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Quantum Theory Quotes (47 quotes)

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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After the German occupation of Holland in May 1940, the [last] two dark years of the war I spent hiding indoors from the Nazis, eating tulip bulbs to fill the stomach and reading Kramers' book “Quantum Theorie des Elektrons und der Strahlung” by the light of a storm lamp.
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Anyone who is not shocked by the quantum theory has not understood it. [Attributed.]
Webmaster is not alone in failing to find a primary source. Regardless of how widely quoted, the few citations to be found merely reference other books in which it is stated without a valid citation. For example, this quote is an epigraph in Eric Middleton, The New Flatlanders (2007), 19, with a note (p.151) citing Niels Bohr, Atomic Physics and Human Knowledge (1958), but Webmaster’s search of that text does not find it. If you know the primary source, or an early citation, please contact Webmaster.
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Bertrand Russell had given a talk on the then new quantum mechanics, of whose wonders he was most appreciative. He spoke hard and earnestly in the New Lecture Hall. And when he was done, Professor Whitehead, who presided, thanked him for his efforts, and not least for “leaving the vast darkness of the subject unobscured.”
Quoted in Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind (1955), 102.
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But, but, but … if anybody says he can think about quantum theory without getting giddy it merely shows that he hasn’t understood the first thing about it!
Quoted in Otto R. Frisch, What Little I Remember (1979), 95.
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By far the most important consequence of the conceptual revolution brought about in physics by relativity and quantum theory lies not in such details as that meter sticks shorten when they move or that simultaneous position and momentum have no meaning, but in the insight that we had not been using our minds properly and that it is important to find out how to do so.
'Quo Vadis'. In Gerald Holton (ed.), Science and the Modern Mind (1971), 84.
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Every new theory as it arises believes in the flush of youth that it has the long sought goal; it sees no limits to its applicability, and believes that at last it is the fortunate theory to achieve the 'right' answer. This was true of electron theory—perhaps some readers will remember a book called The Electrical Theory of the Universe by de Tunzelman. It is true of general relativity theory with its belief that we can formulate a mathematical scheme that will extrapolate to all past and future time and the unfathomed depths of space. It has been true of wave mechanics, with its first enthusiastic claim a brief ten years ago that no problem had successfully resisted its attack provided the attack was properly made, and now the disillusionment of age when confronted by the problems of the proton and the neutron. When will we learn that logic, mathematics, physical theory, are all only inventions for formulating in compact and manageable form what we already know, like all inventions do not achieve complete success in accomplishing what they were designed to do, much less complete success in fields beyond the scope of the original design, and that our only justification for hoping to penetrate at all into the unknown with these inventions is our past experience that sometimes we have been fortunate enough to be able to push on a short distance by acquired momentum.
The Nature of Physical Theory (1936), 136.
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God runs electromagnetics on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday by the wave theory, and the devil runs it by quantum theory on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.
In Daniel J. Kevles, The Physicists (1978), 159.
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I cannot seriously believe in it [quantum theory] because the theory cannot be reconciled with the idea that physics should represent a reality in time and space, free from spooky actions at a distance [spukhafte Fernwirkungen].
Letter to Max Born (3 Mar 1947). In Born-Einstein Letters (1971), 158.
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I like relativity and quantum theories
because I don't understand them
and they make me feel as if space shifted about
like a swan that
can't settle,
refusing to sit still and be measured;
and as if the atom were an impulsive thing
always changing its mind.
'Relativity', David Herbert Lawrence, The Works of D.H. Lawrence (1994), 437.
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If the world has begun with a single quantum, the notions of space and would altogether fail to have any meaning at the beginning; they would only begin to have a sensible meaning when the original quantum had been divided into a sufficient number of quanta. If this suggestion is correct, the beginning of the world happened a little before the beginning of space and time. I think that such a beginning of the world is far enough from the present order of Nature to be not at all repugnant. It may be difficult to follow up the idea in detail as we are not yet able to count the quantum packets in every case. For example, it may be that an atomic nucleus must be counted as a unique quantum, the atomic number acting as a kind of quantum number. If the future development of quantum theory happens to turn in that direction, we could conceive the beginning of the universe in the form of a unique atom, the atomic weight of which is the total mass of the universe. This highly unstable atom would divide in smaller and smaller atoms by a kind of super-radioactive process.
'The Beginning of the World from the Point of View of Quantum Theory', Nature (1931), 127, 706.
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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 fact, it is often stated that of all the theories proposed in this century, the silliest is quantum theory. Some say that the only thing that quantum theory has going for it, in fact, is that it is unquestionably correct.
In Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and The Tenth Dimension (1994), 262.

