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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index P > Category: Precision

Precision Quotes (68 quotes)

A living organism must be studied from two distinct aspects. One of these is the causal-analytic aspect which is so fruitfully applicable to ontogeny. The other is the historical descriptive aspect which is unravelling lines of phylogeny with ever-increasing precision. Each of these aspects may make suggestions concerning the possible significance of events seen under the other, but does not explain or translate them into simpler terms.
'Embryology and Evolution', in G. R. de Beer (ed.), Evolution: Essays on Aspects of Evolutionary Biology presented to Professor E. S. Goodrich on his Seventieth Birthday (1938), 76-7.
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About the year 1821, I undertook to superintend, for the Government, the construction of an engine for calculating and printing mathematical and astronomical tables. Early in the year 1833, a small portion of the machine was put together, and was found to perform its work with all the precision which had been anticipated. At that period circumstances, which I could not control, caused what I then considered a temporary suspension of its progress; and the Government, on whose decision the continuance or discontinuance of the work depended, have not yet communicated to me their wishes on the question.
In The Ninth Bridgewater Treatise: A Fragment (1838), 186.
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Absolute, true, and mathematical time, in and of itself and of its own nature, without reference to anything external, flows uniformly and by another name is called duration. Relative, apparent, and common time is any sensible and external measure (precise or imprecise) of duration by means of motion; such as a measure—for example, an hour, a day, a month, a year—is commonly used instead of true time.
The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), 3rd edition (1726), trans. I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman (1999), Definitions, Scholium, 408.
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Aimed by us are futuristic humane machines wherein human level electronic intelligence and nerve system are combined to machines of ultraprecision capabilities.
In Marc J. Madou, Fundamentals of Microfabrication: the Science of Miniaturization (2nd ed., 2002), 467.
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Always preoccupied with his profound researches, the great Newton showed in the ordinary-affairs of life an absence of mind which has become proverbial. It is related that one day, wishing to find the number of seconds necessary for the boiling of an egg, he perceived, after waiting a minute, that he held the egg in his hand, and had placed his seconds watch (an instrument of great value on account of its mathematical precision) to boil!
This absence of mind reminds one of the mathematician Ampere, who one day, as he was going to his course of lectures, noticed a little pebble on the road; he picked it up, and examined with admiration the mottled veins. All at once the lecture which he ought to be attending to returned to his mind; he drew out his watch; perceiving that the hour approached, he hastily doubled his pace, carefully placed the pebble in his pocket, and threw his watch over the parapet of the Pont des Arts.
Popular Astronomy: a General Description of the Heavens (1884), translated by J. Ellard Gore, (1907), 93.
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And science, we should insist, better than other discipline, can hold up to its students and followers an ideal of patient devotion to the search to objective truth, with vision unclouded by personal or political motive, not tolerating any lapse from precision or neglect of any anomaly, fearing only prejudice and preconception, accepting nature’s answers humbly and with courage, and giving them to the world with an unflinching fidelity. The world cannot afford to lose such a contribution to the moral framework of its civilisation.
Concluding statements of Pilgrim Trust Lecture (22 Oct 1946) delivered at National Academy of Science Washington, DC. Published in 'The Freedom of Science', Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (25 Feb 1947), 91, No. 1, 72.
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Archimedes possessed so high a spirit, so profound a soul, and such treasures of highly scientific knowledge, that though these inventions [used to defend Syracuse against the Romans] had now obtained him the renown of more than human sagacity, he yet would not deign to leave behind him any commentary or writing on such subjects; but, repudiating as sordid and ignoble the whole trade of engineering, and every sort of art that lends itself to mere use and profit, he placed his whole affection and ambition in those purer speculations where there can be no reference to the vulgar needs of life; studies, the superiority of which to all others is unquestioned, and in which the only doubt can be whether the beauty and grandeur of the subjects examined, or the precision and cogency of the methods and means of proof, most deserve our admiration.
Plutarch
In John Dryden (trans.), Life of Marcellus.
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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 every major step physics has required, and frequently stimulated, the introduction of new mathematical tools and concepts. Our present understanding of the laws of physics, with their extreme precision and universality, is only possible in mathematical terms.
In Book Review 'Pulling the Strings,' of Lawrence Krauss's Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Lure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond in Nature (22 Dec 2005), 438, 1081.
