspaper also had to compete with the New York Times science reporter, William L. Laurence, who had been on the inside track at the Manhattan Project, and covered the news of the atomic attacks on Japan.) In 'A Newsman Looks at Physicists', Physics Today (May 1948), 1, No. 1, 15.
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For those who want some proof that physicists are human, the proof is in the idiocy of all the different units which they use for measuring energy.
In The Character of Physical Law (1967, 2001), 75.
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Four years ago nobody but nuclear physicists had ever heard of the Internet. Today even my cat, Socks, has his own web page. I’m amazed at that. I meet kids all the time, been talking to my cat on the Internet.
Referring to the Next Generation Internet initiative in Remarks at Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio (29 Oct 1996). American Presidency Project web page. [Clinton took office 20 Jan 1993, and signed the Next Generation Internet Research Act of 1998 on 28 Oct 1998.]
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From the age of 13, I was attracted to physics and mathematics. My interest in these subjects derived mostly from popular science books that I read avidly. Early on I was fascinated by theoretical physics and determined to become a theoretical physicist. I had no real idea what that meant, but it seemed incredibly exciting to spend one's life attempting to find the secrets of the universe by using one's mind.
From 'Autobiography', in Tore Frängsmyr (ed.) Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 2004, (2005).
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From the point of view of the physicist, a theory of matter is a policy rather than a creed; its object is to connect or co-ordinate apparently diverse phenomena, and above all to suggest, stimulate and direct experiment. It ought to furnish a compass which, if followed, will lead the observer further and further into previously unexplored regions.
The Corpuscular Theory of Matter (1907), 1.
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Genetics is the first biological science which got in the position in which physics has been in for many years. One can justifiably speak about such a thing as theoretical mathematical genetics, and experimental genetics, just as in physics. There are some mathematical geniuses who work out what to an ordinary person seems a fantastic kind of theory. This fantastic kind of theory nevertheless leads to experimentally verifiable prediction, which an experimental physicist then has to test the validity of. Since the times of Wright, Haldane, and Fisher, evolutionary genetics has been in a similar position.
Oral history memoir. Columbia University, Oral History Research Office, New York, 1962. Quoted in William B. Provine, Sewall Wright and Evolutionary Biology (1989), 277.
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Geologists have not been slow to admit that they were in error in assuming that they had an eternity of past time for the evolution of the earth's history. They have frankly acknowledged the validity of the physical arguments which go to place more or less definite limits to the antiquity of the earth. They were, on the whole, disposed to acquiesce in the allowance of 100 millions of years granted to them by Lord Kelvin, for the transaction of the whole of the long cycles of geological history. But the physicists have been insatiable and inexorable. As remorseless as Lear's daughters, they have cut down their grant of years by successive slices, until some of them have brought the number to something less than ten millions. In vain have the geologists protested that there must somewhere be a flaw in a line of argument which tends to results so entirely at variance with the strong evidence for a higher antiquity, furnished not only by the geological record, but by the existing races of plants and animals. They have insisted that this evidence is not mere theory or imagination, but is drawn from a multitude of facts which become hopelessly unintelligible unless sufficient time is admitted for the evolution of geological history. They have not been able to disapprove the arguments of the physicists, but they have contended that the physicists have simply ignored the geological arguments as of no account in the discussion.
'Twenty-five years of Geological Progress in Britain', Nature, 1895, 51, 369.
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Hitherto the principle of causality was universally accepted as an indispensable postulate of scientific research, but now we are told by some physicists that it must be thrown overboard. The fact that such an extraordinary opinion should be expressed in responsible scientific quarters is widely taken to be significant of the all-round unreliability of human knowledge. This indeed is a very serious situation.
In Max Planck and James Vincent Murphy (trans.), Where is Science Going?, (1932), 66.
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I am a quantum engineer, but on Sundays I have principles.
As quoted by Nicolas Gisin in 'Sundays in a Quantum Engineer’s Life', collected in Reinhold A. Bertlmann, A. Zeilinger (eds.),Quantum (Un)speakables: From Bell to Quantum Information (2002), 199. Gisin, one of his PhD students, recollects this statement as the opening remark at an impromptu evening talk in a basement room during the annual meeting of the Association Vaudoise des Chercheurs en Physiques, Montana (Mar 1983).
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I am only a physicist with nothing material to show for my labours. I have never even seen the ionosphere, although I have worked on the subject for thirty years. That does show how lucky people can be. If there had been no ionosphere I would not have been standing here this morning.
Response to receiving an honour from the Institute of Mechanical Engineers. As quoted in New Scientist (22 Nov 1956), 33.
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I believe that certain erroneous developments in particle theory ... are caused by a misconception by some physicists that it is possible to avoid philosophical arguments altogether. Starting with poor philosophy, they pose the wrong questions. It is only a slight exaggeration to say that good physics has at times been spoiled by poor philosophy.
…...
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I believe the statement that in this war a hundred physicists are worth a million soldiers originated in England.
From First Richtmyer Memorial Lecture (30 Dec 1941) to the American Physical Society, Princeton, printed in 'War Problems of the Physics Teacher', American Journal of Physics (1942), 10, 92. Also reprinted in 'War problems of the Physics Teacher', The Scientific Monthly (Apr 1942), 54, No. 4, 370.
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I do not want to label myself a crystallographer as against a physicist and think indeed that though my research is concerned with crystals it is the physical side of it which attracts me.
In Letter (3 Jun 1929) to Ernest Rutherford, in Royal Society Archives, as quoted in David Phillips, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (Nov 1979), 25, 104.
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I had at one time a very bad fever of which I almost died. In my fever I had a long consistent delirium. I dreamt that I was in Hell, and that Hell is a place full of all those happenings that are improbable but not impossible. The effects of this are curious. Some of the damned, when they first arrive below, imagine that they will beguile the tedium of eternity by games of cards. But they find this impossible, because, whenever a pack is shuffled, it comes out in perfect order, beginning with the Ace of Spades and ending with the King of Hearts. There is a special department of Hell for students of probability. In this department there are many typewriters and many monkeys. Every time that a monkey walks on a typewriter, it types by chance one of Shakespeare's sonnets. There is another place of torment for physicists. In this there are kettles and fires, but when the kettles are put on the fires, the water in them freezes. There are also stuffy rooms. But experience has taught the physicists never to open a window because, when they do, all the air rushes out and leaves the room a vacuum.
'The Metaphysician's Nightmare', Nightmares of Eminent Persons and Other Stories (1954), 38-9.
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I happened to read recently a remark by American nuclear physicist W. Davidson, who noted that the explosion of one hydrogen bomb releases a greater amount of energy than the explosions set off by all countries in all wars known in the entire history of mankind. And he, apparently, is right.
[The quoted physicist was, in fact, William Davidon, Argonne National Laboratory.]
Address to the United Nations, New York City, 18 Sep 1959. Quoted in 'Texts of Khrushchev's Address at United Nations and the Soviet Declaration', New York Times (19 Sep 1959), 8.
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I have, also, a good deal of respect for the job they [physicists] did in the first months after Hiroshima. The world desperately needed information on this new problem in the daily life of the planet, and the physicists, after a slow start, did a good job of giving it to them. It hasn’t come out with a fraction of the efficiency that the teachers might have wished, but it was infinitely more effective than anyone would have dared expect.
In 'A Newsman Looks at Physicists', Physics Today (May 1948), 1, No. 1, 15.
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I recognize that many physicists are smarter than I am—most of them theoretical physicists. A lot of smart people have gone into theoretical physics, therefore the field is extremely competitive. I console myself with the thought that although they may be smarter and may be deeper thinkers than I am, I have broader interests than they have.
…...
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I stand before you as somebody who is both physicist and a priest, and I want to hold together my scientific and my religious insights and experiences . I want to hold them together, as far as I am able, without dishonesty and without compartmentalism. I don’t want to be a priest on Sunday and a physicist on Monday; I want to be both on both days.
…...
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I suspect that the most important effect of World War II on physical science lay in the change in the attitude of people to science. The politicians and the public were convinced that science was useful and were in no position to argue about the details. A professor of physics might be more sinister than he was in the 1930s, but he was no longer an old fool with a beard in a comic-strip. The scientists or at any rate the physicists, had changed their attitude. They not only believed in the interest of science for themselves, they had acquired also a belief that the tax-payer should and would pay for it and would, in some unspecified length of run, benefit by it.
'The Effect of World War II on the Development of Knowledge in the Physical Sciences', Proceedings of the Royal Society of London, 1975, Series A, 342, 532.
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I think physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race. They never grow up, and they keep their curiosity.
In Jeremy Bernstein, 'Rabi: The Modern Age', Experiencing Science (1978), 102. Part of Rabi’s response to Bernstein’s interview question, about at which age, in his opinion, physicists tend to run down. Previously published in 'Physicist', The New Yorker (1970).
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I was a kind of a one-man army. I could solder circuits together, I could turn out things on the lathe, I could work with rockets and balloons. I’m a kind of a hybrid between an engineer and a physicist and astronomer.
Characterizing the self-reliance of scientists of his day, contrasted to the complexities of scientific undertakings today, when “the pattern is much more a team of people” who are “backed up by a technical staff that does most of these things.” In interview, Rushworth M. Kidder, 'Grounded in Space Science', Christian Science Monitor (22 Dec 1989).
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I wished to show that Pythagoras, the first founder of the vegetable regimen, was at once a very great physicist and a very great physician; that there has been no one of a more cultured and discriminating humanity; that he was a man of wisdom and of experience; that his motive in commending and introducing the new mode of living was derived not from any extravagant superstition, but from the desire to improve the health and the manners of men.
From Dell Vitto Pitagorico (1743), (The Pythagorean Diet: for the Use of the Medical Faculty), as translated quotes in Howard Williams, The Ethics of Diet: A Catena of Authorities Deprecatory of the Practice of Flesh-Eating (1883), 158.
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If a problem is clearly stated, it has no further interest to the physicist.
In Richard Hamming, Numerical Methods for Scientists and Engineers (1973), 704, footnote, without citation.
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If and when all the laws governing physical phenomena are finally discovered, and all the empirical constants occurring in these laws are finally expressed through the four independent basic constants, we will be able to say that physical science has reached its end, that no excitement is left in further explorations, and that all that remains to a physicist is either tedious work on minor details or the self-educational study and adoration of the magnificence of the completed system. At that stage physical science will enter from the epoch of Columbus and Magellan into the epoch of the National Geographic Magazine!
'Any Physics Tomorrow', Physics Today, January 1949, 2, 17.
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If I were not a physicist, I would probably be a musician. I often think in music. I live my dreams in music. I see my life in terms of music... I get most joy in life out of music.
…...
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If physicists could not quote in the text, they would not feel that much was lost with respect to advancement of knowledge of the natural world. If historians could not quote, they would deem it a disastrous impediment to the communication of knowledge about the past. A luxury for physicists, quotation is a necessity for historians, indispensable to historiography.
Historiography (1968), 385.
