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Who said: “God does not care about our mathematical difficulties. He integrates empirically.”
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Home > Category Index for Science Quotations > Category Index V > Category: Vain

Vain Quotes (83 quotes)

“Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis.” So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them; meanwhile, glancing intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life. The three mates quailed before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect. Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.
“In vain!&rsdquo; cried Ahab; “but, maybe, 'tis well. For did ye three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me. Perchance, too, it would have dropped ye dead. ...”
[Commentary by Henry Schlesinger: Electricity—mysterious and powerful as it seemed at the time—served as a perfect metaphor for Captain Ahab's primal obsession and madness, which he transmits through the crew as if through an electrical circuit in Moby-Dick.]
Extract from Herman Melville, Moby-Dick and comment by Henry Schlesinger in The Battery: How Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution (2010), 64.
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Frustra fit per plura, quod fieri potest per pauciora.
It is vain to do with more what can be done with less.
Ockham’s Razor.Summa logicae (The Sum of All Logic)(prior to 1324), Part I, Chap. 12. [The village of Ockham is in Surrey. The saying (which was applied for diminishing the number of religious truths that can be proved by reason) is not Ockham's own. As given in Joseph Rickaby, Scholasticism (1908), 54, footnote, it is found a generation before Ockham in Petrus Aureolus, The Eloquent Doctor, 2 Sent. dist. 12, q.1.]
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Natura nihil agit frustra.
Nature does nothing in vain.
Aristotle
The idea that nature does nothing in vain can be found in many texts by Aristotle: De Caelo 271a 33, 291b 13-14; De Anima 432b 21, 434a 41; P.A. 661b 24, 691b 4-5, 694a 15, 695b 19-20; G.A. 739b 19, 741b 4, 744a 37-8. The original Greek over the centuries was repeatedly hand-copied and variously translated. The quote as shown above is none-the-less ascribed to “Anonymous” in James Wood, Dictionary of Quotations from Ancient and Modern, English and Foreign Sources (1893), 290:9. For comparison, in De Caelo translated by J.L.Stocks (1922), the last sentence of 291a is given as “But God and nature create nothing that has not its use,” and 291b as “Nature is no wanton or random creator.” In De Anima, 432b, J.A. Smith translates Aristotle’s words as “Nature never makes anything without a purpose,” whereas R.D. Hicks wrote a translation (1907), giving the same quote as “Nature does nothing in vain,” on p.149.
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Natura nihil agit frustra [Nature does nothing in vain] is the only indisputible axiom in philosophy. There are no grotesques in nature; not any thing framed to fill up empty cantons, and unncecessary spaces.
Religio Medici (1642), Part I, Section 15. In Thomas Browne and Simon Wilkin (Ed.), The Works of Thomas Browne (1852), Vol. 2, 339. Brown begins by quoting the axiom from Aristotle, which may be seen for “Natura nihil agit frustra” in the Aristotle Quotes on this web site.
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That the Sun will not rise Tomorrow is no less intelligible a Proposition and implies no more contradiction than the Affirmation that it will rise. We should in vain, therefore, attempt to demonstrate its falsehood.
An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), 48.
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A primâ facie argument in favour of the efficacy of prayer is therefore to be drawn from the very general use of it. The greater part of mankind, during all the historic ages, have been accustomed to pray for temporal advantages. How vain, it may be urged, must be the reasoning that ventures to oppose this mighty consensus of belief! Not so. The argument of universality either proves too much, or else it is suicidal.
'Statistical Inquiries into the Efficacy of Prayer', Fortnightly Review, 1872, 12, 126.
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A great part of its [higher arithmetic] theories derives an additional charm from the peculiarity that important propositions, with the impress of simplicity on them, are often easily discovered by induction, and yet are of so profound a character that we cannot find the demonstrations till after many vain attempts; and even then, when we do succeed, it is often by some tedious and artificial process, while the simple methods may long remain concealed.
Quoted in H. Eves, Mathematical Circles (1977) .
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About the use of language: it is impossible to sharpen a pencil with a blunt axe. It is equally vain to try to do it with ten blunt axes instead.
…...
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Academies have been instituted to guard the avenues of their languages, to retain fugitives, and repulse intruders; but their vigilance and activity have hitherto been vain; sounds are too volatile and subtile for legal restraints; to enchain syllables, and to lash the wind, are equally the undertakings of pride, unwilling to measure its desires by its strength.
From Dictionary of the English Language (1818), Vol. 1, Preface, xxiii. Note: Subtile means subtle.
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After seeking in vain for the construction of a perpetual motion machine, the relations were investigated which must subsist between the forces of nature if such a machine is to be impossible; and this inverted question led to the discovery of the law of the conservation of energy, which, again, explained the impossibility of perpetual motion in the sense originally intended.
Opening of Lecture (1900), 'Mathematische Probleme' (Mathematical Problems), to the International Congress of Mathematicians, Paris. From the original German reprinted in David Hilbert: Gesammelte Abhandlungen (Collected Treatises, 1970), Vol. 3. For full citation, see the quote that begins, “This conviction of the solvability…”, on the David Hilbert Quotes page on this website.
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After the birth of printing books became widespread. Hence everyone throughout Europe devoted himself to the study of literature... Every year, especially since 1563, the number of writings published in every field is greater than all those produced in the past thousand years. Through them there has today been created a new theology and a new jurisprudence; the Paracelsians have created medicine anew and the Copernicans have created astronomy anew. I really believe that at last the world is alive, indeed seething, and that the stimuli of these remarkable conjunctions did not act in vain.
De Stella Nova, On the New Star (1606), Johannes Kepler Gesammelte Werke (1937- ), Vol. 1, 330-2. Quoted in N. Jardine, The Birth of History and Philosophy of Science: Kepler's A Defence of Tycho Against Ursus With Essays on its Provenance and Significance (1984), 277-8.