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Besides accustoming the student to demand, complete proof, and to know when he has not obtained it, mathematical studies are of immense benefit to his education by habituating him to precision. It is one of the peculiar excellencies of mathematical discipline, that the mathematician is never satisfied with à peu près. He requires the exact truth. Hardly any of the non-mathematical sciences, except chemistry, has this advantage. One of the commonest modes of loose thought, and sources of error both in opinion and in practice, is to overlook the importance of quantities. Mathematicians and chemists are taught by the whole course of their studies, that the most fundamental difference of quality depends on some very slight difference in proportional quantity; and that from the qualities of the influencing elements, without careful attention to their quantities, false expectation would constantly be formed as to the very nature and essential character of the result produced.
In An Examination of Sir William Hamilton’s Philosophy (1878), 611. [The French phrase, à peu près means “approximately”. —Webmaster]
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Confined to its true domain, mathematical reasoning is admirably adapted to perform the universal office of sound logic: to induce in order to deduce, in order to construct. … It contents itself to furnish, in the most favorable domain, a model of clearness, of precision, and consistency, the close contemplation of which is alone able to prepare the mind to render other conceptions also as perfect as their nature permits. Its general reaction, more negative than positive, must consist, above all, in inspiring us everywhere with an invincible aversion for vagueness, inconsistency, and obscurity, which may always be really avoided in any reasoning whatsoever, if we make sufficient effort.
In Synthèse Subjective (1856), 98. As translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-Book (1914), 202-203. From the original French, “Bornée à son vrai domaine, la raison mathématique y peut admirablement remplir l’office universel de la saine logique: induire pour déduire, afin de construire. … Elle se contente de former, dans le domaine le plus favorable, un type de clarté, de précision, et de consistance, dont la contemplation familière peut seule disposer l’esprit à rendre les autres conceptions aussi parfaites que le comporte leur nature. Sa réaction générale, plus négative que positive, doit surtout consister à nous inspirer partout une invincible répugnance pour le vague, l’incohérence, et l’obscurité, que nous pouvons réellement éviter envers des pensées quelconques, si nous y faisons assez d’efforts.”
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Evolution ... is really two theories, the vague theory and the precise theory. The vague theory has been abundantly proved.... The precise theory has never been proved at all. However, like relativity, it is accepted on faith.... On getting down to actual details, difficulties begin.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 101 & 103.
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For the better part of my last semester at Garden City High, I constructed a physical pendulum and used it to make a “precision” measurement of gravity. The years of experience building things taught me skills that were directly applicable to the construction of the pendulum. Twenty-five years later, I was to develop a refined version of this measurement using laser-cooled atoms in an atomic fountain interferometer.
[Outcome of high school physics teacher, Thomas Miner, encouraging Chu's ambitious laboratory project.]
Autobiography in Gösta Ekspong (ed.), Nobel Lectures: Physics 1996-2000 (2002), 116.
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Generality of points of view and of methods, precision and elegance in presentation, have become, since Lagrange, the common property of all who would lay claim to the rank of scientific mathematicians. And, even if this generality leads at times to abstruseness at the expense of intuition and applicability, so that general theorems are formulated which fail to apply to a single special case, if furthermore precision at times degenerates into a studied brevity which makes it more difficult to read an article than it was to write it; if, finally, elegance of form has well-nigh become in our day the criterion of the worth or worthlessness of a proposition,—yet are these conditions of the highest importance to a wholesome development, in that they keep the scientific material within the limits which are necessary both intrinsically and extrinsically if mathematics is not to spend itself in trivialities or smother in profusion.
In Die Entwickdung der Mathematik in den letzten Jahrhunderten (1884), 14-15.
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I am further inclined to think, that when our views are sufficiently extended, to enable us to reason with precision concerning the proportions of elementary atoms, we shall find the arithmetical relation alone will not be sufficient to explain their mutual action, and that we shall be obliged to acquire a geometric conception of their relative arrangement in all three dimensions of solid extension.
Paper. Read to the Royal Society (28 Jan 1808), in 'On Super-acid and Sub-acid salts', Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London, (1808), 98, 101.
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I am sure that one secret of a successful teacher is that he has formulated quite clearly in his mind what the pupil has got to know in precise fashion. He will then cease from half-hearted attempts to worry his pupils with memorising a lot of irrelevant stuff of inferior importance.
In 'The Rhythmic Claims of Freedom and Discipline', The Aims of Education and Other Essays (1929), 46.
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I have always been very fond of mathematics—for one short period, I even toyed with the possibility of abandoning chemistry in its favour. I enjoyed immensely both its conceptual and formal beauties, and the precision and elegance of its relationships and transformations. Why then did I not succumb to its charms? … because by and large, mathematics lacks the sensuous elements which play so large a role in my attraction to chemistry.I love crystals, the beauty of their forms and formation; liquids, dormant, distilling, sloshing! The fumes, the odors—good or bad, the rainbow of colors; the gleaming vessels of every size, shape and purpose.
