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Theorist Quotes (44 quotes)
Theoretician Quotes

On the future of Chemistry:
Chemistry is not the preservation hall of old jazz that it sometimes looks like. We cannot know what may happen tomorrow. Someone may oxidize mercury (II), francium (I), or radium (II). A mineral in Nova Scotia may contain an unsaturated quark per 1020 nucleons. (This is still 6000 per gram.) We may pick up an extraterrestrial edition of Chemical Abstracts. The universe may be a 4-dimensional soap bubble in an 11-dimensional space as some supersymmetry theorists argued in May of 1983. Who knows?
George B. Kaufmann, 'Interview with Jannik Bjerrum and Christian Klixbull Jørgensen', Journal of Chemical Education (1985), 62, 1005.
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A theoretical physicist can spend his entire lifetime missing the intellectual challenge of experimental work, experiencing none of the thrills and dangers — the overhead crane with its ten-ton load, the flashing skull and crossbones and danger, radioactivity signs. A theorist’s only real hazard is stabbing himself with a pencil while attacking a bug that crawls out of his calculations.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993), 15.
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Again the message to experimentalists is: Be sensible but don’t be impressed too much by negative arguments. If at all possible, try it and see what turns up. Theorists almost always dislike this sort of approach.
What Mad Pursuit: A Personal View of Scientific Discovery (1988), 113.
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As Karl Marx once noted: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great, world-historical facts and personages occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.” William Jennings Bryan and the Scopes trial was a tragedy. The creationists and intelligent design theorists are a farce.
In '75 Years and Still No Peace'. Humanist (Sep 2000)
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Before an experiment can be performed, it must be planned—the question to nature must be formulated before being posed. Before the result of a measurement can be used, it must be interpreted—nature's answer must be understood properly. These two tasks are those of the theorist, who finds himself always more and more dependent on the tools of abstract mathematics. Of course, this does not mean that the experimenter does not also engage in theoretical deliberations. The foremost classical example of a major achievement produced by such a division of labor is the creation of spectrum analysis by the joint efforts of Robert Bunsen, the experimenter, and Gustav Kirchoff, the theorist. Since then, spectrum analysis has been continually developing and bearing ever richer fruit.
'The Meaning and Limits of Exact Science', Science (30 Sep 1949), 110, No. 2857, 325. Advance reprinting of chapter from book Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography (1949), 110.
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Creationists have also changed their name ... to intelligent design theorists who study 'irreducible complexity' and the 'abrupt appearance' of life—yet more jargon for 'God did it.' ... Notice that they have no interest in replacing evolution with native American creation myths or including the Code of Hammarabi alongside the posting of the Ten Commandments in public schools.
'75 Years and Still No Peace'. Humanist (Sep 2000)
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Einstein, twenty-six years old, only three years away from crude privation, still a patent examiner, published in the Annalen der Physik in 1905 five papers on entirely different subjects. Three of them were among the greatest in the history of physics. One, very simple, gave the quantum explanation of the photoelectric effect—it was this work for which, sixteen years later, he was awarded the Nobel prize. Another dealt with the phenomenon of Brownian motion, the apparently erratic movement of tiny particles suspended in a liquid: Einstein showed that these movements satisfied a clear statistical law. This was like a conjuring trick, easy when explained: before it, decent scientists could still doubt the concrete existence of atoms and molecules: this paper was as near to a direct proof of their concreteness as a theoretician could give. The third paper was the special eory of relativity, which quietly amalgamated space, time, and matter into one fundamental unity. This last paper contains no references and quotes no authority. All of them are written in a style unlike any other theoretical physicist's. They contain very little mathematics. There is a good deal of verbal commentary. The conclusions, the bizarre conclusions, emerge as though with the greatest of ease: the reasoning is unbreakable. It looks as though he had reached the conclusions by pure thought, unaided, without listening to the opinions of others. To a surprisingly large extent, that is precisely what he had done.
Variety of Men (1966), 100-1.
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Even in the dark times between experimental breakthroughs, there always continues a steady evolution of theoretical ideas, leading almost imperceptibly to changes in previous beliefs.
