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Today in Science History - Quickie Quiz
Who said: “Nature does nothing in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity and affects not the pomp of superfluous causes.”
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Yesterday Quotes (36 quotes)

Πάντα ῥεῖ : all things are in flux. It is inevitable that you are indebted to the past. You are fed and formed by it. The old forest is decomposed for the composition of the new forest. The old animals have given their bodies to the earth to furnish through chemistry the forming race, and every individual is only a momentary fixation of what was yesterday another’s, is today his and will belong to a third to-morrow. So it is in thought.
In Lecture, second in a series given at Freeman Place Chapel, Boston (Mar 1859), 'Quotation and Originality', collected in Letters and Social Aims (1875, 1917), 200. The Greek expression, “panta rei” is a quote from Heraclitus.
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A Canadian newspaperman said yesterday that this is the President's “Easter egghead roll on the White House lawn.” I want to deny that!
[Welcoming Nobel Prize winners as his guests at a White House dinner.]
Remarks at a dinner honoring Nobel Prize Winners of the Western Hemisphere (29 Apr 1962). From John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, The American Presidency Project [online].
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After innumerable dynasties of giant creatures, after endless generations of fish and families of molluscs, man finally arrives, the degenerate product of a grandiose type, his mould perhaps broken by his Creator. Fired by his retrospection, these timid humans, born but yesterday, can now leap across chaos, sing an endless hymn, and configure the history of the universe in a sort of retrograde Apocalypse.
From 'La Peau de Chagrin' (1831). As translated as by Helen Constantine The Wild Ass’s Skin (2012), 19.
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Among those whom I could never pursuade to rank themselves with idlers, and who speak with indignation of my morning sleeps and nocturnal rambles, one passes the day in catching spiders, that he may count their eyes with a microscope; another exhibits the dust of a marigold separated from the flower with a dexterity worthy of Leuwenhoweck himself. Some turn the wheel of electricity; some suspend rings to a lodestone, and find that what they did yesterday, they can do again to-day.—Some register the changes of the wind, and die fully convinced that the wind is changeable.—There are men yet more profound, who have heard that two colorless liquors may produce a color by union, and that two cold bodies will grow hot of they are mingled: they mingle them, and produce the effect expected, say it is strange, and mingle them again.
In Tryon Edwards, A Dictionary of Thoughts (1908), 243.
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And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow.
In 'The Prospect Before Us', Of Molecules and Men (1966), 99.
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Ask a follower of Bacon what [science] the new philosophy, as it was called in the time of Charles the Second, has effected for mankind, and his answer is ready; “It has lengthened life; it has mitigated pain; it has extinguished diseases; it has increased the fertility of the soil; it has given new securities to the mariner; it has furnished new arms to the warrior; it has spanned great rivers and estuaries with bridges of form unknown to our fathers; it has guided the thunderbolt innocuously from heaven to earth; it has lighted up the night with the splendour of the day; it has extended the range of the human vision; it has multiplied the power of the human muscles; it has accelerated motion; it has annihilated distance; it has facilitated intercourse, correspondence, all friendly offices, all dispatch of business; it has enabled man to descend to the depths of the sea, to soar into the air, to penetrate securely into the noxious recesses of the earth, to traverse the land in cars which whirl along without horses, to cross the ocean in ships which run ten knots an hour against the wind. These are but a part of its fruits, and of its first-fruits; for it is a philosophy which never rests, which has never attained, which is never perfect. Its law is progress. A point which yesterday was invisible is its goal to-day, and will be its starting-point to-morrow.”
From essay (Jul 1837) on 'Francis Bacon' in Edinburgh Review. In Baron Thomas Babington Macaulay and Lady Trevelyan (ed.) The Works of Lord Macaulay Complete (1871), Vol. 6, 222.
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Dear Mr. Bell: … Sir Wm. Thomson … speaks with much enthusiasm of your achievement. What yesterday he would have declared impossible he has today seen realized, and he declares it the most wonderful thing he has seen in America. You speak of it as an embryo invention, but to him it seems already complete, and he declares that, before long, friends will whisper their secrets over the electric wire. Your undulating current he declares a great and happy conception.
