Words on life, universe and everything

Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations
July 22, 2005

Chris Llewellyn Smith dips into a selection of reflections on science

In his introduction to the Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations (ODSQ), W.F. Bynum (whose co-editor, the prolific polymath Roy Porter, died while the dictionary was being compiled) states: "We wanted the ODSQ to reflect the richness of the history of science: scientists reflecting on their craft, and reporting key moments of insights they had had on nature's laws. We wanted, too, a generous representation of other voices - poets, novelists, critics, theologians - who had things of substance to say about science and its ambitions." This is not a book of anecdotes (an Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes already exists), and philosophy, social science and medicine - which have their own dictionaries of quotations - are excluded.

A spot check of some favourites found the following. Chekhov: "There is no national science, just as there is no national multiplication table; what is national is no longer science"; James Watson and Francis Crick, in one of many extracts from their 1953 Nature paper: "It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material"; and Michael Faraday's response, when asked by William Gladstone about the practical worth of electricity: "Why, Sir, there is every probability that you will soon be able to tax it!"; but not Margaret Thatcher: "The works of Faraday are worth more than the valuation of the stock market."

It is reassuring that the ODSQ supplies the exact wording of Max Planck's rather depressing view that "a new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it".

So far so good, but it was provocative of the publisher to quote Richard Dawkins on the dust jacket as having searched in vain for omissions and imperfections.

I expected a wider selection of quotes from Richard Feynman. Where is "Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled" from the final report of the inquiry into the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster, or something from his superlative Lectures on Physics, which is full of stimulating and quotable remarks? And surely there should have been something from his 1959 lecture "There's plenty of room at the bottom", which was the genesis of nanotechnology, in which he talked about "the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale... It is a staggeringly small world that is below. In the year 2000, when they look back at this age, they will wonder why it was not until the year 1960 that anybody began seriously to move in this direction." And there is no entry for Eric Drexler, who coined the word "nanotechnology" in the 1980s and became its major prophet.

I expected to find Robert Oppenheimer's thoughts after observing the first atomic explosion (the Trinity test): "We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita... 'Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.' I suppose we all thought that, one way or another." Instead, five lines of the Bhagavad-Gita are quoted on their own, with a statement from Harrap's Book of Scientific Anecdotes : "Oppenheimer quoted this after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki" (which occurred three weeks after Trinity) - this is possible, but much less interesting.

I wonder why a clear but unoriginal description of quantum complementarity by Heinz Pagels is included given that most of those who contributed to the foundations of the subject had something pithy to say about it. This drove me to the index, where I found various relevant entries under "wave" and "quantum" (although surprisingly there is nothing from the elegant writings of J.S. Bell, whose "inequality" is the most important conceptual contribution since the 1930s). As expected, there are several quotes from Werner Heisenberg related to his uncertainty principle, although "uncertainty" does not appear in the keyword index, which would benefit from cross-references between quotes on the same subject.

Entries that use the keyword "energy" include important statements by Lord Kelvin, but not seminal remarks by James Joule on "the conversion of heat into living force", or Francis Bacon's assertion in 1620 that heat is motion. They do, however, include Frederick Soddy's prescient 1912 observation: "If the supply of energy failed, modern civilisation would come to an end as abruptly as does the music of an organ deprived of wind.

(But) the still unrecognised 'energy problem'I awaits the future." Part of the problem is now recognised as being the impending "Hubbert peak" in world oil production, which surprisingly does not feature in three quotes from Marion King Hubbert. Interestingly, by 1915 Soddy himself had concluded that "(the human control of atomic energy could) virtually provide anyone who wanted it with a private sun of his own".

Interesting views on the nature and modus operandi of science range from the Marquis de Condorcet in the 18th century: "(All phenomena) are equally susceptible of being calculated, and all that is necessary, to reduce the whole of nature to laws similar to those which Newton discovered with the aid of the calculus, is to have a sufficient number of observations and a mathematics that is complex enough", to David Hubel (1996): "Those who think 'science is measurement' should search Darwin's works for numbers and equations." From Charles Darwin himself we find: "I am a firm believer that without speculation there is no good and original observation."

More anti-science, or erroneous science, might have been included. We find Adolf Hitler: "Our national policies will not be revoked or modified, even for scientists. If the dismissal of Jewish scientists means the annihilation of contemporary German science, then we shall have to do without science for a few years"; and also George Gissing in his novel T he Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft : "I hate and fear 'science' because of my conviction that, for a long time to come if not forever, it will be the remorseless enemy of mankind. I see it destroying all simplicity and gentleness of life, all the beauty of the world; I see it restoring barbarism under a mask of civilisation; I see it darkening men's minds and hardening their hearts." But - although on reflection this may be just as well - there is nothing from Jean Baptiste Lamarck or Trofim Lysenko, nor did I find any modern quotes on creationism or scientific relativism as reflected in a 1996 letter to The New York Times : "Scientific knowledge is affected by social and cultural conditions and is not a version of some universal truth that is the same at all times and places."

Representation of non-Western thought is dominated by some 15 quotes from Arabs and Persians. A larger and wider selection would have been especially interesting for those of us unfamiliar with the sources, although there may be a paucity of quotable remarks, and, after all, the modern scientific tradition is Western. It is surprising, however, that there is nothing from creation myths other than the Bible, and nothing by Confucius, although plenty of his sayings are as interesting as two quotes from Chuang Tzu two centuries later, for example: "To learn without thinking is labour in vain, to think without learning is desolation", and "Exploring the old and deducing the new make a teacher".

The quotes from non-scientists are, as one might expect, a mixed bag. We find Victor Hugo elegantly making the point that "science is continually correcting what it has said. Fertile corrections... science is a ladder... An artistic masterpiece exists for all time... Dante does not efface Homer." I am not sure how Oscar Wilde's comment that Niagara Falls "would have been more impressive if it flowed the other way" fits the editors' criteria, but at least it is amusing, in contrast to two pieces of doggerel from the minor poet May Kendall.

Shakespeare's "It is as easy to count atomies as to resolve the propositions of a lover" interestingly demonstrates that he expected the audience for As You Like It to be familiar with the atomic idea. But the relevance of some of the other 32 quotes from Shakespeare, such as "These are begot in the ventricle of memory, nourished in the womb of pia mater", escapes me.

It would be good to have a version of the ODSQ arranged chronologically - how about a CD edition with a facility to switch from alphabetical to chronological ordering at the click of a mouse? It is easy to compartmentalise scientific and non-scientific history (many people who heard an absurd canard about Galileo that was in circulation some 25 years ago - that after falling out with the Church, the astronomer was offered a chair at Harvard University - were surprised to realise that it was temporally possible). A juxtaposition of the thoughts of contemporary scientists and non-scientists, and contemporary Western and non-Western thinkers, would be illuminating.

It is, of course, easy for the armchair critic to ruminate on what additional specific quotes or categories of quotations might have been included or excluded. The editors have had to make the hard choices. On the whole they have done an excellent job. The ODSQ is a valuable reference book that is both instructive - where else can you pick up some familiarity with Isaac Newton's writings in eight pages? - and fun to browse. I particularly enjoyed the attributed response of Alfonso X (a 13th-century king of Le"n and Castile and an astronomer) on hearing an explanation of the Ptolemaic system: "If the Lord Almighty had consulted me before embarking on His creation, I should have recommended something simpler."

Sir Chris Llewellyn Smith is director of the UK Atomic Energy Authority Culham Division.

Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations

Editor - W. F. Bynum and Roy Porter
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Pages - 712
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 19 858409 1

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