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Uncertain Quotes (44 quotes)

A pessimist is a person who is always right but doesn’t get any enjoyment out of it, while an optimist, is one who imagines that the future is uncertain. It is a duty to be an optimist, because if you imagine that the future is uncertain, then you must do something about it.
In The Pursuit of Simplicity (1980, 1981), 149, footnote 19.
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An optimist is someone who believes the future is uncertain.
Anonymous
No primary source found, so Webmaster believes this is merely anonymous. However, in Arnold O. Allen, Probability, Statistics, and Queueing Theory (1990), it is attributed to Edward Teller; but also occasionally seen on the Web attributed to Leo Szilard. If you know a primary source, please contact Webmaster.
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Aristotle’s opinion … that comets were nothing else than sublunary vapors or airy meteors … prevailed so far amongst the Greeks, that this sublimest part of astronomy lay altogether neglected; since none could think it worthwhile to observe, and to give an account of the wandering and uncertain paths of vapours floating in the Ether.
Attributed.
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As the Director of the Theoretical Division of Los Alamos, I participated at the most senior level in the World War II Manhattan Project that produced the first atomic weapons.
Now, at age 88, I am one of the few remaining such senior persons alive. Looking back at the half century since that time, I feel the most intense relief that these weapons have not been used since World War II, mixed with the horror that tens of thousands of such weapons have been built since that time—one hundred times more than any of us at Los Alamos could ever have imagined.
Today we are rightly in an era of disarmament and dismantlement of nuclear weapons. But in some countries nuclear weapons development still continues. Whether and when the various Nations of the World can agree to stop this is uncertain. But individual scientists can still influence this process by withholding their skills.
Accordingly, I call on all scientists in all countries to cease and desist from work creating, developing, improving and manufacturing further nuclear weapons - and, for that matter, other weapons of potential mass destruction such as chemical and biological weapons.
[On the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of Hiroshima.]
Letter, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (Nov 1995), 51:6, 3.
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At quite uncertain times and places,
The atoms left their heavenly path,
And by fortuitous embraces,
Engendered all that being hath.
And though they seem to cling together,
And form 'associations' here,
Yet, soon or late, they burst their tether,
And through the depths of space career.
From 'Molecular Evolution', Nature, 8, 1873. In Lewis Campbell and William Garnett, The Life of James Clerk Maxwell (1882), 637.
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Circles to square and cubes to double
Would give a man excessive trouble.
The longitude uncertain roams,
In spite of Whiston and his bombs.
In 'Alma', Canto III, in Samuel Johnson, The Works of the English Poets, from Chaucer to Cowper (1810), 203. The reference to longitude reflects the difficulty of its determination at sea, and the public interest in the attempts to win the prize instituted by the British government in 1714 for a successful way to find longitude at sea (eventually won by John Harrison's chronometer). In this poem, William Whiston (who succeeded Isaac Newton as Lucasian Professor at Cambridge) is being satirized for what many thought was a crack-brained scheme to find the longitude. This proposed, with Humphrey Ditton, the use of widely separated ships firing off shells programmed to explode at a set time, and calculation of distance between them made from the time-lag between the observed sounds of the explosions using the known speed of sound.
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Colleague reader, please read this to your uncertain teenager con brio! Tell him or her that (1) experiments often fail, and (2) they don't always fail.
[Co-author with Dick Teresi]
In Leon M. Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question? (1993), 396.
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Curves that have no tangents are the rule. … Those who hear of curves without tangents, or of functions without derivatives, often think at first that Nature presents no such complications. … The contrary however is true. … Consider, for instance, one of the white flakes that are obtained by salting a solution of soap. At a distance its contour may appear sharply defined, but as we draw nearer its sharpness disappears. The eye can no longer draw a tangent at any point. … The use of a magnifying glass or microscope leaves us just as uncertain, for fresh irregularities appear every time we increase the magnification. … An essential characteristic of our flake … is that we suspect … that any scale involves details that absolutely prohibit the fixing of a tangent.
(1906). As quoted “in free translation” in Benoit B. Mandelbrot, The Fractal Geometry of Nature (1977, 1983), 7.
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Forc’d by reflective Reason, I confess,
Human science is uncertain guess.
From poem, 'Solomon', Collected in Samuel Johnson (ed.), The Works of the English Poets: Volume the Thirty-First: The Poems of Prior: Volume II (1760), 126.
