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Who said: “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.”
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Straight Line Quotes (34 quotes)
Straight Lines Quotes

Toutes les fois que dans une équation finale on trouve deux quantités inconnues, on a un lieu, l'extrémité de l'une d’elles décrivant une ligne droite ou courbe. La ligne droite est simple et unique dans son genre; les espèces des courbes sont en nombre indéfini, cercle, parabole, hyperbole, ellipse, etc.
Whenever two unknown magnitudes appear in a final equation, we have a locus, the extremity of one of the unknown magnitudes describing a straight line or a curve. The straight line is simple and unique; the classes of curves are indefinitely many,—circle, parabola, hyperbola, ellipse, etc.
Introduction aux Lieux Plans et Solides (1679) collected in OEuvres de Fermat (1896), Vol. 3, 85. Introduction to Plane and Solid Loci, as translated by Joseph Seidlin in David E. Smith(ed.)A Source Book in Mathematics (1959), 389. Alternate translation using Google Translate: “Whenever in a final equation there are two unknown quantities, there is a locus, the end of one of them describing a straight line or curve. The line is simple and unique in its kind, species curves are indefinite in number,—circle, parabola, hyperbola, ellipse, etc.”
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A mathematician thinks that two points are enough to define a straight line, while a physicist wants more data.
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A tree nowhere offers a straight line or a regular curve, but who doubts that root, trunk, boughs, and leaves embody geometry?
From chapter 'Jottings from a Note-Book', in Canadian Stories (1918), 172.
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Archimedes … had stated that given the force, any given weight might be moved, and even boasted, we are told, relying on the strength of demonstration, that if there were another earth, by going into it he could remove this. Hiero being struck with amazement at this, and entreating him to make good this problem by actual experiment, and show some great weight moved by a small engine, he fixed accordingly upon a ship of burden out of the king’s arsenal, which could not be drawn out of the dock without great labor and many men; and, loading her with many passengers and a full freight, sitting himself the while far off with no great endeavor, but only holding the head of the pulley in his hand and drawing the cords by degrees, he drew the ship in a straight line, as smoothly and evenly, as if she had been in the sea. The king, astonished at this, and convinced of the power of the art, prevailed upon Archimedes to make him engines accommodated to all the purposes, offensive and defensive, of a siege. … the apparatus was, in most opportune time, ready at hand for the Syracusans, and with it also the engineer himself.
In John Dryden (trans.), Life of Marcellus.
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Euclid always contemplates a straight line as drawn between two definite points, and is very careful to mention when it is to be produced beyond this segment. He never thinks of the line as an entity given once for all as a whole. This careful definition and limitation, so as to exclude an infinity not immediately apparent to the senses, was very characteristic of the Greeks in all their many activities. It is enshrined in the difference between Greek architecture and Gothic architecture, and between Greek religion and modern religion. The spire of a Gothic cathedral and the importance of the unbounded straight line in modern Geometry are both emblematic of the transformation of the modern world.
In Introduction to Mathematics (1911), 119.
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Every body continues in its state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, except in so far as it doesn’t. … The suggestion that the body really wanted to go straight but some mysterious agent made it go crooked is picturesque but unscientific.
Paraphasing Newton’s First Law of Motion. In a Gifford Lecture delivered at the University of Edinburgh (1927), 'Gravitation: The Law', The Nature of the Physical World (1928), 124.
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Everything you’ve learned in school as “obvious” becomes less and less obvious as you begin to study the universe. For example, there are no solids in the universe. There’s not even a suggestion of a solid. There are no absolute continuums. There are no surfaces. There are no straight lines.
…...
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Four circles to the kissing come,
The smaller are the benter.
The bend is just the inverse of
The distance from the centre.
Though their intrigue left Euclid dumb
There’s now no need for rule of thumb.
Since zero bend’s a dead straight line
And concave bends have minus sign,
The sum of squares of all four bends
Is half the square of their sum.
In poem, 'The Kiss Precise', Nature (20 Jun 1936), 137, 1021, as quoted, cited, explained and illustrated in Martin Gardner, The Colossal Book of Mathematics: Classic Puzzles, Paradoxes, and Problems (2001), 139-141.
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If this is a straight line [showing his audience a straight line drawn by a ruler], then it necessarily ensues that the sum of the angles of the triangle is equal to two right angles, and conversely, if the sum is not equal to two right angles, then neither is the triangle rectilinear.
In Physica.
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In Euclid each proposition stands by itself; its connection with others is never indicated; the leading ideas contained in its proof are not stated; general principles do not exist. In modern methods, on the other hand, the greatest importance is attached to the leading thoughts which pervade the whole; and general principles, which bring whole groups of theorems under one aspect, are given rather than separate propositions. The whole tendency is toward generalization. A straight line is considered as given in its entirety, extending both ways to infinity, while Euclid is very careful never to admit anything but finite quantities. The treatment of the infinite is in fact another fundamental difference between the two methods. Euclid avoids it, in modern mathematics it is systematically introduced, for only thus is generality obtained.