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After what has been premised, I think we may lay down the following Conclusions. First, It is plain Philosophers amuse themselves in vain, when they inquire for any natural efficient Cause, distinct from a Mind or Spirit. Secondly, Considering the whole Creation is the Workmanship of a wise and good Agent, it should seem to become Philosophers, to employ their Thoughts (contrary to what some hold) about the final Causes of Things: And I must confess, I see no reason, why pointing out the various Ends, to which natural Things are adapted and for which they were originally with unspeakable Wisdom contrived, should not be thought one good way of accounting for them, and altogether worthy a Philosopher.
A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge [first published 1710], (1734), 126-7.
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All possible truth is practical. To ask whether our conception of chair or table corresponds to the real chair or table apart from the uses to which they may be put, is as utterly meaningless and vain as to inquire whether a musical tone is red or yellow. No other conceivable relation than this between ideas and things can exist. The unknowable is what I cannot react upon. The active part of our nature is not only an essential part of cognition itself, but it always has a voice in determining what shall be believed and what rejected.
The Muscular Perception of Space (1878), 446.
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And for rejecting such a Medium, we have the Authority of those the oldest and most celebrated Philosophers of Greece and Phoenicia, who made a Vacuum, and Atoms, and the Gravity of Atoms, the first Principles of their Philosophy; tacitly attributing Gravity to some other Cause than dense Matter. Later Philosophers banish the Consideration of such a Cause out of natural Philosophy, feigning Hypotheses for explaining all things mechanically, and referring other Causes to Metaphysicks: Whereas the main Business of natural Philosophy is to argue from Phaenomena without feigning Hypotheses, and to deduce Causes from Effects, till we come to the very first Cause, which certainly is not mechanical; and not only to unfold the Mechanism of the World, but chiefly to resolve these and such like Questions. What is there in places almost empty of Matter, and whence is it that the Sun and Planets gravitate towards one another, without dense Matter between them? Whence is it that Nature doth nothing in vain; and whence arises all that Order and Beauty which we see in the World? ... does it not appear from phaenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his Sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself.
In Opticks, (1704, 2nd. Ed. 1718), Book 3, Query 28, 343-5. Newton’s reference to “Nature does nothing in vain” recalls the axiom from Aristotle, which may be seen as “Natura nihil agit frustra” in the Aristotle Quotes on this web site.
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And I believe there are many Species in Nature, which were never yet taken notice of by Man, and consequently of no use to him, which yet we are not to think were created in vain; but it’s likely … to partake of the overflowing Goodness of the Creator, and enjoy their own Beings. But though in this sense it be not true, that all things were made for Man; yet thus far it is, that all the Creatures in the World may be some way or other useful to us, at least to exercise our Wits and Understandings, in considering and contemplating of them, and so afford us Subject of Admiring and Glorifying their and our Maker. Seeing them, we do believe and assert that all things were in some sense made for us, we are thereby obliged to make use of them for those purposes for which they serve us, else we frustrate this End of their Creation.
John Ray
The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of the Creation (1691), 169-70.
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And, notwithstanding a few exceptions, we do undoubtedly find that the most truly eminent men have had not only their affections, but also their intellect, greatly influenced by women. I will go even farther; and I will venture to say that those who have not undergone that influence betray a something incomplete and mutilated. We detect, even in their genius, a certain frigidity of tone; and we look in vain for that burning fire, that gushing and spontaneous nature with which our ideas of genius are indissolubly associated. Therefore, it is, that those who are most anxious that the boundaries of knowledge should be enlarged, ought to be most eager that the influence of women should be increased, in order that every resource of the human mind may be at once and quickly brought into play.
Lecture (19 Mar 1858) at the Royal Institution, 'The Influence Of Women On The Progress Of Knowledge', collected in The Miscellaneous and Posthumous Works of Henry Thomas Buckle (1872), Vol. 1, 17. Published in Frazier’s Magazine (Apr 1858).
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As historians, we refuse to allow ourselves these vain speculations which turn on possibilities that, in order to be reduced to actuality, suppose an overturning of the Universe, in which our globe, like a speck of abandoned matter, escapes our vision and is no longer an object worthy of our regard. In order to fix our vision, it is necessary to take it such as it is, to observe well all parts of it, and by indications infer from the present to the past.
'Second Discours: Histoire et Theorie de la Terre', Histoire Naturelle, Ginerale et Particulière, Avec la Description du Cabinet du Roi (1749), Vol. 1, 98-9. Trans. Phillip R. Sloan.
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Attention makes the genius; all learning, fancy, and science depend on it. Newton traced back his discoveries to its unwearied employment. It builds bridges, opens new worlds, and heals diseases; without it Taste is useless, and the beauties of literature are unobserved; as the rarest flowers bloom in vain, if the eye be not fixed upon the bed.
Pleasures, Objects, and Advantages of Literature (1855), 37.
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But for the persistence of a student of this university in urging upon me his desire to study with me the modern algebra I should never have been led into this investigation; and the new facts and principles which I have discovered in regard to it (important facts, I believe), would, so far as I am concerned, have remained still hidden in the womb of time. In vain I represented to this inquisitive student that he would do better to take up some other subject lying less off the beaten track of study, such as the higher parts of the calculus or elliptic functions, or the theory of substitutions, or I wot not what besides. He stuck with perfect respectfulness, but with invincible pertinacity, to his point. He would have the new algebra (Heaven knows where he had heard about it, for it is almost unknown in this continent), that or nothing. I was obliged to yield, and what was the consequence? In trying to throw light upon an obscure explanation in our text-book, my brain took fire, I plunged with re-quickened zeal into a subject which I had for years abandoned, and found food for thoughts which have engaged my attention for a considerable time past, and will probably occupy all my powers of contemplation advantageously for several months to come.