Letter to Alexander Graham Bell (25 Jun 1876). Quoted in Alexander Graham Bell, The Bell Telephone: The Deposition of Alexander Graham Bell, in the Suit Brought by the United States to Annul the Bell Patents (1908), 101. Note: William Thomson is better known as Lord Kelvin.
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Etna presents us not merely with an image of the power of subterranean heat, but a record also of the vast period of time during which that power has been exerted. A majestic mountain has been produced by volcanic action, yet the time of which the volcanic forms the register, however vast, is found by the geologist to be of inconsiderable amount, even in the modern annals of the earth's history. In like manner, the Falls of Niagara teach us not merely to appreciate the power of moving water, but furnish us at the same time with data for estimating the enormous lapse of ages during which that force has operated. A deep and long ravine has been excavated, and the river has required ages to accomplish the task, yet the same region affords evidence that the sum of these ages is as nothing, and as the work of yesterday, when compared to the antecedent periods, of which there are monuments in the same district.
Travels in North America (1845), Vol. 1, 28-9.
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Everyone admits that the male is the primary efficient cause in generation, as being that in whom the species or form resides, and they further assert that his genitures emitted in coitus causes the egg both to exist and to be fertile. But how the semen of the cock produces the chick from the egg, neither the philosophers nor the physicians of yesterday or today have satisfactorily explained, or solved the problem formulated by Aristotle.
Disputations Touching the Generation of Animals (1651), trans. Gweneth Whitteridge (1981), Chapter 47, 214.
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I am not unmindful of the journalist’s quip that yesterday’s paper wraps today’s garbage. I am also not unmindful of the outrages visited upon our forests to publish redundant and incoherent collections of essays; for, like Dr. Seuss’ Lorax, I like to think that I speak for the trees. Beyond vanity, my only excuses for a collection of these essays lie in the observation that many people like (and as many people despise) them, and that they seem to cohere about a common theme–Darwin’s evolutionary perspective as an antidote to our cosmic arrogance.
…...
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If my legs give up, they give up. But in that case I could sit and do programmes about amoebas—Micro Monsters, perhaps. What else do you want to do? Sit by the fire and read yesterday’s newspaper?
Stating his intent to never retire. Reported by Adam Lusher in 'Sir David Attenborough', Daily Mail (28 Feb 2014).
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Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence is that you have to know how to read music. For instance, the scientific article may say, “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.” Now what does that mean?
It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat—and also in mine, and yours—is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.
So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.
'What do You Care What Other People Think?' Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), 244.
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It is difficult to say what is impossible, for “The dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow.”
The opening clause is his own paraphrase of his own introductory remark, followed by quoting directly from his Oration (21 Jun 1904), 'On Taking Things for Granted', at his own graduation from South High School, Worcester, Massachusetts, in 'Material for an Autobiography of R.H. Goddard: written in July 1923 with interpolations made in 1933', The Papers of Robert H. Goddard: Vol. 1: 1898-1924 (1970), 11. The source of the paraphrase is seen in a longer direct quote from his Oration: “In the sciences we have learned that we are too ignorant to pronounce anything impossible,… The dream of yesterday is the hope of today and the reality of tomorrow”, in the epigraph on page v. The full Oration is on pp 63-66.
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It is unreasonable to expect science to produce a system of ethics—ethics are a kind of highway code for traffic among mankind—and the fact that in physics atoms which were yesterday assumed to be square are now assumed to be round is exploited with unjustified tendentiousness by all who are hungry for faith; so long as physics extends our dominion over nature, these changes ought to be a matter of complete indifference to you.
Letter to Oskar Pfister, 24 Feb 1928. Quoted in H. Meng and E. Freud (eds.), Psycho-Analysis and Faith: The Letters of Sigmund Freud and Oscar Pfister (1963), 123.
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It’s very good jam, said the Queen.
“Well, I don’t want any to-day, at any rate.”
“You couldn’t have it if you did want it,” the Queen said.
“The rule is jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam to-day.”
“It must come sometimes to “jam to-day,” Alice objected.
“No it can’t,” said the Queen.
“It’s jam every other day; to-day isn’t any other day, you know.”
“I don’t understand you,” said Alice. “It’s dreadfully confusing.”
From Through the Looking Glass. In Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland And, Through the Looking Glass (1898), 149.