In 'Geometry', Encyclopedia Britannica (9th edition).
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It has been asserted … that the power of observation is not developed by mathematical studies; while the truth is, that; from the most elementary mathematical notion that arises in the mind of a child to the farthest verge to which mathematical investigation has been pushed and applied, this power is in constant exercise. By observation, as here used, can only be meant the fixing of the attention upon objects (physical or mental) so as to note distinctive peculiarities—to recognize resemblances, differences, and other relations. Now the first mental act of the child recognizing the distinction between one and more than one, between one and two, two and three, etc., is exactly this. So, again, the first geometrical notions are as pure an exercise of this power as can be given. To know a straight line, to distinguish it from a curve; to recognize a triangle and distinguish the several forms—what are these, and all perception of form, but a series of observations? Nor is it alone in securing these fundamental conceptions of number and form that observation plays so important a part. The very genius of the common geometry as a method of reasoning—a system of investigation—is, that it is but a series of observations. The figure being before the eye in actual representation, or before the mind in conception, is so closely scrutinized, that all its distinctive features are perceived; auxiliary lines are drawn (the imagination leading in this), and a new series of inspections is made; and thus, by means of direct, simple observations, the investigation proceeds. So characteristic of common geometry is this method of investigation, that Comte, perhaps the ablest of all writers upon the philosophy of mathematics, is disposed to class geometry, as to its method, with the natural sciences, being based upon observation. Moreover, when we consider applied mathematics, we need only to notice that the exercise of this faculty is so essential, that the basis of all such reasoning, the very material with which we build, have received the name observations. Thus we might proceed to consider the whole range of the human faculties, and find for the most of them ample scope for exercise in mathematical studies. Certainly, the memory will not be found to be neglected. The very first steps in number—counting, the multiplication table, etc., make heavy demands on this power; while the higher branches require the memorizing of formulas which are simply appalling to the uninitiated. So the imagination, the creative faculty of the mind, has constant exercise in all original mathematical investigations, from the solution of the simplest problems to the discovery of the most recondite principle; for it is not by sure, consecutive steps, as many suppose, that we advance from the known to the unknown. The imagination, not the logical faculty, leads in this advance. In fact, practical observation is often in advance of logical exposition. Thus, in the discovery of truth, the imagination habitually presents hypotheses, and observation supplies facts, which it may require ages for the tardy reason to connect logically with the known. Of this truth, mathematics, as well as all other sciences, affords abundant illustrations. So remarkably true is this, that today it is seriously questioned by the majority of thinkers, whether the sublimest branch of mathematics,—the infinitesimal calculus—has anything more than an empirical foundation, mathematicians themselves not being agreed as to its logical basis. That the imagination, and not the logical faculty, leads in all original investigation, no one who has ever succeeded in producing an original demonstration of one of the simpler propositions of geometry, can have any doubt. Nor are induction, analogy, the scrutinization of premises or the search for them, or the balancing of probabilities, spheres of mental operations foreign to mathematics. No one, indeed, can claim preeminence for mathematical studies in all these departments of intellectual culture, but it may, perhaps, be claimed that scarcely any department of science affords discipline to so great a number of faculties, and that none presents so complete a gradation in the exercise of these faculties, from the first principles of the science to the farthest extent of its applications, as mathematics.
In 'Mathematics', in Henry Kiddle and Alexander J. Schem, The Cyclopedia of Education, (1877.) As quoted and cited in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 27-29.
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Law 2: A change in motion is proportional to the motive force impressed and takes place along the straight line in which that force is impressed.
The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687), 3rd edition (1726), trans. I. Bernard Cohen and Anne Whitman (1999), Axioms, or Laws of Motion, Law 2, 416.
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Lawyers have to make a living and can only do so by inducing people to believe that a straight line is crooked. This accounts for their penchant for politics, where they can usually find everything crooked enough to delight their hearts.
As quoted in Harry Black, Canada and the Nobel Prize: Biographies, Portraits and Fascinating Facts (2002), 19.
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Mathematics … certainly would never have come into existence if mankind had known from the beginning that in all nature there is no perfectly straight line, no true circle, no standard of measurement.
From 'Of the First and Last Things', All Too Human: A Book For Free Spirits (1878, 1908), Part 1, section 11, 31.
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Nature creates curved lines while humans create straight lines.
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Our account does not rob mathematicians of their science, by disproving the actual existence of the infinite in the direction of increase, in the sense of the untraceable. In point of fact they do not need the infinite and do not use it. They postulate any that the finite straight line may be produced as far as they wish.
In Physics.