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If the entire Mandelbrot set were placed on an ordinary sheet of paper, the tiny sections of boundary we examine would not fill the width of a hydrogen atom. Physicists think about such tiny objects; only mathematicians have microscopes fine enough to actually observe them.
In 'Can We See the Mandelbrot Set?', The College Mathematics Journal (Mar 1995), 26, No. 2, 90.
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If these d'Hérelle bodies were really genes, fundamentally like our chromosome genes, they would give us an utterly new angle from which to attack the gene problem. They are filterable, to some extent isolable, can be handled in test-tubes, and their properties, as shown by their effects on the bacteria, can then be studied after treatment. It would be very rash to call these bodies genes, and yet at present we must confess that there is no distinction known between the genes and them. Hence we can not categorically deny that perhaps we may be able to grind genes in a mortar and cook them in a beaker after all. Must we geneticists become bacteriologists, physiological chemists and physicists, simultaneously with being zoologists and botanists? Let us hope so.
'Variation Due to Change in the Individual Gene', The American Naturalist (1922), 56, 48-9.
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If to-day you ask a physicist what he has finally made out the æther or the electron to be, the answer will not be a description in terms of billiard balls or fly-wheels or anything concrete; he will point instead to a number of symbols and a set of mathematical equations which they satisfy. What do the symbols stand for? The mysterious reply is given that physics is indifferent to that; it has no means of probing beneath the symbolism. To understand the phenomena of the physical world it is necessary to know the equations which the symbols obey but not the nature of that which is being symbolised. …this newer outlook has modified the challenge from the material to the spiritual world.
Swarthmore Lecture (1929) at Friends’ House, London, printed in Science and the Unseen World (1929), 30.
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If you want to be a physicist, you must do three things—first, study mathematics, second, study more mathematics, and third, do the same.
Interview with Paul H. Kirkpatrick, in Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (1978), 200.
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If you want to find out anything from the theoretical physicists about the methods they use, I advise you to stick closely to one principle: don't listen to their words, fix your attention on their deeds. To him who is a discoverer in this field the products of his imagination appear so necessary and natural that he regards them, and would like to have them regarded by others, not as creations of thought but as given realities.
From 'On the Method of Theoretical Physics', in Essays in Science (1934, 2004), 12.
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If you wish to learn from the theoretical physicist anything about the methods which he uses, I would give you the following piece of advice: Don’t listen to his words, examine his achievements. For to the discoverer in that field, the constructions of his imagination appear so necessary and so natural that he is apt to treat them not as the creations of his thoughts but as given realities.
In Herbert Spencer Lecture at Oxford (10 Jun 1933), 'On the Methods of Theoretical Physics'. Printed inPhilosophy of Science (Apr 1934), 1, No. 2, 163.
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In 1900 however, he [Planck] worked out the revolutionary quantum theory, a towering achievement which extended and improved the basic concepts of physics. It was so revolutionary, in fact, that almost no physicist, including Planck himself could bring himself to accept it. (Planck later said that the only way a revolutionary theory could be accepted was to wait until all the old scientists had died.)
(1976). In Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations (1988), 324.
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In 1905, a physicist measuring the thermal conductivity of copper would have faced, unknowingly, a very small systematic error due to the heating of his equipment and sample by the absorption of cosmic rays, then unknown to physics. In early 1946, an opinion poller, studying Japanese opinion as to who won the war, would have faced a very small systematic error due to the neglect of the 17 Japanese holdouts, who were discovered later north of Saipan. These cases are entirely parallel. Social, biological and physical scientists all need to remember that they have the same problems, the main difference being the decimal place in which they appear.
In William G. Cochran, Frederick Mosteller and John W. Tukey, 'Principles of Sampling', Journal of the American Statistical Society, 1954, 49, 31. Collected in Selected Papers of Frederick Mosteller (2006), 290.
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In August, 1896, I exposed the sodium flame to large magnetic forces by placing it between the poles of a strong electromagnet. Again I studied the radiation of the flame by means of Rowland's mirror, the observations being made in the direction perpendicular to the lines of force. Each line, which in the absence of the effect of the magnetic forces was very sharply defined, was now broadened. This indicated that not only the original oscillations, but also others with greater and again others with smaller periods of oscillation were being radiated by the flame. The change was however very small. In an easily produced magnetic field it corresponded to a thirtieth of the distance between the two sodium lines, say two tenths of an Angstrom, a unit of measure whose name will always recall to physicists the meritorious work done by the father of my esteemed colleague.
'Light Radiation in a Magnetic Field', Nobel Lecture, 2 May 1903. In Nobel Lectures: Physics 1901-1921 (1967), 34-5.
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In many aspects, the theoretical physicist is merely a philosopher in a working suit.
In Black Holes by Jean-Pierre Luminet (1987).
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In physics we have dealt hitherto only with periodic crystals. To a humble physicist’s mind, these are very interesting and complicated objects; they constitute one of the most fascinating and complex material structures by which inanimate nature puzzles his wits. Yet, compared with the aperiodic crystal, they are rather plain and dull. The difference in structure is of the same kind as that between an ordinary wallpaper in which the same pattern is repeated again and again in regular periodicity and a masterpiece of embroidery, say a Raphael tapestry, which shows no dull repetition, but an elaborate, coherent, meaningful design traced by the great master.
…...
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In scientific thought we adopt the simplest theory which will explain all the facts under consideration and enable us to predict new facts of the same kind. The catch in this criterion lies in the world “simplest.” It is really an aesthetic canon such as we find implicit in our criticisms of poetry or painting. The layman finds such a law as dx/dt = κ(d²x/dy²) much less simple than “it oozes,” of which it is the mathematical statement. The physicist reverses this judgment, and his statement is certainly the more fruitful of the two, so far as prediction is concerned. It is, however, a statement about something very unfamiliar to the plain man, namely the rate of change of a rate of change.
In 'Science and Theology as Art-Forms', Possible Worlds (1927), 227.
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In that memorable year, 1822: Oersted, a Danish physicist, held in his hands a piece of copper wire, joined by its extremities to the two poles of a Volta pile. On his table was a magnetized needle on its pivot, and he suddenly saw (by chance you will say, but chance only favours the mind which is prepared) the needle move and take up a position quite different from the one assigned to it by terrestrial magnetism. A wire carrying an electric current deviates a magnetized needle from its position. That, gentlemen, was the birth of the modern telegraph.
Le hasard favorise l’esprit preparé
Inaugural Address as newly appointed Professor and Dean (Sep 1854) at the opening of the new Faculté des Sciences at Lille (7 Dec 1854). In René Vallery-Radot, The Life of Pasteur, translated by Mrs. R. L. Devonshire (1919), 76.
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In the 1920s, there was a dinner at which the physicist Robert W. Wood was asked to respond to a toast … “To physics and metaphysics.” Now by metaphysics was meant something like philosophy—truths that you could get to just by thinking about them. Wood took a second, glanced about him, and answered along these lines: The physicist has an idea, he said. The more he thinks it through, the more sense it makes to him. He goes to the scientific literature, and the more he reads, the more promising the idea seems. Thus prepared, he devises an experiment to test the idea. The experiment is painstaking. Many possibilities are eliminated or taken into account; the accuracy of the measurement is refined. At the end of all this work, the experiment is completed and … the idea is shown to be worthless. The physicist then discards the idea, frees his mind (as I was saying a moment ago) from the clutter of error, and moves on to something else. The difference between physics and metaphysics, Wood concluded, is that the metaphysicist has no laboratory.
In 'Wonder and Skepticism', Skeptical Enquirer (Jan-Feb 1995), 19, No. 1.
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In the good old days physicists repeated each other’s experiments, just to be sure. Today they stick to FORTRAN, so that they can share each other’s programs, bugs included.
…...
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In the light of [current research on atomic structure] the physicists have, I think, some justification for their faith that they are building on the solid rock of fact, and not, as we are often so solemnly warned by some of our scientific brethren, on the shifting sands of imaginative hypothesis.
From Opening Address to the Mathematics and Physics Section at the Annual Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Winnipeg. Collected in 'The British Association at Winnipeg', Nature (26 Aug 1909), 81. No. 2078, 263.
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In the mathematical investigations I have usually employed such methods as present themselves naturally to a physicist. The pure mathematician will complain, and (it must be confessed) sometimes with justice, of deficient rigour. But to this question there are two sides. For, however important it may be to maintain a uniformly high standard in pure mathematics, the physicist may occasionally do well to rest content with arguments which are fairly satisfactory and conclusive from his point of view. To his mind, exercised in a different order of ideas, the more severe procedure of the pure mathematician may appear not more but less demonstrative. And further, in many cases of difficulty to insist upon the highest standard would mean the exclusion of the subject altogether in view of the space that would be required.
In Preface to second edition, The Theory of Sound (1894), Vol. 1, vii.
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In the world of physics we watch a shadowgraph performance of the drama of familiar life. The shadow of my elbow rests on the shadow table as the shadow ink flows over the shadow paper. It is all symbolic, and as a symbol the physicist leaves it. ... The frank realization that physical science is concerned with a world of shadows is one of the most significant of recent advances.
In The Nature of the Physical World (1928, 2005), xiv-xv.
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In the world of science different levels of esteem are accorded to different kinds of specialist. Mathematicians have always been eminently respectable, and so are those who deal with hard lifeless theories about what constitutes the physical world: the astronomers, the physicists, the theoretical chemists. But the more closely the scientist interests himself in matters which are of direct human relevance, the lower his social status. The real scum of the scientific world are the engineers and the sociologists and the psychologists. Indeed, if a psychologist wants to rate as a scientist he must study rats, not human beings. In zoology the same rules apply. It is much more respectable to dissect muscle tissues in a laboratory than to observe the behaviour of a living animal in its natural habitat.
From transcript of BBC radio Reith Lecture (12 Nov 1967), 'A Runaway World', on the bbc.co.uk website.
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In working out physical problems there should be, in the first place, no pretence of rigorous formalism. The physics will guide the physicist along somehow to useful and important results, by the constant union of physical and geometrical or analytical ideas. The practice of eliminating the physics by reducing a problem to a purely mathematical exercise should be avoided as much as possible. The physics should be carried on right through, to give life and reality to the problem, and to obtain the great assistance which the physics gives to the mathematics.
In Electromagnetic Theory (1892), Vol. 2, 5.
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It did not cause anxiety that Maxwell’s equations did not apply to gravitation, since nobody expected to find any link between electricity and gravitation at that particular level. But now physics was faced with an entirely new situation. The same entity, light, was at once a wave and a particle. How could one possibly imagine its proper size and shape? To produce interference it must be spread out, but to bounce off electrons it must be minutely localized. This was a fundamental dilemma, and the stalemate in the wave-photon battle meant that it must remain an enigma to trouble the soul of every true physicist. It was intolerable that light should be two such contradictory things. It was against all the ideals and traditions of science to harbor such an unresolved dualism gnawing at its vital parts. Yet the evidence on either side could not be denied, and much water was to flow beneath the bridges before a way out of the quandary was to be found. The way out came as a result of a brilliant counterattack initiated by the wave theory, but to tell of this now would spoil the whole story. It is well that the reader should appreciate through personal experience the agony of the physicists of the period. They could but make the best of it, and went around with woebegone faces sadly complaining that on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays they must look on light as a wave; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, as a particle. On Sundays they simply prayed.