In Johns Hopkins Commemoration Day Address, Collected Mathematical Papers, Vol. 3, 76.
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But since the brain, as well as the cerebellum, is composed of many parts, variously figured, it is possible, that nature, which never works in vain, has destined those parts to various uses, so that the various faculties of the mind seem to require different portions of the cerebrum and cerebellum for their production.
A Dissertation on the Functions of the Nervous System (1784), trans. and ed. Thomas Laycock (1851), 446.
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Charles Darwin [is my personal favorite Fellow of the Royal Society]. I suppose as a physical scientist I ought to have chosen Newton. He would have won hands down in an IQ test, but if you ask who was the most attractive personality then Darwin is the one you'd wish to meet. Newton was solitary and reclusive, even vain and vindictive in his later years when he was president of the society.
From interview with Graham Lawton, 'One Minute with Martin Rees', in New Scientist (12 Dec 2009), 204, No. 2738.
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Everything material which is the subject of knowledge has number, order, or position; and these are her first outlines for a sketch of the universe. If our feeble hands cannot follow out the details, still her part has been drawn with an unerring pen, and her work cannot be gainsaid. So wide is the range of mathematical sciences, so indefinitely may it extend beyond our actual powers of manipulation that at some moments we are inclined to fall down with even more than reverence before her majestic presence. But so strictly limited are her promises and powers, about so much that we might wish to know does she offer no information whatever, that at other moments we are fain to call her results but a vain thing, and to reject them as a stone where we had asked for bread. If one aspect of the subject encourages our hopes, so does the other tend to chasten our desires, and he is perhaps the wisest, and in the long run the happiest, among his fellows, who has learned not only this science, but also the larger lesson which it directly teaches, namely, to temper our aspirations to that which is possible, to moderate our desires to that which is attainable, to restrict our hopes to that of which accomplishment, if not immediately practicable, is at least distinctly within the range of conception.
From Presidential Address (Aug 1878) to the British Association, Dublin, published in the Report of the 48th Meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1878), 31.
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First of all a natural talent is required; for when Nature opposes, everything else is in vain; but when Nature leads the way to what is most excellent, instruction in the art takes place...
The Genuine Works of Hippocrates, trans. Francis Adams (1886), Vol. 2, 284.
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Formerly one sought the feeling of the grandeur of man by pointing to his divine origin: this has now become a forbidden way, for at its portal stands the ape, together with other gruesome beasts, grinning knowingly as if to say: no further in this direction! One therefore now tries the opposite direction: the way mankind is going shall serve as proof of his grandeur and kinship with God. Alas this, too, is vain! At the end of this way stands the funeral urn of the last man and gravedigger (with the inscription “nihil humani a me alienum puto”). However high mankind may have evolved—and perhaps at the end it will stand even lower than at the beginning!— it cannot pass over into a higher order, as little as the ant and the earwig can at the end of its “earthly course” rise up to kinship with God and eternal life. The becoming drags the has-been along behind it: why should an exception to this eternal spectacle be made on behalf of some little star or for any little species upon it! Away with such sentimentalities!
Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (1881), trans. R. J. Hollingdale (1982), 32.
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Geologists have not been slow to admit that they were in error in assuming that they had an eternity of past time for the evolution of the earth's history. They have frankly acknowledged the validity of the physical arguments which go to place more or less definite limits to the antiquity of the earth. They were, on the whole, disposed to acquiesce in the allowance of 100 millions of years granted to them by Lord Kelvin, for the transaction of the whole of the long cycles of geological history. But the physicists have been insatiable and inexorable. As remorseless as Lear's daughters, they have cut down their grant of years by successive slices, until some of them have brought the number to something less than ten millions. In vain have the geologists protested that there must somewhere be a flaw in a line of argument which tends to results so entirely at variance with the strong evidence for a higher antiquity, furnished not only by the geological record, but by the existing races of plants and animals. They have insisted that this evidence is not mere theory or imagination, but is drawn from a multitude of facts which become hopelessly unintelligible unless sufficient time is admitted for the evolution of geological history. They have not been able to disapprove the arguments of the physicists, but they have contended that the physicists have simply ignored the geological arguments as of no account in the discussion.
'Twenty-five years of Geological Progress in Britain', Nature, 1895, 51, 369.
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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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Happy the men who made the first essay,
And to celestial regions found the way!
No earthly vices clogg’d their purer souls,
That they could soar so high as touch the poles:
Sublime their thoughts and from pollution clear,
Bacchus and Venus held no revels there;
From vain ambition free; no love of war
Possess’d their minds, nor wranglings at the bar;
No glaring grandeur captivates their eyes,
For such see greater glory in the skies:
Thus these to heaven attain.
In Craufurd Tait Ramage (ed., trans.), Beautiful Thoughts From Latin Authors, with English Translations (1864),
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He who seeks for methods without having a definite problem in mind seeks for the most part in vain.
'Mathematical Problems', Bulletin of the American Mathematical Society (Jul 1902), 8, 444.
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Hypochondriacs squander large sums of time in search of nostrums by which they vainly hope they may get more time to squander.
In Lacon: Or Many Things in Few Words, Addressed to Those who Think (1823), 99. Misattributions to authors born later than this publication include to Mortimer Collins and to Peter Ouspensky.
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I am now convinced that we have recently become possessed of experimental evidence of the discrete or grained nature of matter, which the atomic hypothesis sought in vain for hundreds and thousands of years. The isolation and counting of gaseous ions, on the one hand, which have crowned with success the long and brilliant researches of J.J. Thomson, and, on the other, agreement of the Brownian movement with the requirements of the kinetic hypothesis, established by many investigators and most conclusively by J. Perrin, justify the most cautious scientist in now speaking of the experimental proof of the atomic nature of matter, The atomic hypothesis is thus raised to the position of a scientifically well-founded theory, and can claim a place in a text-book intended for use as an introduction to the present state of our knowledge of General Chemistry.