In Nobel Lecture (8 Dec 1989), 'Conceptual Foundations of the Unified Theory of Weak and Electromagnetic Interactions.'
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Geology got into the hands of the theoreticians who were conditioned by the social and political history of their day more than by observations in the field. … We have allowed ourselves to be brainwashed into avoiding any interpretation of the past that involves extreme and what might be termed “catastrophic” processes. However, it seems to me that the stratigraphical record is full of examples of processes that are far from “normal” in the usual sense of the word. In particular we must conclude that sedimentation in the past has often been very rapid indeed and very spasmodic. This may be called the “Phenomenon of the Catastrophic Nature of the Stratigraphic Record.”
In The Nature of the Stratigraphical Record (3rd ed., 1993), 70.
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I am an experimenter, or rather I used to be one. Then I stopped working, and since then people think I am a theoretician.
Quoted in Otto Frisch, What Little I Remember (1979), 105.
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I belong to those theoreticians who know by direct observation what it means to make a measurement. Methinks it were better if there were more of them.
Referring to his laboratory experience during his assistantship in experimental physics, as quoted in Walter Moore, Schrödinger: Life and Thought (1989, 1998), 58-59. Moore describes that Schrödinger in his early days in the laboratory, “learned to believe that physics is not based upon mathematical fantasies but on a solid ground of experimental observations.”
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I have an old belief that a good observer really means a good theorist.
Letter to Henry Walter Bates (22 Nov 1860). In F. Darwin and A.C. Seward (eds.), More Letters of Charles Darwin (1903), 176. Contrast with what he wrote to J.D. Hooker (11 Jan 1844): “Do not indulge in the loose speculations so easily started by every smatterer and wandering collector.” Ibid. 39.
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I think a strong claim can be made that the process of scientific discovery may be regarded as a form of art. This is best seen in the theoretical aspects of Physical Science. The mathematical theorist builds up on certain assumptions and according to well understood logical rules, step by step, a stately edifice, while his imaginative power brings out clearly the hidden relations between its parts. A well constructed theory is in some respects undoubtedly an artistic production. A fine example is the famous Kinetic Theory of Maxwell. ... The theory of relativity by Einstein, quite apart from any question of its validity, cannot but be regarded as a magnificent work of art.
Responding to the toast, 'Science!' at the Royal Academy of the Arts in 1932.)
Quoted in Lawrence Badash, 'Ernest Rutherford and Theoretical Physics,' in Robert Kargon and Peter Achinstein (eds.) Kelvin's Baltimore Lectures and Modern Theoretical Physics: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives (1987), 352.
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In one person he [Isaac Newton] combined the experimenter, the theorist, the mechanic and, not least, the artist in exposition.
In 'Foreword' to Isaac Newton, Opticks (1952), lix.
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It is easy to make out three areas where scientists will be concentrating their efforts in the coming decades. One is in physics, where leading theorists are striving, with the help of experimentalists, to devise a single mathematical theory that embraces all the basic phenomena of matter and energy. The other two are in biology. Biologists—and the rest of us too—would like to know how the brain works and how a single cell, the fertilized egg cell, develops into an entire organism
Article 'The View From Mars', in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences: Research Facilities of the Future (1994), 735, 37.
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It is often held that scientific hypotheses are constructed, and are to be constructed, only after a detailed weighing of all possible evidence bearing on the matter, and that then and only then may one consider, and still only tentatively, any hypotheses. This traditional view however, is largely incorrect, for not only is it absurdly impossible of application, but it is contradicted by the history of the development of any scientific theory. What happens in practice is that by intuitive insight, or other inexplicable inspiration, the theorist decides that certain features seem to him more important than others and capable of explanation by certain hypotheses. Then basing his study on these hypotheses the attempt is made to deduce their consequences. The successful pioneer of theoretical science is he whose intuitions yield hypotheses on which satisfactory theories can be built, and conversely for the unsuccessful (as judged from a purely scientific standpoint).
Co-author with Raymond Arthur Lyttleton, in 'The Internal Constitution of the Stars', Occasional Notes of the Royal Astronomical Society 1948, 12, 90.
