A Short Dictionary of Scientific Quotations

1927 Solvay Conference on Quantum Mechanics. Photograph by Benjamin Couprie, Institut International de Physique Solvay, Brussels, Belgium. Benjamin Couprie [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

From back to front and from left to right: 
Back Row:Auguste Piccard, Émile Henriot, Paul Ehrenfest, Édouard Herzen, Théophile de Donder, Erwin Schrödinger, Jules-Émile Verschaffelt, Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Ralph Howard Fowler, Léon Brillouin,
Middle Row:Peter Debye, Martin Knudsen, William Lawrence Bragg, Hendrik Anthony Kramers, Paul Dirac, Arthur Compton, Louis de Broglie, Max Born, Niels Bohr,
Front Row: Irving Langmuir, Max Planck, Marie Skłodowska Curie, Hendrik Lorentz, Albert Einstein, Paul Langevin, Charles Eugène Guye, Charles Thomson Rees Wilson, Owen Willans Richardson

Below you’ll find a collection of erudite quotes from some of the best scientists the world has known. There are many gems of wisdom to be learned. They present thought-provoking ideas that often bridge the gap between science, philosophy and humanity. 

Our favorites include Asimov’s, Richard Byrd’s, Tesla’s, Sagan’s and the last one by Neil deGrasse Tyson. 

Albert, Jacob


(1865-1948) 
Little can be understood of even the simplest phenomena of nature without some knowledge of mathematics, and the attempt to penetrate deeper into the mysteries of nature compels simultaneous development of the mathematical processes.

Aristotle

(384 BC to 322 BC) Scientist, Philosopher

Education is the best provision for the journey to old age.

Asimov, Isaac

(1920-1992) b. Petrovichi, Russia.

At two-tenths the speed of light, dust and atoms might not do significant damage even in a voyage of 40 years, but the faster you go, the worse it is–space begins to become abrasive. When you begin to approach the speed of light, hydrogen atoms become cosmic-ray particles, and they will fry the crew. …So 60,000 kilometers per second may be the practical speed limit for space travel.

Asimov, Isaac

(1920 – 1992) Biochemist and Author

The saddest aspect of life right now is that it gathers knowledge faster than society gathers wisdom.

Boltzman, Ludwig

(1844-1906) b Vienna, Austria 

The most ordinary things are to philosophy a source of insoluble puzzles. With infinite ingenuity it constructs a concept of space or time and then finds it absolutely impossible that there be objects in this space or that processes occur during this time… the source of this kind of logic lies in excessive confidence in the so-called laws of thought.

Born, Max

(1882-1970) Breslau, German 

We have reached the end of our journey into the depths of matter. We have sought for firm ground and found none. The deeper we penetrate, the more restless becomes the universe…: all is rushing about and vibrating in a wild dance.

Byrd, Richard

(1888-1957) Virginia, US 

Few men during their lifetime come anywhere near exhausting the resources dwelling within them. There are deep wells of strength that are never used.

Churchill, Winston S.

(1874-1965) b. Malborough, England

…man will occasionally stumble over the truth, but usually manages to pick himself up, walk over or around it, and carry on.

Copernicus, Nicolaus

(1473 – 1543) Mathematician and Astronomer

There may be babblers, wholly ignorant of mathematics, who dare to condemn my hypothesis, upon the authority of some part of the Bible twisted to suit their purpose. I value them not, and scorn their unfounded judgment.

Curie, Marie

(1867-1934) b. Warsaw, Poland (née Maria Sklodowska)

Humanity needs practical men, who get the most out of their work, and, without forgetting the general good, safeguard their own interests. But humanity also needs dreamers, for whom the disinterested development of an enterprise is so captivating that it becomes impossible for them to devote their care to their own material profit. Without doubt, these dreamers do not deserve wealth, because they do not desire it. Even so, a well-organized society should assure to such workers the efficient means of accomplishing their task, in a life freed from material care and freely consecrated to research.

