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Surprise Quotes (86 quotes)

A chess problem is genuine mathematics, but it is in some way “trivial” mathematics. However, ingenious and intricate, however original and surprising the moves, there is something essential lacking. Chess problems are unimportant. The best mathematics is serious as well as beautiful—“important” if you like, but the word is very ambiguous, and “serious” expresses what I mean much better.
'A Mathematician's Apology', in James Roy Newman, The World of Mathematics (2000), 2029.
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A depressing number of people seem to process everything literally. They are to wit as a blind man is to a forest, able to find every tree, but each one coming as a surprise.
Quoted in Kim Lim (ed.), 1,001 Pearls of Spiritual Wisdom: Words to Enrich, Inspire, and Guide Your Life (2014), 32
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A surprising proportion of mathematicians are accomplished musicians. Is it because music and mathematics share patterns that are beautiful?
In 'Introduction' contributed to Donald J. Albers and Gerald L. Alexanderson, More Mathematical People: Contemporary Conversations (1990), xi.
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Absorbed in the special investigation, I paid no heed to the edifice which was meanwhile unconsciously building itself up. Having however completed the comparison of the fossil species in Paris, I wanted, for the sake of an easy revision of the same, to make a list according to their succession in geological formations, with a view of determining the characteristics more exactly and bringing them by their enumeration into bolder relief. What was my joy and surprise to find that the simplest enumeration of the fossil fishes according to their geological succession was also a complete statement of the natural relations of the families among themselves; that one might therefore read the genetic development of the whole class in the history of creation, the representation of the genera and species in the several families being therein determined; in one word, that the genetic succession of the fishes corresponds perfectly with their zoological classification, and with just that classification proposed by me.
Quoted in Elizabeth Cary Agassiz (ed.), Louis Agassiz: His Life and Correspondence (1885), Vol. I, 203-4.
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All sorts of computer errors are now turning up. You'd be surprised to know the number of doctors who claim they are treating pregnant men.
Anonymous
Official of the Quebec Health Insurance Board, on Use of Computers in Quebec Province's Comprehensive Medical-care system. F. 19, 4:5. In Barbara Bennett and Linda Amster, Who Said What (and When, and Where, and How) in 1971: December-June, 1971 (1972), Vol. 1, 38. (Later sources cite Isaac Asimov.)
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An evolutionary view of human health and disease is not surprising or new; it is merely inevitable in the face of evidence and time.
Epigraph, without citation, in Robert Perlman, Evolution and Medicine (2013), xiii. Webmaster has not yet found the primary source; can you help?
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Apprehension, uncertainty, waiting, expectation, fear of surprise, do a patient more harm than any exertion. Remember he is face to face with his enemy all the time.
In Notes on Nursing: What it is, and What it is Not (1860), 53.
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Astrophysicists have the formidable privilege of having the largest view of the Universe; particle detectors and large telescopes are today used to study distant stars, and throughout space and time, from the infinitely large to the infinitely small, the Universe never ceases to surprise us by revealing its structures little by little.
In Black Holes (1992), xv.
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Biological disciplines tend to guide research into certain channels. One consequence is that disciplines are apt to become parochial, or at least to develop blind spots, for example, to treat some questions as “interesting” and to dismiss others as “uninteresting.” As a consequence, readily accessible but unworked areas of genuine biological interest often lie in plain sight but untouched within one discipline while being heavily worked in another. For example, historically insect physiologists have paid relatively little attention to the behavioral and physiological control of body temperature and its energetic and ecological consequences, whereas many students of the comparative physiology of terrestrial vertebrates have been virtually fixated on that topic. For the past 10 years, several of my students and I have exploited this situation by taking the standard questions and techniques from comparative vertebrate physiology and applying them to insects. It is surprising that this pattern of innovation is not more deliberately employed.
In 'Scientific innovation and creativity: a zoologist’s point of view', American Zoologist (1982), 22, 233.
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Can science ever be immune from experiments conceived out of prejudices and stereotypes, conscious or not? (Which is not to suggest that it cannot in discrete areas identify and locate verifiable phenomena in nature.) I await the study that says lesbians have a region of the hypothalamus that resembles straight men and I would not be surprised if, at this very moment, some scientist somewhere is studying brains of deceased Asians to see if they have an enlarged ‘math region’ of the brain.
Kay Diaz
…...
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Consider the plight of a scientist of my age. I graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1940. In the 41 years since then the amount of biological information has increased 16 fold; during these 4 decades my capacity to absorb new information has declined at an accelerating rate and now is at least 50% less than when I was a graduate student. If one defines ignorance as the ratio of what is available to be known to what is known, there seems no alternative to the conclusion that my ignorance is at least 25 times as extensive as it was when I got my bachelor’s degree. Although I am sure that my unfortunate condition comes as no surprise to my students and younger colleagues, I personally find it somewhat depressing. My depression is tempered, however, by the fact that all biologists, young or old, developing or senescing, face the same melancholy situation because of an interlocking set of circumstances.
In 'Scientific innovation and creativity: a zoologist’s point of view', American Zoologist (1982), 22, 228.
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Every word carries its own surprises and offers its own rewards to the reflective mind. Their amazing variety is a constant delight. I do not believe that I am alone in this—a fascination with words is shared by people in all countries and all walks of life.
The Science of Words (1991), preface, vii.