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Mathematicians deal with possible worlds, with an infinite number of logically consistent systems. Observers explore the one particular world we inhabit. Between the two stands the theorist. He studies possible worlds but only those which are compatible with the information furnished by observers. In other words, theory attempts to segregate the minimum number of possible worlds which must include the actual world we inhabit. Then the observer, with new factual information, attempts to reduce the list further. And so it goes, observation and theory advancing together toward the common goal of science, knowledge of the structure and observation of the universe.
Lecture to Sigma Xi, 'The Problem of the Expanding Universe' (1941), printed in Sigma Xi Quarterly (1942), 30, 104-105. Reprinted in Smithsonian Institution Report of the Board of Regents (1943), 97, 123. As cited by Norriss S. Hetherington in 'Philosophical Values and Observation in Edwin Hubble's Choice of a Model of the Universe', Historical Studies in the Physical Sciences (1982), 13, No. 1, 63.
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Newton was the greatest creative genius physics has ever seen. None of the other candidates for the superlative (Einstein, Maxwell, Boltzmann, Gibbs, and Feynman) has matched Newton’s combined achievements as theoretician, experimentalist, and mathematician. … If you were to become a time traveler and meet Newton on a trip back to the seventeenth century, you might find him something like the performer who first exasperates everyone in sight and then goes on stage and sings like an angel.
In Great Physicists (2001), 39.
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No one really understood music unless he was a scientist, her father had declared, and not just a scientist, either, oh, no, only the real ones, the theoreticians, whose language mathematics. She had not understood mathematics until he had explained to her that it was the symbolic language of relationships. “And relationships,” he had told her, “contained the essential meaning of life.”
In The Goddess Abides, (1972), 20.
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Nothing is more interesting to the true theorist than a fact which directly contradicts a theory generally accepted up to that time, for this is his particular work.
A Survey of Physics (1925).
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Number theorists are like lotus-eaters—having tasted this food they can never give it up.
As quoted in Howard Eves, Mathematical Circles Squared (1972), 149. In Homer’s The Odyssey, lotus-eaters live in a state of dreamy forgetfulness and idleness from eating lotus fruit. Thus a lotus-eater pursues pleasure and luxury rather than dealing with practical concerns.
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Numbers … were his friends. In the simplest array of digits [Ramanujan] detected wonderful properties: congruences, symmetries and relationships which had escaped the notice of even the outstandingly gifted theoreticians.
In James R. Newman (ed.), 'Commentary on Srinivasa Ramanujan', The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 1, 367.
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Our job in physics is to see things simply, to understand a great many complicated phenomena in a unified way, in terms of a few simple principles.
In Nobel Lecture (8 Dec 1989), 'Conceptual Foundations of the Unified Theory of Weak and Electromagnetic Interactions.'
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Our model of Nature should not be like a building—a handsome structure for the populace to admire, until in the course of time some one takes away a corner stone and the edifice comes toppling down. It should be like an engine with movable parts. We need not fix the position of any one lever; that is to be adjusted from time to time as the latest observations indicate. The aim of the theorist is to know the train of wheels which the lever sets in motion—that binding of the parts which is the soul of the engine.
In 'The Internal Constitution of the Stars', The Scientific Monthly (Oct 1920), 11, No. 4, 302.
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Our moral theorists seem never content with the normal. Why must it always be a contest between fornication, obesity and laziness, and celibacy, fasting and hard labor?
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Psychology appeared to be a jungle of confusing, conflicting, and arbitrary concepts. These pre-scientific theories doubtless contained insights which still surpass in refinement those depended upon by psychiatrists or psychologists today. But who knows, among the many brilliant ideas offered, which are the true ones? Some will claim that the statements of one theorist are correct, but others will favour the views of another. Then there is no objective way of sorting out the truth except through scientific research.
From The Scientific Analysis of Personality (1965), 14.
