Navigation Bar
MAIN Cheap Thoughts Cheap Thoughts Index Cheap Thoughts on Science Really Cheap Thoughts Index


Cheap Thoughts




Dave Barry


The Devil's Dictionary



Discovery and Invention

Doubt and Certainty

Dreams and Desires


Dave Barry


"25 Things I Have Learned in 50 Years" (from Dave Barry Turns 50, 1998)


The badness of a movie is directly proportional to the number of helicopters in it.


You will never find anybody who can give you a clear and compelling reason why we observe "Daylight Saving Time."


People who feel the need to tell you that they have an excellent sense of humor are telling you that they have no sense of humor.


The most valuable function performed by the federal government is entertainment.


You should never say anything to a woman that even remotely suggests she's pregnant unless you can see an actual baby emerging from her at that moment.


A penny saved is worthless.


They can hold all the peace talks they want, but there will never be peace in the Middle East. Billions of years from now, when Earth is hurtling toward the Sun and there is nothing left alive on the planet except a few microorganisms, the microorganisms living in the Middle East will be bitter enemies.


The most powerful force in the universe is: gossip.


The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion, economic status, or ethnic background, is that, deep down inside, we all believe that we are above-average drivers.


There comes a time when you should stop expecting other people to make a big deal about your birthday. That time is: age 11.


There is a very fine line between "hobby" and "mental illness."


People who want to share their religious views with you almost never want you to share yours with them.


There apparently exists, somewhere in Los Angeles, a computer that generates concepts for television sitcoms. When TV executives need a new concept, they turn on this computer; after sorting through millions of possible plot premises, it spits out, "THREE QUIRKY BUT ATTRACTIVE YOUNG PEOPLE LIVING IN AN APARTMENT," and the executives turn this concept into a show. The next time they need an idea, the computer spits out, "SIX QUIRKY BUT ATTRACTIVE YOUNG PEOPLE LIVING IN AN APARTMENT." Then the next time, it spits out, "FOUR QUIRKY BUT ATTRACTIVE YOUNG PEOPLE LIVING IN AN APARTMENT." And so on. We need to locate this computer and destroy it with hammers.


Nobody is normal.


At least once per year, some group of scientists will become very excited and announce that:
- The universe is even bigger than they thought!
- There are even more subatomic particles than they thought!
- Whatever they announced last year about global warming is wrong.


If you had to identify, in one word, the reason why the human race has not achieved, and never will achieve, its full potential, that word would be: "meetings."


The main accomplishment of almost all organized protests is to annoy people who are not in them.


The value of advertising is that it tells you the exact opposite of what the advertiser actually thinks. For example: If the advertisement says "This is not your father's Oldsmobile," the advertiser is desperately concerned that this Oldsmobile, like all other Oldsmobiles, appeals primarily to old farts like your father. If Coke and Pepsi spend billions of dollars to convince you that there are significant differences between these two products, both companies realize that Pepsi and Coke are virtually identical. If the advertisement strongly suggests that Nike shoes enable athletes to perform amazing feats, Nike wants you to disregard the fact that shoe brand is unrelated to athletic ability. ... And so on. On those rare occasions when advertising dares to poke fun at the product — as in the classic Volkswagen Beetle campaign — it's because the advertiser actually thinks the product is pretty good. If a politician ever ran for president under a slogan such as "Harlan Frubert: Basically, He Wants Attention," I would quit my job to work for his campaign.


If there really is a God who created the entire universe with all of its glories, and He decides to deliver a message to humanity, He will not use, as His messenger, a person on cable TV with a bad hairstyle.


You should not confuse your career with your life.


A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.


No matter what happens, someone will find a way to take it too seriously.


When trouble arises and things look bad, there is always one individual who perceives a solution and is willing to take command. Very often, that individual is crazy.


Your friends love you anyway.


Nobody cares if you can't dance well. Just get up and dance.





We're all cremated equal.
     Jane Ace


When I die I want to be buried, not cremated, so I can at least make one lasting impression on the earth.
     Dilbert in Scott Adams, Casual Day 
     Has Gone Too Far ("Dilbert," 1997)


I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality by not dying.
     Woody Allen


Death should not be seen as the end, but as a very effective way to cut down expenses.
     Woody Allen, Love and Death (movie, 1975)


It's not that I'm afraid to die. I just don't want to be there when it happens.
     Woody Allen, Without Feathers (1975)
     "Death (A Play)"


On the plus side, death is one of the few things that can be done as easily lying down.
     Woody Allen, Without Feathers (1975)
     "The Early Essays"


The chief problem about death, incidentally, is the fear that there may be no afterlife — a depressing thought, particularly for those who have bothered to shave. Also, there is the fear that there is an afterlife but no one will know where it's being held.
     Woody Allen, Without Feathers (1975)
     "The Early Essays"


Dying ought to be done in black and white. It is simply not a colorful activity.
     Russell Baker


There's no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.
     Brendan Behan


Death is not the end; there remains the litigation.
     Ambrose Bierce


Epitaph, n. An inscription on a tomb, showing that virtues acquired by death have a retroactive effect.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Eulogy, n. Praise of a person who has either the advantages of wealth and power, or the consideration to be dead.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Mausoleum, n. The final and funniest folly of the rich.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Oblivion, n. The state or condition in which the wicked cease from struggling and the dreary are at rest. Fame's eternal dumping ground. Cold storage for high hopes. A place where ambitious authors met their works without pride and their betters without envy. A dormitory without an alarm clock.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Worms'-meat, n. The finished product of which we are the raw material. The contents of the Taj Mahal, the Tombeau Napoleon and the Granitarium. Worms'-meat is usually outlasted by the structure that houses it, but "this too must pass away." Probably the silliest work in which a human being can engage is construction of a tomb for himself. The solemn purpose cannot dignify, but only accentuates by contrast the foreknown futility.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Dying is a part of living, but only a very small part.
     Ashleigh Brilliant


I didn't mind being a public executioner, once I got the hang of it.
     Ashleigh Brilliant


If I can survive death, I can probably survive anything.
     Ashleigh Brilliant


Everybody wants to be remembered for something. Custer wanted to be President. Instead he will be remembered as the last high-ranking American military officer to die from a stone-age weapon. Actually, a number of them.
     A. Whitney Brown, The Big Picture: 
     An American Commentary


Death: the cure for all diseases.
     Thomas Browne


The trouble with quotes about death is that 99.99 percent of them are made by people who are still alive.
     Joshua Bruns


I don't believe in dying. It's been done. I'm working on a new exit. Besides, I can't die now — I'm booked.
     George Burns


If you live to the age of a hundred you have it made because very few people die past the age of a hundred.
     George Burns


The only thing wrong with immortality is that it tends to go on forever.
     Herb Caen


I figured out the way to commit the perfect murder. Again, you gotta think of something. You pick up one guy by his ankles, and you kill another guy with him. They both die, and there's no murder weapon.
     George Carlin, "On The Road" (audio, 1977)


