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Home > Dictionary of Science Quotations > Scientist Names Index T > Silvanus Phillips Thompson Quotes

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Silvanus Phillips Thompson
(19 Jun 1851 - 12 Jun 1916)

British physicist and historian.


Science Quotes by Silvanus Phillips Thompson (7 quotes)

Again and again in reading even his [William Thomson] most abstract writings one is struck by the tenacity with which physical ideas control in him the mathematical form in which he expressed them. An instance of this is afforded by … an example of a mathematical result that is, in his own words, “not instantly obvious from the analytical form of my solution, but which we immediately see must be the case by thinking of the physical meaning of the result.”
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
As given in Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), Vol. 2, 1136. The ellipsis gives the reference to the quoted footnote, to a passage in his Mathematical and Physical Papers, Vol. 1, 457. [Note: William Thomson, later became Lord Kelvin. —Webmaster]
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Not seldom did he [Sir William Thomson], in his writings, set down some mathematical statement with the prefacing remark “it is obvious that” to the perplexity of mathematical readers, to whom the statement was anything but obvious from such mathematics as preceded it on the page. To him it was obvious for physical reasons that might not suggest themselves at all to the mathematician, however competent.
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
As given in Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), Vol. 2, 1136. [Note: William Thomson, later became Lord Kelvin —Webmaster]
Science quotes on:  |  All (4108)  |  Competent (20)  |  Down (456)  |  Baron William Thomson Kelvin (71)  |  Mathematician (387)  |  Mathematicians and Anecdotes (141)  |  Mathematics (1328)  |  Obvious (126)  |  Page (30)  |  Perplex (6)  |  Physical (508)  |  Precede (23)  |  Preface (8)  |  Reader (40)  |  Reason (744)  |  Remark (28)  |  Seldom (65)  |  Set (394)  |  Statement (142)  |  Suggest (34)  |  Themselves (433)  |  Writing (189)  |  Writings (6)

Once when lecturing to a class he [Lord Kelvin] used the word “mathematician,” and then interrupting himself asked his class: “Do you know what a mathematician is?” Stepping to the blackboard he wrote upon it:— [an integral expression equal to the square root of pi]
Then putting his finger on what he had written, he turned to his class and said: “A mathematician is one to whom that is as obvious as that twice two makes four is to you. Liouville was a mathematician.”
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
In Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), 1139.
Science quotes on:  |  Ask (411)  |  Blackboard (11)  |  Class (164)  |  Do (1908)  |  Equal (83)  |  Expression (175)  |  Finger (44)  |  Himself (461)  |  Integral (26)  |  Interrupt (6)  |  Baron William Thomson Kelvin (71)  |  Know (1518)  |  Lecture (105)  |  Lord (93)  |  Mathematician (387)  |  Obvious (126)  |  Pi (13)  |  Root (120)  |  Say (984)  |  Square (70)  |  Square Root (12)  |  Step (231)  |  Turn (447)  |  Twice (17)  |  Two (937)  |  Word (619)  |  Write (230)

Tait once urged the advantage of Quaternions on Cayley (who never used them), saying: “You know Quaternions are just like a pocket-map.” “That may be,” replied Cayley, “but you’ve got to take it out of your pocket, and unfold it, before it’s of any use.” And he dismissed the subject with a smile.
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
In Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), 1137.
Science quotes on:  |  Advantage (134)  |  Arthur Cayley (17)  |  Dismiss (10)  |  Know (1518)  |  Map (44)  |  Mathematicians and Anecdotes (141)  |  Never (1087)  |  Pocket (11)  |  Quaternion (9)  |  Reply (56)  |  Say (984)  |  Smile (31)  |  Subject (521)  |  Peter Guthrie Tait (10)  |  Unfold (12)  |  Urge (17)  |  Use (766)

The following is one of the many stories told of “old Donald McFarlane” the faithful assistant of Sir William Thomson.
The father of a new student when bringing him to the University, after calling to see the Professor [Thomson] drew his assistant to one side and besought him to tell him what his son must do that he might stand well with the Professor. “You want your son to stand weel with the Profeessorr?” asked McFarlane. “Yes.” “Weel, then, he must just have a guid bellyful o’ mathematics!”
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
As given in Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), Vol. 1, 420, footnote. [Note: William Thomson, later became Lord Kelvin. —Webmaster]
Science quotes on:  |  Ask (411)  |  Assistant (6)  |  Do (1908)  |  Father (110)  |  Baron William Thomson Kelvin (71)  |  Mathematicians and Anecdotes (141)  |  Mathematics (1328)  |  Must (1526)  |  New (1216)  |  Old (481)  |  Professor (128)  |  See (1081)  |  Side (233)  |  Stand (274)  |  Student (300)  |  Tell (340)  |  University (121)  |  Want (497)

The following story (here a little softened from the vernacular) was narrated by Lord Kelvin himself when dining at Trinity Hall:
A certain rough Highland lad at the university had done exceedingly well, and at the close of the session gained prizes both in mathematics and in metaphysics. His old father came up from the farm to see his son receive the prizes, and visited the College. Thomson was deputed to show him round the place. “Weel, Mr. Thomson,” asked the old man, “and what may these mathematics be, for which my son has getten a prize?” “I told him,” replied Thomson, “that mathematics meant reckoning with figures, and calculating.” “Oo ay,” said the old man, “he’ll ha’ getten that fra’ me: I were ever a braw hand at the countin’.” After a pause he resumed: “And what, Mr. Thomson, might these metapheesics be?” “I endeavoured,” replied Thomson, “to explain how metaphysics was the attempt to express in language the indefinite.” The old Highlander stood still and scratched his head. “Oo ay: may be he’ll ha’ getten that fra’ his mither. She were aye a bletherin’ body."
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
As given in Life of Lord Kelvin (1910), Vol. 2, 1124, footnote. [Note: William Thomson, later became Lord Kelvin. —Webmaster]
Science quotes on:  |  Ask (411)  |  Attempt (251)  |  Body (537)  |  Both (493)  |  Certain (550)  |  College (66)  |  Endeavour (63)  |  Exceedingly (28)  |  Explain (322)  |  Express (186)  |  Farm (26)  |  Farmer (32)  |  Father (110)  |  Figure (160)  |  Gain (145)  |  Himself (461)  |  Indefinite (20)  |  Baron William Thomson Kelvin (71)  |  Language (293)  |  Little (707)  |  Lord (93)  |  Man (2251)  |  Mathematicians and Anecdotes (141)  |  Mathematics (1328)  |  Metaphysics (50)  |  Old (481)  |  Prize (13)  |  Receive (114)  |  Reckoning (19)  |  Scottish (4)  |  Scratch (13)  |  See (1081)  |  Show (346)  |  Still (613)  |  Story (118)  |  Trinity (9)  |  University (121)

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.”
— Silvanus Phillips Thompson
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.
Science quotes on:  |  Advance (280)  |  Creeping (4)  |  Lead (384)  |  Observation (555)  |  Point (580)  |  Science (3879)  |  Seemingly (28)  |  Trivial (57)  |  Useful (250)  |  Useless (33)


See also:
  • 19 Jun - short biography, births, deaths and events on date of Thompson's birth.

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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