Darling, David

(1953) Derbyshire, US 

A bewildering assortment of (mostly microscopic) life-forms has been found thriving in what were once thought to be uninhabitable regions of our planet. These hardy creatures have turned up in deep, hot underground rocks, around scalding volcanic vents at the bottom of the ocean, in the desiccated, super-cold Dry Valleys of Antarctica, in places of high acid, alkaline, and salt content, and below many meters of polar ice. … Some deep-dwelling, heat-loving microbes, genetic studies suggest, are among the oldest species known, hinting that not only can life thrive indefinitely in what appear to us totally alien environments, it may actually originate in such places.

Darwin, Charle

To suppose that the eye with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I confess, absurd in the highest degree.

Eddington, Sir Arthur

(1882-1944) b. England 

For the truth of the conclusions of physical science, observation is the supreme Court of Appeal. It does not follow that every item which we confidently accept as physical knowledge has actually been certified by the Court; our confidence is that it would be certified by the Court if it were submitted. But it does follow that every item of physical knowledge is of a form which might be submitted to the Court. It must be such that we can specify (although it may be impracticable to carry out) an observational procedure which would decide whether it is true or not. Clearly a statement cannot be tested by observation unless it is an assertion about the results of observation. Every item of physical knowledge must therefore be an assertion of what has been or would be the result of carrying out a specified observational procedure.

Eddington, Sir Arthur

(1882-1944) b. England 

Let us suppose that an ichthyologist is exploring the life of the ocean. He casts a net into the water and brings up a fishy assortment. Surveying his catch, he proceeds in the usual manner of a scientist to systematise what it reveals. He arrives at two generalisations: (1) No sea-creature is less than two inches long. (2) All sea-creatures have gills. These are both true of his catch, and he assumes tentatively that they will remain true however often he repeats it. In applying this analogy, the catch stands for the body of knowledge which constitutes physical science, and the net for the sensory and intellectual equipment which we use in obtaining it. The casting of the net corresponds to observation; for knowledge which has not been or could not be obtained by observation is not admitted into physical science. An onlooker may object that the first generalisation is wrong. “There are plenty of sea-creatures under two inches long, only your net is not adapted to catch them.” The icthyologist dismisses this objection contemptuously. “Anything uncatchable by my net is ipso facto outside the scope of icthyological knowledge. In short, “what my net can’t catch isn’t fish.” Or–to translate the analogy–“If you are not simply guessing, you are claiming a knowledge of the physical universe discovered in some other way than by the methods of physical science, and admittedly unverifiable by such methods. You are a metaphysician. Bah!”

Einstein, Albert

(1879-1955) b. Germany 

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

Einstein, Albert (Written in old age

I have never belonged wholeheartedly to a country, a state, nor to a circle of friends, nor even to my own family. When I was still a rather precocious young man, I already realized most vividly the futility of the hopes and aspirations that most men pursue throughout their lives. Well-being and happiness never appeared to me as an absolute aim. I am even inclined to compare such moral aims to the ambitions of a pig.

Feynman, Richard P.

(1918-1988) b. Far Rockaway, New York 

What I am going to tell you about is what we teach our physics students in the third or fourth year of graduate school… It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see my physics students don’t understand it… That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.

Feynman, Richard P

As usual, nature’s imagination far surpasses our own, as we have seen from the other theories which are subtle and deep.

Fosdick, Harry E.

(1878-1969) b. New York, US 

Every great scientist becomes a great scientist because of the inner self-abnegation with which he stands before truth, saying: “Not my will, but thine, be done.” What, then, does a man mean by saying, Science displaces religion, when in this deep sense science itself springs from religion?

Kauffman, Stuar

Life emerged, I suggest, not simple, but complex and whole, and has remained complex and whole ever since—not because of a mysterious élan vital, but thanks to the simple, profound transformation of dead molecules into an organization by which each molecule’s formation is catalyzed by some other molecule in the organization. The secret of life, the wellspring of reproduction, is not to be found in the beauty of Watson-Crick pairing, but in the achievement of collective catalytic closure. So, in another sense, life—complex, whole, emergent—is simple after all, a natural outgrowth of the world in which we live.