Every day I beat my own previous record for the number of consecutive days I've stayed alive.
     George Carlin, "George Carlin: Back in Town" (audio, 1996)


Do you know why hurricanes have names instead of numbers? To keep the killing personal. No one cares about a bunch of people killed by a number. "200 Dead as Number Three Slams Ashore" is not nearly as interesting a headline as "Charlie Kills 200." Death is much more satisfying and entertaining if you personalize it.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


There's an odd feeling you get when someone on the sidewalk moves slightly to avoid walking into you. It proves you exist. Your mere existence caused them to alter their path. It's a nice feeling. After you die, no one has to get out of your way anymore.
     George Carlin, Brain Droppings (1997)


When I was a kid I can remember saying, "Cross my heart and hope to die." I'd like to confess now that I never really meant the second part.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


After all, part of the pleasure of being alive is the knowledge that you're not dead yet.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


I don't like to attend funerals. When I die, I don't want a funeral, because I'm sure of one thing: if I don't like other people's funerals, I'm going to hate my own.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


It's a perverse fact that in death you grow more popular. As soon as you're out of everyone's way, your approval curve moves sharply upward. You get more flowers when you die than you got your whole life. All your flowers arrive at once. Too late.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


Dying must have survival value. Or it wouldn't be part of the biological process.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


I'm always relieved when someone is delivering a eulogy and I realize I'm listening to it.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


One thing nice about being dead is that you immediately become eligible to appear on stamps and money.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


I go along with Edna St. Vincent Millay’s idea that it’s okay to go out screaming and scratching and fighting. When death starts beating the door down, you need to be reaching for your shotgun.
     Johnny Cash, Cash: The Autobiography (with Patrick Carr, 1997)


A funeral eulogy is a belated plea for the defense delivered after the evidence is all in.
     Irvin S. Cobb


Epitaph: a belated advertisement for a line that has been discontinued.
     Irvin S. Cobb


I read the Times, and if my name is not in the obits, I proceed to enjoy the day.
     Noel Coward


I have never wanted to see anybody die, but there were a few obituary notices I have read with pleasure.
     Clarence Darrow


The mere thought of cremation turned him ashen.
     Peter De Vries


No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend's or of thine own were. Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
     John Donne, "Meditation XVII" (1623-1624)


... we live to say "No!" to death.
     Harlan Ellison, An Edge in My Voice (1985)


When I buy a new book I always read the last page first. That way in case I die before I finish I know how it ends. That, my friend, is a dark side.
     Harry (Billy Crystal) in Nora Ephron, When Harry Met Sally (movie, 1989)


Death is nothing to us, since when we are death has not come, and when death has come, we are not.


Millions long for immortality who don't know what to do on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
     Susan Ertz


Up, sluggard, and waste not life; in the grave will be sleeping enough.
     Benjamin Franklin, Poor Richard's Almanac


Perhaps the best cure for the fear of death is to reflect that life has a beginning as well as an end. There was a time when you were not: that gives us no concern. Why then should it trouble us that a time will come when we shall cease to be? To die is only to be as we were before we were born.
     William Hazlitt, Table Talk (1821-1822)


So we keep asking, over and over, until a handful of earth stops our mouths — but is that an answer?
     Heinrich Heine, Lazarus (1854)


He had decided to live forever or die in the attempt.
     Joseph Heller


Death will be a great relief. No more interviews.
     Katherine Hepburn


Die, v. To stop sinning suddenly.
     Elbert Hubbard


The graveyards are full of people the world could not do without.
     Elbert Hubbard


They say such nice things about people at their funerals that it makes me sad to realize that I'm going to miss mine by just a few days.
     Garrison Keillor, San Francisco lecture (December 13, 1984)


I want to die peacefully in my sleep — like my grandfather — not screaming in terror like the passengers in his car.
     Garrison Keillor, Wobegon Boy (1997)


Satire does not look pretty on a tombstone.
     Charles Lamb


I’m looking forward to the most fascinating experience of my life, which is dying. You’ve got to approach your dying the way you live your life — with curiosity, with hope, with fascination, and with courage.
     Timothy Leary


The consumer's side of the coffin lid is never ostentatious.
     Stanislaw Jerzy Lec


Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.
     W. Somerset Maugham


Immortality is the condition of a dead man who doesn't believe that he is dead.
     H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
     "Sententiæ — The Mind of Man"


Tombstone — An ugly reminder of one who has been forgotten.
     H. L. Mencken, A Mencken Chrestomathy (1949)
     "Sententiæ — The Mind of Man"


No matter how big you get, the size of your funeral depends on the weather.
     Roger Miller


I want death to find me planting my cabbages, but caring little for it, and even less for my imperfect garden.
     Michel de Montaigne, Essays


The upside of death is that it's a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
     Hester Mundis, 101 Ways To Avoid Reincarnation, 
     or, Getting It Right the First Time


There is such a finality about death; however interesting it may be as an experience, one cannot discuss it afterward with one's friends.
     Albert Bigelow Paine, Mark Twain: A Biography (1912)


Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.
     Dorothy Parker, "Résumé" (Enough Rope)


For the majority of the deceased, dying is the last newsworthy thing they can do. I'm not sure whether this is a depressing fact or not.
     John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995)


Many an ancient lord’s last words have been, “You can’t kill me because I’ve got magic aaargh.”
     Terry Pratchett


     Death in Terry Pratchett, The Last Continent (1998)


They say that the prospect of being hanged in the morning concentrates a man’s mind wonderfully; unfortunately, what the mind inevitably concentrates on is that, in the morning, it will be in a body that is going to be hanged.
     Terry Pratchett, Going Postal (2004)


After the game the king and the pawn go into the same box.


Be happy while you're living
For you're a long time dead.
     Scottish Proverb


Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.
     Spanish Proverb


... "channeling" (a way to hear what's on the minds of dead people — not much, it turns out) ...
     Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World: 
     Science As A Candle in the Dark


That the end of life should be death may sound sad; yet what other end can anything have?
     George Santayana


The fact of having been born is a bad augury for immortality.
     George Santayana, The Life of Reason (1905)


The thought of death has now become a part of my life. I read the obituaries every day just for the satisfaction of not seeing my name there.
     Neil Simon


Dying is no big deal. The least of us will manage that. Living is the trick.
     Walter "Red" Smith, funeral elegy for Fred Corcoran


Believe me, Captain, immortality consists largely of boredom.
     Zefram Cochrane, "Metamorphosis"
     STAR TREK:  The Original Series


In the strict scientific sense, Doctor, we all feed on death — even vegetarians.
     Spock, "Wolf in the Fold"
     STAR TREK:  The Original Series


"They said you'd been killed, sir."
"The report was premature."
     Uhura and Kirk, "The Enterprise Incident"
     STAR TREK:  The Original Series


Of my friend, I can only say this. Of all the souls that I have encountered in my travels, his was the most . . . human.
     Admiral Kirk at the funeral of Spock in 
     STAR TREK II The Wrath of Khan


