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Words of wisdom

“There are two possible outcomes: If the result confirms the hypothesis, then you've made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you've made a discovery.”

– Enrico Fermi, physicist and Nobel laureate (1901-1954)

“All truths are easy to understand once they are discovered; the point is to discover them.”

– Galileo Galilei (1564–1642)

"Science begins with doubting traditional textbook assertions"

– Richard Feynman

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality.
To change something, build a new model that makes the existing
model obsolete.”

— Buckminster Fuller

"Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."

–Leonardo da Vinci

“Beware of false knowledge. It is more dangerous than ignorance”
“Maybe you are searching among the branches, for what only
appears in the roots.”
“If you find a path with no obstacles, it probably doesn't go where no-one has gone before.”

"It has been remarked that the majority of astronomers explain the craters of the moon by volcanic eruption — that is, by an essentially geological process — while a considerable number of geologists are inclined to explain them by the impact of bodies falling on the moon — that is, by an essentially astronomical process.  This suggests that each group of scientists find the craters so difficult to explain by processes with which they are professionally familiar that they have recourse to a process belonging in another field than their own, with which they are probably imperfectly acquainted, and with which they therefore feel freer to take liberties."

Davis, W.M., 1926, Biographical memoir of Grove Karl Gilbert, 1843-1918,  Mem. Nat. Acad. Sci. 21, 5th Mem., 303 pp.

"All models are wrong, but some are useful"

George Box

"Give me a fruitful error any time, bursting with its own seeds of correction; and you can keep your sterile truths for yourself"

Vilfredo Preto

Brexit (n) - "The undefined being negotiated by the unprepared in order to get the unspecified for the uninformed."

Source unknown

"The rigid career path of a professor at a modern university is that One Must Build the Big Research Group, recruit doctoral students more vigorously than the head football coach, bombard the federal agencies with grant applications more numerouos than the pollen falling from the heavens in spring, and leave the paper writing and the research to the postdocs, research associates, and students who do all the bench work and all the computer programming. A professor is chained to his previous topics by his Big Group, his network of contacts buit up laboriously over decades, and the impossibility of large funding except in areas where the grantee has grown the group from a corner of the building to an entire floor. The senior tenure-track faculty at a research university–the "silverbacks" in anthropological jargon–are bound by invisible chains stronger tha the strongest steel to a narrow range of what the Prevailing Consensus agrees are Very Important Problems. The aspiring scientist is confronted with the reality that his mentors are all business managers."

by John Boyd, 2016, from his Foreward to 'Discourse on Fourier Series" by Cornelius Lanczos

"Always unfalsifiable, never in doubt."

Dan Bloomberg

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Dwight D. Eisenhower

"Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity."

George S. Patton

"Science is the best idea humans have ever had. The more people who embrace that idea, the better.”

Bill Nye

"Probability is the most important concept in modern science, especially as nobody has the slightest notion of what it means."

Bertrand Russell, 1929

“There is no progress, no revolution of ages, in the history of knowledge, but at most a continuous and sublime recapitulation.”

Jorge, in Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco

"It is only by combing the information furnished by all the earth sciences that we can hope to determine 'truth' here, that is to say, to find the picture that sets out all the known facts in the best arrangement and that therefore has the highest degree of probability"

Alfred Wegener, 1915

"große Männer ehren, aber ihnennicht glauben soll" (honor great men, but do not believe them)

Berthold Brecht

"History teaches us that men and nations behave wisely once they have exhausted all other alternatives."

Abba Eban, 1970

"New discoveries are being made rapidly…but few of these have been predicted by the ‘reigning paradigms."

Don L. Anderson

“A theory which is not refutable by any conceivable event is non-scientific. Irrefutability is not a virtue of a theory (as some people think) but a vice.”

Karl Popper

“Contrary to received opinion a theory... is not normally rejected merely because it is falsified... falsifications and discovery of counter-examples and exceptions merely spur one on to greater ingenuity... in modifying the theory to accommodate the nuisance...”

P.M.S. Hacker

Unlike Fermat, Descartes gave the impression that he was often uninformed of what others had done before him; at least he only rarely mentioned the work of anybody else in his writings. And when he did, it was often in the most unpleasant manner one could imagine: at various times in his life he called his critics "two or three flies," "less than a rational animal," "a little dog," and "extremely contemptible." The actual works of others were often rejected in incredibly offensive language, e.g., as being fit only for use as "toilet paper" or, in the case of Fermat, as being "shit."

–Paul J. Nahin

"In 399 B.C. Socrates was accused of introducing new gods and questioning accepted gods. He was sentenced to death by a jury of 500 of his peers. His philosophy did not pass peer review."

Don L. Anderson

"I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction. I don’t like that they’re not calculating anything. I don’t like that they don’t check their ideas. I don’t like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation… I doesn’t look right."