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From this fountain (the free will of God) it is those laws, which we call the laws of nature, have flowed, in which there appear many traces of the most wise contrivance, but not the least shadow of necessity. These therefore we must not seek from uncertain conjectures, but learn them from observations and experimental. He who is presumptuous enough to think that he can find the true principles of physics and the laws of natural things by the force alone of his own mind, and the internal light of his reason, must either suppose the world exists by necessity, and by the same necessity follows the law proposed; or if the order of Nature was established by the will of God, the [man] himself, a miserable reptile, can tell what was fittest to be done.
…...
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Genetics has enticed a great many explorers during the past two decades. They have labored with fruit-flies and guinea-pigs, with sweet peas and corn, with thousands of animals and plants in fact, and they have made heredity no longer a mystery but an exact science to be ranked close behind physics and chemistry in definiteness of conception. One is inclined to believe, however, that the unique magnetic attraction of genetics lies in the vision of potential good which it holds for mankind rather than a circumscribed interest in the hereditary mechanisms of the lowly species used as laboratory material. If man had been found to be sharply demarcated from the rest of the occupants of the world, so that his heritage of physical form, of physiological function, and of mental attributes came about in a superior manner setting him apart as lord of creation, interest in the genetics of the humbler organisms—if one admits the truth—would have flagged severely. Biologists would have turned their attention largely to the ways of human heredity, in spite of the fact that the difficulties encountered would have rendered progress slow and uncertain. Since this was not the case, since the laws ruling the inheritance of the denizens of the garden and the inmates of the stable were found to be applicable to prince and potentate as well, one could shut himself up in his laboratory and labor to his heart's content, feeling certain that any truth which it fell to his lot to discover had a real human interest, after all.
Mankind at the Crossroads (1923), v-vi.
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Given for one instant an intelligence which could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings which compose it—an intelligence sufficiently vast to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies in the universe and those of the lightest atom; to it nothing would be uncertain, and the future as the past would be present to its eyes.
Introduction to Oeuvres vol. VII, Theorie Analytique de Probabilites (1812-1820). As translated by Frederick Wilson Truscott and Frederick Lincoln Emory in A Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1902), 4. [LaPlace is here expressing his belief in causal determinism.] From the original French, “Une intelligence qui, pour un instant donné, connaîtrait toutes les forces dont la nature est animée, et la situation respective des êtres qui la composent, si d’ailleurs elle était assez vaste pour soumettre ces données a l’analyse, embrasserait dans la même formula les mouvements des plus grand corps de l’univers et ceux du plus léger atome: rien ne serait incertain pour elle, et l’avenir comme le passé serait présent à ses yeux.”
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His mother’s favorite, he [Freud] possessed the self-confidence that told him he would achieve something worth while in life, and the ambition to do so, though for long the direction this would take remained uncertain.
In The Life and Work of Sigmund Freud: The Formative Years and the Great Discoveries, 1856-1900 (1957), 15.
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Human life is proverbially uncertain; few things are more certain than the solvency of a life-insurance company.
In The Nature of the Physical World (1928), 300.
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Human science is an uncertain guess.
'Solomon on the Vanity of the World, Book I, On Knowledge'. In Matthew Prior, John Mitford (Ed.), The Poetical Works of Matthew Prior (1854), Vol. 2, 118.
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I do not … reject the use of statistics in medicine, but I condemn not trying to get beyond them and believing in statistics as the foundation of medical science. … Statistics … apply only to cases in which the cause of the facts observed is still [uncertain or] indeterminate. … There will always be some indeterminism … in all the sciences, and more in medicine than in any other. But man’s intellectual conquest consists in lessening and driving back indeterminism in proportion as he gains ground for determinism by the help of the experimental method..
From An Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine (1865), as translated by Henry Copley Greene (1957), 138-140.
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I never could do anything with figures, never had any talent for mathematics, never accomplished anything in my efforts at that rugged study, and to-day the only mathematics I know is multiplication, and the minute I get away up in that, as soon as I reach nine times seven— [He lapsed into deep thought, trying to figure nine times seven. Mr. McKelway whispered the answer to him.] I’ve got it now. It’s eighty-four. Well, I can get that far all right with a little hesitation. After that I am uncertain, and I can’t manage a statistic.
Speech at the New York Association for Promoting the Interests of the Blind (29 Mar 1906). In Mark Twain and William Dean Howells (ed.), Mark Twain’s Speeches? (1910), 323.
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I think it perfectly just, that he who, from the love of experiment, quits an approved for an uncertain practice, should suffer the full penalty of Egyptian law against medical innovation; as I would consign to the pillory, the wretch, who out of regard to his character, that is, to his fees, should follow the routine, when, from constant experience he is sure that his patient will die under it, provided any, not inhuman, deviation would give his patient a chance.