In Grundriss der allgemeinen Chemie (4th ed., 1909), Preface, as cited by Erwin N. Hiebert and Hans-Gunther Korber in article on Ostwald in Charles Coulston Gillespie (ed.), Dictionary of Scientific Biography Supplement 1, Vol 15-16, 464.
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I have been able to solve a few problems of mathematical physics on which the greatest mathematicians since Euler have struggled in vain … But the pride I might have held in my conclusions was perceptibly lessened by the fact that I knew that the solution of these problems had almost always come to me as the gradual generalization of favorable examples, by a series of fortunate conjectures, after many errors. I am fain to compare myself with a wanderer on the mountains who, not knowing the path, climbs slowly and painfully upwards and often has to retrace his steps because he can go no further—then, whether by taking thought or from luck, discovers a new track that leads him on a little till at length when he reaches the summit he finds to his shame that there is a royal road by which he might have ascended, had he only the wits to find the right approach to it. In my works, I naturally said nothing about my mistake to the reader, but only described the made track by which he may now reach the same heights without difficulty.
(1891) As quoted in translation in Leo Koenigsberger and Frances A. Welby (trans.), Hermann von Helmholtz (1906), 180-181.
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I think we may picture those domains where understanding exists, whether in physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, economics or any other discipline as cultivated valleys in a formidably mountainous country. We may recognise in principle that we all inhabit the same world but in practice we do well to cultivate our own valleys, with an occasional assault on the more accessible foothills, rather than to build roads in a vain attempt at colonisation.
From Inaugural Lecture as Cavendish Professor of Physics, Cambridge, as quoted in Gordon L. Glegg, The Development of Design (1981), 1-2.
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I uphold my own rights, and therefore I also recognize the rights of others. This is the principle I act upon in life, in politics and in science. We owe it to ourselves to defend our rights, for it is the only guarantee for our individual development, and for our influence upon the community at large. Such a defence is no act of vain ambition, and it involves no renunciation of purely scientific aims. For, if we would serve science, we must extend her limits, not only as far as our own knowledge is concerned, but in the estimation of others.
Cellular Pathology, translated by Frank Chance (1860), x.
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If the [Vestiges] be true, the labours of sober induction are in vain; religion is a lie; human law is a mass of folly, and a base injustice; morality is moonshine; our labours for the black people of Africa were works of madmen; and man and woman are only better beasts!
Letter to Charles Lyell (9 Apr 1845). In John Willis Clark and Thomas McKenny Hughes (eds.), The Life and Letters of the Reverend Adam Sedgwick (1890), Vol. 2, 84.
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If [in a rain forest] the traveler notices a particular species and wishes to find more like it, he must often turn his eyes in vain in every direction. Trees of varied forms, dimensions, and colors are around him, but he rarely sees any of them repeated. Time after time he goes towards a tree which looks like the one he seeks, but a closer examination proves it to be distinct.
In 'Equitorial Vegetation', Natural Selection and Tropical Nature Essays on Descriptive and Theoretical Biology (1891), 267.
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In going on with these Experiments, how many pretty systems do we build, which we soon find ourselves oblig’d to destroy! If there is no other Use discover’d of Electricity, this, however, is something considerable, that it may help to make a vain Man humble.
Letter to Peter Collinson, 14 Aug 1747. In I. Bernard Cohen (ed.), Benjamin Franklin’s Experiments (1941), 63.
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In the final, the positive, state, the mind has given over the vain search after absolute notions, the origin and destination of the universe, and the causes of phenomena, and applies itself to the study of their laws—that is, their invariable relations of succession and resemblance. Reasoning and observation, duly combined, are the means of this knowledge. What is now understood when we speak of an explanation of facts is simply the establishment of a connection between single phenomena and some general facts.
The Positive Philosophy, trans. Harriet Martineau (1853), Vol. 1, 2.
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In this great celestial creation, the catastrophy of a world, such as ours, or even the total dissolution of a system of worlds, may possibly be no more to the great Author of Nature, than the most common accident in life with us, and in all probability such final and general Doomsdays may be as frequent there, as even Birthdays or mortality with us upon the earth. This idea has something so cheerful in it, that I know I can never look upon the stars without wondering why the whole world does not become astronomers; and that men endowed with sense and reason should neglect a science they are naturally so much interested in, and so capable of enlarging their understanding, as next to a demonstration must convince them of their immortality, and reconcile them to all those little difficulties incident to human nature, without the least anxiety. All this the vast apparent provision in the starry mansions seem to promise: What ought we then not to do, to preserve our natural birthright to it and to merit such inheritance, which alas we think created all to gratify alone a race of vain-glorious gigantic beings, while they are confined to this world, chained like so many atoms to a grain of sand.
In The Universe and the Stars: Being an Original Theory on the Visible Creation, Founded on the Laws of Nature (1750, 1837), 132.
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Let me not seem to have lived in vain.
Reputed to be his last words.
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Man is an eating animal, a drinking animal, and a sleeping animal, and one placed in a material world, which alone furnishes all the human animal can desire. He is gifted besides with knowing faculties, practically to explore and to apply the resources of this world to his use. These are realities. All else is nothing; conscience and sentiment are mere figments of the imagination. Man has but five gates of knowledge, the five senses; he can know nothing but through them; all else is a vain fancy, and as for the being of a God, the existence of a soul, or a world to come, who can know anything about them? Depend upon it, my dear madam, these are only the bugbears by which men of sense govern fools.
