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Useless Quotes (33 quotes)

Nisi utile est quod facias, stulta est gloria.
All useless science is an empty boast.
Original Latin from 'Arbores in deorum tutela', Fabulae Aesopiae, Book 3, Poem 17, line 12. Translation by Samuel Johnson, used as an epigraph for an article on the thirst for collecting scientific curiosities, 'Numb. 83, Tuesday, January 1, 1755', The Rambler (1756), Vol. 2, 149. A mechanical translation of the Latin gives “Unless it is useful for what we do, it is the glory of the foolish.” In an 1874 collection by unnamed editor J.B.R., it is given as “nothing is truly valuable that is not useful.” It is given as “Unless what we do is useful, our pride is foolish,” in The Routledge Dictionary of Latin Quotations (2013), 74. Briefly summarizing, the fable is about the gods who choose trees to protect, but the wise Minerva alone picks a tree, the olive, that bears fruit which can be put to good use; moral, do what is useful. ( Webmaster found sources attributing the line in English to Shakespeare, but it cannot be found.)
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Socrates: Shall we set down astronomy among the objects of study? Glaucon: I think so, to know something about the seasons, the months and the years is of use for military purposes, as well as for agriculture and for navigation. Socrates: It amuses me to see how afraid you are, lest the common herd of people should accuse you of recommending useless studies.
Socrates
As quoted by Plato. In Richard Garnett, Léon Vallée, Alois Brandl (eds.), The Universal Anthology: A Collection of the Best Literature (1899), Vol. 4, 111.
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Another advantage of a mathematical statement is that it is so definite that it might be definitely wrong; and if it is found to be wrong, there is a plenteous choice of amendments ready in the mathematicians’ stock of formulae. Some verbal statements have not this merit; they are so vague that they could hardly be wrong, and are correspondingly useless.
From 'Mathematics of War and Foreign Politics', in James R. Newman, The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol. 2, 1248.
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As for my memory, I have a particularly good one. I never keep any record of my investigations or experiments. My memory files all these things away conveniently and reliably. I should say, though, that I didn’t cumber it up with a lot of useless matter.
From George MacAdam, 'Steinmetz, Electricity's Mastermind, Enters Politics', New York Times (2 Nov 1913), SM3.
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But, you might say, “none of this shakes my belief that 2 and 2 are 4.” You are quite right, except in marginal cases—and it is only in marginal cases that you are doubtful whether a certain animal is a dog or a certain length is less than a meter. Two must be two of something, and the proposition “2 and 2 are 4” is useless unless it can be applied. Two dogs and two dogs are certainly four dogs, but cases arise in which you are doubtful whether two of them are dogs. “Well, at any rate there are four animals,” you may say. But there are microorganisms concerning which it is doubtful whether they are animals or plants. “Well, then living organisms,” you say. But there are things of which it is doubtful whether they are living organisms or not. You will be driven into saying: “Two entities and two entities are four entities.” When you have told me what you mean by “entity,” we will resume the argument.
In Basic Writings, 1903-1959 (1961), 108.
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Doubtless the reasoning faculty, the mind, is the leading and characteristic attribute of the human race. By the exercise of this, man arrives at the properties of the natural bodies. This is science, properly and emphatically so called. It is the science of pure mathematics; and in the high branches of this science lies the truly sublime of human acquisition. If any attainment deserves that epithet, it is the knowledge, which, from the mensuration of the minutest dust of the balance, proceeds on the rising scale of material bodies, everywhere weighing, everywhere measuring, everywhere detecting and explaining the laws of force and motion, penetrating into the secret principles which hold the universe of God together, and balancing worlds against worlds, and system against system. When we seek to accompany those who pursue studies at once so high, so vast, and so exact; when we arrive at the discoveries of Newton, which pour in day on the works of God, as if a second fiat had gone forth from his own mouth; when, further, we attempt to follow those who set out where Newton paused, making his goal their starting-place, and, proceeding with demonstration upon demonstration, and discovery upon discovery, bring new worlds and new systems of worlds within the limits of the known universe, failing to learn all only because all is infinite; however we may say of man, in admiration of his physical structure, that “in form and moving he is express and admirable,” it is here, and here without irreverence, we may exclaim, “In apprehension how like a god!” The study of the pure mathematics will of course not be extensively pursued in an institution, which, like this [Boston Mechanics’ Institute], has a direct practical tendency and aim. But it is still to be remembered, that pure mathematics lie at the foundation of mechanical philosophy, and that it is ignorance only which can speak or think of that sublime science as useless research or barren speculation.