"You really have gone where no man's gone before. Couldn't you tell me what it felt like?"
"It would be impossible to discuss the subject without a common frame of reference."
"You're joking!"
"A joke . . . is a story with a humorous climax."
"You mean I have to die to discuss your insights on death?"
"Forgive me, Doctor, I am receiving a number of distress calls."
"I don't doubt it."
     McCoy and Spock, STAR TREK IV The Voyage Home


"Looks like the poor devil died in his sleep."
"What a terrible way to die."
     Riker and Worf, "The Royale"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


Maybe if we felt any loss as keenly as we felt the death of one close to us, human history would be a lot less bloody.
     William T. Riker, "The Bonding"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


When a man is convinced he's going to die tomorrow, he'll probably find a way to make it happen.
     Guinan, "The Best of Both Worlds (Part II)"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


I am very happy for Commander LaForge. He has crossed over to that which is beyond. For a Klingon, this is a joyful time. A friend has died in the line of duty, and he has earned a place among the honored dead. It is not a time to mourn.
     Worf, "The Next Phase"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


Humanoid death rituals are an interest of mine. ... Some species burn their dead; other pack them in blocks of ice; some even surround themselves with the company of family corpses, but the Ferengi ritual of chopping up their loved ones and selling them — I find that irresistible.
     Odo, "The Alternate"
     STAR TREK:  Deep Space Nine


Vulcans consider death to be the completion of the journey. There is nothing to fear.
     Tuvok, "Innocence"
     STAR TREK:  Voyager


It seems to me that if you or I must choose between two courses of thought or action, we should remember our dying and try so to live that our death brings no pleasure to the world.
     John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)


The only beginning is birth and the only end is death — if you can't count on that, what can you count on?
     Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (play, 1967)


Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where's it going to end?
     Tom Stoppard, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (play, 1967)


Sunset and evening star,
     And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
     When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
     Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
     Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
     And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
     When I embark;

For though from out our bourne of Time and Place
     The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
     When I have crossed the bar.

          Alfred, Lord Tennyson, "Crossing the Bar" (1889)


Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day.
     Dylan Thomas, "Do Not Go Gentle . . ." (1952)


If I have any beliefs about immortality, it is that certain dogs I have known will go to heaven, and very, very few persons.
     James Thurber


Pity? It was pity that stayed his hand. Pity and Mercy: not to strike without need. And he has been well rewarded, Frodo. Be sure that he took so little hurt from the evil, and escaped in the end, because he began his ownership of the Ring so. With Pity. ... Deserves it! I daresay he [Gollum] deserves it [death]. Many that live deserve death. And some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them? Then do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment.
     Gandalf in J. R. R. Tolkien,
     The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)


What is your Aim in Life? — To endeavour to be absent when my time comes.
     Mark Twain, "Mental Photographs" (1869)


Several times the photographer of the expedition brought out his transparent pictures and gave us a handsome magic lantern exhibition. His views were nearly all of foreign scenes, but there were one or two home pictures among them. He advertised that he would "open his performance in the after cabin at 'two bells,' (9 p.m.,) and show the passengers where they shall eventually arrive" — which was all very well, but by a funny accident the first picture that flamed out upon the canvas was a view of Greenwood Cemetery!
     Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)


[When Mark Twain was a boy, his father brought a man who had been stabbed into his office to doctor him, but he died after an hour. The body was left in the office, and Twain discovered it there when he was sneaking in late at night, trying to avoid getting thrashed.] I went away from there. I do not say that I went away in any sort of a hurry, but I simply went — that is sufficient. I went out at the window, and I carried the sash along with me. I did not need the sash, but it was handier to take it than it was to leave it, and so I took it. — I was not scared, but I was considerably agitated.
     Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)


[Recommendation for an epitaph made by a character in a Mark Twain anecdote on being told by his landlady of the death of a neighbor's servant, who had been accidentally burned ("roasted") on a stove.] "Put it 'Well done, good and faithful servant!" said Riley, and never smiled.
     Mark Twain, "Memoranda" (The Galaxy, November 1870)


As for me, I hope to be cremated. I made that remark to my pastor once, who said, with what he seemed to think was an impressive manner, — "I wouldn't worry about that, if I had your chances."
     Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)


Whoever has lived long enough to find out what life is, knows how deep a debt of gratitude we owe to Adam, the first great benefactor of our race. He brought death into the world.
     Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)
     "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar"


Why is it that we rejoice at a birth and grieve at a funeral? It is because we are not the person involved.
     Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)
     "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar"


All say, 'How hard it is that we have to die' — a strange complaint to come from the mouths of people who have had to live.
     Mark Twain, Pudd'nhead Wilson (1894)
     "Pudd'nhead Wilson's Calendar"


Pity is for the living, envy is for the dead.
     Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)
     "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"


Each person is born to one possession which outvalues all his others — his last breath.
     Mark Twain, Following the Equator (1897)
     "Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"


One of these men was a gentle and kindly and grave and sympathetic Irishman, who hid his sorrow the best he could, and tried to look glad, and told me that his paper, the Evening Sun, had cabled him that it was reported in New York that I was dead. What should he cable in reply? I said, "Say the report is greatly exaggerated."
     He never smiled, but went solemnly away and sent the cable in those words. The remark hit the world pleasantly, and to this day it keeps turning up, now and then, in the newspapers when people have occasion to discount exaggerations.
     [Another reporter present bore a cablegram from his newspaper which said: "If Mark Twain dying send five hundred words. If dead send a thousand.]
     Mark Twain, Chapters from My Autobiography 
(North American Review, 1906-1907)


Death, the only immortal who treats us all alike, whose pity and whose peace and whose refuge are for all — the soiled and the pure, the rich and the poor, the loved and the unloved.
     Mark Twain, Notebook, 1908


Four days ago I came back from a month's holiday in Bermuda in perfect health; but by some accident the reporters failed to perceive this. ... so I sent a humorous paragraph by telephone to the Associated Press denying the "charge" that I was "dying," and saying "I would not do such a thing at my time of life."
     Mark Twain, "The Death of Jean" (1909); in Michael J. 
Kiskis (ed.), Mark Twain's Own Autobiography: 
     The Chapters from the
North American Review (1990)

It is a solemn thought: Dead, the noblest man's meat is inferior to pork.
     Mark Twain, More Maxims of Mark (Merle Johnson, ed., 1927)


Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down.