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Everything is like a purse—there may be money in it, and we can generally say by the feel of it whether there is or is not. Sometimes, however, we must turn it inside out before we can be quite sure whether there is anything in it or no. When I have turned a proposition inside out, put it to stand on its head, and shaken it, I have often been surprised to find how much came out of it.
Samuel Butler, Henry Festing Jones (ed.), The Note-Books of Samuel Butler (1917), 222.
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Games are among the most interesting creations of the human mind, and the analysis of their structure is full of adventure and surprises. Unfortunately there is never a lack of mathematicians for the job of transforming delectable ingredients into a dish that tastes like a damp blanket.
In J.R. Newman (ed.), 'Commentary on Games and Puzzles', The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 4, 2414.
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Genuine religion has its root deep down in the heart of humanity and in the reality of things. It is not surprising that by our methods we fail to grasp it: the actions of the Deity make no appeal to any special sense, only a universal appeal; and our methods are, as we know, incompetent to detect complete uniformity. There is a principle of Relativity here, and unless we encounter flaw or jar or change, nothing in us responds; we are deaf and blind therefore to the Immanent Grandeur, unless we have insight enough to recognise in the woven fabric of existence, flowing steadily from the loom in an infinite progress towards perfection, the ever-growing garment of a transcendent God.
Continuity: The Presidential Address to the British Association (1913), 92-93.
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Geometry, which should only obey Physics, when united with it sometimes commands it. If it happens that the question which we wish to examine is too complicated for all the elements to be able to enter into the analytical comparison which we wish to make, we separate the more inconvenient [elements], we substitute others for them, less troublesome, but also less real, and we are surprised to arrive, notwithstanding a painful labour, only at a result contradicted by nature; as if after having disguised it, cut it short or altered it, a purely mechanical combination could give it back to us.
From Essai d’une nouvelle théorie de la résistance des fluides (1752), translated as an epigram in Ivor Grattan-Guinness, Convolutions in French Mathematics, 1800-1840: From the Calculus and Mechanics to Mathematical Analysis and Mathematical Physics (1990), Vol. 1, 33.
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He adhered, with a severity most unusual in Indians resident in England, to the religious observances of his caste; but his religion was a matter of observance and not of intellectual conviction, and I remember well his telling me (much to my surprise) that all religions seemed to him more or less equally true.
In obituary notice by G.H. Hardy in the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society (2) (1921), 19, xl—lviii. Reprinted in G.H. Hardy, P.V. Seshu Aiyar and B.M. Wilson (eds.) Collected Papers of Srinivasa Ramanujan (1927), xxxi.
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How did I discover saccharin? Well, it was partly by accident and partly by study. I had worked a long time on the compound radicals and substitution products of coal tar... One evening I was so interested in my laboratory that I forgot about my supper till quite late, and then rushed off for a meal without stopping to wash my hands. I sat down, broke a piece of bread, and put it to my lips. It tasted unspeakably sweet. I did not ask why it was so, probably because I thought it was some cake or sweetmeat. I rinsed my mouth with water, and dried my moustache with my napkin, when, to my surprise the napkin tasted sweeter than the bread. Then I was puzzled. I again raised my goblet, and, as fortune would have it, applied my mouth where my fingers had touched it before. The water seemed syrup. It flashed on me that I was the cause of the singular universal sweetness, and I accordingly tasted the end of my thumb, and found it surpassed any confectionery I had ever eaten. I saw the whole thing at once. I had discovered some coal tar substance which out-sugared sugar. I dropped my dinner, and ran back to the laboratory. There, in my excitement, I tasted the contents of every beaker and evaporating dish on the table.
Interview with American Analyst. Reprinted in Pacific Record of Medicine and Surgery (1886), 1, No. 3, 78.
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I am always surprised when a young man tells me he wants to work at cosmology. I think of cosmology as something that happens to one, not something one can choose.
In Presidential Address (8 Feb 1963), Quarterly Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society (Mar 1963), 4, 185.
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I am very sorry, Pyrophilus, that to the many (elsewhere enumerated) difficulties which you may meet with, and must therefore surmount, in the serious and effectual prosecution of experimental philosophy I must add one discouragement more, which will perhaps is much surprise as dishearten you; and it is, that besides that you will find (as we elsewhere mention) many of the experiments published by authors, or related to you by the persons you converse with, false and unsuccessful (besides this, I say), you will meet with several observations and experiments which, though communicated for true by candid authors or undistrusted eye-witnesses, or perhaps recommended by your own experience, may, upon further trial, disappoint your expectation, either not at all succeeding constantly, or at least varying much from what you expected.
Opening paragraph of The First Essay Concerning the Unsuccessfulness of Experiments (1673), collected in The Works of the Honourable Robert Boyle in Six Volumes to Which is Prefixed the Life of the Author (1772), Vol. 1, 318-319.
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I have just received copies of “To-day” containing criticisms of my letter. I am in no way surprised to find that these criticisms are not only unfair and misleading in the extreme. They are misleading in so far that anyone reading them would be led to believe the exact opposite of the truth. It is quite possible that I, an old and trained engineer and chronic experimenter, should put an undue value upon truth; but it is common to all scientific men. As nothing but the truth is of any value to them, they naturally dislike things that are not true. ... While my training has, perhaps, warped my mind so that I put an undue value upon truth, their training has been such as to cause them to abhor exact truth and logic.
[Replying to criticism by Colonel Acklom and other religious parties attacking Maxim's earlier contribution to the controversy about the modern position of Christianity.]