Attributed to Darwin by Mary Anne Schimmelpennick. Quoted in Christiana C. Hankin (ed.) Life of Mary Anne Schimmelpenninck (1858), Vol. I, 241-2.
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Mathematicians have tried in vain to this day to discover some order in the sequence of prime numbers, and we have reason to believe that it is a mystery into which the human mind will never penetrate.
As quoted in G. Simmons Calculus Gems (1992).
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Men always fool themselves when they give up experience for systems born of the imagination. Man is the work of nature, he exists in nature, he is subject to its laws, he can not break free, he can not leave even in thought; it is in vain that his spirit wants to soar beyond the bounds of the visible world, he is always forced to return.
Opening statement of first chapter of Système de la Nature (1770), Vol. 1, 1. Translation by Webmaster using Google Translate. From the original French, “Les hommes se tromperont toujours, quand ils abandonneront l'expérience pour des systèmes enfantés par l’imagination. L’homme est l’ouvrage de la nature, il existe dans la nature, il est soumis à ses lois, il ne peut s’en affranchir, il ne peut même par la pensée en sortir; c’est en vain que son esprit veut s’élancer au delà des bornes du monde visible, il est toujours forcé d’y rentrer.” In the English edition (1820-21), Samuel Wilkinson gives this as “Man has always deceived himself when he abandoned experience to follow imaginary systems.—He is the work of nature.—He exists in Nature.—He is submitted to the laws of Nature.—He cannot deliver himself from them:—cannot step beyond them even in thought. It is in vain his mind would spring forward beyond the visible world: direful and imperious necessity ever compels his return.”
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Mock on, mock on, Voltaire, Rousseau!
Mock on, mock on: 'Tis all in vain!
You throw the sand against the wind,
And the wind blows it back again.
And every sand becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine;
Blown back they blind the mocking eye,
But still in Israel's paths they shine.
The atoms of Democritus
And Newton's particles of light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore,
Where Israel's tents do shine so bright.
Notebook Drafts (c. 1804). In W. H. Stevenson (ed.), The Poems of William Blake (1971), 481.
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Nature does nothing in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.
In Isaac Newton and Andrew Motte (trans.), The Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1803), Vol. 2, 160. Newton's comment on his Rules of Reasoning Philosophy, Rule 1. Newton’s reference to “Nature does nothing in vain” recalls the axiom from Aristotle, which may be seen as “Natura nihil agit frustra” in the Aristotle Quotes on this web site.
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No place affords a more striking conviction of the vanity of human hopes than a publick library; for who can see the wall crouded on every side by mighty volumes, the works of laborious meditation, and accurate inquiry, now scarcely known but by the catalogue, and preserved only to encrease the pomp of learning, without considering how many hours have been wasted in vain endeavours, how often imagination has anticipated the praises of futurity, how many statues have risen to the eye of vanity, how many ideal converts have elevated zeal, how often wit has exulted in the eternal infamy of his antagonists, and dogmatism has delighted in the gradual advances of his authority, the immutability of his decrees, and the perpetuity of his power.
Non unquam dedit
Documenta fors majora, quam fragili loco
Starent superbi.

Seneca, Troades, II, 4-6
Insulting chance ne'er call'd with louder voice,
On swelling mortals to be proud no more.
Of the innumerable authors whose performances are thus treasured up in magnificent obscurity, most are forgotten, because they never deserved to be remembered, and owed the honours which they have once obtained, not to judgment or to genius, to labour or to art, but to the prejudice of faction, the stratagem of intrigue, or the servility of adulation.
Nothing is more common than to find men whose works are now totally neglected, mentioned with praises by their contemporaries, as the oracles of their age, and the legislators of science. Curiosity is naturally excited, their volumes after long enquiry are found, but seldom reward the labour of the search. Every period of time has produced these bubbles of artificial fame, which are kept up a while by the breath of fashion and then break at once and are annihilated. The learned often bewail the loss of ancient writers whose characters have survived their works; but perhaps if we could now retrieve them we should find them only the Granvilles, Montagus, Stepneys, and Sheffields of their time, and wonder by what infatuation or caprice they could be raised to notice.
It cannot, however, be denied, that many have sunk into oblivion, whom it were unjust to number with this despicable class. Various kinds of literary fame seem destined to various measures of duration. Some spread into exuberance with a very speedy growth, but soon wither and decay; some rise more slowly, but last long. Parnassus has its flowers of transient fragrance as well as its oaks of towering height, and its laurels of eternal verdure.
The Rambler, Number 106, 23 Mar 1751. In W. J. Bate and Albrecht B. Strauss (eds.), The Rambler (1969), Vol. 2, 200-1.
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O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called; Which some professing have erred concerning faith. Grace be with thee. Amen.
Bible
I Timothy 6:20-21, in The Holy Bible (1756).
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Of what use are the great number of petrifactions, of different species, shape and form which are dug up by naturalists? Perhaps the collection of such specimens is sheer vanity and inquisitiveness. I do not presume to say; but we find in our mountains the rarest animals, shells, mussels, and corals embalmed in stone, as it were, living specimens of which are now being sought in vain throughout Europe. These stones alone whisper in the midst of general silence.
Philosophia Botanica (1751), aphorism 132. Trans. Frans A. Stafleu, Linnaeus and the Linnaeans: The Spreading of their Ideas in Systematic Botany, 1735-1789 (1971), 56.
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Our most distinguished “man of science” was the then veteran John Dalton. He was rarely absent from his seat in a warm corner of the room during the meetings of the Literary and Philosophical Society. Though a sober-minded Quaker, he was not devoid of some sense of fun; and there was a tradition amongst us, not only that he had once been a poet, but that, although a bachelor, two manuscript copies were still extant of his verses on the subject of matrimonial felicity; and it is my belief there was foundation for the tradition. The old man was sensitive on the subject of his age. Dining one day ... he was placed between two ladies ... [who] resolved to extract from him some admission on the tender point, but in vain. Though never other than courteous, Dalton foiled all their feminine arts and retained his secret. ... Dalton's quaint and diminutive figure was a strongly individualized one.