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Our knowledge of stars and interstellar matter must be based primarily on the electromagnetic radiation which reaches us. Nature has thoughtfully provided us with a universe in which radiant energy of almost all wave lengths travels in straight lines over enormous distances with usually rather negligible absorption.
In 'Flying Telescopes', Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (May 1961), Vol. 17, No. 5, 191.
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Professor Cayley has since informed me that the theorem about whose origin I was in doubt, will be found in Schläfli’s De Eliminatione. This is not the first unconscious plagiarism I have been guilty of towards this eminent man whose friendship I am proud to claim. A more glaring case occurs in a note by me in the Comptes Rendus, on the twenty-seven straight lines of cubic surfaces, where I believe I have followed (like one walking in his sleep), down to the very nomenclature and notation, the substance of a portion of a paper inserted by Schlafli in the Mathematical Journal, which bears my name as one of the editors upon the face.
In Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society (1864), 642.
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So many of the properties of matter, especially when in the gaseous form, can be deduced from the hypothesis that their minute parts are in rapid motion, the velocity increasing with the temperature, that the precise nature of this motion becomes a subject of rational curiosity. Daniel Bernoulli, Herapath, Joule, Kronig, Clausius, &c., have shewn that the relations between pressure, temperature and density in a perfect gas can be explained by supposing the particles move with uniform velocity in straight lines, striking against the sides of the containing vessel and thus producing pressure. (1860)
In W.D. Niven (ed.) 'Illustrations of the Dynamical Theory of Gases,' The Scientific Papers of James Clerk Maxwell, Vol 1, 377. Quoted in John David Anderson, Jr., Hypersonic and High Temperature Gas Dynamics (2000), 468.
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Some of the men stood talking in this room, and at the right of the door a little knot had formed round a small table, the center of which was the mathematics student, who was eagerly talking. He had made the assertion that one could draw through a given point more than one parallel to a straight line; Frau Hagenström had cried out that this was impossible, and he had gone on to prove it so conclusively that his hearers were constrained to behave as though they understood.
In Little Herr Friedemann (1961), 25.
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That, if a straight line falling on two straight lines make the interior angles on the same side less than two right angles, the two straight lines, if produced indefinitely, meet on that side on which are the angles less than the two right angles.
The Thirteen Books of Euclid's Elements Translated from the Text of Heiberg, introduction and commentary by Sir T. L. Heath (1926), Vol. 1, 155.
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The path isn’t a straight line; it’s a spiral. You continually come back to things you thought you understood and see deeper truths.
Quoted in Kim Lim (ed.), 1,001 Pearls of Spiritual Wisdom: Words to Enrich, Inspire, and Guide Your Life (2014), 246
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The phenomena in these exhausted tubes reveal to physical science a new world—a world where matter may exist in a fourth state, where the corpuscular theory of light may be true, and where light does not always move in straight lines, but where we can never enter, and with which we must be content to observe and experiment from the outside.
'On the Illumination of Lines of Molecular Pressure and the Trajectory of Molecules', Philosophical Transactions 1879, 170, 164.
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The sun’s rays proceed from the sun along straight lines and are reflected from every polished object at equal angles, i.e. the reflected ray subtends, together with the line tangential to the polished object which is in the plane of the reflected ray, two equal angles. Hence it follows that the ray reflected from the spherical surface, together with the circumference of the circle which is in the plane of the ray, subtends two equal angles. From this it also follows that the reflected ray, together with the diameter of the circle, subtends two equal angles. And every ray which is reflected from a polished object to a point produces a certain heating at that point, so that if numerous rays are collected at one point, the heating at that point is multiplied: and if the number of rays increases, the effect of the heat increases accordingly.
In H.J.J. Winter, 'A Discourse of the Concave Spherical Mirror by Ibn Al-Haitham', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society of Bengal, 1950, 16, 2.
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Theorem I. The first and most simple manifestation and representation of things, non-existent as well as latent in the folds of Nature, happened by means of straight line and circle.
Theorem II. Yet the circle cannot be artificially produced without the straight line, or the straight line without the point. Hence, things first began to be by way of a point, and a monad. And things related to the periphery (however big they may be) can in no way exist without the aid of the central point.
From Monas Hierogyphica: Ioannia Dee, Londinensis (The Hieroglyphic Monad of John Dee, of London) translated by C. H.Josten, in Ambix, vol. 12 (1964). As quoted and cited in Philip Davis with Reuben Hersh, in The Mathematical Experience (1981), 103.