In G.K. Chesterton, 'The Maxims of Maxim', Daily News (25 Feb 1905). Collected in G. K. Chesterton and Dale Ahlquist (ed.), In Defense of Sanity: The Best Essays of G.K. Chesterton (2011), 86.
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I knew, however, that it would cost ten times what I had available in order to build a molecular beam machine. I decided to follow a byway, rather than the highway. It is a procedure I have subsequently recommended to beginning scientists in this country, where research strategy is best modelled on that used by Wolfe at the Plains of Abraham.
(British General James Wolfe defeated the French defending Quebec in 1759 after scaling a cliff for a surprise attack.)
'A Scientist and the World He Lives In', Speech to the Empire Club of Canada (27 Nov 1986) in C. Frank Turner and Tim Dickson (eds.), The Empire Club of Canada Speeches 1986-1987 (1987), 149-161.
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I never know whether to be more surprised at Darwin himself for making so much of natural selection, or at his opponents for making so little of it.
Selections from His Notebook. Reprinted in Memories and Portraits, Memoirs of Himself and Selections from His Notebook (1924, 2003), 184.
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I Was strolling on the Moon one day.
In the merry, merry month of December … May … May. That’s right. … When much to my surprise, a pair of bonny eyes … be-doop-doo-doo …
Singing while on an extravehicular walk on the moon’s surface (Apollo 17, 12 Dec 1972). With him was Eugene Cernan and joining in singing the second line, and corrected with “May” during the first ellipsis above. From transcript on the nasa.gov website, which notes the song being mimicked was 'While Strolling through the Park One Day' written by Ed Haley (1884).
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If you are surprised at the number of our maladies, count our cooks.
In Noble Words and Noble Deeds (1877), 239.
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If you ask the fish whether they’d rather have an oil spill or a season of fishing, I wouldn’t be surprised if they’d vote for another blowout.
As quoted by Mark Bittman in 'What's Worse Than an Oil Spill?', New York Times (20 Apr 2011), A23.
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If you don’t know anything about computers, just remember that they are machines that do exactly what you tell them but often surprise you in the result.
The Blind Watchmaker (1996), 51.
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In 1808 … Malus chanced to look through a double refracting prism at the light of the setting sun, reflected from the windows of the Luxembourg Palace. In turning the prism round, he was surprised to find that the ordinary image disappeared at two opposite positions of the prism. He remarked that the reflected light behaved like light which had been polarized by passing through another prism.
In Principles of Science (1874), Vols. 1-2, Book IV, Chap. 18, 163.
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In all matters of opinion and science ... the difference between men is ... oftener found to lie in generals than in particulars; and to be less in reality than in appearance. An explication of the terms commonly ends the controversy, and the disputants are surprised to find that they had been quarrelling, while at bottom they agreed in their judgement.
Dissertation IV, 'Of the Standard of Taste', Four Dissertations (1757), 204.
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In the benzene nucleus we have been given a soil out of which we can see with surprise the already-known realm of organic chemistry multiply, not once or twice but three, four, five or six times just like an equivalent number of trees. What an amount of work had suddenly become necessary, and how quickly were busy hands found to carry it out! First the eye moves up the six stems opening out from the tremendous benzene trunk. But already the branches of the neighbouring stems have become intertwined, and a canopy of leaves has developed which becomes more spacious as the giant soars upwards into the air. The top of the tree rises into the clouds where the eye cannot yet follow it. And to what an extent is this wonderful benzene tree thronged with blossoms! Everywhere in the sea of leaves one can spy the slender hydroxyl bud: hardly rarer is the forked blossom [Gabelblüte] which we call the amine group, the most frequent is the beautiful cross-shaped blossom we call the methyl group. And inside this embellishment of blossoms, what a richness of fruit, some of them shining in a wonderful blaze of color, others giving off an overwhelming fragrance.
A. W. Hofmann, after-dinner speech at Kekulé Benzolfest (Mar 1890). Trans. in W. H. Brock, O. Theodor Benfrey and Susanne Stark, 'Hofmann's Benzene Tree at the Kekulé Festivities', Journal of Chemical Education (1991), 68, 887-8.
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In the whole of geophysics there is probably hardly another law of such clarity and reliability as this—that there are two preferential levels for the world’s surface which occur in alternation side by side and are represented by the continents and the ocean floors, respectively. It is therefore very surprising that scarcely anyone has tried to explain this law.
In The Origins of Continents and Oceans (4th ed. 1929), trans. John Biram (1966), 37.
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It is a natural inquiry to ask—To what most nearly are these new phenomena [the newly-born science of radioactivity and the spontaneous disintegration of elements] correlated? Is it possible to give, by the help of an analogy to familiar phenomena, any correct idea of the nature of this new phenomenon “Radioactivity”? The answer may surprise those who hold to the adage that there is nothing new under the sun. Frankly, it is not possible, because in these latest developments science has broken fundamentally new ground, and has delved one distinct step further down into the foundations of knowledge.
In The Interpretation of Radium: Being the Substance of Six Free Popular Lectures Delivered at the University of Glasgow (1909, 1912), 2. The original lectures of early 1908, were greatly edited, rearranged and supplemented by the author for the book form.
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It is not surprising that science has made comparatively little advance among us, but that … it should have made so much.