So it goes. [said whenever a person in the book dies, or a dead person is mentioned]
     Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)


Death is nature's way of saying, 'Your table's ready'.
     Robin Williams


The only thing that worries me about reincarnation is, how can I be sure I won't come back as myself?
     Tom Wilson



The Devil's Dictionary

Abasement, n. A decent and customary mental attitude in the presence of wealth or power. Peculiarly appropriate in an employee when addressing an employer.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Abrupt, adj. Sudden, without ceremony, like the arrival of a cannon-shot and the departure of the soldier whose interests are most affected by it.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Abscond, v.i. To "move in a mysterious way," commonly with the property of another.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Accountability, n. The mother of caution.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Admiration, n. Our polite recognition of another's resemblance to ourselves.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Adore, v.t. To venerate expectantly.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Ambidextrous, adj. Able to pick with equal skill a right-hand pocket or a left.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Ambition, n. An overmastering desire to be vilified by enemies while living and made ridiculous by friends when dead.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Apologize, v.i. To lay the foundation for a future offence.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Arrest, v.t. Formally to detain one accused of unusualness.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Asperse, v.t. Maliciously to ascribe to another vicious actions which one has not had the temptation and opportunity to commit.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Circus, n. A place where horses, ponies and elephants are permitted to see men, women and children acting the fool.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Compromise, n. Such an adjustment of conflicting interests as gives each adversary the satisfaction of thinking he has got what he ought not to have, and is deprived of nothing except what was justly his due.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Contempt, n. The feeling of a prudent man for an enemy who is too formidable safely to be opposed.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Corsair, n. A politician of the seas.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Coward, n. One who in a perilous emergency thinks with his legs.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Daring, n. One of the most conspicuous qualities of a man in security.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Debauchee, n. One who has so earnestly pursued pleasure that he has had the misfortune to overtake it.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Decide, v.i. To succumb to the preponderance of one set of influences over another set.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Defame, v.t. To lie about another. To tell the truth about another.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Degradation, n. One of the stages of moral and social progress from private station to political preferment.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Deliberation, n. The act of examining one's bread to determine which side it is buttered on.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Dictionary, n. A malevolent literary device for cramping the growth of a language and making it hard and inelastic. This dictionary, however, is a most useful work.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Die, n. The singular of "dice." We seldom hear the word, because there is a prohibitory proverb, "Never say die."
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Disobedience, n. The silver lining to the cloud of servitude.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Enough, pro. All there is in the world if you like it.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Exception, n. A thing which takes the liberty to differ from other things of its class, as an honest man, a truthful woman, etc. "The exception proves the rule" is an expression constantly upon the lips of the ignorant, who parrot it from one another with never a thought of its absurdity. In the Latin, "Exceptio probat regulam" means that the exception tests the rule, puts it to the proof, not confirms it. The malefactor who drew the meaning from this excellent dictum and substituted a contrary one of his own exerted an evil power which appears to be immortal.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Forefinger, n. The finger commonly used in pointing out two malefactors.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Guillotine, n. A machine which makes a Frenchman shrug his shoulders with good reason.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Hand, n. A singular instrument worn at the end of a human arm and commonly thrust into somebody's pocket.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


I is the first letter of the alphabet, the first word of the language, the first thought of the mind, the first object of affection. In grammar it is a pronoun of the first person and singular number. Its plural is said to be We, but how there can be more than one myself is doubtless clearer to the grammarians than it is to the author of this incomparable dictionary. Conception of two myselves is difficult, but fine.  The frank yet graceful use of "I" distinguishes a good writer from a bad; the latter carries it with the manner of a thief trying to cloak his loot.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Impartial, adj. Unable to perceive any promise of personal advantage from espousing either side of a controversy or adopting either of two conflicting opinions.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Impenitence, n. A state of mind intermediate in point of time between sin and punishment.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Imposition, n. The act of blessing or consecrating by the laying on of hands — a ceremony common to many ecclesiastical systems, but performed with the frankest sincerity by the sect known as Thieves.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Improvidence, n. Provision for the needs of to-day from the revenues of tomorrow.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Incompossible, adj. Unable to exist if something else exists. Two things are incompossible when the world of being has scope enough for one of them, but not enough for both — as Walt Whitman's poetry and God's mercy to man.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Influence, n. In politics, a visionary quo given in exchange for a substantial quid.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Ingrate, n. One who receives a benefit from another, or is otherwise an object of charity.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Kill, v.t. To create a vacancy without nominating a successor.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Kleptomaniac, n. A rich thief.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Labor, n. One of the processes by which A acquires property for B.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Laziness, n. Unwarranted repose of manner in a person of low degree.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Lexicographer, n. A pestilent fellow who, under the pretense of recording some particular stage in the development of a language, does what he can to arrest its growth, stiffen its flexibility and mechanize its methods.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Mace, n. A staff of office signifying authority. Its form, that of a heavy club, indicates its original purpose and use in dissuading from dissent.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Machination, n. The method employed by one's opponents in baffling one's open and honorable efforts to do the right thing.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Mine, adj. Belonging to me if I can hold or seize it.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Once, adv. Enough.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Opportunity, n. A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Otherwise, n. No better.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Outcome, n. A particular type of disappointment. By the kind of intelligence that sees in an exception a proof of the rule the wisdom of an act is judged by the outcome, the result. This is immortal nonsense; the wisdom of an act is to be judged by the light that the doer had when he performed it.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Outdo, v.t. To make an enemy.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Pardon, v. To remit a penalty and restore to a life of crime. To add to the lure of crime the temptation of ingratitude.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Patience, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Perseverance, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Pitiful, adj. The state of an enemy or opponent after an imaginary encounter with oneself.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Plan, v.t. To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Preference, n. A sentiment, or frame of mind, induced by the erroneous belief that one thing is better than another.
     An ancient philosopher, expounding his conviction that life is no better than death, was asked by a disciple why, then, he did not die. "Because," he replied, "death is no better than life."
     It is longer.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Reasonable, adj. Accessible to the infection of our own opinions. Hospitable to persuasion, dissuasion and evasion.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Resolute, adj. Obstinate in a course that we approve.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Responsibility, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor. In the days of astrology it was customary to unload it upon a star.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Ribaldry, n. Censorious language by another concerning oneself.
Ribaldry, n. Censorious language by oneself concerning another.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Riches, n. . . . The savings of many in the hands of one.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Riot, n. A popular entertainment given to the military by innocent bystanders.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Scribbler, n. A professional writer whose views are antagonistic to one's own.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Self-evident, adj. Evident to one's self and to nobody else.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Sophistry, n. The controversial method of an opponent, distinguished from one's own by superior insincerity and fooling. This method is that of the later Sophists, a Grecian sect of philosophers who began by teaching wisdom, prudence, science, art and, in brief, whatever men ought to know, but lost themselves in a maze of quibbles and a fog of words.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Sorcery, n. The ancient prototype and forerunner of political influence. It was, however, deemed less respectable and sometimes was punished by torture and death. Augustine Nicholas relates that a poor peasant who had been accused of sorcery was put to the torture to compel a confession. After enduring a few gentle agonies the suffering simpleton admitted his guilt, but naively asked his tormentors if it were not possible to be a sorcerer without knowing it.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Take, v.t. To acquire, frequently by force but preferably by stealth.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Talk, v.t. To commit an indiscretion without temptation, from an impulse without purpose.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Twice, adv. Once too often.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Type, n. Pestilent bits of metal suspected of destroying civilization and enlightenment, despite their obvious agency in this incomparable dictionary.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Valor, n. A soldierly compound of vanity, duty and the gambler's hope.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Zeal, n. A certain nervous disorder afflicting the young and inexperienced. A passion that goeth before a sprawl.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Zenith, n. A point in the heavens directly overhead to a standing man or a growing cabbage.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