The Strange Story of the Quantum (1947), 42.
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It does appear that on the whole a physicist… tries to reduce his theory at all times to as few parameters as possible and is inclined to feel that a theory is a “respectable” one, though by no means necessarily correct, if in principle it does offer reasonably specific means for its possible refutation. Moreover the physicist will generally arouse the irritation amongst fellow physicists if he is not prepared to abandon his theory when it clashes with subsequent experiments. On the other hand it would appear that the chemist regards theories—or perhaps better his theories (!) —as far less sacrosanct, and perhaps in extreme cases is prepared to modify them continually as each bit of new experimental evidence comes in.
'Discussion: Physics and Chemistry: Comments on Caldin's View of Chemistry', British Journal of the Philosophy of Science, 1960, 11, 222.
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It has often been said, and certainly not without justification, that the man of science is a poor philosopher. Why then should it not be the right thing for the physicist to let the philosopher do the philosophising? Such might indeed be the right thing to do a time when the physicist believes he has at his disposal a rigid system of fundamental laws which are so well that waves of doubt can't reach them; but it cannot be right at a time when the very foundations of physics itself have become problematic as they are now … when experience forces us to seek a newer and more solid foundation.
‘Physics and Reality’, Franklin Institute Journal (Mar 1936). Collected in Out of My Later Years (1950), 58.
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It is a common rule in theoretical physics, one accepted by many physicists, that anything not forbidden by the basic laws of nature must take place.
In 'The Ultimate Speed Limit', Saturday Review of Sciences (8 Jul 1972), 56.
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It is a melancholy experience for a professional mathematician to find him writing about mathematics. The function of a mathematician is to do something, to prove new theorems, to add to mathematics, and not to talk about what he or other mathematicians have done. Statesmen despise publicists, painters despise art-critics, and physiologists, physicists, or mathematicians have usually similar feelings; there is no scorn more profound, or on the whole more justifiable, than that of men who make for the men who explain. Exposition, criticism, appreciation, is work for second-rate minds.
In A Mathematician's Apology (1940, reprint with Foreward by C.P. Snow 1992), 61 (Hardy's opening lines after Snow's foreward).
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It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference—inference either intuitive or deliberate.
From Gifford Lecture, Edinburgh, (1927), 'Reality', collected in The Nature of the Physical World (1928), 281.
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It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn’t work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or a haemoglobin molecule would take from here to infinity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints and all the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed, going round the back of Mount Improbable and crawling up the gentle slopes, inch by million-year inch. Only God would essay the mad task of leaping up the precipice in a single bound.
In Climbing Mount Improbable (1996), 67-8.
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It is profitable nevertheless to permit ourselves to talk about 'meaningless' terms in the narrow sense if the preconditions to which all profitable operations are subject are so intuitive and so universally accepted as to form an almost unconscious part of the background of the public using the term. Physicists of the present day do constitute a homogenous public of this character; it is in the air that certain sorts of operation are valueless for achieving certain sorts of result. If one wants to know how many planets there are one counts them but does not ask a philosopher what is the perfect number.
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 6.
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It is told of Faraday that he refused to be called a physicist; he very much disliked the new name as being too special and particular and insisted on the old one, philosopher, in all its spacious generality: we may suppose that this was his way of saying that he had not over-ridden the limiting conditions of class only to submit to the limitation of a profession.
Commentary (Jun 1962), 33, 461-77. Cited by Sydney Ross in Nineteenth-Century Attitudes: Men of Science (1991), 11.
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It is well known that theoretical physicists cannot handle experimental equipment; it breaks whenever they touch it. Pauli was such a good theoretical physicist that something usually broke in the lab whenever he merely stepped across the threshold. A mysterious event that did not seem at first to be connected with Pauli's presence once occurred in Professor J. Franck's laboratory in Göttingen. Early one afternoon, without apparent cause, a complicated apparatus for the study of atomic phenomena collapsed. Franck wrote humorously about this to Pauli at his Zürich address and, after some delay, received an answer in an envelope with a Danish stamp. Pauli wrote that he had gone to visit Bohr and at the time of the mishap in Franck's laboratory his train was stopped for a few minutes at the Göttingen railroad station. You may believe this anecdote or not, but there are many other observations concerning the reality of the Pauli Effect!
From Thirty Years That Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory (1966), 64. Note the so-called Pauli Effect is merely anecdotal to provide humor about supposed parapsychology phenomena in coincidences involving Pauli; it should not be confused with scientifically significant Pauli Exclusion Principle.
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It may be appropriate to quote a statement of Poincare, who said (partly in jest no doubt) that there must be something mysterious about the normal law since mathematicians think it is a law of nature whereas physicists are convinced that it is a mathematical theorem.
Quoted in Mark Kac, Statistical Independence in Probability, Analysis and Number Theory (1959), 52.
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It startled him even more when just after he was awarded the Galactic Institute’s Prize for Extreme Cleverness he got lynched by a rampaging mob of respectable physicists who had finally realized that the one thing they really couldn't stand was a smart-ass.
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1979, 1997), 78.
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It would be a poor thing to be an atom in a universe without physicists, and physicists are made of atoms. A physicist is an atom’s way of knowing about atoms.
In lecture, 'Life and Mind in the Universe', versions of which George Wald delivered throughout the 1980s. On the website of his son, Elijah Wald, who states it was the last of his father's major lectures.
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It would be impossible, it would be against the scientific spirit. … Physicists should always publish their researches completely. If our discovery has a commercial future that is a circumstance from which we should not profit. If radium is to be used in the treatment of disease, it is impossible for us to take advantage of that.
In a discussion with her husband, Pierre, about the patenting of radium, in Marie Curie by Eve Curie (1939).
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John Bahcall, an astronomer on the Institute of Advanced Study faculty since 1970 likes to tell the story of his first faculty dinner, when he found himself seated across from Kurt Gödel, … a man dedicated to logic and the clean certainties of mathematical abstraction. Bahcall introduced himself and mentioned that he was a physicist. Gödel replied, “I don’t believe in natural science.”
As stated in Adam Begley, 'The Lonely Genius Club', New York Magazine (30 Jan 1995), 63.
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John [H.] Van Vleck, who was a leading young theoretical physicist when I was also a leading young theoretical physicist, said to me one day, “I never have made a contribution to physics that I didn’t get by fiddling with the equations,” and I said, “I’ve never made a contribution that I didn’t get by just having a new idea. Then I would fiddle with the equations to help support the new idea.” Van Vleck was essentially a mathematical physicist, you might say, and I was essentially a person of ideas. I don’t think I’m primarily mathematical. … I have a great curiosity about the nature of the world as a whole, and most of my ideas are qualitative rather than quantitative.
Interview with George B. Kauffman and Laurie M. Kauffman, in 'Linus Pauling: Reflections', American Scientist (Nov-Dec 1994), 82, No. 6, 523.
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Just as a physicist has to examine the telescope and galvanometer with which he is working; has to get a clear conception of what he can attain with them, and how they may deceive him; so, too, it seemed to me necessary to investigate likewise the capabilities of our power of thought.
'An Autobiographical Sketch' (1891). Trans. E. Atkinson, Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects, Second Series, New Edition (1895), 284-5.
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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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Lise Meitner: a physicist who never lost her humanity.
Epitaph
Tombstone inscription, St. James' Church, Bramley, Hampshire. In Ruth Sime, Lise Meitner: A Life in Physics (1996), 380.
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Man is slightly nearer to the atom than to the star. … From his central position man can survey the grandest works of Nature with the astronomer, or the minutest works with the physicist. … [K]nowledge of the stars leads through the atom; and important knowledge of the atom has been reached through the stars.
Lecture 1. Stars and Atoms (1928, 2007), 9.
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Many scientists have tried to make determinism and complementarity the basis of conclusions that seem to me weak and dangerous; for instance, they have used Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to bolster up human free will, though his principle, which applies exclusively to the behavior of electrons and is the direct result of microphysical measurement techniques, has nothing to do with human freedom of choice. It is far safer and wiser that the physicist remain on the solid ground of theoretical physics itself and eschew the shifting sands of philosophic extrapolations.
In New Perspectives in Physics (1962), viii.
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Mathematicians are only dealing with the structure of reasoning, and they do not really care what they are talking about. They do not even need to know what they are talking about … But the physicist has meaning to all his phrases. … In physics, you have to have an understanding of the connection of words with the real world.
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 55.
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Maxwell's equations… originally consisted of eight equations. These equations are not “beautiful.” They do not possess much symmetry. In their original form, they are ugly. …However, when rewritten using time as the fourth dimension, this rather awkward set of eight equations collapses into a single tensor equation. This is what a physicist calls “beauty.”
In 'Quantum Heresy', Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension (1995), 130. Note: For two “beauty” criteria, unifying symmetry and economy of expression, see quote on this page beginning “When physicists…”
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Most of us who become experimental physicists do so for two reasons; we love the tools of physics because to us they have intrinsic beauty, and we dream of finding new secrets of nature as important and as exciting as those uncovered by our scientific heroes.
In Nobel Lecture (11 Dec 1968), 'Recent Developments in Particle Physics', collected in Nobel Lectures: Physics 1963-1970 (1972), 241.
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Most people today still believe, perhaps unconsciously, in the heliocentric universe. ... Every newspaper in the land has a section on astrology, yet few have anything at all on astronomy.
[Realizing that his plasma universe may take a long time to penetrate the popular consciousness. When addressing a number of physicists with the first half of the quote, the groups was at first incredulous, but nodded agreement upon hearing the remainder of the quote.]
Quoted in Anthony L. Peratt, 'Dean of the Plasma Dissidents', Washington Times, supplement: The World and I (May 1988),196.
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My observations of the young physicists who seem to be most like me and the friends I describe in this book tell me that they feel as we would if we had been chained to those same oars. Our young counterparts aren’t going into nuclear or particle physics (they tell me it’s too unattractive); they are going into condensed-matter physics, low-temperature physics, or astrophysics, where important work can still be done in teams smaller than ten and where everyone can feel that he has made an important contribution to the success of the experiment that every other member of the collaboration is aware of. Most of us do physics because it’s fun and because we gain a certain respect in the eyes of those who know what we’ve done. Both of those rewards seem to me to be missing in the huge collaborations that now infest the world of particle physics.
Alvarez: Adventures of a Physicist (1987), 198.
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My teacher, Hopkins, often commented on the craving for certainty that led so many physicists into mysticism or into the Church and similar organisations ... Faith seems to be an occupational hazard for physicists.
Penguin New Biology (1954), 16, 44
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Nature's economy shall be the base for our own, for it is immutable, but ours is secondary. An economist without knowledge of nature is therefore like a physicist without knowledge of mathematics.