From his researches in Fever, 196. In John Edmonds Stock, Memoirs of the life of Thomas Beddoes (1810), 400.
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If they should make the standard for the measure, we call a Chancellor’s foot; what an uncertain measure would this be? One Chancellor has a long foot, another a short foot, a third an indifferent foot.
In John Selden, Richard Milward (ed.), 'Equity', Table-Talk of John Selden (1689), 18.
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If, for example, I had some idea, which, as it turned out would, say, be quite wrong, was going off of the tangent, Watson would tell me in no uncertain terms this was nonsense, and vice-versa. If he had some idea I didn’t like and I would say so and this would shake his thinking about it and draw him back again. And in fact, it’s one of the requirements for collaboration of this sort that you must be perfectly candid, one might almost say rude, to the person you are working with. It’s useless, working with somebody who’s either much too junior than yourself, or much too senior, because then politeness creeps in. And this is the end of all real collaboration in science.
As quoted in Robert Olby, The Path to the Double Helix: The Discovery of the Double Helix, (1974, 1994), 316, citing Transcript of BBC TV program, The Prizewinners (1962).
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In its efforts to learn as much as possible about nature, modern physics has found that certain things can never be “known” with certainty. Much of our knowledge must always remain uncertain. The most we can know is in terms of probabilities.
In The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1963), Vol. 1.
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It is not certain that everything is uncertain.
As in Blaise Pascal and Roger Ariew (ed., trans.), 'Folders Set Aside June 1658', Pensées (2004), 141, (S453/L521). From the French, “Il n’est pas certain que tout soit incertain,” in Blaise Pascal and ‎Armand-Prosper Faugère (ed.), Pensées, Fragments et Lettres de Blaise Pascal (1814), Vol. 2, 99; labelled “(Barré)”: (erased).
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Mathematicians create by acts of insight and intuition. Logic then sanctions the conquests of intuition. It is the hygiene that mathematics practices to keep its ideas healthy and strong. Moreover, the whole structure rests fundamentally on uncertain ground, the intuition of humans. Here and there an intuition is scooped out and replaced by a firmly built pillar of thought; however, this pillar is based on some deeper, perhaps less clearly defined, intuition. Though the process of replacing intuitions with precise thoughts does not change the nature of the ground on which mathematics ultimately rests, it does add strength and height to the structure.
In Mathematics in Western Culture (1964), 408.
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More and more of out colleagues fail to understand our work because of the high specialization of research problems. We must not be discouraged if the products of our labor are not read or even known to exist. The joy of research must be found in doing since every other harvest is uncertain.
Letter to Dr. E. B. Krumhaar (11 Oct 1933), in Journal of Bacteriology (Jan 1934), 27, No. 1, 20.
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Our mistake is that we doubt what is certain and want to establish what is uncertain. My maxim in the study of Nature is this: hold fast what is certain and keep a watch on what is uncertain.
In The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1906), 196.
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Poets need be in no degree jealous of the geologists. The stony science, with buried creations for its domains, and half an eternity charged with its annals, possesses its realms of dim and shadowy fields, in which troops of fancies already walk like disembodied ghosts in the old fields of Elysium, and which bid fair to be quite dark and uncertain enough for all the purposes of poesy for centuries to come.
Lecture Third, collected in Popular Geology: A Series of Lectures Read Before the Philosophical Institution of Edinburgh, with Descriptive Sketches from a Geologist's Portfolio (1859), 127.
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Science is uncertain. Theories are subject to revision; observations are open to a variety of interpretations, and scientists quarrel amongst themselves. This is disillusioning for those untrained in the scientific method, who thus turn to the rigid certainty of the Bible instead. There is something comfortable about a view that allows for no deviation and that spares you the painful necessity of having to think.
The 'Threat' of Creationism. In Ashley Montagu (ed.), Science and Creationism (1984), 192.
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Since the stomach gives no obvious external sign of its workings, investigators of gastric movements have hitherto been obliged to confine their studies to pathological subjects or to animals subjected to serious operative interference. Observations made under these necessarily abnormal conditions have yielded a literature which is full of conflicting statements and uncertain results. The only sure conclusion to be drawn from this material is that when the stomach receives food, obscure peristaltic contractions are set going, which in some way churn the food to a liquid chyme and force it into the intestines. How imperfectly this describes the real workings of the stomach will appear from the following account of the actions of the organ studied by a new method. The mixing of a small quantity of subnitrate of bismuth with the food allows not only the contractions of the gastric wall, but also the movements of the gastric contents to be seen with the Röntgen rays in the uninjured animal during normal digestion.