In Arthur Clay Cope Address, Chicago (28 Aug 1973). In O. T. Benfey and P. J. T. Morris (eds.), Robert Burns Woodward. Architect and Artist in the World of Molecules (2001), 427.
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If physics leads us today to a world view which is essentially mystical, it returns, in a way, to its beginning, 2,500 years ago. ... This time, however, it is not only based on intuition, but also on experiments of great precision and sophistication, and on a rigorous and consistent mathematical formalism.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 19.
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In all that has to do with the relations between man and the supernatural, we have to seek for a more than mathematical precision; this should be more exact than science.
In Gravity and Grace, (1947, 1952), 186.
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It is clear, then, that the idea of a fixed method, or of a fixed theory of rationality, rests on too naive a view of man and his social surroundings. To those who look at the rich material provided by history, and who are not intent on impoverishing it in order to please their lower instincts, their craving for intellectual security in the form of clarity, precision, “objectivity”, “truth”, it will become clear that there is only one principle that can be defended under all circumstances and in all stages of human development. It is the principle: anything goes.
Against Method: Outline of an Anarchistic Theory of Knowledge (1975, 1993), 18-19.
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It is never possible to predict a physical occurrence with unlimited precision.
In 'The Meaning of Causality in Physics' (1953), collected in Max Planck and Frank Gaynor (trans.), Scientific Autobiography: and Other Papers (1949, 2007), 124.
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It is now necessary to indicate more definitely the reason why mathematics not only carries conviction in itself, but also transmits conviction to the objects to which it is applied. The reason is found, first of all, in the perfect precision with which the elementary mathematical concepts are determined; in this respect each science must look to its own salvation .... But this is not all. As soon as human thought attempts long chains of conclusions, or difficult matters generally, there arises not only the danger of error but also the suspicion of error, because since all details cannot be surveyed with clearness at the same instant one must in the end be satisfied with a belief that nothing has been overlooked from the beginning. Every one knows how much this is the case even in arithmetic, the most elementary use of mathematics. No one would imagine that the higher parts of mathematics fare better in this respect; on the contrary, in more complicated conclusions the uncertainty and suspicion of hidden errors increases in rapid progression. How does mathematics manage to rid itself of this inconvenience which attaches to it in the highest degree? By making proofs more rigorous? By giving new rules according to which the old rules shall be applied? Not in the least. A very great uncertainty continues to attach to the result of each single computation. But there are checks. In the realm of mathematics each point may be reached by a hundred different ways; and if each of a hundred ways leads to the same point, one may be sure that the right point has been reached. A calculation without a check is as good as none. Just so it is with every isolated proof in any speculative science whatever; the proof may be ever so ingenious, and ever so perfectly true and correct, it will still fail to convince permanently. He will therefore be much deceived, who, in metaphysics, or in psychology which depends on metaphysics, hopes to see his greatest care in the precise determination of the concepts and in the logical conclusions rewarded by conviction, much less by success in transmitting conviction to others. Not only must the conclusions support each other, without coercion or suspicion of subreption, but in all matters originating in experience, or judging concerning experience, the results of speculation must be verified by experience, not only superficially, but in countless special cases.
In Werke [Kehrbach] (1890), Bd. 5, 105. As quoted, cited and translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-Book (1914), 19.
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It is possible that the deepest meaning and aim of Newtonianism, or rather, of the whole scientific revolution of the seventeenth century, of which Newton is the heir and the highest expression, is just to abolish the world of the 'more or less', the world of qualities and sense perception, the world of appreciation of our daily life, and to replace it by the (Archimedean) universe of precision, of exact measures, of strict determination ... This revolution [is] one of the deepest, if not the deepest, mutations and transformations accomplished—or suffered—by the human mind since the invention of the cosmos by the Greeks, two thousand years before.
'The Significance of the Newtonian Synthesis' (1950). In Newtonian Studies (1965), 4-5.
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It is true that physics gives a wonderful training in precise, logical thinking-about physics. It really does depend upon accurate reproducible experiments, and upon framing hypotheses with the greatest possible freedom from dogmatic prejudice. And if these were the really important things in life, physics would be an essential study for everybody.
In Science is a Sacred Cow (1950), 90-91.