'Tankar om grunden til oeconomien', 1740, 406. Trans. Lisbet Koerner, Linnaeus: Nature and Nation (1999), 103.
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No scientist or student of science, need ever read an original work of the past. As a general rule, he does not think of doing so. Rutherford was one of the greatest experimental physicists, but no nuclear scientist today would study his researches of fifty years ago. Their substance has all been infused into the common agreement, the textbooks, the contemporary papers, the living present.
Attempting to distinguish between science and the humanities in which original works like Shakespeare's must be studied verbatim. 'The Case of Leavis and the Serious Case', (1970), reprinted in Public Affairs (1971), 94.
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Nothing in physics seems so hopeful to as the idea that it is possible for a theory to have a high degree of symmetry was hidden from us in everyday life. The physicist's task is to find this deeper symmetry.
In American Scientist (1977) (as cited in The Atlantic (1984), 254, 81.) As an epigraph in Crystal and Dragon: The Cosmic Dance of Symmetry and Chaos in Nature, Art and Consciousness (1993), 139.
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Now [Michele Besso] has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For us believing in physicists, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.
Letter of condolence to the family of Michele Besso, his lifelong friend (21 Mar 1955). In Tabatha Yeatts, Albert Einstein (2007), 116. (Besso died on 15 Mar 1955. Einstein died 18 Apr 1955.)
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On a perfect planet such as might be acceptable to a physicist, one might predict that from its origin the diversity of life would grow exponentially until the carrying capacity, however defined, was reached. The fossil record on Earth, however, tells a very different story.
In 'The Evolution of Diversity in AAncient Ecosystems: a Review', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B (28 Feb 1998), 353, No. 1366, 327.
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On careful examination the physicist finds that in the sense in which he uses language no meaning at all can be attached to a physical concept which cannot ultimately be described in terms of some sort of measurement. A body has position only in so far as its position can be measured; if a position cannot in principle be measured, the concept of position applied to the body is meaningless, or in other words, a position of the body does not exist. Hence if both the position and velocity of electron cannot in principle be measured, the electron cannot have the same position and velocity; position and velocity as expressions of properties which an electron can simultaneously have are meaningless.
Reflections of a Physicist (1950), 90.
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On the morning of 1 November 1956 the US physicist John Bardeen dropped the frying-pan of eggs that he was cooking for breakfast, scattering its contents on the kitchen floor. He had just heard that he had won the Nobel Prize for Physics along with William Shockley and Walter Brattain for their invention of the transistor. That evening Bardeen was startled again, this time by a parade of his colleagues from the University of Illinois marching to the door of his home bearing champagne and singing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow”.
In Abstract for 'John Bardeen: An Extraordinary Physicist', Physics World (2008), 21, No. 4, 22.
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One began to hear it said that World War I was the chemists’ war, World War II was the physicists’ war, World War III (may it never come) will be the mathematicians’ war.
Co-author with and Reuben Hersh, The Mathematical Experience (1981), 96.
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One of the biggest and most important tools of theoretical physics is the wastebasket.
In interview for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 'Richard Feynman Builds a Universe', collected in Jeffrey Robbins (ed.), The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999), Chap. 12, 234.
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Only mathematics and mathematical logic can say as little as the physicist means to say. (1931)
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 57.
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Our environment may and should mean something towards us which is not to be measured with the tools of the physicist or described by the metrical symbols of the mathematician.
Swarthmore Lecture (1929) at Friends’ House, London, printed in Science and the Unseen World (1929), 47.
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Over the last century, physicists have used light quanta, electrons, alpha particles, X-rays, gamma-rays, protons, neutrons and exotic sub-nuclear particles for this purpose [scattering experiments]. Much important information about the target atoms or nuclei or their assemblage has been obtained in this way. In witness of this importance one can point to the unusual concentration of scattering enthusiasts among earlier Nobel Laureate physicists. One could say that physicists just love to perform or interpret scattering experiments.
Nobel Banquet Speech (10 Dec 1994), in Tore Frängsmyr (ed.), Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1994 (1995).
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Physical science comes nearest to that complete system of exact knowledge which all sciences have before them as an ideal. Some fall far short of it. The physicist who inveighs against the lack of coherence and the indefiniteness of theological theories, will probably speak not much less harshly of the theories of biology and psychology. They also fail to come up to his standard of methodology. On the other side of him stands an even superior being—the pure mathematician—who has no high opinion of the methods of deduction used in physics, and does not hide his disapproval of the laxity of what is accepted as proof in physical science. And yet somehow knowledge grows in all these branches. Wherever a way opens we are impelled to seek by the only methods that can be devised for that particular opening, not over-rating the security of our finding, but conscious that in this activity of mind we are obeying the light that is in our nature.
Swarthmore Lecture (1929) at Friends’ House, London, printed in Science and the Unseen World (1929), 77-78.
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Physicist Isador Isaac Rabi, who won a Nobel Prize for inventing a technique that permitted scientists to probe the structure of atoms and molecules in the 1930s, attributed his success to the way his mother used to greet him when he came home from school each day. “Did you ask any good questions today, Isaac?” she would say.
Thomas J. Peters, Liberation Management: Necessary Disorganization for the Nanosecond Nineties (1992).
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Physicists and astronomers see their own implications in the world being round, but to me it means that only one-third of the world is asleep at any given time and the other two-thirds is up to something.
Dean Rusk
Speech to American Bar Association, Atlanta, Ga. (22 Oct 1964), quoted in The Atlanta Constitution (23 Oct 1964), 10. In James H. Billington, Respectfully Quoted (2010), 380.
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Physicists are not regular fellows—and neither are poets. Anyone engaged in an activity that makes considerable demands on both the intellect and the emotions is not unlikely to be a little bit odd.
In Physics for Poets (1978).
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Physicists are people, differing from the common run of humanity only in that from time to time they tend to speak a strange language of their own, much of which they understand.
In 'A Newsman Looks at Physicists', Physics Today (May 1948), 1, No. 1, 15.
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Physicists are, as a general rule, highbrows. They think and talk in long, Latin words, and when they write anything down they usually include at least one partial differential and three Greek letters.
In 'A Newsman Looks at Physicists', Physics Today (May 1948), 1, No. 1, 15.
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Physicists can only think the same damn thing over and over.
In 'Loose Ends', QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985), Chap. 4, 149.
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Physicists do, of course, show a healthy respect for High Voltage, Radiation, and Liquid Hydrogen signs. They are not reckless. I can think of only six who have been killed on the job.
In Adventures of a Physicist (1987), 14.
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Physicists like to think that all you have to do is say, these are the conditions, now what happens next?
In Messenger Lecture (1964), at Cornell University, 'The Distinction of Past and Future', collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967, 2017), 114.
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Physicists often quote from T. H. White’s epic novel The Once and Future King, where a society of ants declares, “Everything not forbidden is compulsory.” In other words, if there isn't a basic principle of physics forbidding time travel, then time travel is necessarily a physical possibility. (The reason for this is the uncertainty principle. Unless something is forbidden, quantum effects and fluctuations will eventually make it possible if we wait long enough. Thus, unless there is a law forbidding it, it will eventually occur.)
In Parallel Worlds: a Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos (2006), 136.
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Physicists only talk to physicists, economists to economists—worse still, nuclear physicists only talk to nuclear physicists and econometricians to econometricians. One wonders sometimes if science will not grind to a stop in an assemblage of walled-in hermits, each mumbling to himself words in a private language that only he can understand.
In 'The Skeleton of Science', General Systems Theory (1956). Collected in 'General Systems Theory—The Skeleton of Science', Beyond Economics: Essays on Society, Religion, and Ethics (1968), 85.
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Physicists speak of the particle representation or the wave representation. Bohr's principle of complementarity asserts that there exist complementary properties of the same object of knowledge, one of which if known will exclude knowledge of the other. We may therefore describe an object like an electron in ways which are mutually exclusive—e.g., as wave or particle—without logical contradiction provided we also realize that the experimental arrangements that determine these descriptions are similarly mutually exclusive. Which experiment—and hence which description one chooses—is purely a matter of human choice.
The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature (1982), 94.
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Physicists still tend to regard biologists as men condemned by their lack of mathematics to follow an imprecise science. Some biologists think that, life is too complex to be amenable to mathematical study.
From A.S. Curtis, 'The Value of Mathematics in Biology',New Scientist (25 Jan 1962), 223.
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Physics is becoming so unbelievably complex that it is taking longer and longer to train a physicist. It is taking so long, in fact, to train a physicist to the place where he understands the nature of physical problems that he is already too old to solve them.
As quoted by Colin Pittendrigh (1971). In George C. Beakley, Ernest G. Chilton, Introduction to Engineering Design and Graphics (1973), 40
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Physics is becoming too difficult for the physicists.
As quoted in Constance Reid, Hilbert (1970), 127.
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Physics is much too hard for physicists.
As quoted in Constance Reid, Hilbert (2012), 127. Reid explains Hilbert’s goal of “the axiomatization of physics. … But this project required a mathematician.” Hilbert envisioned “A few fundamental physical phenomena should be set up as the axioms from which all observable data could then be derived by rigorous mathematical deduction as smoothly and as satisfyingly as the theorems of Euclid had been derived from his axioms.”
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Probably every physicist would believe in a creation [of the universe] if the Bible had not unfortunately said something about it many years ago and made it seem old fashioned.
'Continuous Creation and the Edge of Space', New Republic (1951), 124, 21-2.
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Pure mathematics and physics are becoming ever more closely connected, though their methods remain different. One may describe the situation by saying that the mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by Nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which Nature has chosen. … Possibly, the two subjects will ultimately unify, every branch of pure mathematics then having its physical application, its importance in physics being proportional to its interest in mathematics.
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 124.
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Reality is what kicks back when you kick it. This is just what physicists do with their particle accelerators. We kick reality and feel it kick back. From the intensity and duration of thousands of those kicks over many years, we have formed a coherent theory of matter and forces, called the standard model, that currently agrees with all observations.
In Has Science Found God?: The Latest Results in the Search for Purpose in the Universe (2003), 41.
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Relations between authors and referees are, of course, almost always strained. Authors are convinced that the malicious stupidity of the referee is alone preventing them from laying their discoveries before an admiring world. Referees are convinced that authors are too arrogant and obtuse to recognize blatant fallacies in their own reasoning, even when these have been called to their attention with crystalline lucidity. All physicists know this, because all physicists are both authors and referees, but it does no good. The ability of one person to hold both views is an example of what Bohr called complementarity.
In Boojums All the Way Through: Communicating Science in a Prosaic Age (1990), 19-20.
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Rutherford was as straightforward and unpretentious as a physicist as he was elsewhere in life, and that no doubt was one of the secrets of his success. “I was always a believer in simplicity, being a simple man myself,” he said. If a principle of physics could not be explained to a barmaid, he insisted, the problem was with the principle, not the barmaid.
In Great Physicists (2001), 328.