Richard Feynman

“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference."

Robert Frost

"Let us make our future now and let us make today's dreams tomorrow's reality."

Malala Yousafza

“Intelligence is the ability to adapt to change”

Stephen Hawking

“Finding the world would not accommodate to his theory, he wisely determined to accommodate the theory to the world.”

Washington Irving (1809) told us of such a person

Truth only reveals itself when one gives up all preconceived ideas.

the Zen master Shoseki

"The human mind treats a new idea the way the body treats a strange protein; it rejects it."

Sir Peter B. Medawar in: The Art of the Soluble (1967)

"You can observe a lot by watching."

"If you don't know where you are going, you might wind up someplace else."

"In theory there is no difference between theory and practice. In practice there is."

"I never said most of the things I said."

Lawrence Peter "Yogi" Berra, 1925-2015

"... it is a constant struggle not to let the theory lead the science in the way that is most beneficial to one’s assumptions."

Craig H. Moore

"We must not ask nature to accommodate herself to whatever might seem to us the best disposition and order."

Galileo Galilei

"If we are to believe Wegener’s hypothesis we must forget everything that has been learned in the last 70 years and start all over again."

Remark overheard at the 1922 meeting of the Geological Society of America (as reported about fifth-hand by John McPhee)

“Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies.”


"The standard of proof is not very high for an investigation that announces that a plume is responsible for a bit of magma or a bit of chemistry found in, or near, or away from a volcano. The standard is being lowered all the time. Plumes were invented to explain small-scale features such as volcanoes. They were 100 kilometers wide. Then they were used to provide magmas 600 km away from a volcano, or to interact with distant ridges. Then the whole North Atlantic, from Canada to England needed to be serviced by a single plume. Then all of Africa. Then a bit of basalt on the East Pacific Rise was found to be similar to a Hawaiian basalt, so the plume influence was stretched to 5000 kilometers! No reviewer or editor has been found to complain yet. Superplumes are now routinely used to affect geology all around the Pacific. This is called creeping incredulity. It can also be called a Just-So Story."

Don L. Anderson (in What Planet?)

"Few people are capable of expressing with equanimity opinions that differ from the prejudices of their social environment. Most people are even incapable of forming such opinions."

Albert Einstein

“In my opinion progress in science is usually made by dropping assumptions.”

David Bohm

"He thought he saw an Argument
That proved he was the Pope:
He looked again and found it was
A Bar of Mottled Soap."

Lewis Carroll
Sylvie and Bruno

“The human understanding, when it has once adopted an opinion... draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects…"


"Sometimes an idea hangs on, not because it is good, or even seductive, but because it has been around a long time, or constantly repeated. If one wants to verify something written in the newspaper, should one buy 100 more copies of the paper to check it?"

D.L. Anderson, 2015

"When a traveler reaches a fork in the road, the L1-norm tells him to take either one way or the other, but the L2-norm instructs him to head off into the bushes."

Jon F. Claerbout & Francis Muir, 1973

"Ask a scientist what he conceives the scientific method to be and he will adopt an expression that is at once solemn and shifty-eyed: solemn, because he feels he ought to declare an opinion; shifty-eyed, because he is wondering how to conceal the fact that he has no opinion to declare."

Medawar, P. 1969
Induction and Intuition in Scientific Thought. London. (p. 11)

"Science ... commits suicide when it adopts a creed."

T. H. Huxley (1885)

"If a solution is sought by invoking moving and intermittent plumes, the elegance of the hypothesis is lost."

Russell Black, on ring complexes, JAES 1985, 3, 5-16

"The conundrum that baffled Medieval philosophers, How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?, can have only one correct answer: All of them".

Bob Dietz

"All argument is against it; but all belief is for it."

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

Trans: "Let us devote ourselves to pursuit of the ultimate truth about nature by studying what we can find around us. Of course we must respect and value existing theories, but it is important not to place too much confidence in them. We should be free from authority and convention and modest before Mother Nature.

We should investigate books and articles written by famed scholars. The most critical thing, however, is to observe nature with unbiased eyes, experiment with our own hands, honor fresh ideas gained from natural materials, and nurture them in a lively environment."

Matsumoto Tatsuro, quote from Issues of Japanese Historical Geology, 1949

"Properly speaking, there is no certitude. All there is is men who are certain."

William James, 1876

"If you're looking for a mistake in a paper, look for the words obvious or obviously."

George Marshall Kay

"In order to be truly creative, you must lose the fear of being wrong."


"All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as self-evident."

Arthur Schopenhauer

"In the course of your work, you will from time to time encounter the situation where the facts and the theory do not coincide. In such circumstances, young gentlemen, it is my earnest advice to respect the facts."

Igor Sikorsky, Russian immigrant & airplane and helicopter designer.