In Letter (3 Feb 1873) to the Committee of Arrangements, in Proceedings of the Farewell Banquet to Professor Tyndall (4 Feb 1873), 19. Reprinted as 'On the Importance of the Cultivation of Science', The Popular Science Monthly (1873), Vol. 2, 646.
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It is not surprising, in view of the polydynamic constitution of the genuinely mathematical mind, that many of the major heros of the science, men like Desargues and Pascal, Descartes and Leibnitz, Newton, Gauss and Bolzano, Helmholtz and Clifford, Riemann and Salmon and Plücker and Poincaré, have attained to high distinction in other fields not only of science but of philosophy and letters too. And when we reflect that the very greatest mathematical achievements have been due, not alone to the peering, microscopic, histologic vision of men like Weierstrass, illuminating the hidden recesses, the minute and intimate structure of logical reality, but to the larger vision also of men like Klein who survey the kingdoms of geometry and analysis for the endless variety of things that flourish there, as the eye of Darwin ranged over the flora and fauna of the world, or as a commercial monarch contemplates its industry, or as a statesman beholds an empire; when we reflect not only that the Calculus of Probability is a creation of mathematics but that the master mathematician is constantly required to exercise judgment—judgment, that is, in matters not admitting of certainty—balancing probabilities not yet reduced nor even reducible perhaps to calculation; when we reflect that he is called upon to exercise a function analogous to that of the comparative anatomist like Cuvier, comparing theories and doctrines of every degree of similarity and dissimilarity of structure; when, finally, we reflect that he seldom deals with a single idea at a tune, but is for the most part engaged in wielding organized hosts of them, as a general wields at once the division of an army or as a great civil administrator directs from his central office diverse and scattered but related groups of interests and operations; then, I say, the current opinion that devotion to mathematics unfits the devotee for practical affairs should be known for false on a priori grounds. And one should be thus prepared to find that as a fact Gaspard Monge, creator of descriptive geometry, author of the classic Applications de l’analyse à la géométrie; Lazare Carnot, author of the celebrated works, Géométrie de position, and Réflections sur la Métaphysique du Calcul infinitesimal; Fourier, immortal creator of the Théorie analytique de la chaleur; Arago, rightful inheritor of Monge’s chair of geometry; Poncelet, creator of pure projective geometry; one should not be surprised, I say, to find that these and other mathematicians in a land sagacious enough to invoke their aid, rendered, alike in peace and in war, eminent public service.
In Lectures on Science, Philosophy and Art (1908), 32-33.
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It is still an unending source of surprise for me to see how a few scribbles on a blackboard or on a sheet of paper could change the course of human affairs.
In Adventures of a Mathematician (1976), Prologue, 5. Also used as epigraph in Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1986), 11. The scribbles were those of scientists during the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, while discussing the design the atomic bomb.
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It may well be doubted whether, in all the range of Science, there is any field so fascinating to the explorer—so rich in hidden treasures—so fruitful in delightful surprises—as that of Pure Mathematics. The charm lies chiefly, I think, in the absolute certainty of its results: for that is what, beyond all mental treasures, the human intellect craves for. Let us only be sure of something! More light, more light … “And if our fate be death, give light and let us die” This is the cry that, through all the ages, is going up from perplexed Humanity, and Science has little else to offer, that will really meet the demands of its votaries, than the conclusions of Pure Mathematics.
Opening of 'Introduction', A New Theory of Parallels (1890), xv. As a non-fiction work, the author’s name on the title page of this book was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson. Being better known for his works of fiction as Lewis Carroll, all quotes relating to this one person, published under either name, are gathered on this single web page under his pen name.
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It may well be doubted whether, in all the range of science, there is any field so fascinating to the explorer—so rich in hidden treasures—so fruitful in delightful surprises—as that of Pure Mathematics. The charm lies chiefly, I think, in the absolute certainty of its results; for that is what, beyond all mental treasures, the human intellect craves for. Let us only be sure of something! More light, more light!
Written without pseudonym as Charles L. Dodgson. Opening remarks in Introduction to A New Theory of Parallels (1888, 1890), xv.
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Like other departments of philosophy, medicine began with an age of wonder. The accidents of disease and the features of death aroused surprise and stimulated interest, and a beginning was made when man first asked in astonishment, Why should these things be?
In 'The Evolution of Internal Medicine', Modern Medicine: Its Theory and Practice, (1907), Vol. 1, xvi.
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Mars was surprising in its way but not flabbergasting; it was a disappointment not to find evidences of life, and there was some sadness in the pictures sent back to earth from the Mars Lander, that lonely long-legged apparatus poking about with its jointed arm, picking up sample after sample of the barren Mars soil, looking for any flicker of life and finding none; the only sign of life on Mars was the Lander itself, an extension of the human mind all the way from earth to Mars, totally alone.
In Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony (1984), 22.
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Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.
War as I Knew It (1947, 1995) 357.
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Once the sun sets, it grows dark; don’t let that catch you by surprise.
Aphorism as given by the fictional character Dezhnev Senior, in Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain (1987), 265.
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One day the zoo-keeper noticed that the orangutan was reading two books—the Bible and Darwin’s Origin of Species. In surprise, he asked the ape,“Why are you reading both those books?”
“Well,” said the orangutan, “I just wanted to know if I was my brother’s keeper, or my keeper’s brother.”
Anonymous
In Jon Fripp, Michael Fripp and Deborah Fripp, Speaking of Science (2000), 27.