In the discussion of the. energies involved in the deformation of nuclei, the concept of surface tension of nuclear matter has been used and its value had been estimated from simple considerations regarding nuclear forces. It must be remembered, however, that the surface tension of a charged droplet is diminished by its charge, and a rough estimate shows that the surface tension of nuclei, decreasing with increasing nuclear charge, may become zero for atomic numbers of the order of 100. It seems therefore possible that the uranium nucleus has only small stability of form, and may, after neutron capture, divide itself into two nuclei of roughly equal size (the precise ratio of sizes depending on liner structural features and perhaps partly on chance). These two nuclei will repel each other and should gain a total kinetic energy of c. 200 Mev., as calculated from nuclear radius and charge. This amount of energy may actually be expected to be available from the difference in packing fraction between uranium and the elements in the middle of the periodic system. The whole 'fission' process can thus be described in an essentially classical way, without having to consider quantum-mechanical 'tunnel effects', which would actually be extremely small, on account of the large masses involved.
[Co-author with Otto Robert Frisch]
Lise Meitner and O. R. Frisch, 'Disintegration of Uranium by Neutrons: a New Type of Nuclear Reaction', Nature (1939), 143, 239.
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In the history of physics, there have been three great revolutions in thought that first seemed absurd yet proved to be true. The first proposed that the earth, instead of being stationary, was moving around at a great and variable speed in a universe that is much bigger than it appears to our immediate perception. That proposal, I believe, was first made by Aristarchos two millenia ago ... Remarkably enough, the name Aristarchos in Greek means best beginning.
[The next two revolutions occurred ... in the early part of the twentieth century: the theory of relativity and the science of quantum mechanics...]
Edward Teller with Judith L. Shoolery, Memoirs: A Twentieth-Century Journey in Science and Politics (2001), 562.
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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 would take a civilization far more advanced than ours, unbelievably advanced, to begin to manipulate negative energy to create gateways to the past. But if you could obtain large quantities of negative energy—and that's a big “IF”—then you could create a time machine that apparently obeys Einstein's equation and perhaps the laws of quantum theory.
Quoted by J.R. Minkel in 'Borrowed Time: Interview with Michio Kaku', Scientific American (23 Nov 2003).
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Looking back … over the long and labyrinthine path which finally led to the discovery [of the quantum theory], I am vividly reminded of Goethe’s saying that men will always be making mistakes as long as they are striving after something.
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Memories are not recycled like atoms and particles in quantum physics. They can be lost forever.
Lady Gaga
From music video, Marry The Night: The Prelude Pathétique (2011). Quoted in Richard J. Gray II, The Performance Identities of Lady Gaga: Critical Essays (2011), 137.
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No known theory can be distorted so as to provide even an approximate explanation [of wave-particle duality]. There must be some fact of which we are entirely ignorant and whose discovery may revolutionize our views of the relations between waves and ether and matter. For the present we have to work on both theories. On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we use the wave theory; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays we think in streams of flying energy quanta or corpuscles.
'Electrons and Ether Waves', The Robert Boyle Lecture 1921, Scientific Monthly, 1922, 14, 158.
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No other theory known to science [other than superstring theory] uses such powerful mathematics at such a fundamental level. …because any unified field theory first must absorb the Riemannian geometry of Einstein’s theory and the Lie groups coming from quantum field theory… The new mathematics, which is responsible for the merger of these two theories, is topology, and it is responsible for accomplishing the seemingly impossible task of abolishing the infinities of a quantum theory of gravity.
In 'Conclusion', Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and the Tenth Dimension (1995), 326.
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Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means at our disposal. In this way quantum theory reminds us, as Bohr has put it, of the old wisdom that when searching for harmony in life one must never forget that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both players and spectators. It is understandable that in our scientific relation to nature our own activity becomes very important when we have to deal with parts of nature into which we can penetrate only by using the most elaborate tools.
The Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Theory (1958). In Steve Adams, Frontiers (2000), 13.
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People were pretty well spellbound by what Bohr said… While I was very much impressed by [him], his arguments were mainly of a qualitative nature, and I was not able to really pinpoint the facts behind them. What I wanted was statements which could be expressed in terms of equations, and Bohr's work very seldom provided such statements. I am really not sure how much later my work was influenced by these lectures of Bohr's... He certainly did not have a direct influence because he did not stimulate one to think of new equations.
Recalling the occasion in May 1925 (a year before receiving his Ph.D.) when he met Niels Bohr who was in Cambridge to give a talk on the fundamental difficulties of the quantum theory.
In History of Twentieth Century Physics (1977), 109. 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), 94.