Lexicographer, n. One who consoles himself by defining that which he despairs of changing.
     Chaz Bufe, The American Heretic's Dictionary (1992)


Meticulousness, n. An admirable quality in oneself. Not to be confused with being "anally retentive," a condition which afflicts others.
     Chaz Bufe, The American Heretic's Dictionary (1992)


Admire, v. Resent.
     Victor L. Cahn


Never, adv. Not yet, anyway.
     Victor L. Cahn


Unafraid, adj. Unaware.
     Victor L. Cahn


Lexicographer: a writer of dictionaries, a harmless drudge.
     Samuel Johnson





Diplomacy, n. The patriotic art of lying for one's country.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


If you can't go around it, over it, or through it, you had better negotiate with it.
     Ashleigh Brilliant


A diplomat is a man who always remembers a woman's birthday but never remembers her age.
     Robert Frost


Diplomacy is to do and say
The nastiest thing in the nicest way.
     Isaac Goldberg


To deceive a diplomat speak the truth, he has no experience with it.
     Greek Proverb


Diplomacy is the art of saying "Nice doggie" until you can find a rock.
     Will Rogers


Diplomats are just as essential to starting a war as Soldiers are for finishing it. You take Diplomacy out of war and the thing would fall in a week.
     Will Rogers, Autobiography (1949)


The best diplomat I know is a fully activated phaser bank.
     Scotty, "A Taste of Armageddon"
     STAR TREK:  The Original Series


We must acknowledge, once and for all, that the purpose of diplomacy is to prolong a crisis.
     Spock, "The Mark of Gideon"
     STAR TREK:  The Original Series


Diplomats and bureaucrats may function differently, but they achieve exactly the same results.
     Spock, "The Mark of Gideon"
     STAR TREK:  The Original Series


"I doubt that our own behavior will distinguish us in the annals of diplomacy."
"I'm gonna sleep this off. Please let me know if there's some other way we can screw up tonight."
     Spock and Kirk, after the Enterprise hosts Klingon Chancellor 
     Gorkon's party by serving Romulan ale in 
     STAR TREK VI The Undiscovered Country


Those who cannot hear an angry shout may strain to hear a whisper.
     Ambassador Odan, "The Host"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


"Ambassador, with great respect for all that you've achieved on behalf of the Federation, this sort of 'cowboy diplomacy' will not easily be tolerated any more. ..."
"I was involved with 'cowboy diplomacy,' as you describe it, long before you were born."
"Nevertheless, sir, I am not prepared to leave until your affairs are complete."
"In your own way, you are as stubborn as another captain of the Enterprise I once knew."
"Then I'm in good company, sir."
     Picard and Spock, "Unification II"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


Vorta are immune to most forms of poison. It comes in handy when you're a diplomat.
     Weyoun, "Ties of Blood and Water"
     STAR TREK:  Deep Space Nine


[Diplomat] ... A person who can tell you to go to hell in such a way that you actually look forward to the trip.
     Caskie Stinett, Out of the Red (1960)



(Lost and Found)


Where would I be without my sense of direction.
     Ashleigh Brilliant


If you don't know where you're going, you will probably end up somewhere else.
     Laurence Johnston Peter,  The Peter Principle (1969)


If you are reluctant to ask the way, you will be lost.
     Malayan Proverb


All drains lead to the ocean.
     Gill (Willem Dafoe)
     Andrew Stanton, Bob Peterson and David Reynolds,
     Finding Nemo (movie, 2003)


“Now, let’s ask somebody for directions. ... There’s somebody.  Hey, excuse —”
     “... It’s a fish we don’t know, and if we ask it for directions, it could ingest us and spit out our bones!”
     “What is it with men and asking for directions?”
          Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) and Marlin (Albert Brooks) in Andrew Stanton,
               Bob Peterson and David Reynolds, Finding Nemo (movie, 2003)


"Let us now go on with the journey we have begun!"
     Gandalf in J. R. R. Tolkien, The Two Towers (1955)


Do you think that Moses led the Israelites through the desert for forty years because God was testing him, or because he wanted them to really appreciate the Promised Land when they finally got there, or because Moses refused to ask anybody for directions?


Why did Dorothy get lost in Oz? She had three men giving her directions.



Discovery and Invention


"The cry 'I could have thought of that' is a very popular and misleading one, for the fact is that they didn't, and a very significant and revealing fact it is too."
     Dirk Gently in Douglas Adams, 
     Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (1987)


Chemistry is supposed to be one of the more developed sciences. Within chemistry, carbon is the element about which we are supposed to know most. It is the element around which life is built. The remarkable thing about the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, then, is not how clever we are to have found it, but how unobservant and unimaginative we have been not to have found it sooner. The discovery is a potent reminder that science is not, as it is sometimes portrayed, on the verge of reaching a state of absolute knowledge but that after three centuries of modern chemistry we have only just begun the exploration. It highlights not how much we know, but how very little.
     Hugh Aldersey-Williams, The Most Beautiful Molecule: The Discovery of the Buckyball (1995)


The greatest inventors are unknown to us. Someone invented the wheel — but who?
     Isaac Asimov


The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not "Eureka!" (I found it!) but "That's funny ..."
     Isaac Asimov


Priestly is perhaps best regarded as the last person to discover oxygen, for others had reported its preparation but had not realized that it was an element. The Swedish chemist Karl Scheele in fact discovered oxygen two years before Priestley, but delays in publication lost him the priority he deserved. As in the discovery of terrestrial lands, it is typically the last person to "discover" a region who is remembered by posterity.
     P. W. Atkins, The Periodic Kingdom: A Journey into 
     the Land of the Chemical Elements


The art of invention grows young with the things invented.
     Francis Bacon


They are ill discoverers that think there is no land, when they can see nothing but sea.
     Francis Bacon


When you write a proposal for a funding agency, it is based on current knowledge, not on the unknown. Yet the most interesting science is to be found in the unknown world. How do you go from the known to the unknown? The best way, in my opinion, is to back those who have done it before. Discovery, by serendipity or by conception, usually comes to the same people over and over.
     Sir Derek H. R. Barton, introduction to 
     Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989)


He that invents a machine augments the power of a man and the well-being of mankind.
     Henry Ward Beecher


An Ingenious Man who had built a flying machine invited a great concourse of people to see it go up. At the appointed moment, everything being ready, he boarded the car and turned on the power. The machine immediately broke through the massive substructure upon which it was builded, and sank out of sight into the earth, the aeronaut springing out barely in time to save himself.
     "Well," said he, "I have done enough to demonstrate the correctness of my details. The defects," he added, with a look at the ruined brick-work, "are merely basic and fundamental."
     Upon this assurance the people came forward with subscriptions to build a second machine.
     Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables (1898)
     "The Flying Machine"