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Since my first discussions of ecological problems with Professor John Day around 1950 and since reading Konrad Lorenz's “King Solomon's Ring,” I have become increasingly interested in the study of animals for what they might teach us about man, and the study of man as an animal. I have become increasingly disenchanted with what the thinkers of the so-called Age of Enlightenment tell us about the nature of man, and with what the formal religions and doctrinaire political theorists tell us about the same subject.
'Autobiography of Allan M. Cormack,' Les Prix Nobel/Nobel Lectures 1979, editted by Wilhelm Odelberg.
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String theorists can explain plausible models of a unified universe, but unfortunately they cannot explain why we inhabit a particular one
In Book Review 'Pulling the Strings,' of Lawrence Krauss's Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Lure of Extra Dimensions, from Plato to String Theory and Beyond in Nature (22 Dec 2005), 438, 1082.
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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 method of inquiry which all our ingenious Theorists of the Earth have pursued is certainly erroneous. They first form an hypothesis to solve the phenomena, but in fact the Phenomena are always used as a prop to the hypothesis.
Instead therefore of attempting to cut the gordian knot by Hypothetical analysis, we shall follow the synthetic method of inquiry and content ourselves with endeavouring to establish facts rather than attempt solutions and try by experiments how far that method may leave us thro' the mazes of this subject
Introduction to his lecture course. In Robert Jameson, edited by H. W. Scott, Lectures on Geology, (1966), 27. In Patrick Wyse Jackson, Four Centuries of Geological Travel (2007), 33.
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The modern physicist is a quantum theorist on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and a student of gravitational relativity theory on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday he is neither, but is praying to his God that someone, preferably himself, will find the reconciliation between the two views.
In I Am a Mathematician, the Later Life of a Prodigy (1956), 109.
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The Newton of drift theory has not yet appeared. His absence need cause no anxiety; the theory is still young and still often treated with suspicion. In the long run, one cannot blame a theoretician for hesitating to spend time and trouble on explaining a law about whose validity no unanimity prevails.
In The Origins of Continents and Oceans (4th ed. 1929), trans. John Biram (1966), 167.
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The scientific theorist is not to be envied. For Nature, or more precisely experiment, is an inexorable and not very friendly judge of his work. It never says “Yes” to a theory. In the most favorable cases it says “Maybe,” and in the great majority of cases simply “No.” If an experiment agrees with a theory it means for the latter “Maybe,” and if it does not agree it means “No.” Probably every theory will someday experience its “No”—most theories, soon after conception.
In Albert Einstein: The Human Side by Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffmann (1979).
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The sequence of theorist, experimenter, and discovery has occasionally been compared to the sequence of farmer, pig, truffle. The farmer leads the pig to an area where there might be truffles. The pig searches diligently for the truffles. Finally, he locates one, and just as he is about to devour it, the farmer snatches it away.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993, 2006), 16.
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Theorists tend to peak at an early age; the creative juices tend to gush very early and start drying up past the age of fifteen—or so it seems. They need to know just enough; when they’re young they haven’t accumulated the intellectual baggage.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993), 16.
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Theorists write all the popular books on science: Heinz Pagels, Frank Wilczek, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, et al. And why not? They have all that spare time.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993), 15.
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There is no great harm in the theorist who makes up a new theory to fit a new event. But the theorist who starts with a false theory and then sees everything as making it come true is the most dangerous enemy of human reason.
In The Flying Inn (1914), 103.
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Thus with every advance in our scientific knowledge new elements come up, often forcing us to recast our entire picture of physical reality. No doubt, theorists would much prefer to perfect and amend their theories rather than be obliged to scrap them continually. But this obligation is the condition and price of all scientific progress.
New Perspectives in Physics (1962), 31.
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Time, inexhaustible and ever accumulating his efficacy, can undoubtedly do much for the theorist in geology; but Force, whose limits we cannot measure, and whose nature we cannot fathom, is also a power never to be slighted: and to call in the one to protect us from the other, is equally presumptuous, to whichever of the two our superstition leans. To invoke Time, with ten thousand earthquakes, to overturn and set on edge a mountain-chain, should the phenomena indicate the change to have been sudden and not successive, would be ill excused by pleading the obligation of first appealing to known causes.