In 'The Movements of the Stomach Studied by Means of the Röntgen Rays,' American Journal of Physiology (1898), 1, 359-360.
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The future is uncertain… but this uncertainty is at the very heart of human creativity.
Quoted in Petruska Clarkson, The Transpersonal Relationship in Psychotherapy (2002), 87, cited in footnote as from “A (very) brief history of certainty. Network – The Scientific and Medical Network Review (Winter 1995), 7.
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The future of humanity is uncertain, even in the most prosperous countries, and the quality of life deteriorates; and yet I believe that what is being discovered about the infinitely large and the infinitely small is sufficient to absolve this end of the century and millennium. What a very few are acquiring in knowledge of the physical world will perhaps cause this period not to be judged as a pure return to barbarism.
In 'News from the Sky', Other People’s Trades (1989), 23-24.
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The history of this paper suggests that highly speculative investigations, especially by an unknown author, are best brought before the world through some other channel than a scientific society, which naturally hesitates to admit into its printed records matters of uncertain value. Perhaps one may go further and say that a young author who believes himself capable of great things would usually do well to secure the favourable recognition of the scientific world by work whose scope is limited and whose value is easily judged, before embarking upon higher flights.
'On the Physics of Media that are Composed of Free and Perfectly Elastic Molecules in a State of Motion', Philosophical Transactions (1892), 183, 560.
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The incomplete knowledge of a system must be an essential part of every formulation in quantum theory. Quantum theoretical laws must be of a statistical kind. To give an example: we know that the radium atom emits alpha-radiation. Quantum theory can give us an indication of the probability that the alpha-particle will leave the nucleus in unit time, but it cannot predict at what precise point in time the emission will occur, for this is uncertain in principle.
The Physicist's Conception of Nature (1958), 41.
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The observer is not he who merely sees the thing which is before his eyes, but he who sees what parts the thing is composed of. To do this well is a rare talent. One person, from inattention, or attending only in the wrong place, overlooks half of what he sees; another sets down much more than he sees, confounding it with what he imagines, or with what he infers; another takes note of the kind of all the circumstances, but being inexpert in estimating their degree, leaves the quantity of each vague and uncertain; another sees indeed the whole, but makes such an awkward division of it into parts, throwing into one mass things which require to be separated, and separating others which might more conveniently be considered as one, that the result is much the same, sometimes even worse than if no analysis had been attempted at all.
In A System of Logic Ratiocinative and Inductive (1858), 216.
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The present state of the system of nature is evidently a consequence of what is in the preceding moment, and if we conceive of an intelligence which at a given instant knew all the forces acting in nature and the position of every object in the universe—if endowed with a brain sufficiently vast to make all necessary calculations—could describe with a single formula the motions of the largest astronomical bodies and those of the smallest atoms. To such an intelligence, nothing would be uncertain; the future, like the past, would be an open book.
As quoted in The Fascination of Physics by Jacqueline D. Spears and Dean Zollman (1986). Alternate translation: “The present state of the system of nature is evidently a consequence of what is in the preceding moment, and if we conceive of an intelligence which at a given instant comprehends all the relations of the entities of this universe, it could state the respective positions, motions, and general effects of all these entities at any time in the past or future.” In Harry Woolf, The Analytic spirit: essays in the history of science in honor of Henry Guerlac (1981), 91, the author states that “the language Laplace used was obviously borrowed from Concdorset, though now the words were reshuffled to express a new idea.”
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The present state of the system of nature is evidently a consequence of what it was in the preceding moment, and if we conceive of an intelligence that at a given instant comprehends all the relations of the entities of this universe, it could state the respective position, motions, and general affects of all these entities at any time in the past or future. Physical astronomy, the branch of knowledge that does the greatest honor to the human mind, gives us an idea, albeit imperfect, of what such an intelligence would be. The simplicity of the law by which the celestial bodies move, and the relations of their masses and distances, permit analysis to follow their motions up to a certain point; and in order to determine the state of the system of these great bodies in past or future centuries, it suffices for the mathematician that their position and their velocity be given by observation for any moment in time. Man owes that advantage to the power of the instrument he employs, and to the small number of relations that it embraces in its calculations. But ignorance of the different causes involved in the production of events, as well as their complexity, taken together with the imperfection of analysis, prevents our reaching the same certainty about the vast majority of phenomena. Thus there are things that are uncertain for us, things more or less probable, and we seek to compensate for the impossibility of knowing them by determining their different degrees of likelihood. So it was that we owe to the weakness of the human mind one of the most delicate and ingenious of mathematical theories, the science of chance or probability.