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It was his [Leibnitz’s] love of method and order, and the conviction that such order and harmony existed in the real world, and that our success in understanding it depended upon the degree and order which we could attain in our own thoughts, that originally was probably nothing more than a habit which by degrees grew into a formal rule. This habit was acquired by early occupation with legal and mathematical questions. We have seen how the theory of combinations and arrangements of elements had a special interest for him. We also saw how mathematical calculations served him as a type and model of clear and orderly reasoning, and how he tried to introduce method and system into logical discussions, by reducing to a small number of terms the multitude of compound notions he had to deal with. This tendency increased in strength, and even in those early years he elaborated the idea of a general arithmetic, with a universal language of symbols, or a characteristic which would be applicable to all reasoning processes, and reduce philosophical investigations to that simplicity and certainty which the use of algebraic symbols had introduced into mathematics.
A mental attitude such as this is always highly favorable for mathematical as well as for philosophical investigations. Wherever progress depends upon precision and clearness of thought, and wherever such can be gained by reducing a variety of investigations to a general method, by bringing a multitude of notions under a common term or symbol, it proves inestimable. It necessarily imports the special qualities of number—viz., their continuity, infinity and infinite divisibility—like mathematical quantities—and destroys the notion that irreconcilable contrasts exist in nature, or gaps which cannot be bridged over. Thus, in his letter to Arnaud, Leibnitz expresses it as his opinion that geometry, or the philosophy of space, forms a step to the philosophy of motion—i.e., of corporeal things—and the philosophy of motion a step to the philosophy of mind.
In Leibnitz (1884), 44-45. [The first sentence is reworded to better introduce the quotation. —Webmaster]
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Kirchhoff’s whole tendency, and its true counterpart, the form of his presentation, was different [from Maxwell’s “dramatic bulk”]. … He is characterized by the extreme precision of his hypotheses, minute execution, a quiet rather than epic development with utmost rigor, never concealing a difficulty, always dispelling the faintest obscurity. … he resembled Beethoven, the thinker in tones. — He who doubts that mathematical compositions can be beautiful, let him read his memoir on Absorption and Emission … or the chapter of his mechanics devoted to Hydrodynamics.
In Ceremonial Speech (15 Nov 1887) celebrating the 301st anniversary of the Karl-Franzens-University Graz. Published as Gustav Robert Kirchhoff: Festrede zur Feier des 301. Gründungstages der Karl-Franzens-Universität zu Graz (1888), 30, as translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 187. From the original German, “Kirchhoff … seine ganze Richtung war eine andere, und ebenso auch deren treues Abbild, die Form seiner Darstellung. … Ihn charakterisirt die schärfste Präcisirung der Hypothesen, feine Durchfeilung, ruhige mehr epische Fortentwicklung mit eiserner Consequenz ohne Verschweigung irgend einer Schwierigkeit, unter Aufhellung des leisesten Schattens. … er glich dem Denker in Tönen: Beethoven. – Wer in Zweifel zieht, dass mathematische Werke künstlerisch schön sein können, der lese seine Abhandlung über Absorption und Emission oder den der Hydrodynamik gewidmeten Abschnitt seiner Mechanik.” The memoir reference is Gesammelte Abhandlungen (1882), 571-598.
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Mathematics is crystallized clarity, precision personified, beauty distilled and rigorously sublimated.
In The American Mathematical Monthly (1949), 56, 19. Excerpted in John Ewing (ed,), A Century of Mathematics: Through the Eyes of the Monthly (1996), 186.
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Mathematics, among all school subjects, is especially adapted to further clearness, definite brevity and precision in expression, although it offers no exercise in flights of rhetoric. This is due in the first place to the logical rigour with which it develops thought, avoiding every departure from the shortest, most direct way, never allowing empty phrases to enter. Other subjects excel in the development of expression in other respects: translation from foreign languages into the mother tongue gives exercise in finding the proper word for the given foreign word and gives knowledge of laws of syntax, the study of poetry and prose furnish fit patterns for connected presentation and elegant form of expression, composition is to exercise the pupil in a like presentation of his own or borrowed thoughtsand their development, the natural sciences teach description of natural objects, apparatus and processes, as well as the statement of laws on the grounds of immediate sense-perception. But all these aids for exercise in the use of the mother tongue, each in its way valuable and indispensable, do not guarantee, in the same manner as mathematical training, the exclusion of words whose concepts, if not entirely wanting, are not sufficiently clear. They do not furnish in the same measure that which the mathematician demands particularly as regards precision of expression.
In Anleitung zum mathematischen Unterricht in höheren Schulen (1906), 17.
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Mere numbers cannot bring out … the intimate essence of the experiment. This conviction comes naturally when one watches a subject at work. … What things can happen! What reflections, what remarks, what feelings, or, on the other hand, what blind automatism, what absence of ideas! … The experimenter judges what may be going on in [the subject’s] mind, and certainly feels difficulty in expressing all the oscillations of a thought in a simple, brutal number, which can have only a deceptive precision. How, in fact, could it sum up what would need several pages of description!