In Reminiscences of a Yorkshire Naturalist (1896), 73-74.
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Perfect as the wing of a bird may be, it will never enable the bird to fly if unsupported by the air. Facts are the air of science. Without them a man of science can never rise. Without them your theories are vain surmises. But while you are studying, observing, experimenting, do not remain content with the surface of things. Do not become a mere recorder of facts, but try to penetrate the mystery of their origin. Seek obstinately for the laws that govern them.
Translation of a note, 'Bequest of Pavlov to the Academic Youth of his Country', written a few days before his death for a student magazine, The Generation of the Victors. As published in 'Pavlov and the Spirit of Science', Nature (4 Apr 1936), 137, 572.
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Philosophy [the universe] is written in that great book which ever lies before our eyes ... We cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in the mathematical language ... without whose help it is humanly impossible to comprehend a single word of it, and without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.
…...
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Religious feeling is as much a verity as any other part of human consciousness; and against it, on its subjective side, the waves of science beat in vain.
In 'Professor Virchow and Evolution', Fragments of Science for Unscientific People (1879), Vol. 2, 376.
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Science gains from it [the pendulum] more than one can expect. With its huge dimensions, the apparatus presents qualities that one would try in vain to communicate by constructing it on a small [scale], no matter how carefully. Already the regularity of its motion promises the most conclusive results. One collects numbers that, compared with the predictions of theory, permit one to appreciate how far the true pendulum approximates or differs from the abstract system called 'the simple pendulum'.
In 'Demonstration Experimentale du Movement de Rotation de la Terre' (31 May 1851). In C.M. Gariel (ed.), J. Bertrand (ed.) and Harold Burstyn (trans.), Recueil des Travaux Scientifiques de Lion Foucault (1878), Vol. 2, 527.
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Science progresses by a series of combinations in which chance plays not the least role. Its life is rough and resembles that of minerals which grow by juxtaposition [accretion]. This applies not only to science such as it emerges [results] from the work of a series of scientists, but also to the particular research of each one of them. In vain would analysts dissimulate: (however abstract it may be, analysis is no more our power than that of others); they do not deduce, they combine, they compare: (it must be sought out, sounded out, solicited.) When they arrive at the truth it is by cannoning from one side to another that they come across it.
English translation from manuscript, in Évariste Galois and Peter M. Neumann, 'Dossier 12: On the progress of pure analysis', The Mathematical Writings of Évariste Galois (2011), 263. A transcription of the original French is on page 262. In the following quote from that page, indicated deletions are omitted, and Webmaster uses parentheses to enclose indications of insertions above the original written line. “La science progresse par une série de combinaisons où le hazard ne joue pas le moindre rôle; sa vie est brute et ressemble à celle des minéraux qui croissent par juxtà position. Cela s’applique non seulement à la science telle qu’elle résulte des travaux d’une série de savants, mais aussi aux recherches particulières à chacun d’eux. En vain les analystes voudraient-ils se le dissimuler: (toute immatérielle qu’elle wst analyse n’est pas pas plus en notre pouvoir que des autres); ils ne déduisent pas, ils combinent, ils comparent: (il faut l’epier, la sonder, la solliciter) quand ils arrivent à la vérité, c’est en heurtant de côté et d’autre qu’il y sont tombés.” Webmaster corrected from typo “put” to “but” in the English text.
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Science too proceeds by lantern-flashes; it explores nature’s inexhaustible mosaic piece by piece. Too often the wick lacks oil; the glass panes of the lantern may not be clean. No matter: his work is not in vain who first recognizes and shows to others one speck of the vast unknown.
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See with what force yon river’s crystal stream
Resists the weight of many a massy beam.
To sink the wood the more we vainly toil,
The higher it rebounds, with swift recoil.
Yet that the beam would of itself ascend
No man will rashly venture to contend.
Thus too the flame has weight, though highly rare,
Nor mounts but when compelled by heavier air.
De Rerum Natura, second book, as quoted in translation in Thomas Young, A Course of Lectures on Natural Philosophy and the Mechanical Arts (1845), 12.
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So is not mathematical analysis then not just a vain game of the mind? To the physicist it can only give a convenient language; but isn’t that a mediocre service, which after all we could have done without; and, it is not even to be feared that this artificial language be a veil, interposed between reality and the physicist’s eye? Far from that, without this language most of the intimate analogies of things would forever have remained unknown to us; and we would never have had knowledge of the internal harmony of the world, which is, as we shall see, the only true objective reality.
From La valeur de la science. In Anton Bovier, Statistical Mechanics of Disordered Systems (2006), 3, giving translation "approximately" in the footnote of the opening epigraph in the original French: “L’analyse mathématique, n’est elle donc qu’un vain jeu d’esprit? Elle ne peut pas donner au physicien qu’un langage commode; n’est-ce pa là un médiocre service, dont on aurait pu se passer à la rigueur; et même n’est il pas à craindre que ce langage artificiel ne soit pas un voile interposé entre la réalité at l’oeil du physicien? Loin de là, sans ce langage, la pluspart des anaologies intimes des choses nous seraient demeurées à jamais inconnues; et nous aurions toujours ignoré l’harmonie interne du monde, qui est, nous le verrons, la seule véritable réalité objective.” Another translation, with a longer quote, beginning “Without this language…”, is on the Henri Poincaré Quotes" page of this website.
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The advance of science is not comparable to the changes of a city, where old edifices are pitilessly torn down to give place to new, but to the continuous evolution of zoologic types which develop ceaselessly and end by becoming unrecognisable to the common sight, but where an expert eye finds always traces of the prior work of the centuries past. One must not think then that the old-fashioned theories have been sterile and vain.