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Science itself is badly in need of integration and unification. The tendency is more and more the other way ... Only the graduate student, poor beast of burden that he is, can be expected to know a little of each. As the number of physicists increases, each specialty becomes more self-sustaining and self-contained. Such Balkanization carries physics, and indeed, every science further away, from natural philosophy, which, intellectually, is the meaning and goal of science.
Science, The Center of Culture (1970), 92. Quoted by Victor F. Weisskopf, 'One Hundred Years of the Physical Review', in H. Henry Stroke, Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: a Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries, Vol. 1, 15.
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Scientists, therefore, are responsible for their research, not only intellectually but also morally. This responsibility has become an important issue in many of today's sciences, but especially so in physics, in which the results of quantum mechanics and relativity theory have opened up two very different paths for physicists to pursue. They may lead us—to put it in extreme terms—to the Buddha or to the Bomb, and it is up to each of us to decide which path to take.
In The Turning Point: Science, Society, and the Rising Culture (1983), 87.
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Since the seventeenth century, physical intuition has served as a vital source for mathematical porblems and methods. Recent trends and fashions have, however, weakened the connection between mathematics and physics; mathematicians, turning away from their roots of mathematics in intuition, have concentrated on refinement and emphasized the postulated side of mathematics, and at other times have overlooked the unity of their science with physics and other fields. In many cases, physicists have ceased to appreciate the attitudes of mathematicians. This rift is unquestionably a serious threat to science as a whole; the broad stream of scientific development may split into smaller and smaller rivulets and dry out. It seems therefore important to direct our efforts towards reuniting divergent trends by classifying the common features and interconnections of many distinct and diverse scientific facts.
As co-author with David Hilbert, in Methods of Mathematical Physics (1937, 1989), Preface, v.
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So is not mathematical analysis then not just a vain game of the mind? To the physicist it can only give a convenient language; but isn’t that a mediocre service, which after all we could have done without; and, it is not even to be feared that this artificial language be a veil, interposed between reality and the physicist’s eye? Far from that, without this language most of the intimate analogies of things would forever have remained unknown to us; and we would never have had knowledge of the internal harmony of the world, which is, as we shall see, the only true objective reality.
From La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 3, giving translation "approximately" in the footnote of the opening epigraph in the original French: “L’analyse mathématique, n’est elle donc qu’un vain jeu d’esprit? Elle ne peut pas donner au physicien qu’un langage commode; n’est-ce pa là un médiocre service, dont on aurait pu se passer à la rigueur; et même n’est il pas à craindre que ce langage artificiel ne soit pas un voile interposé entre la réalité at l’oeil du physicien? Loin de là, sans ce langage, la pluspart des anaologies intimes des choses nous seraient demeurées à jamais inconnues; et nous aurions toujours ignoré l’harmonie interne du monde, qui est, nous le verrons, la seule véritable réalité objective.” Another translation, with a longer quote, beginning “Without this language…”, is on the Henri Poincaré Quotes" page of this website.
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So the astronomer is on common ground with the physicist both in the subject and in the predicate of the conclusion, but the physicist demonstrates the predicate to belong to the subject by nature, whereas the astronomer does not care whether it belongs by nature or not. What, therefore, is the predicate for the physicist, is abstracted as the subject for the pure mathematician.
As quoted in Alistair Cameron Crombie, Robert Grosseteste and the Origins of Experimental Science, 1100-1700 (1971), 94.
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Some years ago John Kenneth Galbraith wrote in an essay on his efforts at writing a history of economics: “As one approaches the present, one is filled with a sense of hopelessness; in a year and possibly even a month, there is now more economic comment in the supposedly serious literature than survives from the whole of the thousand years commonly denominated as the Middle Ages … anyone who claims to be familiar with it all is a confessing liar.” I believe that all physicists would subscribe to the same sentiments regarding their own professional literature. I do at any rate.
In H. Henry Stroke, 'The Physical Review Then and Now', Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: a Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries, Vol. 1, 1.
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Specialists never contribute anything to their specialty; Helmholtz wasn’t an eye-specialist, but a German army doctor who invented the ophthalmoscope one Saturday afternoon when there wasn’t anything else to do. Incidentally, he rewrote whole chapters of physics, so that the physicists only know him as one of their own. Robert Mayer wasn’t a physicist, but another country doctor; and Pasteur, who made bacteriology, was a tanner’s son or a chemist, as you will.
In Fischerisms (1930), 7.
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Superstring theories provide a framework in which the force of gravity may be united with the other three forces in nature: the weak, electromagnetic and strong forces. Recent progress has shown that the most promising superstring theories follow from a single theory. For the last generation, physicists have studied five string theories and one close cousin. Recently it has become clear that these five or six theories are different limiting cases of one theory which, though still scarcely understood, is the candidate for superunification of the forces of nature.
His synopsis of lecture, University of Maryland Distinguished Lecture Series (2 Mar 1998), on web page.
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Suppose physics soon succeeds, as Stephen Hawking and a few other physicists hope and believe, in reducing physics to a single equation or a small set of equations that will “explain” all of nature’s fundamental laws. We can then ask the unanswerable question, "Why this set of equations?”
In Introduction, The Night Is Large: Collected Essays 1938-1995 (1996), xvii.
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Suppose [an] imaginary physicist, the student of Niels Bohr, is shown an experiment in which a virus particle enters a bacterial cell and 20 minutes later the bacterial cell is lysed and 100 virus particles are liberated. He will say: “How come, one particle has become 100 particles of the same kind in 20 minutes? That is very interesting. Let us find out how it happens! How does the particle get in to the bacterium? How does it multiply? Does it multiply like a bacterium, growing and dividing, or does it multiply by an entirely different mechanism ? Does it have to be inside the bacterium to do this multiplying, or can we squash the bacterium and have the multiplication go on as before? Is this multiplying a trick of organic chemistry which the organic chemists have not yet discovered ? Let us find out. This is so simple a phenomenon that the answers cannot be hard to find. In a few months we will know. All we have to do is to study how conditions will influence the multiplication. We will do a few experiments at different temperatures, in different media, with different viruses, and we will know. Perhaps we may have to break into the bacteria at intermediate stages between infection and lysis. Anyhow, the experiments only take a few hours each, so the whole problem can not take long to solve.”
[Eight years later] he has not got anywhere in solving the problem he set out to solve. But [he may say to you] “Well, I made a slight mistake. I could not do it in a few months. Perhaps it will take a few decades, and perhaps it will take the help of a few dozen other people. But listen to what I have found, perhaps you will be interested to join me.”
From 'Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages)', Harvey Lecture (1946), 41, 161-162. As cited in Robert Olby, The Path of the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), 237.
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Take the living human brain endowed with mind and thought. …. The physicist brings his tools and commences systematic exploration. All that he discovers is a collection of atoms and electrons and fields of force arranged in space and time, apparently similar to those found in inorganic objects. He may trace other physical characteristics, energy, temperature, entropy. None of these is identical with thought. … How can this collection of ordinary atoms be a thinking machine? … The Victorian physicist felt that he knew just what he was talking about when he used such terms as matter and atoms. … But now we realize that science has nothing to say as to the intrinsic nature of the atom. The physical atom is, like everything else in physics, a schedule of pointer readings.
From a Gifford Lecture, University of Edinburgh (1927), published in 'Pointer Readings: Limits of Physical Knowledge', The Nature of the Physical World (1929), 258-259.
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The astronomer is severely handicapped as compared with other scientists. He is forced into a comparatively passive role. He cannot invent his own experiments as the physicist, the chemist or the biologist can. He cannot travel about the Universe examining the items that interest him. He cannot, for example, skin a star like an onion and see how it works inside.
In The Nature of the Universe (1950).
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The chemical or physical inventor is always a Prometheus. There is no great invention, from fire to flying, which has not been hailed as an insult to some god. But if every physical and chemical invention is a blasphemy, every biological invention is a perversion. There is hardly one which, on first being brought to the notice of an observer from any nation which had not previously heard of their existence, would not appear to him as indecent and unnatural.
Lecture (4 Feb 1923) to the Heretics Society, Cambridge University, published in Daedalus; or, Science and the Future (1924), 44.
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The chemists work with inaccurate and poor measuring services, but they employ very good materials. The physicists, on the other hand, use excellent methods and accurate instruments, but they apply these to very inferior materials. The physical chemists combine both these characteristics in that they apply imprecise methods to impure materials.
Quoted in Ralph Oesper, The Human Side of Scientists (1975), 116.
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The conditions of the earth’s core are starlike. From their study can physicists of the future tell us something more of the true nature of the stars?
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The contents of physics is the concern of physicists, its effect the concern of all men.
In '21 Points,' The Physicists (1962).
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The development of mathematics is largely a natural, not a purely logical one: mathematicians are continually answering questions suggested by astronomers or physicists; many essential mathematical theories are but the reflex outgrowth from physical puzzles.
In 'The Teaching of the History of Science', The Scientific Monthly (Sep 1918), 194.
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The discovery of the telephone has made us acquainted with many strange phenomena. It has enabled us, amongst other things, to establish beyond a doubt the fact that electric currents actually traverse the earth's crust. The theory that the earth acts as a great reservoir for electricity may be placed in the physicist's waste-paper basket, with phlogiston, the materiality of light, and other old-time hypotheses.
From Recent Progress in Telephony: British Association Report (1882). Excerpted in John Joseph Fahie, A History of Wireless Telegraphy (1902), 136.
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The essence of the simplest mineral phenomenon is as completely unknown to chemists and physicists today as is the essence of intellectual phenomenon to physiologists.
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The future of Thought, and therefore of History, lies in the hands of the physicists, and … the future historian must seek his education in the world of mathematical physics. A new generation must be brought up to think by new methods, and if our historical departments in the Universities cannot enter this next phase, the physical departments will have to assume this task alone.
In The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma (1920), 283.
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The goal is nothing other than the coherence and completeness of the system not only in respect of all details, but also in respect of all physicists of all places, all times, all peoples, and all cultures.
Acht Vorlesungen (1910), 'Vorwort': 4. Translated in J. L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man (1986), 51.
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The great physicist von Laue said … a pendulum clock is not the Box you buy in a shop; a pendulum clock is the box you buy in a shop together with the Earth.
From Assumption and Myth in Physical Theory (1967), 12.
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The highest court is in the end one’s own conscience and conviction—that goes for you and for Einstein and every other physicist—and before any science there is first of all belief. For me, it is belief in a complete lawfulness in everything that happens.
Letter from Planck to Niels Bohr (19 Oct 1930). As cited in J. L. Heilbron, The Dilemmas of an Upright Man: Max Planck As Spokesman for German Science (1987), 143.
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The history of science alone can keep the physicist from the mad ambitions of dogmatism as well as the despair of pyrrhonian scepticism.
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 270.
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The importance of group theory was emphasized very recently when some physicists using group theory predicted the existence of a particle that had never been observed before, and described the properties it should have. Later experiments proved that this particle really exists and has those properties.