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One of the greatest discoveries a man makes, one of his great surprises, is to find he can do what he was afraid he couldn’t do.
…...
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Part of the charm in solving a differential equation is in the feeling that we are getting something for nothing. So little information appears to go into the solution that there is a sense of surprise over the extensive results that are derived.
Co-author with Jules Alphonse Larrivee, Mathematics and Computers (1957), 40.
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People are usually surprised to discover that I hate the phrase “constitutional rights.” I hate the phrase because it is terribly misleading. Most of the people who say it or hear it have the impression that the Constitution “grants” them their rights. Nothing could be further from the truth. Strictly speaking it is the Bill of Rights that enumerates our rights, but none of our founding documents bestow anything on you at all [...] The government can burn the Constitution and shred the Bill of Rights, but those actions wouldn’t have the slightest effect on the rights you’ve always had.
…...
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Perhaps the most surprising thing about mathematics is that it is so surprising. The rules which we make up at the beginning seem ordinary and inevitable, but it is impossible to foresee their consequences. These have only been found out by long study, extending over many centuries. Much of our knowledge is due to a comparatively few great mathematicians such as Newton, Euler, Gauss, or Riemann; few careers can have been more satisfying than theirs. They have contributed something to human thought even more lasting than great literature, since it is independent of language.
Quoted in a space filler, without citation, in The Pentagon: A Mathematics Magazine for Students (Fall 1951), 11, No. 1, 12. Primary source needed (can you help).
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Perhaps the strongest bond of sympathy between mathematics and poetry, however, is the endless invention of each. Dr. Johnson remarked, “The essence of poetry is invention; such invention as, by producing something unexpected, surprises and delights”; but he might have said the same of mathematics.
In 'The Poetry of Mathematics', The Mathematics Teacher (May 1926), 19, No. 5, 295.
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Sample recommendation letter:
Dear Search Committee Chair,
I am writing this letter for Mr. John Smith who has applied for a position in your department. I should start by saying that I cannot recommend him too highly.
In fact, there is no other student with whom I can adequately compare him, and I am sure that the amount of mathematics he knows will surprise you.
His dissertation is the sort of work you don’t expect to see these days.
It definitely demonstrates his complete capabilities.
In closing, let me say that you will be fortunate if you can get him to work for you.
Sincerely,
A. D. Visor (Prof.)
In A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995), 43
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Science corrects the old creeds, sweeps away, with every new perception, our infantile catechisms, and necessitates a faith commensurate with the grander orbits and universal laws which it discloses yet it does not surprise the moral sentiment that was older and awaited expectant these larger insights.
Hialmer Day Gould and Edward Louis Hessenmueller, Best Thoughts of Best Thinkers (1904), 330.
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Science will continue to surprise us with what it discovers and creates; then it will astound us by devising new methods to surprise us. At the core of science’s self-modification is technology. New tools enable new structures of knowledge and new ways of discovery. The achievement of science is to know new things; the evolution of science is to know them in new ways. What evolves is less the body of what we know and more the nature of our knowing.
'Speculations on the Future of Science'. In Clifford A. Pickover, Archimedes to Hawking: Laws of Science and the Great Minds Behind Them (2008), 172.
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Shakespeare says, we are creatures that look before and after; the more surprising that we do not look round a little, and see what is passing under our very eyes.
As quoted, without citation, in John Walker, A Fork in the Road: Answers to Daily Dilemmas from the Teachings of Jesus Christ (2005), 69.
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Some of the most important results (e.g. Cauchy’s theorem) are so surprising at first sight that nothing short of a proof can make them credible.
As co-author with Bertha Swirls Jeffreys, in Methods of Mathematical Physics (1946, 1999), v.
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Statistically the probability of any one of us being here is so small that you would think the mere fact of existence would keep us all in a contented dazzlement of surprise. We are alive against the stupendous odds of genetics, infinitely outnumbered by all the alternates who might, except for luck, be in our places.
In 'On Probability and Possibility', The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher (1974), 165.
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Surely something is wanting in our conception of the universe. We know positive and negative electricity, north and south magnetism, and why not some extra terrestrial matter related to terrestrial matter, as the source is to the sink. ... Worlds may have formed of this stuff, with element and compounds possessing identical properties with out own, indistinguishable from them until they are brought into each other's vicinity. ... Astronomy, the oldest and most juvenile of the sciences, may still have some surprises in store. Many anti-matter be commended to its care! ... Do dreams ever come true?
[Purely whimsical prediction long before the 1932 discovery of the positron, the antiparticle of the electron.]
'Potential Matter—A Holiday Dream', Letter to the Editor, Nature (18 Aug 1898), 58, 367. Quoted in Edward Robert Harrison, Cosmology: the Science of the Universe (2000), 433.
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Surprises in science often arise from new tools rather than from new concepts.
(1999). In Marc J. Madou, Fundamentals of Microfabrication: the Science of Miniaturization (2nd ed., 2002), 379.
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Surprisingly, history is much more difficult than chemistry.
Louis Hammett Symposium (31 Aug 1983), Advances in Physical Organic Chemistry (1985), 21, 2.
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The custom of eating the lover after consummation of the nuptials, of making a meal of the exhausted pigmy, who is henceforth good for nothing, is not so difficult to understand, since insects can hardly be accused of sentimentality; but to devour him during the act surpasses anything the most morbid mind could imagine. I have seen the thing with my own eyes, and I have not yet recovered from my surprise.
