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Today in Science History - Quickie Quiz
Who said: “Nature does nothing in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”
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Significant Quotes (35 quotes)

Surtout l’astronomie et l’anatomie sont les deux sciences qui nous offrent le plus sensiblement deux grands caractères du Créateur; l’une, son immensité, par les distances, la grandeur, et le nombre des corps célestes; l’autre, son intelligence infinie, par la méchanique des animaux.
Above all, astronomy and anatomy are the two sciences which present to our minds most significantly the two grand characteristics of the Creator; the one, His immensity, by the distances, size, and number of the heavenly bodies; the other, His infinite intelligence, by the mechanism of animate beings.
Original French and translation in Craufurd Tait Ramage (ed.) Beautiful Thoughts from French and Italian Authors (1866), 119-120.
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A troubling question for those of us committed to the widest application of intelligence in the study and solution of the problems of men is whether a general understanding of the social sciences will be possible much longer. Many significant areas of these disciplines have already been removed by the advances of the past two decades beyond the reach of anyone who does not know mathematics; and the man of letters is increasingly finding, to his dismay, that the study of mankind proper is passing from his hands to those of technicians and specialists. The aesthetic effect is admittedly bad: we have given up the belletristic “essay on man” for the barbarisms of a technical vocabulary, or at best the forbidding elegance of mathematical syntax.
Opening paragraph of 'The Study of Man: Sociology Learns the Language of Mathematics' in Commentary (1 Sep 1952). Reprinted in James Roy Newman, The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 2, 1294.
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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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As for the search for truth, I know from my own painful searching, with its many blind alleys, how hard it is to take a reliable step, be it ever so small, towards the understanding of that which is truly significant.
Letter to an interested layman (13 Feb 1934). In Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, Albert Einstein: The Human Side: New Glipses From His Archives (1981), 18.
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As I review the nature of the creative drive in the inventive scientists that have been around me, as well as in myself, I find the first event is an urge to make a significant intellectual contribution that can be tangible embodied in a product or process.
Quoted in New York Times (2 Mar 1991), 1 and 29.
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Attaching significance to invariants is an effort to recognize what, because of its form or colour or meaning or otherwise, is important or significant in what is only trivial or ephemeral. A simple instance of failing in this is provided by the poll-man at Cambridge, who learned perfectly how to factorize a²-b² but was floored because the examiner unkindly asked for the factors of p²–q².
In 'Recent Developments in Invariant Theory', The Mathematical Gazette (Dec 1926), 13, No. 185, 217. [Note: A poll-man is a student who takes the ordinary university degree, without honours. -Webmaster]
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Both social and biosocial factors are necessary to interpret crosscultural studies, with the general proviso that one’s research interest determines which elements, in what combinations, are significant for the provision of understanding.
…...
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Engineering is more closely akin to the arts than perhaps any other of the professions; first, because it requires the maximum of natural aptitude and of liking for the work in order to offset other factors; second, because it demands, like the arts, an almost selfless consecration to the job; and, third, because out of the hundreds who faithfully devote themselves to the task, only a few are destined to receive any significant reward—in either money or fame.
As coauthor with Frank W. Skinner, and Harold E. Wessman, 'Foreward', Vocational Guidance in Engineering Lines (1933), vi.
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Forests and trees make significant direct contributions to the nutrition of poor households ... [as] rural communities in Central Africa obtained a critical portion of protein and fat in their diets through hunting wildlife from in and around forests. The five to six million tonnes of bushmeat eaten yearly in the Congo Basin is roughly equal to the total amount of beef produced annually in Brazil – without the accompanying need to clear huge swathes of forest for cattle.
In 'Forests and food security: What we know and need to know', Forest News online blog by the Center for International Forestry Research (20 Apr 2011).
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I do not maintain that the chief value of the study of arithmetic consists in the lessons of morality that arise from this study. I claim only that, to be impressed from day to day, that there is something that is right as an answer to the questions with which one is able to grapple, and that there is a wrong answer—that there are ways in which the right answer can be established as right, that these ways automatically reject error and slovenliness, and that the learner is able himself to manipulate these ways and to arrive at the establishment of the true as opposed to the untrue, this relentless hewing to the line and stopping at the line, must color distinctly the thought life of the pupil with more than a tinge of morality. … To be neighborly with truth, to feel one’s self somewhat facile in ways of recognizing and establishing what is right, what is correct, to find the wrong persistently and unfailingly rejected as of no value, to feel that one can apply these ways for himself, that one can think and work independently, have a real, a positive, and a purifying effect upon moral character. They are the quiet, steady undertones of the work that always appeal to the learner for the sanction of his best judgment, and these are the really significant matters in school work. It is not the noise and bluster, not even the dramatics or the polemics from the teacher’s desk, that abide longest and leave the deepest and stablest imprint upon character. It is these still, small voices that speak unmistakably for the right and against the wrong and the erroneous that really form human character. When the school subjects are arranged on the basis of the degree to which they contribute to the moral upbuilding of human character good arithmetic will be well up the list.