Having obtained an audience of the King an Ingenious Patriot pulled a paper from his pocket, saying:
     "May it please your Majesty, I have here a formula for constructing armour-plating which no gun can pierce. If these plates are adopted in the Royal Navy our warships will be invulnerable, and therefore invincible. Here, also, are reports of your Majesty's Ministers, attesting the value of the invention. I will part with my right in it for a million tumtums."
     After examining the papers, the King put them away and promised him an order on the Lord High Treasurer of the Extortion Department for a million tumtums.
     "And here," said the Ingenious Patriot, pulling another paper from another pocket, "are the working plans of a gun that I have invented, which will pierce that armour. Your Majesty's Royal Brother, the Emperor of Bang, is anxious to purchase it, but loyalty to your Majesty's throne and person constrains me to offer it first to your Majesty. The price is one million tumtums."
     Having received the promise of another check, he thrust his hand into still another pocket, remarking:
     "The price of the irresistible gun would have been much greater, your Majesty, but for the fact that its missiles can be so effectively averted by my peculiar method of treating the armour plates with a new —"
     The King signed to the Great Head Factotum to approach.
     "Search this man," he said, "and report how many pockets he has."
     "Forty-three, Sire," said the Great Head Factotum, completing the scrutiny.
     "May it please your Majesty," cried the Ingenious Patriot, in terror, "one of them contains tobacco."
     "Hold him up by the ankles and shake him," said the King; "then give him a check for forty-two million tumtums and put him to death. Let a decree issue declaring ingenuity a capital offence."
     Ambrose Bierce, Fantastic Fables (1898)
     "The Ingenious Patriot"


Inventor, n. A person who makes an ingenious arrangement of wheels, levers and springs, and believes it civilization.
     Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1911)


May every young scientist remember . . . and not fail to keep his eyes open for the possibility that an irritating failure of his apparatus to give consistent results may once or twice in a lifetime conceal an important discovery.
     Patrick Maynard Stuart Blackett


The pioneer explorer was one lonely man thinking.
     Daniel J. Boorstin, The Discoverers: A History Of Man's 
     Search To Know His World And Himself


Invention is not infrequently the mother of necessity.
     Samuel Butler


The guy who invented the first wheel was an idiot. The guy who invented the other three, he was a genius.
     Sid Caesar


When Thomas Edison worked late into the night on the electric light, he had to do it by gas lamp or candle. I'm sure it made the work seem that much more urgent.
     George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (2001)


Want is the mistress of invention.
     Susannah Centilivre


What counts, however, in science is to be not so much the first as the last.
     Erwin Chargaff, Science 1971, 172, 639


I don't think necessity is the mother of invention — invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.
     Agatha Christie, An Autobiography (1977)


[Letter quoting a misattribution of the phrase "Physics envy is the curse of biology."] Am I doomed to be another victim of Stigler's Law? (Stigler's Law asserts that a discovery is named after the last person to discover it, because once a discovery has been named, no one else claims it as a discovery. Stigler's Law was discovered many times before Stigler named it.)
     Joel Cohen, Letters, Science, ???


Invention, my dear friends, is 93% perspiration, 6% electricity, 4% evaporation, and 2% butterscotch ripple.
     Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) in Roald Dahl, David Seltzer (uncredited),
          Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory


But in science the credit goes to the man who convinces the world, not to the man to whom the idea first occurs.
     Sir Francis Darwin, Eugenics Review 1914, 6, 1


It cannot be denied that many important scientific discoveries were made by chance, but it is essential that a person engaged in the research must have a keen sense of observation and creative ability if any discovery is to be developed and not remain unknown or passed over.
     G. A. Olah & R. E. A. Dear, Friedel-Crafts 
     and Related Reactions


It sounds simple, as big discoveries usually do after they have been made.
     Freeman Dyson, From Eros to Gaia (1992)
     "Letter from Armenia" (1971)


Keep on the lookout for novel ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea has to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you're working on.
     Thomas Edison


If a man can write a better book preach a better sermon, or make a better mouse-trap, than this neighbor, though he builds his house in the woods, the world will make a beaten path to his door.
     Ralph Waldo Emerson, Borrowings, a collection of sayings published 
     by the First Unitarian Church in Oakland, California (1889)


This was an example of Alexander von Humboldt's dictum that there are three stages in the popular attitude toward a great discovery: First, people doubt its existence; then they deny its importance; and finally they give the credit to the wrong person.
     Timothy Ferris, The Whole Shebang: 
     A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report


Significant inventions are not mere accidents. The erroneous view [that they are] is widely held, and it is one that the scientific and technical community, unfortunately, has done little to dispel. Happenstance usually plays a part, to be sure, but there is much more to invention than the popular notion of a bolt out of the blue. Knowledge in depth and in breadth are virtual prerequisities. Unless the mind is thoroughly charged beforehand, the proverbial spark of genius, if it should manifest itself, probably will find nothing to ignite.
     Paul Flory, on receiving the Priestley Medal, quoted 
     in Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989)


The excitement of discovery cannot be bought, or faked, or learned from books (although learning always helps). It is an emotion which must have developed from mankind's earliest days as a conscious animal, similar to the feeling when prey had successfully been stalked, or a secret honeycomb located high in a tree. It is one of the most uncomplicated and simple joys, although it soon becomes mired in all that other human business of possessiveness and greed.
     Richard Fortey, Life: A Natural History of the First 
     Four Billion Years of Life on Earth


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


One doesn't discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.
     André Gide, The Counterfeiters


The seeds of great discoveries are constantly floating around us, but they only take root in minds well prepared to receive them.
     Joseph Henry


Einstein didn't go around racking his brain, muttering to himself, "How, oh how, can I come up with a Great Idea?" ... The bottom line is that invention is much more like falling off a log than like sawing one in two.
     Douglas R. Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas


Who never walks save where he sees men's tracks makes no discoveries.
     J. G. Holland


All new doctrine goes through three stages. It is attacked and declared absurd; then it is admitted as true and obvious but insignificant. Finally, its true importance is recognized and its adversaries claim the honor of having discovered it.
     William James


[Of innovations] . . . when a thing was new people said "It is not true." Later, when its truth became obvious, people said, "Anyway, it is not important," and when its importance could not be denied, people said, "Anyway, it is not new."
     William James


It's an experience like no other experience I can describe, the best thing that can happen to a scientist, realizing that something that's happened in his or her mind exactly corresponds to something that happens in nature. It's startling every time it occurs. One is surprised that a construct of one's own mind can actually be realized in the honest-to-goodness world out there. A great shock, and a great, great joy.
     Leo Philip Kadanoff


Let us learn to dream, gentlemen, then perhaps we shall find the truth. But let us beware of publishing our dreams till they have been tested by the waking understanding.
     Friedrich August Kekulé


An inventor is simply a fellow who doesn't take his education too seriously.
     Charles F. Kettering


I was thinking of having opened a door with a key, and of possessing the key to many doors, perhaps to all of them. I was thinking of having thought of something that nobody else had yet thought, not even in Canada or New Caledonia, and I felt invincible and untouchable even when faced by close enemies, closer each month. Finally, I was thinking of having had a far from ignoble revenge on those who had declared me biologically inferior.
     Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (1975)


The paradigm of all lucky accidents in science is the discovery of penicillin — the spore floating in through the window, the exposed culture plate, the halo of bacterial inhibition around the spot on which it fell. What people forget is that Fleming had been looking for penicillin, or something like it, since the middle of the First World War. Phenomena such as these will not be appreciated, may not be knowingly observed, except against a background of prior expectations. A good scientist is discovery-prone.
     Peter Medawar, "Lucky Jim" (New York 
     Review of Books
, 28 March 1968)


America was discovered accidentally by a great seaman who was looking for something else. History is like that, very chancy.
     Samuel Eliot Morison


I was forced to seek it [the truth], for it did not seek me. If a man wishes to see a foreign city it is no good for him to stay home with his head on his pillow.