In Jean-Henri Fabre and B. Miall (trans.), Social Life in the Insect World (1912), 84.
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The discovery which has been pointed to by theory is always one of profound interest and importance, but it is usually the close and crown of a long and fruitful period, whereas the discovery which comes as a puzzle and surprise usually marks a fresh epoch and opens a new chapter in science.
Becquerel Memorial Lecture, Journal of the Chemical Society, Transactions (1912), 101(2), 2005. Quoted by Simon Flexnor in 'The Scientific Career for Women', a commencement address at Bryn Mawr College (2 Jun 1921), The Scientific Monthly (Aug 1921), 13, 98.
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The job of theorists, especially in biology, is to suggest new experiments. A good theory makes not only predictions, but surprising predictions that then turn out to be true. (If its predictions appear obvious to experimentalists, why would they need a theory?)
In What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988), 142.
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The mathematician can afford to leave to his clients, the engineers, or perhaps the popular philosophers, the emotion of belief: for himself he keeps the lyrical pleasure of metre and of evolving equations: and it is a pleasant surprise to him and an added problem if he finds that the arts can use his calculations, or that the senses can verify them, much as if a composer found that sailors could heave better when singing his songs.
In 'Revolution in Science', Some Turns of Thought in Modern Philosophy (1933), 81.
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The mathematician may be compared to a designer of garments, who is utterly oblivious of the creatures whom his garments may fit. To be sure, his art originated in the necessity for clothing such creatures, but this was long ago; to this day a shape will occasionally appear which will fit into the garment as if the garment had been made for it. Then there is no end of surprise and delight.
Number: the Language of Science (1930), 231.
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The success of Apollo was mainly due to the fact that the project was conceived and honestly presented to the public as an international sporting event and not as a contribution to science. The order of priorities in Apollo was accurately reflected by the first item to be unloaded after each landing on the Moon's surface, the television camera. The landing, the coming and going of the astronauts, the exploring of the moon's surface, the gathering of Moon rocks and the earthward departure, all were expertly choreographed with the cameras placed in the right positions to make a dramatic show on television. This was to me the great surprise of the Apollo missions. There was nothing surprising in the fact that astronauts could walk on the Moon and bring home Moon rocks. There were no big scientific surprises in the chemistry of the Moon rocks or in the results of magnetic and seismic observations that the astronauts carried out. The big surprise was the quality of the public entertainment that the missions provided. I had never expected that we would see in real time astronauts hopping around in lunar gravity and driving their Rover down the Lincoln- Lee scarp to claim a lunar speed record of eleven miles per hour. Intensive television coverage was the driving force of Apollo. Von Braun had not imagined the possibilities of television when he decided that one kilohertz would be an adequate communication bandwidth for his Mars Project.
From a Danz lecture at University of Washington, 'Sixty Years of Space Science 1958-2018' (1988), collected in From Eros to Gaia (1992), Vol. 5, 52.
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The surprising thing about this paper is that a man who could write it would.
In A Mathematician’s Miscellany (1953), reissued as Béla Bollobás (ed.), Littlewood’s Miscellany (1986), 59.
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The universe is of the nature of a thought or sensation in a universal Mind… To put the conclusion crudely—the stuff of the world is mind-stuff. As is often the way with crude statements, I shall have to explain that by “mind” I do not exactly mean mind and by “stuff” I do not at all mean stuff. Still that is about as near as we can get to the idea in a simple phrase. The mind-stuff of the world is something more general than our individual conscious minds; but we may think of its nature as not altogether foreign to feelings in our consciousness… Having granted this, the mental activity of the part of world constituting ourselves occasions no great surprise; it is known to us by direct self-knowledge, and we do not explain it away as something other than we know it to be—or rather, it knows itself to be.
From Gifford Lecture, Edinburgh, (1927), 'Reality', collected in The Nature of the Physical World (1928), 276.
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There are almost unlimited possibilities for making discoveries and to uncover the unknown. It is in the nature of the discovery that it can not be planned or programmed. On the contrary it consists of surprises and appears many times in the most unexpected places.
Nobel Banquet speech (10 Dec 1982). In Wilhelm Odelberg (ed.), Les Prix Nobel. The Nobel Prizes 1982 (1983)
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There can never be surprises in logic.
In Tractatus Logico Philosophicus (1922), 165 (statement 6.1251).
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There has come about a general public awareness that America is not automatically, and effortlessly, and unquestionably the leader of the world in science and technology. This comes as no surprise to those of us who have watched and tried to warn against the steady deterioration in the teaching of science and mathematics in the schools for the past quarter century. It comes as no surprise to those who have known of dozens of cases of scientists who have been hounded out of jobs by silly disloyalty charges, and kept out of all professional employment by widespread blacklisting practices.
Banquet speech at American Physical Society, St. Louis, Missouri. (29 Nov 1957). In "Time to Stop Baiting Scientists", Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Feb 1958), 80.
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There is not wholly unexpected surprise, but surprise nevertheless, that mathematics has direct application to the physical world about us.