The Value of Science (1905), in The Foundations of Science: Science and Hypothesis, The Value of Science, Science and Method(1946), trans. by George Bruce Halsted, 208.
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The alchemists of past centuries tried hard to make the elixir of life: ... Those efforts were in vain; it is not in our power to obtain the experiences and the views of the future by prolonging our lives forward in this direction. However, it is well possible in a certain sense to prolong our lives backwards by acquiring the experiences of those who existed before us and by learning to know their views as well as if we were their contemporaries. The means for doing this is also an elixir of life.
Foreword to Die Entwicklung der Chemie in der neueren Zeit (1873), trans. W. H. Brock.
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The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, “But how can it be like that?” which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. … If you will simply admit that maybe [Nature] does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.
[About wave-particle duality.]
'Probability abd Uncertainty—the Quantum Mechanical View of Nature', the sixth of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 129.
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The great truths with which it [mathematics] deals, are clothed with austere grandeur, far above all purposes of immediate convenience or profit. It is in them that our limited understandings approach nearest to the conception of that absolute and infinite, towards which in most other things they aspire in vain. In the pure mathematics we contemplate absolute truths, which existed in the divine mind before the morning stars sang together, and which will continue to exist there, when the last of their radiant host shall have fallen from heaven. They existed not merely in metaphysical possibility, but in the actual contemplation of the supreme reason. The pen of inspiration, ranging all nature and life for imagery to set forth the Creator’s power and wisdom, finds them best symbolized in the skill of the surveyor. "He meted out heaven as with a span;" and an ancient sage, neither falsely nor irreverently, ventured to say, that “God is a geometer”.
In Orations and Speeches (1870), Vol. 3, 614.
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The human understanding is unquiet; it cannot stop or rest, and still presses onward, but in vain. Therefore it is that we cannot conceive of any end or limit to the world, but always as of necessity it occurs to us that there is something beyond... But he is no less an unskilled and shallow philosopher who seeks causes of that which is most general, than he who in things subordinate and subaltern omits to do so
From Aphorism 48, Novum Organum, Book I (1620). Collected in James Spedding (ed.), The Works of Francis Bacon (1858), Vol. 4, 57.
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The Primal Plant is going be the strangest creature in the world, which Nature herself must envy me. With this model and the key to it, it will be possible to go on for ever inventing plants and know that their existence is logical; that is to say, if they do not actually exist, they could, for they are not the shadowy phantoms of a vain imagination, but possess an inner necessity and truth. The same law will be applicable to all other living organisms.
To Herder, 17 May 1787. Italian Journey (1816-17), trans. W. H. Auden and Elizabeth Mayer (1970), 310-11.
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The pursuits of the greatest trifles may sometimes have a very good effect. The search after the philosopher’s stone has preserved chemistry; and the following astrology so much in former ages has been the cause of astronomy’s being so much advanced in ours. Sir Isaac Newton himself has owned that he began with studying judicial astrology, and that it was his pursuits of that idle and vain study which led him into the beauties and love of astronomy.
As recalled and recorded in Joseph Spence and Edmund Malone (ed.) Anecdotes, Observations, and Characters of Books and Men (1858), 159-160.
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The whole strenuous intellectual work of an industrious research worker would appear, after all, in vain and hopeless, if he were not occasionally through some striking facts to find that he had, at the end of all his criss-cross journeys, at last accomplished at least one step which was conclusively nearer the truth.
Nobel Lecture (2 Jun 1920), in Nobel Lectures in Physics, 1901-1921 (1998), 407.
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Their vain presumption of knowing all can take beginning solely from their never having known anything; for if one has but once experienced the perfect knowledge of one thing, and truly tasted what it is to know, he shall perceive that of infinite other conclusions he understands not so much as one.
Dialogue on the Great World Systems (1632). Revised and Annotated by Giorgio De Santillana (1953), 112.
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This single Stick, which you now behold ingloriously lying in that neglected Corner, I once knew in a flourishing State in a Forest: It was full of Sap, full of Leaves, and full of Boughs: But now, in vain does the busy Art of Man pretend to vie with Nature, by tying that withered Bundle of Twigs to its sapless Trunk: It is at best but the Reverse of what it was; a Tree turned upside down, the Branches on the Earth, and the Root in the Air.
'A Meditation Upon a Broom-stick: According to The Style and Manner of the Honorable Robert Boyle's Meditations' (1703), collected in 'Thoughts On Various Subjects', The Works of Jonathan Swift (1746), Vol. 1, 55-56.
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Thou to whom the sick and dying
Ever came, nor came in vain,
With thy healing hands replying
To their wearied cry of pain.
Anonymous
The New English Hymnal (1986), 331.
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To teach vain Wits that Science little known,
T' admire Superior Sense, and doubt their own!
In An Essay on Criticism (1711), 13.
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To this I may add another form of temptation, manifold in its dangers … There exists in the soul … a cupidity which does not take delight in the carnal pleasure but in perceptions acquired through the flesh. It is a vain inquisitiveness dignified with the title of knowledge and science. As this is rooted in the appetite for knowing, and as among the senses the eyes play a leading role in acquiring knowledge, the divine word calls it “the lust of the eyes” (I John, 2: 16) … To satisfy this diseased craving … people study the operations of nature, which lie beyond our grasp when there is no advantage in knowing and the investigators simply desire knowledge for its own sake. This motive is again at work if, using a perverted science for the same end, people try to achieve things by magical arts.
From Confessions (c.397), Book X, Chap. 35 (54-55), as given in Henry Chadwick, Confessions: A New Translation by Henry Chadwick (1991), 210-212.