Groups in the New Mathematics (1967), 7. Quoted in Rosemary Schmalz, Out of the Mouths of Mathematicians: A Quotation Book for Philomaths (1993), 42.
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The investigation of causal relations between economic phenomena presents many problems of peculiar difficulty, and offers many opportunities for fallacious conclusions. Since the statistician can seldom or never make experiments for himself, he has to accept the data of daily experience, and discuss as best he can the relations of a whole group of changes; he cannot, like the physicist, narrow down the issue to the effect of one variation at a time. The problems of statistics are in this sense far more complex than the problems of physics.
Udny Yule
In 'On the Theory of Correlation', Journal of the Royal Statistical Society (Dec 1897), 60, 812, as cited in Stephen M. Stigler, The History of Statistics: The Measurement of Uncertainty Before 1900 (1986), 348.
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The mathematical formulation of the physicist’s often crude experience leads in an uncanny number of cases to an amazingly accurate description of a large class of phenomena. This shows that the mathematical language has more to commend it than being the only language which we can speak; it shows that it is, in a very real sense, the correct language.
In 'The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences,' Communications in Pure and Applied Mathematics (Feb 1960), 13, No. 1 (February 1960). Collected in Eugene Paul Wigner, A.S. Wightman (ed.), Jagdish Mehra (ed.), The Collected Works of Eugene Paul Wigner (1955), Vol. 6, 542.
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The mathematical framework of quantum theory has passed countless successful tests and is now universally accepted as a consistent and accurate description of all atomic phenomena. The verbal interpretation, on the other hand – i.e., the metaphysics of quantum theory – is on far less solid ground. In fact, in more than forty years physicists have not been able to provide a clear metaphysical model.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 132.
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The mathematical framework of quantum theory has passed countless successful tests and is now universally accepted as a consistent and accurate description of all atomic phenomena. The verbal interpretation, on the other hand, i.e. the metaphysics of quantum physics, is on far less solid ground. In fact, in more than forty years physicists have not been able to provide a clear metaphysical model.
In The Tao of Physics: An Exploration of the Parallels Between Modern Physics (1975), 132.
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The mathematician is in much more direct contact with reality. … [Whereas] the physicist’s reality, whatever it may be, has few or none of the attributes which common sense ascribes instinctively to reality. A chair may be a collection of whirling electrons.
In A Mathematician's Apology (1940, 2012), 128.
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The mathematician plays a game in which he himself invents the rules while the physicist plays a game in which the rules are provided by nature, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly evident that the rules which the mathematician finds interesting are the same as those which nature has chosen.
In Ian Stewart, Why Beauty is Truth (2007), 279.
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The modern physicist is a quantum theorist on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and a student of gravitational relativity theory on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday he is neither, but is praying to his God that someone, preferably himself, will find the reconciliation between the two views.
In I Am a Mathematician, the Later Life of a Prodigy (1956), 109.
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The mystic and the physicist arrive at the same conclusion; one starting from the inner realm, the other from the outer world. The harmony between their views confirms the ancient Indian wisdom that Brahman, the ultimate reality without, is identical to Atman, the reality within.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 305.
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The news today about ‘Atomic bombs’ is so horrifying one is stunned. The utter folly of these lunatic physicists to consent to do such work for war-purposes: calmly plotting the destruction of the world!
From Letter (No. 102) to Christopher Tolkien (9 Aug 1945). In Humphrey Carpenter (ed.) assisted by Christopher Tolkien, The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (1995, 2014), 116, Letter No. 102.
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The ordinary man (or woman) thinks he knows what time is but cannot say. The learned man, physicist or philosopher, is not sure he knows but is ready to write volumes on the subject of his speculation and ignorance.
In Revolution in Time: Clocks and the Making of the Modern World (1983), 1.
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The philosopher has no objections to a physicist’s beliefs, so long as they are not advanced in the form of a philosophy.
From 'Philosophie der Raum-Zeit-Lehre' (1927). English version in 'The Philosophical Significance of Relativity' in P.A. Schilpp (ed.), Albert Einstein, Philosopher-Scientist (1949), 293. Readings in Philosophy of Science: Introduction to the Foundations ... https://books.google.com/books?id=BnwGAQAAIAAJ Philip Paul Wiener - 1953
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The physicist can never subject an isolated hypothesis to experimental test, but only a whole group of hypotheses.
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 187.
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The physicist cannot simply surrender to the philosopher the critical contemplation of the theoretical foundations for he himself knows best and feels most surely where the shoe pinches. … he must try to make clear in his own mind just how far the concepts which he uses are justified … The whole of science is nothing more than a refinement of everyday thinking. It is for this reason that the critical thinking of the physicist cannot possibly be restricted by the examination of the concepts of his own specific field. He cannot proceed without considering critically a much more difficult problem, the problem of analyzing the nature of everyday thinking.
‘Physics and Reality’, Franklin Institute Journal (Mar 1936). Collected in Out of My Later Years (1950), 59.
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The physicist is like someone who’s watching people playing chess and, after watching a few games, he may have worked out what the moves in the game are. But understanding the rules is just a trivial preliminary on the long route from being a novice to being a grand master. So even if we understand all the laws of physics, then exploring their consequences in the everyday world where complex structures can exist is a far more daunting task, and that’s an inexhaustible one I'm sure.
In Lewis Wolpert and Alison Richards, A Passion For Science (1988), 37.
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The physicist, in his study of natural phenomena, has two methods of making progress: (1) the method of experiment and observation, and (2) the method of mathematical reasoning. The former is just the collection of selected data; the latter enables one to infer results about experiments that have not been performed. There is no logical reason why the second method should be possible at all, but one has found in practice that it does work and meets with reasonable success.
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 122.
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The physicists say that I am a mathematician, and the mathematicians say that I am a physicist. I am a completely isolated man and though everybody knows me, there are very few people who really know me.
…...
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The physicist’s problem is the problem of ultimate origins and ultimate natural laws. The biologist's problem is the problem of complexity.
In The Blind Watchmaker (1996), 15.
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The prevailing trend in modern physics is thus much against any sort of view giving primacy to ... undivided wholeness of flowing movement. Indeed, those aspects of relativity theory and quantum theory which do suggest the need for such a view tend to be de-emphasized and in fact hardly noticed by most physicists, because they are regarded largely as features of the mathematical calculus and not as indications of the real nature of things.
Wholeness and the Implicate Order? (1981), 14.
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The quantum entered physics with a jolt. It didn’t fit anywhere; it made no sense; it contradicted everything we thought we knew about nature. Yet the data seemed to demand it. ... The story of Werner Heisenberg and his science is the story of the desperate failures and ultimate triumphs of the small band of brilliant physicists who—during an incredibly intense period of struggle with the data, the theories, and each other during the 1920s—brought about a revolutionary new understanding of the atomic world known as quantum mechanics.
Beyond Uncertainty: Heisenberg, Quantum Physics, and the Bomb (2009), 90. Selected and contributed to this website by the author.
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The result is that a generation of physicists is growing up who have never exercised any particular degree of individual initiative, who have had no opportunity to experience its satisfactions or its possibilities, and who regard cooperative work in large teams as the normal thing. It is a natural corollary for them to feel that the objectives of these large teams must be something of large social significance.
In 'Science and Freedom: Reflections of a Physicist', Isis, 1947, 37, 130.
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The sensation of colour cannot be accounted for by the physicist's objective picture of light-waves.
In Tarner Lecture, at Trinity College, Cambridge (Oct 1956), 'Science and Religion', printed in Mind and Matter (1958), 90. Also collected in What is Life?: With Mind and Matter and Autobiographical Sketches (1992, 2012), 154.
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The story is told of Lord Kelvin, a famous Scotch physicist of the last century, that after he had given a lecture on atoms and molecules, one of his students came to him with the question, “Professor, what is your idea of the structure of the atom.”
“What,” said Kelvin, “The structure of the atom? Why, don’t you know, the very word ‘atom’ means the thing that can’t be cut. How then can it have a structure?”
“That,” remarked the facetious young man, “shows the disadvantage of knowing Greek.”
As described in 'Assault on Atoms' (Read 23 Apr 1931 at Symposium—The Changing World) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1931), 70, No. 3, 219.
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The strength and weakness of physicists is that we believe in what we can measure. And if we can't measure it, then we say it probably doesn't exist. And that closes us off to an enormous amount of phenomena that we may not be able to measure because they only happened once. For example, the Big Bang. ... That's one reason why they scoffed at higher dimensions for so many years. Now we realize that there's no alternative...
Quoted in Nina L. Diamond, Voices of Truth (2000), 333-334.
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The total disorder in the universe, as measured by the quantity that physicists call entropy, increases steadily steadily as we go from past to future. On the other hand, the total order in the universe, as measured by the complexity and permanence of organized structures, also increases steadily as we go from past to future.
From Page-Barbour lecture, University of Virginia (Mar 2004). Collected in 'A Friendly Universe', A Many-Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe (2007), 62.
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The trend of mathematics and physics towards unification provides the physicist with a powerful new method of research into the foundations of his subject. … The method is to begin by choosing that branch of mathematics which one thinks will form the basis of the new theory. One should be influenced very much in this choice by considerations of mathematical beauty. It would probably be a good thing also to give a preference to those branches of mathematics that have an interesting group of transformations underlying them, since transformations play an important role in modern physical theory, both relativity and quantum theory seeming to show that transformations are of more fundamental importance than equations.
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 122.
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The watchmaker to whom one gives a watch that does not run will take it all apart and will examine each of the pieces until he finds out which one is damaged. The physician to whom one presents a patient cannot dissect him to establish the diagnosis. The physicist resembles a doctor, not a watchmaker.
In Revue des Questions Scientifiques, 1897.
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The worst primary school scolding I ever received was for ridiculing a classmate who asked, ‘What’s an atom?’ To my third grader’s mind, the question betrayed a level of ignorance more befitting a preschooler, but the teacher disagreed and banned me from recess for a week. I had forgotten the incident until a few years ago, while sitting in on a quantum mechanics class taught by a Nobel Prizewinning physicist. Midway through a brutally abstract lecture on the hydrogen atom, a plucky sophomore raised his hand and asked the very same question. To the astonishment of all, our speaker fell silent. He stared out the window for what seemed like an eternity before answering, ‘I don’t know.’
'The Secret Life of Atoms'. Discover (Jun 2007), 28:6, 52.
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Theoretical and experimental physicists are now studying nothing at all—the vacuum. But that nothingness contains all of being.
The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature (1982), 279.
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Theoretical physicists accept the need for mathematical beauty as an act of faith... For example, the main reason why the theory of relativity is so universally accepted is its mathematical beauty.
'Methods in Theoretical Physics', From A Life of Physics: Evening Lectures at the International Centre for Theoretical Physics, Trieste, Italy. A Special Supplement of the IAEA Bulletin (1968), 22.