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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This is the element that distinguishes applied science from basic. Surprise is what makes the difference. When you are organized to apply knowledge, set up targets, produce a usable product, you require a high degree of certainty from the outset. All the facts on which you base protocols must be reasonably hard facts with unambiguous meaning. The challenge is to plan the work and organize the workers so that it will come out precisely as predicted. For this, you need centralized authority, elaborately detailed time schedules, and some sort of reward system based on speed and perfection. But most of all you need the intelligible basic facts to begin with, and these must come from basic research. There is no other source. In basic research, everything is just the opposite. What you need at the outset is a high degree of uncertainty; otherwise it isn’t likely to be an important problem. You start with an incomplete roster of facts, characterized by their ambiguity; often the problem consists of discovering the connections between unrelated pieces of information. You must plan experiments on the basis of probability, even bare possibility, rather than certainty.
The Planning of Science, The Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, (1974) .
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This is, in truth, the first charm of chemistry, and the secret of the almost universal interest excited by its discoveries. The serious complacency which is afforded by the sense of truth, utility, permanence, and progression, blends with and ennobles the exhilarating surprise and the pleasurable sting of curiosity, which accompany the propounding and the solving of an Enigma... If in SHAKPEARE [sic] we find Nature idealized into Poetry, through the creative power of a profound yet observant meditation, so through the meditative observation of a DAVY, a WOOLLASTON [sic], or a HATCHETT; we find poetry, as if were, substantiated and realized in nature.
Essays on the Principle of Method, Essay VI (1818). In The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Friend (1969), Vol. 4, 1, Barbara E. Rooke (ed.), 471.
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This man, one of the chief architects of the atomic bomb, so the story runs, was out wandering in the woods one day with a friend when he came upon a small tortoise. Overcome with pleasurable excitement, he took up the tortoise and started home, thinking to surprise his children with it. After a few steps he paused and surveyed the tortoise doubtfully.
“What's the matter?” asked his friend.
Without responding, the great scientist slowly retraced his steps as precisely as possible, and gently set the turtle down on the exact spot from which he had taken him.
Then he turned solemnly to his friend. “It just struck me,” he said, “that, perhaps for one man, I have tampered enough with the universe.” He turned, and left the turtle to wander on its way.
From Benjamin Franklin Lecture (1958) at the University of Pennsylvania, printed as 'The Ethic of the Group', in Robert Ernest Spiller, Social Control in a Free Society (1958), 37. Also in The Firmament of Time (1960), 148. Eiseley states that because he cannot vouch for the authenticity of the story, he would not name the scientist, though he hopes “with all his heart that it is true. If it is not, then it ought to be, for it illustrates well what I mean by a growing self-awareness, as sense of responsibility about the universe.”
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To learn is to incur surprise—I mean really learning, not just refreshing our memory or adding a new fact. And to invent is to bestow surprise—I mean really inventing, not just innovating what others have done.
In How Invention Begins: Echoes of Old Voices in the Rise of New Machines (2006), 217.
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Unless the structure of the nucleus has a surprise in store for us, the conclusion seems plain—there is nothing in the whole system if laws of physics that cannot be deduced unambiguously from epistemological considerations. An intelligence, unacquainted with our universe, but acquainted with the system of thought by which the human mind interprets to itself the contents of its sensory experience, and should be able to attain all the knowledge of physics that we have attained by experiment.
In Clive William Kilmister, Eddington's Search for a Fundamental Theory (1994), 202.
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We are all travelers who are journeying … not knowing where the next day of our life is going to take us. We have no understanding of the surprises that are in store for us. Steadily we will know, understand and decipher and then it will all start to make sense. Until then keep travelling.
Anonymous
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We have made many glass vessels... with tubes two cubits long. These were filled with mercury, the open end was closed with the finger, and the tubes were then inverted in a vessel where there was mercury. We saw that an empty space was formed and that nothing happened in the vessel where this space was formed ... I claim that the force which keeps the mercury from falling is external and that the force comes from outside the tube. On the surface of the mercury which is in the bowl rests the weight of a column of fifty miles of air. Is it a surprise that into the vessel, in which the mercury has no inclination and no repugnance, not even the slightest, to being there, it should enter and should rise in a column high enough to make equilibrium with the weight of the external air which forces it up?
Quoted in Archana Srinivasan, Great Inventors (2007), 27-28.
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We seem to think that God speaks by seconding the ideas we’ve already adopted, but God nearly always catches us by surprise...God tends to confound, astonish, and flabbergast.
Quoted in Kim Lim (ed.), 1,001 Pearls of Spiritual Wisdom: Words to Enrich, Inspire, and Guide Your Life (2014), 154
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Wheeler’s First Moral Principle: Never make a calculation until you know the answer. Make an estimate before every calculation, try a simple physical argument (symmetry! invariance! conservation!) before every derivation, guess the answer to every paradox and puzzle. Courage: No one else needs to know what the guess is. Therefore make it quickly, by instinct. A right guess reinforces this instinct. A wrong guess brings the refreshment of surprise. In either case life as a spacetime expert, however long, is more fun!
In E.F. Taylor and J.A. Wheeler, Spacetime Physics (1992), 20.
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When I entered the field of space physics in 1956, I recall that I fell in with the crowd believing, for example, that electric fields could not exist in the highly conducting plasma of space. It was three years later that I was shamed by S. Chandrasekhar into investigating Alfvén's work objectively. My degree of shock and surprise in finding Alfvén right and his critics wrong can hardly be described. I learned that a cosmic ray acceleration mechanism basically identical to the famous mechanism suggested by Fermi in 1949 had [previously] been put forth by Alfvén.
Quoted in Anthony L. Peratt, 'Dean of the Plasma Dissidents', Washington Times, supplement: The World and I (May 1988), 195.