'Recherches, 1º, sur l'Intégration des Équations Différentielles aux Différences Finies, et sur leur Usage dans la Théorie des Hasards' (1773, published 1776). In Oeuvres complètes de Laplace, 14 Vols. (1843-1912), Vol. 8, 144-5, trans. Charles Coulston Gillispie, Pierre-Simon Laplace 1749-1827: A Life in Exact Science (1997), 26.
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The Principle of Uncertainty is a bad name. In science or outside of it we are not uncertain; our knowledge is merely confined, within a certain tolerance. We should call it the Principle of Tolerance. And I propose that name in two senses: First, in the engineering sense, science has progressed, step by step, the most successful enterprise in the ascent of man, because it has understood that the exchange of information between man and nature, and man and man, can only take place with a certain tolerance. But second, I also use the word, passionately, about the real world. All knowledge, all information between human beings, can only be exchanged within a play of tolerance. And that is true whether the exchange is in science, or in literature, or in religion, or in politics, or in any form of thought that aspires to dogma. It’s a major tragedy of my lifetime and yours that scientists were refining, to the most exquisite precision, the Principle of Tolerance, and turning their backs on the fact that all around them, tolerance was crashing to the ground beyond repair. The Principle of Uncertainty or, in my phrase, the Principle of Tolerance, fixed once for all the realization that all knowledge is limited. It is an irony of history that at the very time when this was being worked out there should rise, under Hitler in Germany and other tyrants elsewhere, a counter-conception: a principle of monstrous certainty. When the future looks back on the 1930s it will think of them as a crucial confrontation of culture as I have been expounding it, the ascent of man, against the throwback to the despots’ belief that they have absolute certainty. It is said that science will dehumanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false: tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods. Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known; we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end, the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: “I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ: Think it possible you may be mistaken.” We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people. [Referring to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle.]
'Knowledge or Certainty,' episode 11, The Ascent of Man (1972), BBC TV series.
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The saying often quoted from Lord Kelvin… that “where you cannot measure your knowledge is meagre and unsatisfactory,” as applied in mental and social science, is misleading and pernicious. This is another way of saying that these sciences are not science in the sense of physical science and cannot attempt to be such without forfeiting their proper nature and function. Insistence on a concretely quantitative economics means the use of statistics of physical magnitudes, whose economic meaning and significance is uncertain and dubious. (Even wheat is approximately homogeneous only if measured in economic terms.) And a similar statement would even apply more to other social sciences. In this field, the Kelvin dictum very largely means in practice, “if you cannot measure, measure anyhow!”
'What is Truth' in Economics? (1956), 166.
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The science of medicine is a barbarous jargon and the effects of our medicine on the human system are in the highest degree uncertain, except indeed that they have already destroyed more lives than war, pestilence, and famine combined.
…...
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To be uncertain is to be uncomfortable, but to be certain is to be ridiculous.
Chinese proverb.
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We ought then to consider the present state of the universe as the effect of its previous state and as the cause of that which is to follow. An intelligence that, at a given instant, could comprehend all the forces by which nature is animated and the respective situation of the beings that make it up, if moreover it were vast enough to submit these data to analysis, would encompass in the same formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the lightest atoms. For such an intelligence nothing would be uncertain, and the future, like the past, would be open to its eyes.
Philosophical Essay on Probabilities (1814), 5th edition (1825), trans. Andrew I. Dale (1995), 2.
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Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing, such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.
Leviathan (1651), ed. C. B. Macpherson (1968), Part 1, Chapter 13, 186.
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[On suburbia] We’re bringing up our children in one-class areas. When they grow up and move to a city or go abroad, they’re not accustomed to variety and they get uncertain and insecure. We should bring up our children where they’re exposed to all types of people.
As quoted in Frances Glennon, 'Student and Teacher of Human Ways', Life (14 Sep 1959), 147.
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[Oppenheimer is] tense, dedicated, deeper than deep, somewhat haunted, uncertain, calm, confident, and full, full, full of knowledge, not only of particles and things but of men and motives, and of the basic humanity that may be the only savior we have in this strange world he and his colleagues have discovered.
In Due to Circumstances Beyond Our Control by Fred W. Friendly (1967).
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…it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things. Because the innovator has for enemies all those who have done well under the old conditions, and lukewarm defenders in those who may do well under the new.
The Prince (1532). W. K. Marriott (translator) and Rob McMahon (editor), The Prince (2008), 71.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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- 90 -
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- 80 -
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- 70 -
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- 60 -
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- 50 -
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- 40 -
Pierre Fermat
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- 30 -
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- 20 -
Carl Sagan
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- 10 -
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