In Works (1872), Vol. 1, 180.
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For all their wealth of content, for all the sum of history and social institution invested in them, music, mathematics, and chess are resplendently useless (applied mathematics is a higher plumbing, a kind of music for the police band). They are metaphysically trivial, irresponsible. They refuse to relate outward, to take reality for arbiter. This is the source of their witchery.
In 'A Death of Kings', George Steiner at The New Yorker (2009), 209.
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Geometric writings are not rare in which one would seek in vain for an idea at all novel, for a result which sooner or later might be of service, for anything in fact which might be destined to survive in the science; and one finds instead treatises on trivial problems or investigations on special forms which have absolutely no use, no importance, which have their origin not in the science itself but in the caprice of the author; or one finds applications of known methods which have already been made thousands of times; or generalizations from known results which are so easily made that the knowledge of the latter suffices to give at once the former. Now such work is not merely useless; it is actually harmful because it produces a real incumbrance in the science and an embarrassment for the more serious investigators; and because often it crowds out certain lines of thought which might well have deserved to be studied.
From 'On Some Recent Tendencies in Geometric Investigations', Rivista di Matematica (1891), 43. In Bulletin American Mathematical Society (1904), 443.
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I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.
In 'The Science Of Deduction', A Study In Scarlet (1887, 1904), 15-16.
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If the world may be thought of as a certain definite quantity of force and as a certain definite number of centers of force—and every other representation remains indefinite and therefore useless—it follows that, in the great dice game of existence, it must pass through calculable number of combinations. In infinite time, every possible combination would at some time or another be realized; more: it would be realized an infinite number of times. And since between every combination and its next recurrence all other possible combinations would have to take place, and each of these combination conditions of the entire sequence of combinations in the same series, a circular movement of absolutely identical series is thus demonstrated: the world as a circular movement that has already repeated itself infinitely often and plays its game in infinitum. This conception is not simply a mechanistic conception; for if it were that, it would not condition an infinite recurrence of identical cases, but a final state. Because the world has not reached this, mechanistic theory must be considered an imperfect and merely provisional hypothesis.
The Will to Power (Notes written 1883-1888), book 4, no. 1066. Trans. W. Kaufmann and R. J. Hollingdale and ed. W. Kaufmann (1968), 549.
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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 geometry, as in most sciences, it is very rare that an isolated proposition is of immediate utility. But the theories most powerful in practice are formed of propositions which curiosity alone brought to light, and which long remained useless without its being able to divine in what way they should one day cease to be so. In this sense it may be said, that in real science, no theory, no research, is in effect useless.
In 'Geometry', A Philosophical Dictionary, (1881), Vol. l, 374.
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In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.
Quoted in Richard Nixon, 'Krushchev', Six Crises (1962). As quoted and cited in Robert Andrews (ed.), The Columbia World of Quotations (1993), 688.
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In the fight which we have to wage incessantly against ignorance and quackery among the masses and follies of all sorts among the classes, diagnosis, not drugging, is our chief weapon of offence. Lack of systematic personal training in the methods of the recognition of disease leads to the misapplication of remedies, to long courses of treatment when treatment is useless, and so directly to that lack of confidence in our methods which is apt to place us in the eyes of the public on a level with empirics and quacks.
Address to the Canadian Medical Association, Montreal (17 Sep 1902), 'Chauvinism in Medicine', published in The Montreal Medical Journal (1902), 31, 267. Collected in Aequanimitas, with Other Addresses to Medical Students, Nurses and Practitioners of Medicine (1904), 299.
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It is useless for the sheep to pass resolutions in favour of vegetarianism, while the wolf remains of a different opinion.
Dean Inge
In 'Patriotism' (Aug 1919), Outspoken Essays (1919), 42-43.
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Kepler’s discovery would not have been possible without the doctrine of conics. Now contemporaries of Kepler—such penetrating minds as Descartes and Pascal—were abandoning the study of geometry ... because they said it was so UTTERLY USELESS. There was the future of the human race almost trembling in the balance; for had not the geometry of conic sections already been worked out in large measure, and had their opinion that only sciences apparently useful ought to be pursued, the nineteenth century would have had none of those characters which distinguish it from the ancien régime.
From 'Lessons from the History of Science: The Scientific Attitude' (c.1896), in Collected Papers (1931), Vol. 1, 32.
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Men are of three different capacities; one understands intuitively, another only understands so far as it is explained; and a third understands neither of himself nor by explanation; the first is excellent, the second commendable, and the third altogether useless.
Collected, without citation, in Day's Collacon: an Encyclopaedia of Prose Quotations (1884), 87.