"If a cage with a tiger is marked “elephant”, do not believe it."

Koz'ma Prutkov (a nom-de-plume for four19th Century Russian writers)

"The way that most men deal with traditions … is to receive them all alike as they are delivered, without applying any critical test whatever."
"So little pains do the vulgar take in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand."

from the “History of the Peloponnesian War” ca. 410 BC, Thucydides

"You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time."

A. Lincoln

"You can fool too many of the people too much of the time."

James Thurber

“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”

Aldous Huxley (1894 - 1963)

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that."
"Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."

Richard Feynman

"Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence."

Carl Sagan (1934 - 1996)

"Prefer reason to authority."

Charles Lyell

"All observations should be for or against a hypothesis."

Charles Darwin

"All epochs of thought have unconscious assumptions."

Sir Alfred North Whitehead

"The great tragedy of science – the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact."

Thomas Huxley

"It is a standing vice of geophysics not to argue against unpalatable facts and arguments but simply to ignore them and carry on as if they did not exist."

Prof. Peter Fellgett, FRS, Astronomy & Geophysics, 2003

"Of experiments intended to illustrate a preconceived truth and convince people of its validity: a most venomous thing in the making of sciences; for whoever has fixed on his cause, before he has Experimented, can hardly avoid fitting his Experiment to his cause, rather than the cause to the truth of the Experiment itself."

Thomas Spratt, "History of the Royal Society", 1667

"The traditional method of confronting the student not with the problem but with the finished solution means depriving him of all excitement, to shut off the creative impulse, to reduce the adventure of mankind to a dusty heap of theorems."

Arthur Koestler

"I cannot give any scientist of any age better advice than this: the intensity of the conviction that a hypothesis is true has no bearing on whether it is true or not. The importance of the strength of our conviction is only to provide a proportionally strong incentive to find out if the hypothesis will stand up to critical examination."

Sir Peter Medawar, Nobel prizewinner, "Advice to a Young Scientist", 1979

"It is all too easy to derive endless strings of interesting-looking but untrue or irrelevant formulae instead of checking the validity of the initial premises."

John Ziman, "Reliable Knowledge", 1978, p. 14

"...highly speculative, or boldly generalized theories are easily formulated, and take hold of the imagination of scientist and layman alike. Such theories may acquire widespread authority, not because they are well founded and reliable but because they have no competition from other less consensual sources of knowledge or insight. Whether or not it is eventually validated by overwhelmingly convincing evidence the 'scientific picture' presented by this sort of theory is inevitably schematic and oversimplified. The danger is that its limitations will not be adequately recognized, and that it will be extrapolated recklessly into an all-embracing dogma."

John Ziman, "Reliable Knowledge", 1978, pp. 91-92

"The voluminous literature on hypothetical plumes is notable for its ingenuity in the near-total absence of constraints."

Warren Hamilton, Precamb. Res., 1998

"When anybody contradicted Einstein he thought it over, and if he was found wrong he was delighted, because he felt that he had escaped from an error, and that now he knew better than before."

Otto Robert Frisch, on Einstein

"It was a reaction from the old idea of protoplasm, a name which was a mere repository of ignorance."

J.B.S. Haldane, "Perspectives in Biochemistry", 1938

"What is known for certain is dull. I rarely plan my research; it plans me."

Max Perutz

"Mozart died a pauper,
Homer begged for bread,
Genius pays off handsomely,
After you are dead."

Edgar Yipsel Harburg , 1896-1981

"It takes many years of training to ignore the obvious."

The Economist on "Theories of Economic Growth"

"Whether true or false, others must judge; for the firmest conviction of the truth of a doctrine by its author, seems, alas, not to be the slightest guarantee of truth."

Charles Darwin, letter to Lyell, 25th June, 1858

"In fact, no opinion should be held with fervour. No-one holds with fervour that 7 x 8 = 56, because it is known that this is the case. Fervour is necessary only in commending an opinion which is doubtful or demonstrably false."

Voltaire, quoted by Bertrand Russell

"Great God, how can we possibly be always right and the others always wrong?"

Montesquieu, Cahiers

"We see that many assumptions used in previous hypotheses can be discarded as unnecessary. ...there is no need to locate the source of plumes in the lower mantle."

Richter & Parsons, 1975

"Finding the world would not accommodate to his theory, he wisely determined to accommodate the theory to the world."

Washington Irving

"Every dogma must have its day."


"Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies."


"As soon as I hear 'everybody knows' I start asking 'does everybody know this, and how do they know it?'"

Dave Jackson, from J. Fischman, "Falling into the gap", Discover, 58-63, October, 1992

"There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such trifling investment of fact."

Mark Twain, "Life on the Mississippi", 1883

"Words, as is well known, are the foes of reality."

Joseph Conrad, "Under Western Eyes", 1911

updated 4th May, 2020