Ever since man invented the wheel, he has been the confused victim of the miracles he has wrought.
     Laurence Johnston Peter, The Peter Prescription


The contents of this section will furnish striking illustration of the truth of a remark which I have more than once made in my philosophical writings, and which can hardly be too often repeated, as it tends greatly to encourage philosophical investigations; viz. that more is owing to what we call chance, that is, philosophically speaking, to the observation of events arising from unknown causes, than to any proper design, or preconceived theory in this business.
     Joseph Priestley, Experiments and Observations 
     on Different Kinds of Air


The word serendipity was coined by Horace Walpole in a letter to his friend Sir Horace Mann in 1754. Walpole was impressed by a fairy tale he had read about the adventures of "The Three Princes of Serendip" (or Serendib, an ancient name for Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka), who "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things which they were not in quest of. . . ." Walpole used the term to describe some of his own accidental discoveries. The word itself has been rediscovered recently and is being used with increasing frequency.
     Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989)


Most of the persons who have been blessed by serendipity are not reluctant to admit their good fortune. Far from being defensive about the role that chance played in their discoveries, they are usually eager to describe it. They realize, I believe, that serendipity does not diminish the credit due them for making the discovery.
     Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989)


I have coined the term pseudoserendipity to describe accidental discoveries of ways to achieve an end sought for, in contrast to the meaning of (true) serendipity, which describes accidental discoveries of things not sought for.
     Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989)


When a discovery has finally won tardy recognition it is usually found to have been anticipated, often with cogent reasons and in great detail. Darwinism, for instance, may be traced back through the ages to Heraclitus and Anaximander.
     F. C. S. Schiller


You should understand the crown ether discovery in perspective. Charlie [Charles Pederson] was an acknowledged expert in coordination chemistry. . . . He knew what could or couldn't happen; he was, in a sense, prepared for the discovery. It wasn't that he stumbled on it; rather, it was as if the compound walked in front of him and he snapped it up. You need a sharp, ready, and flexible mind for that.
     Herman Schroeder, at a ceremony honoring Charles Pederson 
     on the 20th anniversary of his discovery of crown ethers
     quoted in Royston M. Roberts, Serendipity (1989)


We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.
     Samuel Smiles, Self-help


Discovery should come as an adventure rather than as the result of a logical process of thought. Sharp, prolonged thinking is necessary that we may keep on the chosen road, but it does not necessarily lead to discovery.
     Theobald Smith


Discovery consists of seeing what everybody has seen and thinking what nobody has thought.
     Albert Szent-Györgi


It behooves us always to remember that in physics it has taken great men to discover simple things. They are very great names indeed which we couple with the explanation of the path of a stone, the droop of a chain, and tints of a bubble, the shadows in a cup.
     D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson, On Growth and Form (1917)


Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door. Build a better door and the mice can't get in anyhow.
     Cal Tinney


What is it that confers the noblest delight? What is that which swells a man's breast with pride above that which any other experience can bring to him? Discovery! To know that you are walking where none others have walked; that you are beholding what human eye has not seen before; that you are breathing a virgin atmosphere. To give birth to an idea - to discover a great thought — an intellectual nugget, right under the dust of a field that many a brain-plow had gone over before. To find a new planet, to invent a new hinge, to find the way to make the lightnings carry your messages. To be the first — that is the idea. To do something, say something, see something, before anybody else — these are the things that confer a pleasure compared with which other pleasures are tame and commonplace, other ecstasies cheap and trivial.
     Mark Twain, The Innocents Abroad (1869)


In our day we don't allow a hundred and thirty years to elapse between glimpses of a marvel. If somebody should discover a creek in the county next to the one that the North Pole is in, Europe and America would start fifteen costly expeditions thither: one to explore the creek, and the other fourteen to hunt for each other.
     Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi (1883)


That reminds me to remark, in passing, that the very first official thing I did, in my administration — and it was on the very first day of it, too — was to start a patent office; for I knew that a country without a patent office and good patent laws was just a crab, and couldn't travel any way but sideways or backwards.
     Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889)


Name the greatest of all the inventors: Accident.
     Mark Twain, Notebook, 1901


Some things you can't find out; but you will never know you can't by guessing and supposing: no, you have to be patient and go on experimenting until you find out that you can't find out. And it is delightful to have it that way, it makes the world so interesting. If there wasn't anything to find out, it would be dull. Even trying to find out and not finding out is just as interesting as trying to find out and find out out, and I don't know but more so. The secret of the water was a treasure until I got it; then the excitement all went away, and I recognized a sense of loss.
     Mark Twain, "Eve's Diary" (1905)


Mark Twain once received a letter from an author who had written a book calculated to assist inventors and patentees, asking for his indorsement. He replied: "I have, as you say, been interested in patents and patentees. If your books tell how to exterminate inventors send me nine editions. Send them by express."
     Mark Twainm, Albert Bigelow Paine, 
     Mark Twain: A Biography


In 1877, Mark Twain was offered a chance to buy stock in the new invention by Graham Bell, the telephone. Having been burned several times by bad investments, he declined to risk the investment. When he returned after a year, a dry-goods clerk of his acquaintance had made a fortune investing in the same invention. Twain commented, "It is strange the way the ignorant and inexperienced so often and undeservedly succeed when the informed and the experienced fail."
     Mark Twain, Bernard DeVoto (ed.), Mark Twain in Eruption (1940)


Invention is the mother of necessity.
     Thorstein Veblen


Everything of importance has been said before by somebody who did not discover it.
     Alfred North Whitehead


The "silly question" is the first intimation of some totally new development.
     Alfred North Whitehead


The greatest invention of the nineteenth century was the invention of the method of invention.
     Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (1925)



Doubt and Certainty


Uncertainty that comes from knowledge (knowing what you don't know) is different from uncertainty coming from ignorance.
     Isaac Asimov, "Essay 400 — A Way of Thinking" 
     (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec.1994)


It is another example of the value of routine doubting. My thesis, in case you've forgotten, is not doubt-for-doubt's-sake, but doubt as a necessary barrier which the valid can overcome and the non-valid cannot. The more a finding seems to destroy the basis of the scientific structure, the higher the barrier of doubt. Of course one must remember that "doubt" is not synonymous with "refusal to listen."
     Isaac Asimov, "Essay 400 — A Way of Thinking" 
     (The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Dec.1994)