In La Suggestibilité (1900), 119-20.
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Miss Stevens’s work is characterized by its precision, and by a caution that seldom ventures far from the immediate observation. Her contributions are models of brevity—a brevity amounting at times almost to meagerness.
In obituary, 'The Scientific Work of Miss N.M. Steves', Science (11 Oct 1912), 36, No. 928, 470.
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Nature! … She is the only artist; working-up the most uniform material into utter opposites; arriving, without a trace of effort, at perfection, at the most exact precision, though always veiled under a certain softness.
As quoted by T.H. Huxley, in Norman Lockyer (ed.), 'Nature: Aphorisms by Goethe', Nature (1870), 1, 10.
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No excavation ought to ever be permitted except under the immediate eye of a responsible and trustworthy superintendent. ... Superfluous precision may be regarded as a fault on the right side. ... [P]ottery [i]s the human fossil, so widely is it distributed.
Some of the basic principals of digging he adopted.
Excavations in Cranborne Chase. Quoted in Alice Beck, The Land of Prehistory: A Critical History of American Archaeology (1998), 62-63.
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No history of civilization can be tolerably complete which does not give considerable space to the explanation of scientific progress. If we had any doubts about this, it would suffice to ask ourselves what constitutes the essential difference between our and earlier civilizations. Throughout the course of history, in every period, and in almost every country, we find a small number of saints, of great artists, of men of science. The saints of to-day are not necessarily more saintly than those of a thousand years ago; our artists are not necessarily greater than those of early Greece; they are more likely to be inferior; and of course, our men of science are not necessarily more intelligent than those of old; yet one thing is certain, their knowledge is at once more extensive and more accurate. The acquisition and systematization of positive knowledge is the only human activity which is truly cumulative and progressive. Our civilization is essentially different from earlier ones, because our knowledge of the world and of ourselves is deeper, more precise, and more certain, because we have gradually learned to disentangle the forces of nature, and because we have contrived, by strict obedience to their laws, to capture them and to divert them to the gratification of our own needs.
Introduction to the History of Science (1927), Vol. 1, 3-4.
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No person will deny that the highest degree of attainable accuracy is an object to be desired, and it is generally found that the last advances towards precision require a greater devotion of time, labour, and expense, than those which precede them.
Reflections on the Decline of Science in England (1830), 167.
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Our treatment of this science will be adequate, if it achieves the amount of precision which belongs to its subject matter.
Aristotle
In Nicomachean Ethics, Book 1, Chap 3. In Harris Rackham (trans.), Aristotle’s Ethics for English Readers (1943), 14.
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Perhaps... some day the precision of the data will be brought so far that the mathematician will be able to calculate at his desk the outcome of any chemical combination, in the same way, so to speak, as he calculates the motions of celestial bodies.
Oeuvres (1862), Vol. 2, 550-1. Trans. John Heilbron, Weighing Imponderables and Other Quantitative Science around 1800 (1993), 14.
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Professor [Max] Planck, of Berlin, the famous originator of the Quantum Theory, once remarked to me that in early life he had thought of studying economics, but had found it too difficult! Professor Planck could easily master the whole corpus of mathematical economics in a few days. He did not mean that! But the amalgam of logic and intuition and the wide knowledge of facts, most of which are not precise, which is required for economic interpretation in its highest form is, quite truly, overwhelmingly difficult for those whose gift mainly consists in the power to imagine and pursue to their furthest points the implications and prior conditions of comparatively simple facts which are known with a high degree of precision.
'Alfred Marshall: 1842-1924' (1924). In Geoffrey Keynes (ed.), Essays in Biography (1933), 191-2
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Rulers and generals muster their troops. Magnates muster the sums of money which give them power. The fascist dictators muster the irrational human reactions which make it possible for them to attain and maintain their power over the masses. The scientists muster knowledge and means of research. But, thus far, no organization fighting for freedom has ever mustered the biological arsenal where the weapons are to be found for the establishment and the maintenance of human freedom. All precision of our social existence notwithstanding, there is as yet no definition of the word freedom which would be in keeping with natural science. No word is more misused and misunderstood. To define freedom is the same as to define sexual health. But nobody will openly admit this. The advocacy of personal and social freedom is connected with anxiety and guilt feelings. As if to be free were a sin or at least not quite as it should be. Sex-economy makes this guilt feeling comprehensible: freedom without sexual self-determination is in itself a contradiction. But to be sexual means—according to the prevailing human structure—to be sinful or guilty. There are very few people who experience sexual love without guilt feeling. “Free love” has acquired a degrading meaning: it lost the meaning given it by the old fighters for freedom. In films and in books, to be genital and to be criminal are presented as the same thing.