Kummer, Ernst Eduard

(1810-1893) b. Prussia, Germany 

Dirichlet was not satisfied to study Gauss’ Disquisitiones arithmetical once or several times, but continued throughout life to keep in close touch with the wealth of deep mathematical thoughts which it contains by perusing it again and again. For this reason, the book was never placed on the shelf but had an abiding place on the table at which he worked. … Dirichlet was the first one, who not only fully understood this work, but made it also accessible to others.

Hawking, Stephen 

(1942 – 2018)

One, remember to look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Two, never give up work. Work gives you meaning and purpose and life is empty without it. Three, if you are lucky enough to find love, remember it is there and don’t throw it away.

Lucretius

(99 B.C.-55 B.C.) b. Rome 

(On the temperature of water in wells) The reason why the water in wells becomes colder in summer is that the earth is then rarefied by the heat, and releases into the air all the heat-particles it happens to have. So, the more the earth is drained of heat, the colder becomes the moisture that is concealed in the ground. On the other hand, when all the earth condenses and contracts and congeals with the cold, then, of course, as it contracts, it squeezes out into the wells whatever heat it holds.

Mencken, H(enry) L(ouis)

(1880-1956) b. Baltimore, MD 

The value the world sets upon motives is often grossly unjust and inaccurate. Consider, for example, two of them: mere insatiable curiosity and the desire to do good. The latter is put high above the former, and yet it is the former that moves one of the most useful men the human race has yet produced: the scientific investigator. What actually urges him on is not some brummagem idea of Service, but a boundless, almost pathological thirst to penetrate the unknown, to uncover the secret, to find out what has not been found out before. His prototype is not the liberator releasing slaves, the good Samaritan lifting up the fallen, but a dog sniffing tremendously at an infinite series of rat-holes.

Newton, Isaac

(1642-1727) b. Woolsthorpe, England 

If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. On how he made discoveries By always thinking unto them. I keep the subject constantly before me and wait till the first dawnings open little by little into the full light.

Newton, Isaac

(1642 – 1727) b. Woolsthorpe, England

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.

Ohno, Susumu

1928 to 2000 Geneticist

Did the genome of our cave-dwelling predecessors contain a set or sets of genes which enable modern man to compose music of infinite complexity and write novels with profound meaning? …It looks as though the early Homo was already provided with the intellectual potential which was in great excess of what was needed to cope with the environment of his time.

Pasteur, Louis

(1822-1892) b. Dôle, France 

Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world. Science is the highest personification of the nation because that nation will remain the first which carries the furthest the works of thought and intelligence.

Planck, Max

1858 to 1947 Theoretical Physicis

An experiment is a question which science poses to Nature, and a measurement is the recording of Nature’s answer.

Sagan, Carl

1934 to 1996 Astronomer

Valid criticism does you a favor.

Szent-Györgyi, Albert

(1893-1984) b. Hungary 

Basic research may seem very expensive. I am a well-paid scientist. My hourly wage is equal to that of a plumber, but sometimes my research remains barren of results for weeks, months or years and my conscience begins to bother me for wasting the taxpayer’s money. But in reviewing my life’s work, I have to think that the expense was not wasted. Basic research, to which we owe everything, is relatively very cheap when compared with other outlays of modern society. The other day I made a rough calculation which led me to the conclusion that if one were to add up all the money ever spent by man on basic research, one would find it to be just about equal to the money spent by the Pentagon this past year.

Tesla, Nikola

(1856-1943) b. Smiljan, Croatia

It is paradoxical, yet true, to say, that the more we know, the more ignorant we become in the absolute sense, for it is only through enlightenment that we become conscious of our limitations. Precisely one of the most gratifying results of intellectual evolution is the continuous opening up of new and greater prospects.

Turing, Alan, Mathison

(1912-1954) b. London, England (1943, New York: the Bell Labs Cafeteria) 

His high pitched voice already stood out above the general murmur of well-behaved junior executives grooming themselves for promotion within the Bell corporation. Then he was suddenly heard to say: “No, I’m not interested in developing a powerful brain. All I’m after is just a mediocre brain, something like the President of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company.”

And we saved the best for last (and it worked out that way alphabetically:). It’s our favorite one, and it’s an especially relevant quote for today’s environment:

Neil deGrasse Tyson

(1958 – present) 

The good thing about science is that it’s true whether or not you believe in it.