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There are 60 sub-atomic particles they’ve discovered that can explain the thousands of other sub-atomic particles, and the model is too ugly. This is my analogy: it’s like taking Scotch tape and taping a giraffe to a mule to a whale to a tiger and saying this is the ultimate theory of particles. … We have so many particles that Oppenheimer once said you could give a Nobel Prize to the physicist that did not discover a particle that year. We were drowning in sub-atomic particles.
Now we realize that this whole zoo of sub-atomic particles, thousands of them coming out of our accelerators, can be explained by little vibrating strings.
Quoted in Nina L. Diamond, Voices of Truth (2000), 334.
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There are no physicists in the hottest parts of hell, because the existence of a ‘‘hottest part’’ implies a temperature difference, and any marginally competent physicist would immediately use this to run a heat engine and make some other part of hell comfortably cool. This is obviously impossible.
…...
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There is no kind of material, no body, and no thing that can be produced or conceived of, which is not made up of elementary particles; and nature does not admit of a truthful exploration in accordance with the doctrines of the physicists without an accurate demonstration of the primary causes of things, showing how and why they are as they are.
Vitruvius
In De Architectura, Book 2, Chap 1, Sec. 9. As translated in Morris Hicky Morgan (trans.), Vitruvius: The Ten Books on Architecture (1914), 41.
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There is now a feeling that the pieces of physics are falling into place, not because of any single revolutionary idea or because of the efforts of any one physicist, but because of a flowering of many seeds of theory, most of them planted long ago.
In 'The Forces of Nature', Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (Jan 1976), 29:4, 14.
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There may be some interest in one of my own discoveries in physics, entitled, “A Method of Approximating the Importance of a Given Physicist.” Briefly stated, after elimination of all differentials, the importance of a physicist can be measured by observation in the lobby of a building where the American Physical Society is in session. The importance of a given physicist varies inversely with his mean free path as he moves from the door of the meeting-room toward the street. His progress, of course, is marked by a series of scattering collisions with other physicists, during which he remains successively in the orbit of other individuals for a finite length of time. A good physicist has a mean free path of 3.6 ± 0.3 meters. The shortest m.f.p. measured in a series of observations between 1445 and 1947 was that of Oppenheimer (New York, 1946), the figure being 2.7 centimeters. I know. I was waiting for him on the street.
In 'A Newsman Looks at Physicists', Physics Today (May 1948), 1, No. 1, 33.
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There were two kinds of physicists in Berlin: on the one hand there was Einstein, and on the other all the rest.
As quoted in Discovery: The Popular Journal of Knowledge (1949), 45. Also as epigraph in A.P. French (ed.), Einstein: A Centenary Volume (1979), 135.
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They think that differential equations are not reality. Hearing some colleagues speak, it’s as though theoretical physics was just playing house with plastic building blocks. This absurd idea has gained currency, and now people seem to feel that theoretical physicists are little more than dreamers locked away ivory towers. They think our games, our little houses, bear no relation to their everyday worries, their interests, their problems, or their welfare. But I’m going to tell you something, and I want you to take it as a ground rule for this course. From now on I will be filling this board with equations. … And when I'm done, I want you to do the following: look at those numbers, all those little numbers and Greek letters on the board, and repeat to yourselves, “This is reality,” repeat it over and over.
Zig Zag, trans. Lisa Dillman (2008), 63.
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This is the Jurassic Park for particle physicists... [The Large Hadron Collider is a time machine] ... Some of the particles they are making now or are about to make haven't been around for 14 billion years.
As quoted by Alexander G. Higgins and Seth Borenstein (AP) in 'Atom Smasher Will Help Reveal "The Beginning" ', Bloomberg Businessweek (30 Mar 2010).
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This is the reason why all attempts to obtain a deeper knowledge of the foundations of physics seem doomed to me unless the basic concepts are in accordance with general relativity from the beginning. This situation makes it difficult to use our empirical knowledge, however comprehensive, in looking for the fundamental concepts and relations of physics, and it forces us to apply free speculation to a much greater extent than is presently assumed by most physicists.
…...
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This property of human languages—their resistance to algorithmic processing— is perhaps the ultimate reason why only mathematics can furnish an adequate language for physics. It is not that we lack words for expressing all this E = mc² and ∫eiS(Φ)DΦ … stuff … , the point is that we still would not be able to do anything with these great discoveries if we had only words for them. … Miraculously, it turns out that even very high level abstractions can somehow reflect reality: knowledge of the world discovered by physicists can be expressed only in the language of mathematics.
In 'Mathematical Knowledge: Internal, Social, And Cultural Aspects', Mathematics As Metaphor: Selected Essays (2007), 5.
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This whole theory of electrostatics constitutes a group of abstract ideas and general propositions, formulated in the clear and precise language of geometry and algebra, and connected with one another by the rules of strict logic. This whole fully satisfies the reason of a French physicist and his taste for clarity, simplicity and order. The same does not hold for the Englishman. These abstract notions of material points, force, line of force, and equipotential surface do not satisfy his need to imagine concrete, material, visible, and tangible things. 'So long as we cling to this mode of representation,' says an English physicist, 'we cannot form a mental representation of the phenomena which are really happening.' It is to satisfy the need that he goes and creates a model.
The French or German physicist conceives, in the space separating two conductors, abstract lines of force having no thickness or real existence; the English physicist materializes these lines and thickens them to the dimensions of a tube which he will fill with vulcanised rubber. In place of a family of lines of ideal forces, conceivable only by reason, he will have a bundle of elastic strings, visible and tangible, firmly glued at both ends to the surfaces of the two conductors, and, when stretched, trying both to contact and to expand. When the two conductors approach each other, he sees the elastic strings drawing closer together; then he sees each of them bunch up and grow large. Such is the famous model of electrostatic action imagined by Faraday and admired as a work of genius by Maxwell and the whole English school.
The employment of similar mechanical models, recalling by certain more or less rough analogies the particular features of the theory being expounded, is a regular feature of the English treatises on physics. Here is a book* [by Oliver Lodge] intended to expound the modern theories of electricity and to expound a new theory. In it are nothing but strings which move around pulleys, which roll around drums, which go through pearl beads, which carry weights; and tubes which pump water while others swell and contract; toothed wheels which are geared to one another and engage hooks. We thought we were entering the tranquil and neatly ordered abode of reason, but we find ourselves in a factory.
*Footnote: O. Lodge, Les Théories Modernes (Modern Views on Electricity) (1889), 16.
The Aim and Structure of Physical Theory (1906), 2nd edition (1914), trans. Philip P. Wiener (1954), 70-1.
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Those who know physicists and mountaineers know the traits they have in common: a “dream-and-drive” spirit, a bulldog tenacity of purpose, and an openness to try any route to the summit.
In obituary 'Albert Einstein', National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs, Vol. 51, (1980), 98-99.
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Though much new light is shed by ... studies in radioactivity, the nucleus of the atom, with its hoard of energy, thus continues to present us with a fascinating mystery. ... Our assault on atoms has broken down the outer fortifications. We feel that we know the fundamental rules according to which the outer part of the atom is built. The appearance and properties of the electron atmosphere are rather familiar. Yet that inner citadel, the atomic nucleus, remains unconquered, and we have reason to believe that within this citadel is secreted a great treasure. Its capture may form the main objective of the physicists’ next great drive.
'Assault on Atoms' (Read 23 Apr 1931 at Symposium—The Changing World) Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (1931), 70, No. 3, 229.
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To produce a really good biological theory one must try to see through the clutter produced by evolution to the basic mechanisms lying beneath them, realizing that they are likely to be overlaid by other, secondary mechanisms. What seems to physicists to be a hopelessly complicated process may have been what nature found simplest, because nature could only build on what was already there.
In What Mad Pursuit (1990), 139.
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To the pure geometer the radius of curvature is an incidental characteristic—like the grin of the Cheshire cat. To the physicist it is an indispensable characteristic. It would be going too far to say that to the physicist the cat is merely incidental to the grin. Physics is concerned with interrelatedness such as the interrelatedness of cats and grins. In this case the “cat without a grin” and the “grin without a cat” are equally set aside as purely mathematical phantasies.
In 'The Universe and the Atom' The Expanding Universe. (1933), 103.
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Ultra-modern physicists [are tempted to believe] that Nature in all her infinite variety needs nothing but mathematical clothing [and are] strangely reluctant to contemplate Nature unclad. Clothing she must have. At the least she must wear a matrix, with here and there a tensor to hold the queer garment together.
As quoted by Stephen T. Keith and Pierre Quédec, in 'Magnetism and Magnetic Materials', an article collected in Out of the Crystal Maze: Chapters from The History of Solid State Physics (1992), 361.
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Unavoidably, physics is usually expensive, and too many physicists find themselves with outdated or incomplete apparatus. The average factory worker in the United States has his productivity supported by a capital investment of $25,000 in machines and equipment. If physicists engaged in small science were as well supported as the average factory worker, they would share a total of ¾ billion dollars of depreciated equipment. I seriously doubt that they are that well supported.
In 'Physics and the APS in 1979', Physics Today (Apr 1980), 33, No. 4, 50.
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Undeterred by poverty, failure, domestic tragedy, and persecution, but sustained by his mystical belief in an attainable mathematical harmony and perfection of nature, Kepler persisted for fifteen years before finding the simple regularity [of planetary orbits] he sought… . What stimulated Kepler to keep slaving all those fifteen years? An utter absurdity. In addition to his faith in the mathematical perfectibility of astronomy, Kepler also believed wholeheartedly in astrology. This was nothing against him. For a scientist of Kepler’s generation astrology was as respectable scientifically and mathematically as the quantum theory or relativity is to theoretical physicists today. Nonsense now, astrology was not nonsense in the sixteenth century.
In The Handmaiden of the Sciences (1937), 30.
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Until now, physical theories have been regarded as merely models with approximately describe the reality of nature. As the models improve, so the fit between theory and reality gets closer. Some physicists are now claiming that supergravity is the reality, that the model and the real world are in mathematically perfect accord.
Superforce (1984, 1985), 149.
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We are fast approaching a situation in which nobody will believe anything we [physicists] say in any matter that touches upon our self-interest. Nothing we do is likely to arrest our decline in numbers, support or social value.
'Hard Times', Physics Today (Oct 1992), 45, 9.
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We do not know how the scientists of the next century will define energy or in what strange jargon they will discuss it. But no matter what language the physicists use they will not come into contradiction with Blake. Energy will remain in some sense the lord and giver of life, a reality transcending our mathematical descriptions. Its nature lies at the heart of the mystery of our existence as animate beings in an inanimate universe.
In 'Energy in the Universe,' Scientific American, September 1971 [See William Blake].