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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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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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Quantum theory thus reveals a basic oneness of the universe. It shows that we cannot decompose the world into independently existing smallest units. As we penetrate into matter, nature does not show us any isolated “building blocks,” but rather appears as a complicated web of relations between the various parts of the whole. These relations always include the observer in an essential way. The human observer constitute the final link in the chain of observational processes, and the properties of any atomic object can be understood only in terms of the object’s interaction with the observer.
In The Tao of Physics (1975), 68.
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Quantum theory—at least in the Heisenberg interpretation—describes the way the world works as a literal moment-to-moment emergence of actual facts out of a background of less factual 'potentia.'
Quoted in article 'Nick Herbert', in Gale Cengage Learning, Contemporary Authors Online (2002).
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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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So-called “common sense” is definitely detrimental to an understanding of the quantum realm!
As given in an epigraph, without citation, in David M. Harland (ed.), The Big Bang: A View from the 21st Century (2003), ix.
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Something unknown is doing we don’t know what—that is what our theory amounts to.
Expressing the quantum theory description of an electron has no familiar conception of a real form. In The Nature Of The Physical World (1928), 291.
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The dividing line between the wave or particle nature of matter and radiation is the moment “Now.” As this moment steadily advances through time it coagulates a wavy future into a particle past.

The great revelation of the quantum theory was that features of discreteness were discovered in the Book of Nature, in a context in which anything other than continuity seemed to be absurd according to the views held until then.
What is Life? (1944), 48.
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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 mathematically formulated laws of quantum theory show clearly that our ordinary intuitive concepts cannot be unambiguously applied to the smallest particles. All the words or concepts we use to describe ordinary physical objects, such as position, velocity, color, size, and so on, become indefinite and problematic if we try to use them of elementary particles.
In Across the Frontiers (1974), 114.
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The more success the quantum theory has, the sillier it looks.
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The plain fact is that there are no conclusions. If we must state a conclusion, it would be that many of the former conclusions of the nineteenth-century science on philosophical questions are once again in the melting-pot.
In 'On Free-Will', Physics and Philosophy (1942), 216. Also collected in Franklin Le Van Baumer (ed.), Main Currents of Western Thought (1978), 703.

The quantum theory of gravity has opened up a new possibility, in which there would be no boundary to space-time and so there would be no need to specify the behaviour at the boundary. There would be no singularities at which the laws of science broke down and no edge of space-time at which one would have to appeal to God or some new law to set the boundary conditions for space-time. One could say: 'The boundary condition of the universe is that it has no boundary.' The universe would be completely self-contained and not affected by anything outside itself. It would neither be created nor destroyed. It would just BE.
A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes (1988), 136.
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The Theory of Relativity confers an absolute meaning on a magnitude which in classical theory has only a relative significance: the velocity of light. The velocity of light is to the Theory of Relativity as the elementary quantum of action is to the Quantum Theory: it is its absolute core.
'A Scientific Autobiography' (1948), in Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers, trans. Frank Gaynor (1950), 47.
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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 words are strung together, with their own special grammar—the laws of quantum theory—to form sentences, which are molecules. Soon we have books, entire libraries, made out of molecular “sentences.” The universe is like a library in which the words are atoms. Just look at what has been written with these hundred words! Our own bodies are books in that library, specified by the organization of molecules—but the universe and literature are organizations of identical, interchangeable objects; they are information systems.
In The Cosmic Code: Quantum Physics as the Language of Nature (1983), 255.
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There was a time when we wanted to be told what an electron is. The question was never answered. No familiar conceptions can be woven around the electron; it belongs to the waiting list.
The Nature Of The Physical World (1928), 290.
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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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We don't know what we are talking about. Many of us believed that string theory was a very dramatic break with our previous notions of quantum theory. But now we learn that string theory, well, is not that much of a break. The state of physics today is like it was when we were mystified by radioactivity. They were missing something absolutely fundamental. We are missing perhaps something as profound as they were back then.
Closing address to the 23rd Solvay Conference in Physics, Brussels, Belgium (Dec 2005). Quoted in Ashok Sengupta, Chaos, Nonlinearity, Complexity: The Dynamical Paradigm of Nature (2006), vii. Cite in Alfred B. Bortz, Physics: Decade by Decade (2007), 206.
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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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[T]he laws of quantum mechanics itself cannot be formulated … without recourse to the concept of consciousness.
From essay by Eugene Wigner, 'The Probability of the Existence of a Self-Reproducing Unit', contributed in M. Polanyi, The Logic of Personal Knowledge: Essays Presented to Michael Polanyi on his Seventieth Birthday, 11th March 1961 (1961), 232.
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[When thinking about the new relativity and quantum theories] I have felt a homesickness for the paths of physical science where there are ore or less discernible handrails to keep us from the worst morasses of foolishness.
The Nature Of The Physical World (1928), 343.
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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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