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To what purpose should People become fond of the Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy? … People very readily call Useless what they do not understand. It is a sort of Revenge… One would think at first that if the Mathematicks were to be confin’d to what is useful in them, they ought only to be improv'd in those things which have an immediate and sensible Affinity with Arts, and the rest ought to be neglected as a Vain Theory. But this would be a very wrong Notion. As for Instance, the Art of Navigation hath a necessary Connection with Astronomy, and Astronomy can never be too much improv'd for the Benefit of Navigation. Astronomy cannot be without Optics by reason of Perspective Glasses: and both, as all parts of the Mathematicks are grounded upon Geometry … .
Of the Usefulness of Mathematical Learning (1699)
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Voluntary attention is … a habit, an imitation of natural attention, which … serves, at the same time, as its point of departure and point of support. … Attention … creates nothing; and if the brain be sterile, if the associations are poor, it will act its part in vain.
As translated in The Psychology of Attention (1890), 45 & 65. Also translated as, “Voluntary attention is a habit, an imitation of natural attention, which is its starting-point and its basis. … Attention creates nothing; and if the brain is barren, if the associations are meagre, it functions in vain”, in William W. Speer, Primary Arithmetic: First Year, for the Use of Teachers (1902), 2-3. By
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We are not to suppose, that there is any violent exertion of power, such as is required in order to produce a great event in little time; in nature, we find no deficiency in respect of time, nor any limitation with regard to power. But time is not made to flow in vain; nor does there ever appear the exertion of superfluous power, or the manifestation of design, not calculated in wisdom to effect some general end.
'Theory of the Earth', Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788, 1, 294.
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We are so presumptuous that we would wish to be known by all the world, even by people who shall come after, when we shall be no more; and we are so vain that the esteem of five or six neighbours delights and contents us.
In Pensées (1670), Section 2, No. 5. As translated in Blaise Pascal and W.F. Trotter (trans.), 'Thoughts', No. 148, collected in Charles W. Eliot (ed.), The Harvard Classics (1910), Vol. 48, 60. A similar translation is in W.H. Auden and L. Kronenberger (eds.) The Viking Book of Aphorisms (1966). From the original French, “Nous sommes si présomptueux, que nous voudrions être connus de toute la terre, et même des gens qui viendront quand nous ne serons plus; et nous sommes si vains, que l'estime de cinq ou six personnes qui nous environment, nous amuse et nous contente,” in Ernest Havet (ed.), Pensées de Pascal (1892), 122-123.
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We have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that, there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is vain to look for anything higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of our present enquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,-no prospect of an end.
'Theory of the Earth', Transactions of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, 1788, 1, 304.
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We know the truth not only through our reason but also through our heart. It is through the latter that we know first principles, and reason, which has nothing to do with it, tries in vain to refute them.
Pensées (1670), trans. A.J. Krailsheimer (1966), Section 1, VI, aphorism 110, 58.
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We speak of it [astrology] as an extinct science; yet let but an eclipse of the sun happen, or a comet visit the evening sky, and in a moment we all believe in astrology. In vain do you tell the gazers on such spectacles that a solar eclipse is only the moon acting for the time as a candle-extinguisher to the sun, and give them bits of smoked glass to look through, and draw diagrams on the blackboard to explain it all. They listen composedly, and seem convinced, but in their secret hearts they are saying—“What though you can see it through a glass darkly, and draw it on a blackboard, does that show that it has no moral significance? You can draw a gallows or a guillotine, or write the Ten Commandments on a blackboard, but does that deprive them of meaning?” And so with the comet. No man will believe that the splendid stranger is hurrying through the sky solely on a momentous errand of his own. No! he is plainly signalling, with that flashing sword of his, something of importance to men,—something at all events that, if we could make it out, would be found of huge concern to us.
From 'Introductory Lecture on Technology for 1858-59', published as The Progress of the Telegraph (1859), 19-20.
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What parts of the interior or the atmosphere give rise to the various phenomena, or indeed, if these regions have any parts at all, are questions which we ask of the stars in vain.
In Modern Astrophysics (1924), 182.
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Whence is it that nature does nothing in vain; and whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world?
Part of a longer quote by Newton that begins: “And for rejecting such a medium we have the authority…. See the full quote, and citation, elsewhere in the collection of Newton quotes on this web site. Newton’s reference to “Nature does nothing in vain” recalls the axiom from Aristotle, which may be seen as “Natura nihil agit frustra” in the Aristotle Quotes on this web site.
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Who thinks all Science, as all Virtue, vain;
Who counts Geometry and numbers Toys…
In 'The First Satire of Persius', The Satires of D. J. Juvenalis, Translated Into English Verse, By Mr. Dryden. (1702), 355.
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Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain.
Academical Discourse (22 Nov 1862) delivered at Heidelberg. Collected in Hermann von Helmholtz, Edmund Atkinson (trans.), Popular Lectures on Scientific Subjects: First Series (1883), 29.
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You should know how many incompetent men I had to compete with - in vain!
As quoted by her cousin's son, Nils Groes, quoted in Bruce A. Bolt, 'Inge Lehmann', Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society (1997), 285-301.
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[Alchemists] enrich the ears of men with vain words, but empty their Pockets of their Money. Whence it appears to be no Art, but a Composition of Trifles, and inventions of mad brains.
In The Vanity of the Arts and Sciences (1530), translation (1676), 313.
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[I have] a strong conviction that controversial reply and rejoinder is but a vain occupation.
In letter (11 Mar 1843) to R. Taylor, collected in Experimental Researches in Electricity (1844), Vol. 2, 274-2755. Published earlier as 'On Dr. Hare’s Second Letter, and on the Chemical and Contact Theories of the Voltaic Battery', London and Edinburgh Philosophical Magazine (1843), 23.
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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 -
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- 30 -
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- 20 -
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