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Nothing is useless for the man of sense; he turns everything to account.
In Hialmer Day Gould, New Practical Spelling (1905), 13.
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Oersted would never have made his great discovery of the action of galvanic currents on magnets had he stopped in his researches to consider in what manner they could possibly be turned to practical account; and so we would not now be able to boast of the wonders done by the electric telegraphs. Indeed, no great law in Natural Philosophy has ever been discovered for its practical implications, but the instances are innumerable of investigations apparently quite useless in this narrow sense of the word which have led to the most valuable results.
From Silvanus Phillips Thompson, 'Introductory Lecture to the Course on Natural Philosophy', The Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), Vol. 1, Appendix to Chap. 5, 249.
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Proper Experiments have always Truth to defend them; also Reasoning join’d with Mathematical Evidence, and founded upon Experiment, will hold equally true; but should it be true, without those Supports it must be altogether useless.
In Academical Lectures on the Theory of Physic (1751), Vol. 1. As quoted in Thomas Steele Hall, A Source Book in Animal Biology (1951), 485.
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Since the Universe is defined as including all that exists, it is useless to ask what lies beyond it.
Epigraph in Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations (1988), 328.
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Students should learn to study at an early stage the great works of the great masters instead of making their minds sterile through the everlasting exercises of college, which are of no use whatever, except to produce a new Arcadia where indolence is veiled under the form of useless activity. … Hard study on the great models has ever brought out the strong; and of such must be our new scientific generation if it is to be worthy of the era to which it is born and of the struggles to which it is destined.
In Giornale di matematiche, Vol. 11, 153.
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The seemingly useless or trivial observation made by one worker leads on to a useful observation by another: and so science advances, “creeping on from point to point.”
Lecture 6, collected in Light Visible and Invisible: A Series of Lectures Delivered at the Royal Institution of Great Britain, at Christmas, 1896 (1897), 276.
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The university’s business is the conservation of useless knowledge; and what the university itself apparently fails to see is that this enterprise is not only noble but indispensable as well, that society can not exist unless it goes on.
…...
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The useless search of philosophers for a cause of the universe is a regressus in infinitum (a stepping backwards into the infinite) and resembles climbing up an endless ladder, the recurring question as to the cause of the cause rendering the attainment of a final goal impossible.
From Force and Matter: Or, Principles of the Natural Order of the Universe (15th ed. 1884), 10.
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There is much pleasure to be gained from useless knowledge.
…...
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To make still bigger telescopes will be useless, for the light absorption and temperature variations of the earth’s atmosphere are what now limits the ability to see fine detail. If bigger telescopes are to be built, it will have to be for use in an airless observatory, perhaps an observatory on the moon.
(1965). In Isaac Asimov’s Book of Science and Nature Quotations (1988), 284.
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True science is distinctively the study of useless things. For the useful things will get studied without the aid of scientific men. To employ these rare minds on such work is like running a steam engine by burning diamonds.
From 'Lessons from the History of Science: The Scientific Attitude' (c.1896), in Collected Papers (1931), Vol. 1, 32.
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What a master a man would be in his own subject if he taught nothing useless!
In The Maxims and Reflections of Goethe (1906), 196.
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When the most abstract and “useless” disciplines have been cultivated for a time, they are often seized upon as practical tools by other departments of science. I conceive that this is no accident, as if one bought a top hat for a wedding, and discovered later when a fire broke out, that it could be used as a water bucket.
In James R. Newman (ed.), 'Commentary on The Use of a Top Hat as a Water Bucket', The World of Mathematics (1956), Vol.4, 2051.
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While the dogmatist is harmful, the sceptic is useless …; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance. Knowledge is not so precise a concept as is commonly thought. Instead of saying ‘I know this’, we ought to say ‘I more or less know something more or less like this’. … Knowledge in practical affairs has not the certainty or the precision of arithmetic.
From 'Philosophy For Laymen', collected in Unpopular Essays (1950, 1996), 38-39.
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Without art, science would be as useless as a pair of high forceps in the hands of a plumber. Without science, art would become a crude mess of folklore and emotional quackery.
In 'Great Thought' (19 Feb 1938), The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler and English Summer: A Gothic Romance, (1976), 7.
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[In] the evolution of ideas… New ideas are thrown up spontaneously like mutations; the vast majority of them are useless crank theories, the equivalent of biological freaks without survival-value.
In Epilogue, The Sleepwalkers: A History of Man’s Changing Vision of the Universe (1959), 515.
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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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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
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Rene Descartes
Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
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