…...
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The anxious precision of modern mathematics is necessary for accuracy, … it is necessary for research. It makes for clearness of thought and for fertility in trying new combinations of ideas. When the initial statements are vague and slipshod, at every subsequent stage of thought, common sense has to step in to limit applications and to explain meanings. Now in creative thought common sense is a bad master. Its sole criterion for judgment is that the new ideas shall look like the old ones, in other words it can only act by suppressing originality.
In Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 157.
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The apodictic quality of mathematical thought, the certainty and correctness of its conclusions, are due, not to a special mode of ratiocination, but to the character of the concepts with which it deals. What is that distinctive characteristic? I answer: precision, sharpness, completeness,* of definition. But how comes your mathematician by such completeness? There is no mysterious trick involved; some ideas admit of such precision, others do not; and the mathematician is one who deals with those that do.
In 'The Universe and Beyond', Hibbert Journal (1904-1905), 3, 309. An editorial footnote indicates “precision, sharpness, completeness” — i.e., in terms of the absolutely clear and indefinable.
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The comforting, if spurious, precision of laboratory results has the same appeal as the lifebelt to the weak swimmer.
Anonymous
Lancet (1981) 1, 539-40 (1981)
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The development of mathematics toward greater precision has led, as is well known, to the formalization of large tracts of it, so that one can prove any theorem using nothing but a few mechanical rules... One might therefore conjecture that these axioms and rules of inference are sufficient to decide any mathematical question that can at all be formally expressed in these systems. It will be shown below that this is not the case, that on the contrary there are in the two systems mentioned relatively simple problems in the theory of integers that cannot be decided on the basis of the axioms.
'On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems I' (193 1), in S. Feferman (ed.), Kurt Gödel Collected Works: Publications 1929-1936 (1986), Vol. I, 145.
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The end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth century were remarkable for the small amount of scientific movement going on in this country, especially in its more exact departments. ... Mathematics were at the last gasp, and Astronomy nearly so—I mean in those members of its frame which depend upon precise measurement and systematic calculation. The chilling torpor of routine had begun to spread itself over all those branches of Science which wanted the excitement of experimental research.
Quoted in Sophia Elizabeth De Morgan, Memoir of Augustus De Morgan (1882), 41
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The equations of dynamics completely express the laws of the historical method as applied to matter, but the application of these equations implies a perfect knowledge of all the data. But the smallest portion of matter which we can subject to experiment consists of millions of molecules, not one of which ever becomes individually sensible to us. We cannot, therefore, ascertain the actual motion of anyone of these molecules; so that we are obliged to abandon the strict historical method, and to adopt the statistical method of dealing with large groups of molecules … Thus molecular science teaches us that our experiments can never give us anything more than statistical information, and that no law derived from them can pretend to absolute precision. But when we pass from the contemplation of our experiments to that of the molecules themselves, we leave a world of chance and change, and enter a region where everything is certain and immutable.
'Molecules' (1873). In W. D. Niven (ed.), The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell (1890), Vol. 2, 374.
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The growing complexity of civilized life demands with each age broader and more exact knowledge as to the material surroundings and greater precision in our recognition of the invisible forces or tendencies about us.
From Presidential Address (5 Dec 1896) to the Biological Society of Washington, 'The Malarial Parasite and Other Pathogenic Protozoa', Popular Science Monthly (Mar 1897), 642.
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The increasing technicality of the terminology employed is also a serious difficulty. It has become necessary to learn an extensive vocabulary before a book in even a limited department of science can be consulted with much profit. This change, of course, has its advantages for the initiated, in securing precision and concisement of statement; but it tends to narrow the field in which an investigator can labour, and it cannot fail to become, in the future, a serious impediment to wide inductive generalisations.
Year Book of Science (1892), preface, from review in Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science (14 Apr 1892), 65, 190.
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The more I study the things of the mind the more mathematical I find them. In them as in mathematics it is a question of quantities; they must be treated with precision. I have never had more satisfaction than in proving this in the realms of art, politics and history.
Notes made after the completion of the third chapter of Vol. 3 of La Rivolution, 22 April 1883. In E. Sparvel-Bayly (trans.), Life and Letters of H. Taine (1902-1908), Vol. 3, 239.
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The personal views of the lecturer may seem to be brought forward with undue exclusiveness, but, as it is his business to give a clear exposition of the actual state of the science which he treats, he is obliged to define with precision the principles, the correctness of which he has proved by his own experience.
Cellular Pathology, translated by Frank Chance (1860), xi.