In History of the Inductive Sciences (1857), Vol. 3, 513-514.
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To be worthy of the name, an experimenter must be at once theorist and practitioner. While he must completely master the art of establishing experimental facts, which are the materials of science, he must also clearly understand the scientific principles which guide his reasoning through the varied experimental study of natural phenomena. We cannot separate these two things: head and hand. An able hand, without a head to direct it, is a blind tool; the head is powerless without its executive hand.
In Claude Bernard and Henry Copley Greene (trans.), An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1927, 1957), 3.
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We now realize with special clarity, how much in error are those theorists who believe that theory comes inductively from experience.
In section 3, 'The Field Concept', Physics and Reality (1936), collected in Essays in Physics (1950), 28.
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What I especially admire about you [Arnold Sommerfeld] is the way. at a stamp of your foot, a great number of talented young theorists spring up out of the ground.
As quoted in Paul Forman and Armin Hermann, 'Sommerfeld, Arnold (Johannes Wilhelm)', Biography in Dictionary of Scientific Biography (1975), Vol. 12, 529. Cited from Armin Herman (ed.), Albert Einstein/Arnold Sommerfeld. Briefwechsel: Sechzig Briefe aus dem goldenen Zeitalter der modernen Physik (1968, German), 98.
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When I came home not a single acre of Government, state, or private timberland was under systematic forest management anywhere on the most richly timbered of all continents. ... When the Gay Nineties began, the common word for our forests was 'inexhaustible.' To waste timber was a virtue and not a crime. There would always be plenty of timber. ... The lumbermen ... regarded forest devastation as normal and second growth as a delusion of fools. ... And as for sustained yield, no such idea had ever entered their heads. The few friends the forest had were spoken of, when they were spoken of at all, as impractical theorists, fanatics, or 'denudatics,' more or less touched in the head. What talk there was about forest protection was no more to the average American that the buzzing of a mosquito, and just about as irritating.
Breaking New Ground (1998), 27.
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[T]he yeoman’s work in any science, and especially physics, is done by the experimentalist, who must keep the theoreticians honest.
In Hyperspace: A Scientific Odyssey Through Parallel Universes, Time Warps, and The Tenth Dimension (1994), 314.
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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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- 100 -
Sophie Germain
Gertrude Elion
Ernest Rutherford
James Chadwick
Marcel Proust
William Harvey
Johann Goethe
John Keynes
Carl Gauss
Paul Feyerabend
- 90 -
Antoine Lavoisier
Lise Meitner
Charles Babbage
Ibn Khaldun
Euclid
Ralph Emerson
Robert Bunsen
Frederick Banting
Andre Ampere
Winston Churchill
- 80 -
John Locke
Bronislaw Malinowski
Bible
Thomas Huxley
Alessandro Volta
Erwin Schrodinger
Wilhelm Roentgen
Louis Pasteur
Bertrand Russell
Jean Lamarck
- 70 -
Samuel Morse
John Wheeler
Nicolaus Copernicus
Robert Fulton
Pierre Laplace
Humphry Davy
Thomas Edison
Lord Kelvin
Theodore Roosevelt
Carolus Linnaeus
- 60 -
Francis Galton
Linus Pauling
Immanuel Kant
Martin Fischer
Robert Boyle
Karl Popper
Paul Dirac
Avicenna
James Watson
William Shakespeare
- 50 -
Stephen Hawking
Niels Bohr
Nikola Tesla
Rachel Carson
Max Planck
Henry Adams
Richard Dawkins
Werner Heisenberg
Alfred Wegener
John Dalton
- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
Edward Wilson
Johannes Kepler
Gustave Eiffel
Giordano Bruno
JJ Thomson
Thomas Kuhn
Leonardo DaVinci
Archimedes
David Hume
- 30 -
Andreas Vesalius
Rudolf Virchow
Richard Feynman
James Hutton
Alexander Fleming
Emile Durkheim
Benjamin Franklin
Robert Oppenheimer
Robert Hooke
Charles Kettering
- 20 -
Carl Sagan
James Maxwell
Marie Curie
Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton



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