In Arithmetic in Public Education (1909), 18. As quoted and cited in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 69.
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I know few significant questions of public policy which can safely be confided to computers. In the end, the hard decisions inescapably involve imponderables of intuition, prudence, and judgment.
From Address to the Centennial Convocation of the National Academy of Sciences (22 Oct 1963), 'A Century of Scientific Conquest.' Online at The American Presidency Project.
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In primitive art you will find no accurate representation: you will find only significant form. Yet no other art moves us so profoundly.
In Art (1913), 22.
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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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It has been stated that the research should be discontinued because it involved “meddling with evolution.” Homo sapiens has been meddling with evolution in many ways and for a long time. We started in a big way when we domesticated plants and animals. We continue every time we alter the environment. In general, recombinant DNA research docs not seem to represent a significant increase in the risks associated with such meddling—although it may significantly increase the rate at which we meddle.
In letter to the Board of Directors of Friends of the Earth, published in The Coevolutionary Quarterly (Spring 1978), as abstracted and cited in New Scientist (6 Jul 1978), 35.
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It is not by his mixing and choosing, but by the shapes of his colors, and the combination of those shapes, that we recognize the colorist. Color becomes significant only when it becomes form.
In Art (1958), 156.
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It would follow that “significant form” was form behind which we catch a sense of ultimate reality.
In Art (1913), 54.
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My life has been a continuous fulfillment of dreams. It appears that everything I saw and did has a new, and perhaps, more significant meaning, every time I see it. The earth is good. It is a privilege to live thereon.
In The National Gardener (1952?), 7.
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Obviously, what our age has in common with the age of the Reformation is the fallout of disintegrating values. What needs explaining is the presence of a receptive audience. More significant than the fact that poets write abstrusely, painters paint abstractly, and composers compose unintelligible music is that people should admire what they cannot understand; indeed, admire that which has no meaning or principle.
In Reflections on the Human Condition (1973), 62.
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One of the most important choices any researcher makes is picking a significant topic to study. If you choose the right problem, you get important results that transform our perception of the underlying structure of the universe. If you don’t choose the right problem, you may work very hard but only get an interesting result.
Unverified - source citation needed. Can you help?
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Science is not gadgetry. The desirable adjuncts of modern living, although in many instances made possible by science, certainly do not constitute science. Basic scientific knowledge often (but not always) is a prerequisite to such developments, but technology primarily deserves the credit for having the financial courage, the ingenuity, and the driving energy to see to it that so-called ‘pure knowledge’ is in fact brought to the practical service of man. And it should also be recognized that those who have the urge to apply knowledge usefully have themselves often made significant contribution to pure knowledge and have even more often served as a stimulation to the activities of a pure researcher.
Warren Weaver (1894–1978), U.S. mathematician, scientist, educator. Science and Imagination, ch. 1, Basic Books (1967).
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The art of writing history is the art of emphasizing the significant facts at the expense of the insignificant. And it is the same in every field of knowledge. Knowledge is power only if a man knows what facts not to bother about.
In The Orange Tree: A Volume of Essays (1926), 60.
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The discovery of the famous original [Rosetta Stone] enabled Napoleon’s experts to begin the reading of Egypt’s ancient literature. In like manner the seismologists, using the difficult but manageable Greek of modern physics, are beginning the task of making earthquakes tell the nature of the earth’s interior and translating into significant speech the hieroglyphics written by the seismograph.
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The education explosion is producing a vast number of people who want to live significant, important lives but lack the ability to satisfy this craving for importance by individual achievement. The country is being swamped with nobodies who want to be somebodies.
From address to employees of the Phillips Petroleum Co. In Bartlesville, Oklahoma, excerpted in the Franklin, Indiana, The Daily Journal (23 Jan 1978), 2.
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The individual feels the futility of human desires and aims and the sublimity and marvelous order which reveal themselves both in nature and in the world of thought. Individual existence impresses him as a sort of prison and he wants to experience the universe as a single significant whole. The beginnings of cosmic religious feeling already appear at an early stage of development, e.g., in many of the Psalms of David and in some of the Prophets. Buddhism, as we have learned especially from the wonderful writings of Schopenhauer, contains a much stronger element of this. The religious geniuses of all ages have been distinguished by this kind of religious feeling, which knows no dogma and no God conceived in man’s image; so that there can be no church whose central teachings are based on it. Hence it is precisely among the heretics of every age that we find men who were filled with this highest kind of religious feeling and were in many cases regarded by their contemporaries as atheists, sometimes also as saints. Looked at in this light, men like Democritus, Francis of Assisi, and Spinoza are closely akin to one another.
…...