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Lord Kelvin, unable to meet his classes one day, posted the following notice on the door of his lecture room, “Professor Thomson will not meet his classes today.” The disappointed class decided to play a joke on the professor. Erasing the “c” they left the legend to read, “Professor Thomson will not meet his lasses today.” When the class assembled the next day in anticipation of the effect of their joke, they were astonished and chagrined to find that the professor had outwitted them. The legend of yesterday was now found to read, “Professor Thomson will not meet his asses today.”
From Address (2 Nov 1908) at the University of Washington. Footnote: E.T. Bell attributes the same anecdote to J.S. Blackie, Professor of Greek at Aberdeen and Edinburgh. As quoted and cited in Robert Édouard Moritz, Memorabilia Mathematica; Or, The Philomath’s Quotation-Book (1914), 180.
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The advance from the simple to the complex, through a process of successive differentiations, is seen alike in the earliest changes of the Universe to which we can reason our way back, and in the earliest changes which we can inductively establish; it is seen in the geologic and climatic evolution of the Earth; it is seen in the unfolding of every single organism on its surface, and in the multiplication of kinds of organisms; it is seen in the evolution of Humanity, whether contemplated in the civilized individual, or in the aggregate of races; it is seen in the evolution of Society in respect alike of its political, its religious, and its economical organization; and it is seen in the evolution of all those endless concrete and abstract products of human activity which constitute the environment of our daily life. From the remotest past which Science can fathom, up to the novelties of yesterday, that in which Progress essentially consists, is the transformation of the homogeneous into the heterogeneous.
Progress: Its Law and Cause (1857), 35.
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The chief work of the botanists of yesterday was the study and classification of dried, shriveled plant mummies whose souls had fled.
From Paper (18 Jun 1901), read before the California Academy of Sciences, published in 'The Making of New Flowers', American Gardening (13 Jul 1901), 22, No. 342, 489.
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The methods of science aren’t foolproof, but they are indefinitely perfectible. Just as important: there is a tradition of criticism that enforces improvement whenever and wherever flaws are discovered. The methods of science, like everything else under the sun, are themselves objects of scientific scrutiny, as method becomes methodology, the analysis of methods. Methodology in turn falls under the gaze of epistemology, the investigation of investigation itself—nothing is off limits to scientific questioning. The irony is that these fruits of scientific reflection, showing us the ineliminable smudges of imperfection, are sometimes used by those who are suspicious of science as their grounds for denying it a privileged status in the truth-seeking department—as if the institutions and practices they see competing with it were no worse off in these regards. But where are the examples of religious orthodoxy being simply abandoned in the face of irresistible evidence? Again and again in science, yesterday’s heresies have become today’s new orthodoxies. No religion exhibits that pattern in its history.
…...
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The most important and urgent problems of the technology of today are no longer the satisfactions of the primary needs or of archetypal wishes, but the reparation of the evils and damages by technology of yesterday.
Innovations: Scientific Technological and Social (1970), 9.
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The nation that prepares for war will sooner or later have war. We get just anything we prepare for, and we get nothing else. Everything that happens is a sequence: this happened today because you did that yesterday.
Aphorism in The Philistine (Apr 1905), 20, No. 5, 160.
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The oldest empires,—what we called venerable antiquity, now that we have true measures of duration, show like creations of yesterday. … The old six thousand years of chronology become a kitchen clock,—no more a measure of time than an hour-glass or an egg-glass,—since the duration of geologic periods has come into view.
In 'Progress of Culture', an address read to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Cambridge, 18 July 1867. Collected in Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1883), 475.
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The Patent-Office Commissioner knows that all machines in use have been invented and re-invented over and over; that the mariner’s compass, the boat, the pendulum, glass, movable types, the kaleidoscope, the railway, the power-loom, etc., have been many times found and lost, from Egypt, China and Pompeii down; and if we have arts which Rome wanted, so also Rome had arts which we have lost; that the invention of yesterday of making wood indestructible by means of vapor of coal-oil or paraffine was suggested by the Egyptian method which has preserved its mummy-cases four thousand years.
In Lecture, second in a series given at Freeman Place Chapel, Boston (Mar 1859), 'Quotation and Originality', Letters and Social Aims (1875, 1917), 178-179.
