Star lines expressed

Physically Speaking
May 1, 1998

The last time that I regularly reached for a book of quotations was when I was an active member of a debating team. Proposing motions such as "this house believes that life is a bowl of cherries" clearly called for all the assistance one could muster. Humorous quotation came in very handy, and it was amazing how often a telling phrase from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling or Ogden Nash fitted the bill.

Lecturing on astronomy and physics, however, rarely calls for the pithy quote or the memorable sound bite, and the three gentlemen above had little to say on these two subjects. There was one exception of course. Oscar Wilde was rarely stumped for words and he accurately summed up the astronomer's lot by noting that "we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars".

The editors, C. C. Gaither and A. E. Cavazos-Gaither, have rounded up some 2,000 astronomy and physics quotations from a wide range of literary, poetic and scientific sources. When it comes to sampling the vast literature of these two subjects it is clear that the selectors have a predilection for the profound and the wise. Illumination and pertinence are to the fore. Wit and humour is in short supply.

They have dragooned the quotations into sensible sections, with titles such as Anti-matter, Atoms, Big bang, Comets, Constellations, and so on. Much care has been taken over the correct attribution, and the reader is given all the necessary information to find the quote in the original source. Full bibliographic details are provided, as well as subject-by-author and author-by-subject indexes.

The editors portray physicists as a rather earnest and serious group. We are, for example, informed that "the main goal of physics is to describe a maximum number of phenomena with a minimum of variables" and that physicists, "like theologians are wont to deny that any system is in principle beyond the scope of their subject''. In contrast you have the more esoteric astronomer, "whose job is just to stand around and look at heavenly bodies''.

Both professions are split into an observational and a theoretical branch and the members of these branches, as expected, enjoy being rude about their opposite number. As W. I. B. Beveridge said "no one believes an hypothesis except its originator but everybody believes an experiment except the experimenter.'' A more conciliatory Ray Lyttleton wrote that "observations are meaningless without a theory to interpret them."

Both professions have clearly been revolutionised in the last century. Astronomers have been taken over by astrophysicists and have seen their universe expand enormously with the advent of space exploration and large telescopes. "Space, the final frontier'', to quote Captain James T. Kirk; "TELESCOPE, a device ... enabling distant objects to plague us with a multitude of needless detail," says Ambrose Bierce. Cosmology has leapt to the fore and cosmologists (who Yakov Zel'dovich said "are often in error, but never in doubt") are portrayed as worrying whether T. S. Eliot was correct when he said: "This is the way the world ends/ Not with a bang but a whimper."

Steven Weinberg, clearly a cosmology fan, wrote that "the effort to understand the universe is one of the few things that lift human life a little about the level of farce, and give it some of the grace of tragedy."

The last century has also seen the physicists being introduced to the atom and the quantum and "the world changed from having the determinism of a clock to having the contingency of a pinball machine''. Physics has become much more complicated, but even so, to quote Bertrand Russell, "physics is mathematical not because we know so much about the physical world, but because we know so little: it is only mathematical properties that we can discover."

I enjoyed reading this book, and often found myself nodding sagely. I thought, however, that I chuckled too infrequently.

David Hughes is reader in astronomy, University of Sheffield.

Physically Speaking: A Dictionary of Quotations on Physics and Astronomy

Editor - C. C. Gaither and A. E. Cavazos-Gaither
ISBN - 0 7503 0470 7
Publisher - Institute of Physics Publishing
Price - £19.95
Pages - 492

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