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The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science or outside of it we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense, science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge, all information between human beings, can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It’s a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance, and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair. The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots’ belief that they have absolute certainty. It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.” We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people. [Referring to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.]
'Knowledge or Certainty,' episode 11, The Ascent of Man (1972), BBC TV series.
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The rudest numerical scales, such as that by which the mineralogists distinguish different degrees of hardness, are found useful. The mere counting of pistils and stamens sufficed to bring botany out of total chaos into some kind of form. It is not, however, so much from counting as from measuring, not so much from the conception of number as from that of continuous quantity, that the advantage of mathematical treatment comes. Number, after all, only serves to pin us down to a precision in our thoughts which, however beneficial, can seldom lead to lofty conceptions, and frequently descend to pettiness.
On the Doctrine of Chances, with Later Reflections (1878), 61-2.
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The starting point of Darwin’s theory of evolution is precisely the existence of those differences between individual members of a race or species which morphologists for the most part rightly neglect. The first condition necessary, in order that any process of Natural Selection may begin among a race, or species, is the existence of differences among its members; and the first step in an enquiry into the possible effect of a selective process upon any character of a race must be an estimate of the frequency with which individuals, exhibiting any given degree of abnormality with respect to that, character, occur. The unit, with which such an enquiry must deal, is not an individual but a race, or a statistically representative sample of a race; and the result must take the form of a numerical statement, showing the relative frequency with which the various kinds of individuals composing the race occur.
Biometrika: A Joumal for the Statistical Study of Biological Problems (1901), 1, 1-2.
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The strength of the computer lies in its being a logic machine. It does precisely what it is programed to do. This makes it fast and precise. It also makes it a total moron; for logic is essentially stupid.
In The Effective Executive (2006), 159.
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The student of medicine can no more hope to advance in the mastery of his subject with a loose and careless mind than the student of mathematics. If the laws of abstract truth require such rigid precision from those who study them, we cannot believe the laws of nature require less. On the contrary, they would seem to require more; for the facts are obscure, the means of inquiry imperfect, and in every exercise of the mind there are peculiar facilities to err.
From Address (Oct 1874) delivered at Guy’s Hospital, 'On The Study of Medicine', printed in British Medical journal (1874), 2, 425. Collected in Sir William Withey Gull and Theodore Dyke Acland (ed.), A Collection of the Published Writings of William Withey Gull (1896), 6.
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The terminology of the layman is an absence of terminology; the precision of the layman is an accuracy of impression rather than an accuracy of specific fact.
In 'A Newsman Looks at Physicists', Physics Today (May 1948), 1, No. 1, 33.
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There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.
Webmaster has searched for a primary print source without success. Walter Isaacson likewise found no direct evidence, as he reports in Einstein (2007), 575. However, these sentences are re-quoted in a variety of books and other sources (often citing them as a remark reportedly made by Kelvin in an Address at the British Association for the Advancement of Science in 1900). Although the quote appears noteworthy, it is not included in the major biographical work, the two volumes by Silvanus P. Thomson, The Life of Lord Kelvin (1976). The quote is included here so that this caveat should be read with it.
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Those who would legislate against the teaching of evolution should also legislate against gravity, electricity and the unreasonable velocity of light, and also should introduce a clause to prevent the use of the telescope, the microscope and the spectroscope or any other instrument of precision which may in the future be invented, constructed or used for the discovery of truth.
In 'Science and Civilization', Prescott Evening Courier (3 Nov 1925), 6.
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Time has a different quality in a forest, a different kind of flow. Time moves in circles, and events are linked, even if it’s not obvious that they are linked. Events in a forest occur with precision in the flow of tree time, like the motions of an endless dance.
The Wild Trees: A Story of Passion and Daring
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We can’t define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers… one saying to the other: “You don’t know what you are talking about!” The second one says: “What do you mean by know? What do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you?
In 'Motion', The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1961), Vol. 1, 8-2.
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We do not ask for what useful purpose the birds do sing, for song is their pleasure since they were created for singing. Similarly, we ought not to ask why the human mind troubles to fathom the secrets of the heavens ... The diversity of the phenomena of Nature is so great, and the treasures hidden in the heavens so rich, precisely in order that the human mind shall never be lacking in fresh nourishment.
From Mysterium Cosmographicum. Quote as translated in Carl Sagan, Cosmos (1980, 1985), 32.
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We have very strong physical and chemical evidence for a large impact; this is the most firmly established part of the whole story. There is an unquestionable mass extinction at this time, and in the fossil groups for which we have the best record, the extinction coincides with the impact to a precision of a centimeter or better in the stratigraphic record. This exact coincidence in timing strongly argues for a causal relationship.