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What has been learned in physics stays learned. People talk about scientific revolutions. The social and political connotations of revolution evoke a picture of a body of doctrine being rejected, to be replaced by another equally vulnerable to refutation. It is not like that at all. The history of physics has seen profound changes indeed in the way that physicists have thought about fundamental questions. But each change was a widening of vision, an accession of insight and understanding. The introduction, one might say the recognition, by man (led by Einstein) of relativity in the first decade of this century and the formulation of quantum mechanics in the third decade are such landmarks. The only intellectual casualty attending the discovery of quantum mechanics was the unmourned demise of the patchwork quantum theory with which certain experimental facts had been stubbornly refusing to agree. As a scientist, or as any thinking person with curiosity about the basic workings of nature, the reaction to quantum mechanics would have to be: “Ah! So that’s the way it really is!” There is no good analogy to the advent of quantum mechanics, but if a political-social analogy is to be made, it is not a revolution but the discovery of the New World.
From Physics Survey Committee, U.S. National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council, 'The Nature of Physics', in report Physics in Perspective (1973), 61-62. As cited in I. Bernard Cohen, Revolution in Science (1985), 554-555.
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What makes the theory of relativity so acceptable to physicists in spite of its going against the principle of simplicity is its great mathematical beauty. This is a quality which cannot be defined, any more than beauty in art can be defined, but which people who study mathematics usually have no difficulty in appreciating. … The restricted theory changed our ideas of space and time in a way that may be summarised by stating that the group of transformations to which the space-time continuum is subject must be changed from the Galilean group to the Lorentz group.
From Lecture delivered on presentation of the James Scott prize, (6 Feb 1939), 'The Relation Between Mathematics And Physics', printed in Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh (1938-1939), 59, Part 2, 123.
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What molecules and atoms and electrons are to the physicist and chemist, chromosomes and genes are to the biologist.
From Penrose Memorial Lecture to the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia (20 Apr 1934), published as 'A Generation's Progress in the Study of Evolution', Science (17 Aug 1934), 80, No 2068, 151.
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What nature demands of us is not a quantum theory or a wave theory, instead nature demands of us a synthesis both conceptions, which, to be sure, until now still exceeds the powers of thought of the physicists.
Concluding remark in Lecture (23 Feb 1927) to Mathematisch-physikalische Arbeitsgemeinschaft, University of Berlin, reported in 'Theoretisches und Experimentelles zur Frage der Lichtentstehung', Zeitschr. f. ang. Chem., 40, 546. As translated and cited in Arthur I. Miller, Sixty-Two Years of Uncertainty: Historical, Philosophical, and Physical Inquiries into the Foundations of Quantum Mechanics (2012), 89 & 108.
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Whatever may happen to the latest theory of Dr. Einstein, his treatise represents a mathematical effort of overwhelming proportions. It is the more remarkable since Einstein is primarily a physicist and only incidentally a mathematician. He came to mathematics rather of necessity than by predilection, and yet he has here developed mathematical formulae and calculations springing from a colossal knowledge.
In 'Marvels at Einstein For His Mathematics', New York Times (4 Feb 1929), 3.
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When chemists have brought their knowledge out of their special laboratories into the laboratory of the world, where chemical combinations are and have been through all time going on in such vast proportions,—when physicists study the laws of moisture, of clouds and storms, in past periods as well as in the present,—when, in short, geologists and zoologists are chemists and physicists, and vice versa,—then we shall learn more of the changes the world has undergone than is possible now that they are separately studied.
Geological Sketches (1866), 73.
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When physicists speak of “beauty” in their theories, they really mean that their theory possesses at least two essential features: 1. A unifying symmetry 2. The ability to explain vast amounts of experimental data with the most economical mathematical expressions.
In 'Quantum Heresy', Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension (1995), 127.
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When silhouetted against historical background Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory and its remarkable experimental confirmation by Hertz loomed up as large to the physicist of 1895 as the de Broglie-Schrödinger wave theory of matter and its experimental confirmation by Davison and Germer does to the physicist of to-day. [1931]
In 'The Romance of the Next Decimal Place', Science (1 Jan 1932), 75, No. 1931, 2.
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While it is never safe to affirm that the future of Physical Science has no marvels in store even more astonishing than those of the past, it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established, and that further advances are to be sought chiefly in the rigorous applications of these principles to all the phenomena which come under our notice. It is here that the science of measurement shows its importance—where the quantitative results are more to be desired than qualitative work. An eminent physicist has remarked that the future truths of Physical Science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals.
University of Chicago, Annual Register 1894-1895 (1894), 150. Michelson also incorporated these lines in his address, 'Some of the Objects and Methods of Physical Science', at the opening of the Physics and Electrical Engineering Laboratory at the University of Kansas, reprinted in The Electrical Engineer (1 Jan 1896), 21, No. 400, 9.
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You cannot become a nuclear physicist capable of real work in the field merely by studying alone in a library, any more than you can become a Jesuit without a certain number of years spent in company with Jesuit scholars. This, and the fact that scientists are among the most international-minded of men, may well be the most important factor in our survival.
As quoted in Michael Amrine, 'I’m A Frightened Man', Collier’s (1946), 117, 51.
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[Experimental Physicist] Phys. I cannot imagine myself perceiving non-Euclidean space!
Math. Look at the reflection of the room in a polished doorknob, and imagine yourself one of the actors in what you see going on there.
In Space, Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory (1920, 1921), 11.
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[Experimental Physicist] Phys. I know that it is often a help to represent pressure and volume as height and width on paper; and so geometry may have applications to the theory of gases. But is it not going rather far to say that geometry can deal directly with these things and is not necessarily concerned with lengths in space?
[Mathematician] Math. No. Geometry is nowadays largely analytical, so that in form as well as in effect, it deals with variables of an unknown nature. …It is literally true that I do not want to know the significance of the variables x, y, z, t that I am discussing. …
Phys. Yours is a strange subject. You told us at the beginning that you are not concerned as to whether your propositions are true, and now you tell us you do not even care to know what you are talking about.
Math. That is an excellent description of Pure Mathematics, which has already been given by an eminent mathematician [Bertrand Russell].
In Space, Time and Gravitation: An Outline of the General Relativity Theory (1920, 1921), 14.
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[George] Uhlenbeck was a highly gifted physicist. One of his remarkable traits was he would read every issue of The Physical Review from cover to cover.
'The Physical Review Then and Now', in H. Henry Stroke, Physical Review: The First Hundred Years: a Selection of Seminal Papers and Commentaries, Vol. 1, 3.
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[In Adelie Land, Antarctica, a howling river of] wind, 50 miles wide, blows off the plateau, month in and month out, at an average velocity of 50 m.p.h. As a source of power this compares favorably with 6,000 tons of water falling every second over Niagara Falls. I will not further anticipate some H. G. Wells of the future who will ring the antarctic with power-producing windmills; but the winds of the Antarctic have to be felt to be believed, and nothing is quite impossible to physicists and engineers.
Speaking at convention of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, Norwich (1935). As quoted in 'Science: One Against Darwin', Time (23 Sep 1935).
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[Luis] Alvarez's whole approach to physics was that of an entrepreneur, taking big risks by building large new projects in the hope of large rewards, although his pay was academic rather than financial. He had drawn around him a group of young physicists anxious to try out the exciting ideas he was proposing.
As quoted in Walter Sullivan, 'Luis W. Alvarez, Nobel Physicist Who Explored Atom, Dies at 77: Obituary', New York Times (2 Sep 1988).
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[L]et us not overlook the further great fact, that not only does science underlie sculpture, painting, music, poetry, but that science is itself poetic. The current opinion that science and poetry are opposed is a delusion. ... On the contrary science opens up realms of poetry where to the unscientific all is a blank. Those engaged in scientific researches constantly show us that they realize not less vividly, but more vividly, than others, the poetry of their subjects. Whoever will dip into Hugh Miller's works on geology, or read Mr. Lewes's “Seaside Studies,” will perceive that science excites poetry rather than extinguishes it. And whoever will contemplate the life of Goethe will see that the poet and the man of science can co-exist in equal activity. Is it not, indeed, an absurd and almost a sacrilegious belief that the more a man studies Nature the less he reveres it? Think you that a drop of water, which to the vulgar eye is but a drop of water, loses anything in the eye of the physicist who knows that its elements are held together by a force which, if suddenly liberated, would produce a flash of lightning? Think you that what is carelessly looked upon by the uninitiated as a mere snow-flake, does not suggest higher associations to one who has seen through a microscope the wondrously varied and elegant forms of snow-crystals? Think you that the rounded rock marked with parallel scratches calls up as much poetry in an ignorant mind as in the mind of a geologist, who knows that over this rock a glacier slid a million years ago? The truth is, that those who have never entered upon scientific pursuits know not a tithe of the poetry by which they are surrounded. Whoever has not in youth collected plants and insects, knows not half the halo of interest which lanes and hedge-rows can assume. Whoever has not sought for fossils, has little idea of the poetical associations that surround the places where imbedded treasures were found. Whoever at the seaside has not had a microscope and aquarium, has yet to learn what the highest pleasures of the seaside are. Sad, indeed, is it to see how men occupy themselves with trivialities, and are indifferent to the grandest phenomena—care not to understand the architecture of the Heavens, but are deeply interested in some contemptible controversy about the intrigues of Mary Queen of Scots!—are learnedly critical over a Greek ode, and pass by without a glance that grand epic written by the finger of God upon the strata of the Earth!
Education: Intellectual, Moral, and Physical (1889), 82-83.
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[Newton is the] British physicist linked forever in the schoolboy mind with an apple that fell and bore fruit throughout physics.
Anonymous
As given in Patricia Fara, Newton: The Making of Genius (2004), 192.
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[Niels Bohr] is a national pride to his fellow Danes. In Denmark, Bohr’s standing is only slightly less than that of the royal family and Hans Christian Anderson. When the wife of an American physicist casually told a gentleman seated next to her on a Copenhagen streetcar that her husband was studying under Professor Bohr, the old man jumped to his feet, swept off his hat with a flourish and bowed deeply.
Quoted in Bill Becker, 'Pioneer of the Atom', New York Times Sunday Magazine (20 Oct 1957), 52.
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[On the practical applications of particle physics research with the Large Hadron Collider.] Sometimes the public says, “What's in it for Numero Uno? Am I going to get better television reception? Am I going to get better Internet reception?” Well, in some sense, yeah. … All the wonders of quantum physics were learned basically from looking at atom-smasher technology. … But let me let you in on a secret: We physicists are not driven to do this because of better color television. … That's a spin-off. We do this because we want to understand our role and our place in the universe.
As quoted in Alan Boyle, 'Discovery of Doom? Collider Stirs Debate', article (8 Sep 2008) on a msnbc.com web page. The article writer included the information that Kaku noted that past discoveries from the world of particle physics ushered in many of the innovations we enjoy today, ranging from satellite communications and handheld media players to medical PET scanners (which put antimatter to practical use)."
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[Physicists] feel that the field of bacterial viruses is a fine playground for serious children who ask ambitious questions.
From 'Experiments with Bacterial Viruses (Bacteriophages)', Harvey Lecture (1946), 41, 161. As cited in Robert Olby, The Path of the Double Helix: The Discovery of DNA (1974, 1994), 237.
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[S]ome physicists describe gravity in terms of ten dimensions all curled up. But those aren't real words—just placeholders, used to refer to parts of abstract equations.