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When I was living with the Indians, my hostess, a fine looking woman, who wore numberless bracelets, and rings in her ears and on her fingers, and painted her face like a brilliant sunset, one day gave away a very fine horse. I was surprised, for I knew there had been no family talk on the subject, so I asked: “Will your husband like to have you give the horse away?” Her eyes danced, and, breaking into a peal of laughter, she hastened to tell the story to the other women gathered in the tent, and I became the target of many merry eyes. I tried to explain how a white woman would act, but laughter and contempt met my explanation of the white man’s hold upon his wife’s property.
Speech on 'The Legal Conditions of Indian Women', delivered to Evening Session (Thur 29 Mar 1888), collected in Report of the International Council of Women: Assembled by the National Woman Suffrage Association, Washington, D.C., U.S. of America, March 25 to April 1, 1888 (1888), Vol. 1, 240.
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When we see a natural style, we are astonished and delighted; for we expected to see an author, and we find a man.
In Pensées (1670), Section 7, No. 28. As translated in Blaise Pascal and W.F. Trotter (trans.), 'Thoughts', No. 29, collected in Charles W. Eliot (ed.), The Harvard Classics (1910), Vol. 48, 16. Translated as “When we encounter a natural style we are always surprised and delighted, for we thought to see an author and found a man,” in W.H. Auden and L. Kronenberger (eds.) The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1966), 277. From the original French, “Quand on voit le style naturel, on est tout étonné et ravi, car on s’attendait de voir un auteur, et on trouve un homme,” in Ernest Havet (ed.), Pensées de Pascal (1892), 222.
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Whenever a new scientific concept comes into prominence, it sends shock waves of surprise to the scholars contributing to that field.
In The Gene: A Critical History (1966), 77.
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Who does not know Maxwell’s dynamic theory of gases? At first there is the majestic development of the variations of velocities, then enter from one side the equations of condition and from the other the equations of central motions, higher and higher surges the chaos of formulas, suddenly four words burst forth: “Put n = 5.” The evil demon V disappears like the sudden ceasing of the basso parts in music, which hitherto wildly permeated the piece; what before seemed beyond control is now ordered as by magic. There is no time to state why this or that substitution was made, he who cannot feel the reason may as well lay the book aside; Maxwell is no program-musician who explains the notes of his composition. Forthwith the formulas yield obediently result after result, until the temperature-equilibrium of a heavy gas is reached as a surprising final climax and the curtain drops.
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), 29-30, as translated in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-book (1914), 187. From the original German, “Wer kennt nicht seine dynamische Gastheorie? – Zuerst entwickeln sich majestätisch die Variationen der Geschwindigkeiten, dann setzen von der einen Seite die Zustands-Gleichungen, von der anderen die Gleichungen der Centralbewegung ein, immer höher wogt das Chaos der Formeln; plötzlich ertönen die vier Worte: „Put n=5.“Der böse Dämon V verschwindet, wie in der Musik eine wilde, bisher alles unterwühlende Figur der Bässe plötzlich verstummt; wie mit einem Zauberschlage ordnet sich, was früher unbezwingbar schien. Da ist keine Zeit zu sagen, warum diese oder jene Substitution gemacht wird; wer das nicht fühlt, lege das Buch weg; Maxwell ist kein Programmmusiker, der über die Noten deren Erklärung setzen muss. Gefügig speien nun die Formeln Resultat auf Resultat aus, bis überraschend als Schlusseffect noch das Wärme-Gleichgewicht eines schweren Gases gewonnen wird und der Vorhang sinkt.” A condensed alternate translation also appears on the Ludwig Boltzmann Quotes page of this website.
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You would be surprised at the number of academics who say things like ‘I didn’t realise what a sponge was until I saw a programme of yours’.
Interview with David Barrett, 'Attenborough: Children Don’t Know Enough About Nature', Daily Telegraph (17 Apr 2011).
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[About the structure of DNA] [T]he whole business was like a child's toy that you could buy at the dime store, all built in this wonderful way that you could explain in Life magazine so that really a five-year-old can understand what's going on...This was the greatest surprise for everyone.
Quoted in Horace Freeland Judson, Eighth Day of Creation (1979)
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[J.J.] Sylvester’s methods! He had none. “Three lectures will be delivered on a New Universal Algebra,” he would say; then, “The course must be extended to twelve.” It did last all the rest of that year. The following year the course was to be Substitutions-Théorie, by Netto. We all got the text. He lectured about three times, following the text closely and stopping sharp at the end of the hour. Then he began to think about matrices again. “I must give one lecture a week on those,” he said. He could not confine himself to the hour, nor to the one lecture a week. Two weeks were passed, and Netto was forgotten entirely and never mentioned again. Statements like the following were not unfrequent in his lectures: “I haven’t proved this, but I am as sure as I can be of anything that it must be so. From this it will follow, etc.” At the next lecture it turned out that what he was so sure of was false. Never mind, he kept on forever guessing and trying, and presently a wonderful discovery followed, then another and another. Afterward he would go back and work it all over again, and surprise us with all sorts of side lights. He then made another leap in the dark, more treasures were discovered, and so on forever.
As quoted by Florian Cajori, in Teaching and History of Mathematics in the United States (1890), 265-266.
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“Expect surprises!” should be the watchword of all scientists who try to look beyond the fashions of the day.
In Internal Factors in Evolution (1965), 13.
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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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