Referring to the theory that he, and his father (physicist Luis W. Alvarez), held that dinosaurs abruptly went extinct as a result of a 6-mile-wide asteroid or comet struck the earth. In American Geophysical Union, EOS (2 Sep 1986), as quoted and cited in John Noble Wilford, 'New Data Extend Era of Dinosaurs' New York Times (9 Nov 1986), A41.
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We love to discover in the cosmos the geometrical forms that exist in the depths of our consciousness. The exactitude of the proportions of our monuments and the precision of our machines express a fundamental character of our mind. Geometry does not exist in the earthly world. It has originated in ourselves. The methods of nature are never so precise as those of man. We do not find in the universe the clearness and accuracy of our thought. We attempt, therefore, to abstract from the complexity of phenomena some simple systems whose components bear to one another certain relations susceptible of being described mathematically.
In Man the Unknown (1935), 8.
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We must painfully acknowledge that, precisely because of its great intellectual developments, the best of man's domesticated animals—the dog—most often becomes the victim of physiological experiments. Only dire necessity can lead one to experiment on cats—on such impatient, loud, malicious animals. During chronic experiments, when the animal, having recovered from its operation, is under lengthy observation, the dog is irreplaceable; moreover, it is extremely touching. It is almost a participant in the experiments conducted upon it, greatly facilitating the success of the research by its understanding and compliance.
'Vivisection' (1893), as translated in Daniel P. Todes, Pavlov’s Physiology Factory: Experiment, Interpretation, Laboratory Enterprise (2002), 123.
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We reverence ancient Greece as the cradle of western science. Here for the first time the world witnessed the miracle of a logical system which proceeded from step to step with such precision that every single one of its propositions was absolutely indubitable—I refer to Euclid’s geometry. This admirable triumph of reasoning gave the human intellect the necessary confidence in itself for its subsequent achievements. If Euclid failed to kindle your youthful enthusiasm, then you were not born to be a scientific thinker.
From 'On the Method of Theoretical Physics', in Essays in Science (1934, 2004), 13.
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While the dogmatist is harmful, the sceptic is useless …; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance. Knowledge is not so precise a concept as is commonly thought. Instead of saying ‘I know this’, we ought to say ‘I more or less know something more or less like this’. … Knowledge in practical affairs has not the certainty or the precision of arithmetic.
From 'Philosophy For Laymen', collected in Unpopular Essays (1950, 1996), 38-39.
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Winwood Reade … remarks that while a man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty. You can, for example, never foretell what any one man will do, but you can say with precision what an average number will be up to. Individuals vary, but percentages remain constant. So says the statistician.
Character Sherlock Holmes recommends Winwood Reade’s book The Martyrdom of Man to Dr. Watson in The Sign of the Four (1890), 196. Earlier in the novel, Holmes calls Reade’s book “one of the most remarkable ever penned.” Reade is a real person and his book was published in 1872. The actual statement in it reads: “As a single atom man is an enigma: as a whole he is a mathematical problem.”
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You must not know too much, or be too precise or scientific about birds and trees and flowers and water-craft; a certain free margin, and even vagueless—perhaps ignorance, credulity—helps your enjoyment of these things.
Specimen Days in America (1887), 282.
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[It] may be laid down as a general rule that, if the result of a long series of precise observations approximates a simple relation so closely that the remaining difference is undetectable by observation and may be attributed to the errors to which they are liable, then this relation is probably that of nature.
'Mémoire sur les Inégalites Séculaires des Planètes et des Satellites' (I 785, published 1787). In Oeuvres completes de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 11, 57, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 130.
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[The chemical bond] First, it is related to the disposition of two electrons (remember, no one has ever seen an electron!): next, these electrons have their spins pointing in opposite directions (remember, no one can ever measure the spin of a particular electron!): then, the spatial distribution of these electrons is described analytically with some degree of precision (remember, there is no way of distinguishing experimentally the density distribution of one electron from another!): concepts like hybridization, covalent and ionic structures, resonance, all appear, not one of which corresponds to anything that is directly measurable. These concepts make a chemical bond seem so real, so life-like, that I can almost see it. Then I wake with a shock to the realization that a chemical bond does not exist; it is a figment of the imagination that we have invented, and no more real than the square root of - 1. I will not say that the known is explained in terms of the unknown, for that is to misconstrue the sense of intellectual adventure. There is no explanation: there is form: there is structure: there is symmetry: there is growth: and there is therefore change and life.
Quoted in his obituary, Biographical Memoirs of the Fellows of the Royal Society 1974, 20, 96.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 90 -
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- 40 -
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