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Think of the image of the world in a convex mirror. ... A well-made convex mirror of moderate aperture represents the objects in front of it as apparently solid and in fixed positions behind its surface. But the images of the distant horizon and of the sun in the sky lie behind the mirror at a limited distance, equal to its focal length. Between these and the surface of the mirror are found the images of all the other objects before it, but the images are diminished and flattened in proportion to the distance of their objects from the mirror. ... Yet every straight line or plane in the outer world is represented by a straight line or plane in the image. The image of a man measuring with a rule a straight line from the mirror, would contract more and more the farther he went, but with his shrunken rule the man in the image would count out exactly the same results as in the outer world, all lines of sight in the mirror would be represented by straight lines of sight in the mirror. In short, I do not see how men in the mirror are to discover that their bodies are not rigid solids and their experiences good examples of the correctness of Euclidean axioms. But if they could look out upon our world as we look into theirs without overstepping the boundary, they must declare it to be a picture in a spherical mirror, and would speak of us just as we speak of them; and if two inhabitants of the different worlds could communicate with one another, neither, as far as I can see, would be able to convince the other that he had the true, the other the distorted, relation. Indeed I cannot see that such a question would have any meaning at all, so long as mechanical considerations are not mixed up with it.
In 'On the Origin and Significance of Geometrical Axioms,' Popular Scientific Lectures< Second Series (1881), 57-59. In Robert Ã‰douard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica (1914), 357-358.
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To work our railways, even to their present extent, there must be at least 5,000 locomotive engines; and supposing an engine with its tender to measure only 35 feet, it will be seen, that the whole number required to work our railway system would extend, in one straight line, over 30 miles, or the whole distance from London to Chatham.
From 'Railway System and its Results' (Jan 1856) read to the Institution of Civil Engineers, reprinted in Samuel Smiles, Life of George Stephenson (1857), 512.
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We see only the simple motion of descent, since that other circular one common to the Earth, the tower, and ourselves remains imperceptible. There remains perceptible to us only that of the stone, which is not shared by us; and, because of this, sense shows it as by a straight line, always parallel to the tower, which is built upright and perpendicular upon the terrestrial surface.
Dialogue on the Great World Systems (1632). Revised and Annotated by Giorgio De Santillana (1953), 177.
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What distinguishes the straight line and circle more than anything else, and properly separates them for the purpose of elementary geometry? Their self-similarity. Every inch of a straight line coincides with every other inch, and of a circle with every other of the same circle. Where, then, did Euclid fail? In not introducing the third curve, which has the same property—the screw. The right line, the circle, the screw—the representations of translation, rotation, and the two combined—ought to have been the instruments of geometry. With a screw we should never have heard of the impossibility of trisecting an angle, squaring the circle, etc.
From Letter (15 Feb 1852) to W.R. Hamilton, collected in Robert Perceval Graves, Life of W.R. Hamilton (1889), Vol. 3, 343.
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When I was eight, I played Little League. I was on first; I stole third; I went straight across. Earlier that week, I learned that the shortest distance between two points was a direct line. I took advantage of that knowledge.
In Comic Relief (1996).
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When the boy begins to understand that the visible point is preceded by an invisible point, that the shortest distance between two points is conceived as a straight line before it is ever drawn with the pencil on paper, he experiences a feeling of pride, of satisfaction. And justly so, for the fountain of all thought has been opened to him, the difference between the ideal and the real, potentia et actu, has become clear to him; henceforth the philosopher can reveal him nothing new, as a geometrician he has discovered the basis of all thought.
In Sprüche in Reimen. Sprüche in Prosa. Ethisches (1850), Vol. 3, 214. As translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-Book (1914), 67. From the original German, “Wenn der knabe zu begreifen anfängt, daß einem sichtbaren Punkte ein unsichtbarer vorhergehen müsse, daß der nächste Weg zwischen zwei Punkten schon als Linie gedacht werde, ehe sie mit dem Bleistift aufs Papier gezogen wird, so fühlt er einen gewissen Stolz, ein Behagen. Und nicht mit Unrecht; denn ihm ist die Quelle alles Denkens aufgeschlossen, Idee und Verwirklichtes, potentia et actu, ist ihm klargeworden; der Philosoph entdeckt ihm nichts Neues; dem Geometer war von seiner Seite der Grund alles Denkens aufgegangen.” The Latin phrase, “potentia et actu” means “potentiality and actuality”.
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Whenever they say someone got hit by a “stray bullet” I wonder about the choice of words. It seems to me the bullet isn’t stray at all. It’s doing exactly what physics predicts: traveling in a straight line. What’s so stray about that?
In Napalm and Silly Putty (2001), 323.
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Why is geometry often described as “cold” and “dry?” One reason lies in its inability to describe the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline, or a tree. Clouds are not spheres, mountains are not cones, coastlines are not circles, and bark is not smooth, nor does lightning travel in a straight line… Nature exhibits not simply a higher degree but an altogether different level of complexity.
From The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1977, 1983), Introduction, xiii.
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You don't think progress goes in a straight line, do you? Do you recognize that it is an ascending, accelerating, maybe even exponential curve? It takes hell's own time to get started, but when it goes it goes like a bomb.
Day Million (1966)
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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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