If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts, but if he will be content to begin with doubts, he shall end in certainties.
     Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning (1605)


Galileo called doubt the father of invention; it is certainly the pioneer.
     Christian Nestell Bovee


One thing you can rely on is that there will always be uncertainty.
     Ashleigh Brilliant


There is one thing certain, namely, that we can have nothing certain; therefore it is not certain that we can have nothing certain.
     Samuel Butler, Note-Books (1912)


It is easy enough to praise men for the courage of their convictions. I wish I could teach the sad young of this mealy generation the courage of their confusions.
     John Ciardi, Saturday Review (June 2, 1962)


“I doubt if any of us will get out of here alive.”
“Oh, you should never, never doubt what nobody is sure about.”
     Mr. Salt (Roy Kinnear) and Willy Wonka (Gene Wilder) in Roald Dahl,
          David Seltzer (uncredited), Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory (1971)


"Any truth is better than indefinite doubt."
     Sherlock Holmes in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle,
     The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes (1894)
     "The Yellow Face"


Freedom of speech and freedom of action are meaningless without freedom to think. And there is no freedom of thought without doubt. The civilized man has a moral obligation to be skeptical, to demand the credentials of all statements that claim to be facts.
     Bergen Evans, The Natural History of Nonsense (1945, 1958)


The importance of doubt as the first step to knowledge was one of the principles our father taught us both. It was due to his love and appreciation of nature that we both became scientists.
     Joan Feynman [sister of Richard Feynman], 
     letter, Physics Today (May 1993)


You ask, how can this guy teach, how can he be motivated if he doesn't know what he's doing? As a matter of fact, I love to teach. I like to think of new ways of looking at things as I explain them, to make them clearer — but maybe I'm not making them clearer. Probably what I'm doing is entertaining myself. I've learned how to live without knowing. I don't have to be sure I'm succeeding, and as I said before about science, I think my life is fuller because I realize that I don't know what I'm doing. I'm delighted with the width of the world!
     Richard Feynman, "The Smartest Man in the World" (interview, 
     Omni magazine, 1979); reprinted in The Pleasure of Finding 
     Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman 
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can't figure it out, then I go on to something else, but I don't have to know an answer, I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.
     Richard Feynman, "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" 
     (interview, BBC, Horizon, 1981; shown in US on Nova)
     reprinted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short 
     Works of Richard P. Feynman
(Jeffrey Robbins, ed., 1999)


Mediocre spirits demand of science the kind of certainty which it cannot give, a sort of religious satisfaction. ... Only the real, rare, true scientific minds can endure doubt, which is attached to all our knowledge.
     Sigmund Freud, letter to Princess Marie Bonaparte


Discouragement and doubt indicate that one sees reality as it really is.
     Eduardo Galeano


Strictly speaking, you only know when you know little. Doubt grows with knowledge.
     Johann Wolfgang von Goethe


"Uncertainty" is NOT "I don't know". It is "I can't know". "I am uncertain" does not mean "I could be certain."
     Wener Karl Heisenberg


There is only one thing about which I am certain, and that is that there is very little about which one can be certain.
     W. Somerset Maugham


Certainty can be aspired to, but a 'rightness' that lies beyond the possibility of future criticism cannot be achieved by any scientific theory. There is no place for apodictic certainty in science.
     Peter Medawar, "Hypothesis and Imagination" 
     (Times Literary Supplement, 25 Oct 1963)


Men become civilized, not in proportion to their willingness to believe, but in their readiness to doubt.
     H. L. Mencken


None of us knows anything, not even whether we know or do not know, nor do we know whether not knowing and knowing exist, nor in general whether there is anything or not.
     Metrodorus of Chios


There is no such thing as absolute certainty, but there is assurance sufficient for the purposes of human life.
     John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1859)


I respect faith, but doubt is what gets you an education.
     Wilson Mizner


Doubt is often the beginning of wisdom.
     M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled and Beyond


The pragmatist knows that doubt is an art which has to be acquired with difficulty.
     Charles Sanders Peirce, Collected Papers


This only is certain, that there is nothing certain; and nothing more miserable and yet more arrogant than man.
     Pliny ("The Elder")


Doubting everything or believing everything are two equally convenient solutions, both of which save us from thinking.
     Jules Henri Poincaré, La Science et l'hyphothèse (1902)


The believer is happy. The doubter is wise.
     Hungarian Proverb


He who knows nothing doubts nothing.
     Italian Proverb


Ubi dubium ibi libertas. Where there is doubt, there is freedom.
     Latin Proverb


The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.
     Bertrand Russell


William James used to preach the 'will to believe.' For my part, I should wish to preach the 'will to doubt.' ... What is wanted is not the will to believe, but the will to find out, which is the exact opposite.
     Bertrand Russell, Skeptical Essays (1928)


The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. ... But so long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues.
     Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (1950)
     "Philosophy for Laymen"


What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance. ... For it is not enough to recognize that all our knowledge is, in a greater or less degree, uncertain and vague; it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.
     Bertrand Russell, Unpopular Essays (1950)
     "Philosophy for Laymen"


When one admits that nothing is certain, one must, I think, also add that some things are much more nearly certain than others.
     Bertrand Russell, The Quotable Bertrand 
(Lee Eisler, ed., 1993)


Only one thing is certain - that is, nothing is certain. If this statement is true, it is also false. [Ancient paradox]


The more he became truly wise, the more he distrusted everything he knew.
     Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764)


The more I read, the more I meditate; and the more I acquire, the more certain I am that I know nothing.
     Voltaire, Dictionnaire Philosophique (1764)


Doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd.
     Voltaire, letter to Frederick the Great (1767)


We all believe that it isn't possible to get to the moon; but there may be people who believe that it is possible and that it sometimes happens. We say: These people do not know a lot that we know. And, let them never be so sure of their belief — they are wrong and we know it.
     If we compare our system of knowledge with theirs then theirs is evidently the poorer one by far.
     Ludwig Wittgenstein, "On Certainty"



Dreams and Desires


Dreams that do come true can be as unsettling as those that don't.
     Brett Butler, Knee Deep in Paradise


Our frustration is greater when we have much and want more than when we have nothing and want some. We are less dissatisfied when we lack many things than when we seem to lack but one thing.
     Eric Hoffer, The True Believer: Thoughts
     on the Nature of Mass Movements


We do not really feel grateful toward those who make our dreams come true; they ruin our dreams.
     Eric Hoffer, The Passionate State of Mind (1954)


You see things; and you say, "Why?" But I dream things that never were; and I say, "Why not?"
     George Bernard Shaw, Back to Methuselah (1921)


"Dream not of today" — the night-blessing of the Y'Shel.
     Captain Picard, "The Chase"
     STAR TREK:  The Next Generation


My experience with delusions is that it's better if you don't overanalyze them.
     Unknown, Grade Under Fire (TV series)