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The only solid piece of scientific truth about which I feel totally confident is that we are profoundly ignorant about nature. Indeed, I regard this as the major discovery of the past hundred years of biology. It is, in its way, an illuminating piece of news. … It is this sudden confrontation with the depth and scope of ignorance that represents the most significant contribution of twentieth-century science to the human intellect.
Essay, 'The Hazards of Science', collected in The Medusa and the Snail: More Notes of a Biology Watcher (1979), 73.
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The opinion appears to be gaining ground that this very general conception of functionality, born on mathematical ground, is destined to supersede the narrower notion of causation, traditional in connection with the natural sciences. As an abstract formulation of the idea of determination in its most general sense, the notion of functionality includes and transcends the more special notion of causation as a one-sided determination of future phenomena by means of present conditions; it can be used to express the fact of the subsumption under a general law of past, present, and future alike, in a sequence of phenomena. From this point of view the remark of Huxley that Mathematics “knows nothing of causation” could only be taken to express the whole truth, if by the term “causation” is understood “efficient causation.” The latter notion has, however, in recent times been to an increasing extent regarded as just as irrelevant in the natural sciences as it is in Mathematics; the idea of thorough-going determinancy, in accordance with formal law, being thought to be alone significant in either domain.
In Presidential Address British Association for the Advancement of Science (1910), Nature, 84, 290.
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The significance of a fact is relative to [the general body of scientific] knowledge. To say that a fact is significant in science, is to say that it helps to establish or refute some general law; for science, though it starts from observation of the particular, is not concerned essentially with the particular, but with the general. A fact, in science, is not a mere fact, but an instance. In this the scientist differs from the artist, who, if he deigns to notice facts at all, is likely to notice them in all their particularity.
In The Scientific Outlook (1931, 2009), 38.
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The significant chemicals of living tissue are rickety and unstable, which is exactly what is needed for life.
As shown, without citation, in Randy Moore, Writing to Learn Science (1997), 226.
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The significant thing about the Darbys and coke-iron is not that the first Abraham Darby “invented” a new process but that five generations of the Darby connection were able to perfect it and develop most of its applications.
In Essays on Culture Change (2003), Vol. 2, 200.
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The story of scientific discovery has its own epic unity—a unity of purpose and endeavour—the single torch passing from hand to hand through the centuries; and the great moments of science when, after long labour, the pioneers saw their accumulated facts falling into a significant order—sometimes in the form of a law that revolutionised the whole world of thought—have an intense human interest, and belong essentially to the creative imagination of poetry.
In Prefactory Note, Watchers of the Sky (1922), v.
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What quality is shared by all objects that provoke our aesthetic emotions? Only one answer seems possible—significant form. In each, lines and colors combined in a particular way; certain forms and relations of forms, stir our aesthetic emotions. These relations and combinations of lines and colours, these æsthetically moving forms, I call “Significant Form”; and “Significant Form” is the one quality common to all works of visual art.
In Art (1913), 8.
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What was most significant about the lunar voyage was not that man set foot on the Moon but that they set eye on the earth.
…...
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When I was 9, my parents gave me a Commodore 64, which was fun. At the time, the opportunity to program your own computer was easier than it is today. Today there are significantly larger barriers because of the complexity built into computing.
From address at a conference on Google campus, co-hosted with Common Sense Media and the Joan Ganz Cooney Center at Sesame Workshop 'Breakthrough Learning in the Digital Age'. As quoted in Technology blog report by Dan Fost, 'Google co-founder Sergey Brin wants more computers in schools', Los Angeles Times (28 Oct 2009). On latimesblogs.latimes.com website. As quoted, without citation, in Can Akdeniz, Fast MBA (2014), 280.
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When scientists discovered that liquid water, which brought forth life on Earth, exists nowhere else in great quantities in the solar system, the most significant lesson they taught was not that water, or the life that depends on it, is necessarily the result of some chemical accident in space; their most important revelation was that water is rare in infinity, that we should prize it, preserve it, conserve it.
In Jacques Cousteau and Susan Schiefelbein, The Human, the Orchid, and the Octopus: Exploring and Conserving Our Natural World (2007), 201-202.
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~~[Reinterpretation]~~ The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.
Yet another of the Einstein-like quotes in common circulation for which there appears to be no known source in the given wording. There are also a number of variations on the the theme. It resembles an authentic quote, “A new type of thinking is essential if mankind is to survive and move toward higher levels,” from a longer discussion, in 'Atomic Education Urged by Einstein', New York Times (25 May 1946), 13. Other reinterpretations, not in exactly Einstein’s wording, include: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” “The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we created them.” “The world we have made, as a result of the level of thinking we have done thus far, creates problems we cannot solve at the same level of thinking at which we created them.” For more context, see the authentic quote that begins, “Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived…,” on the Albert Einstein Quotes page on this website.
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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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- 80 -
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- 70 -
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- 40 -
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