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The philosophies of one age have become the absurdities of the next, and the foolishness of yesterday has become the wisdom of tomorrow.
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), 281.
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The question grows more troubling with each passing year how much of what yesterday’s science fiction regarded as unspeakably dreadful has become today’s awardwinning research
…...
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The six thousand years of human history form but a portion of the geologic day that is passing over us: they do not extend into the yesterday of the globe, far less touch the myriads of ages spread out beyond.
My Schools and Schoolmasters, Or, The Story of my Education (1854), 441.
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The testament of science is so continually in a flux that the heresy of yesterday is the gospel of today and the fundamentalism of tomorrow.
With co-author James R. Newman, in Mathematics and the Imagination (1940), 193.
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The world goes up and the world goes down,
And the sunshine follows the rain;
And yesterday’s sneer and yesterday’s frown
can never come over again.
…...
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With the unlocking of the atom, mankind crossed one of the great watersheds of history. We have entered uncharted lands. The maps of strategy and diplomacy by which we guided ourselves until yesterday no longer reveal the way. Fusion and fission revolutionized the whole foundation of human affairs.
In a speech to the General Federation of Women’s Clubs, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, May 24, 1955.
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Yesterday's dreams are today's science
Anonymous
In Leonard and Thelma Spinrad, Speaker's Lifetime Library (1979), 220.
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Yesterday, a small white keel feather escaped from my goose and lodged in the bank boughs near the kitchen porch, where I spied it as I came home in the cold twilight. The minute I saw the feather, I was projected into May, knowing a barn swallow would be along to claim the prize and use it to decorate the front edge of its nest. Immediately, the December air seemed full of wings of swallows and the warmth of barns.
In 'Home-Coming' (10 Dec 1955), collected in Essays of E.B. White (1977), 12.
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You can’t have a better tomorrow if you are thinking about yesterday all the time.
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You treat world history as a mathematician does mathematics, in which nothing but laws and formulae exist, no reality, no good and evil, no time, no yesterday, no tomorrow, nothing but an eternal, shallow, mathematical present.
From Das Glasperlemspeil (1943) translated as The Glass Bead Game (1969, 1990), 168.
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Your Grace will no doubt have learnt from the weekly reports of one Marco Antonio Bragadini, called Mamugnano. … He is reported to be able to turn base metal into gold… . He literally throws gold about in shovelfuls. This is his recipe: he takes ten ounces of quicksilver, puts it into the fire, and mixes it with a drop of liquid, which he carries in an ampulla. Thus it promptly turns into good gold. He has no other wish but to be of good use to his country, the Republic. The day before yesterday he presented to the Secret Council of Ten two ampullas with this liquid, which have been tested in his absence. The first test was found to be successful and it is said to have resulted in six million ducats. I doubt not but that this will appear mighty strange to your Grace.
Anonymous
'The Famous Alchemist Bragadini. From Vienna on the 1st day of November 1589'. As quoted in George Tennyson Matthews (ed.) News and Rumor in Renaissance Europe: The Fugger Newsletters (1959), 173. A handwritten collection of news reports (1568-1604) by the powerful banking and merchant house of Fugger in Ausburg.
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“Logic” proved that airplanes can't fly and that H-bombs won't work and that stones don't fall out of the sky. Logic is a way of saying that anything which didn't happen yesterday won't happen tomorrow.
Glory Road (1963)
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“They were apes only yesterday. Give them time.”
“Once an ape—always an ape.”…
“No, it will be different. … Come back here in an age or so and you shall see. …”
[The gods, discussing the Earth, in the movie version of Wells’ The Man Who Could Work Miracles (1936).]
The Man Who Could Work Miracles: a film by H.G. Wells based on the short story (1936), 105-106. Quoted in Carl Sagan, Broca’s Brain (1979, 1986), 3.
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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
Marie Curie
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Francis Crick
Hippocrates
Michael Faraday
Srinivasa Ramanujan
Francis Bacon
Galileo Galilei
- 10 -
Aristotle
John Watson
Rosalind Franklin
Michio Kaku
Isaac Asimov
Charles Darwin
Sigmund Freud
Albert Einstein
Florence Nightingale
Isaac Newton



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