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Cheap Thoughts on Science




Almost in the beginning was curiosity.
     Isaac Asimov


Every hour a scientist spends trying to raise funds is an hour lost from important thought and research.
     Isaac Asimov


"Research" means "to search again." Why not? Sometimes, a new interpretation emerges that is of vast importance.
     Isaac Asimov


The quick harvest of applied science is the usable process, the medicine, the machine. The shy fruit of pure science is Understanding.
     Lincoln Barnett, Life (January 9, 1950)


Truth is the aim of all research, no matter how sharply this truth may conflict with our social, ethical, and political conditions. This is the unifying bond of the modern university.
     Christian Albert Theodor Billroth


Basic research is what I am doing when I don't know what I am doing.
     Wernher von Braun


In research the front line is almost always in a fog.
     Francis Crick, What Mad Pursuit: A Personal 
     View of Scientific Discovery (1988)


When I was a medical student, and a patient came to the hospital with a heart attack, things were mostly up to God. Today, there's a better than 95 percent chance to survive. Now that all comes from research.
      The unfortunate things is that there are people, even some scientists, who look at the money that goes to NASA and say, you know, we could use that money to support out work. That's very shortsighted. The more research that's done in any area of science, the better off everyone is going to be. The more that's done in physics, the better off I am in cardiology. There's no better investment for a society than research.
          Michael E. DeBakey, "Surviving in Space" 
          (National Geographic, January 2000)


Results! Why, man, I have gotten a lot of results. I know several thousand things that won't work.
     Thomas Edison


If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?
     Albert Einstein


The final results [of his work on the theory of relativity] appear almost simple; any intelligent undergraduate can understand them without much trouble. But the years of searching in the dark for a truth that one feels, but cannot express; the intense effort and the alternations of confidence and misgiving, until one breaks through to clarity and understanding, are only known to him who has himself experienced them.
     Albert Einstein


The mere formulation of a problem is far more often essential than its solution, which may be merely a matter of mathematical or experimental skill. To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advances in science.
     Albert Einstein


In this fashion, knowledge begets questions which beget new technology which provides answers — which in turn beget questions. This is the implacable carousel of research.
     Richard Fortey, Earth: An Intimate History (2004)


If we want an answer from nature, we must put our questions in acts, not words, and the acts may take us to curious places. Some questions were answered in the laboratory, others in mines, others in a hospital where a surgeon pushed tubes in my arteries to get blood samples, others on top of Pike's Peak in the Rocky Mountains, or in a diving dress on the bottom of the sea. That is one of the things I like about scientific research. You never know where it will take you next.
     J. B. S. [John Burdon Sanderson] Haldane


Whoever, in the pursuit of science, seeks after immediate practical utility, may generally rest assured that he will seek in vain.
     Hermann Ludwig Ferdinand von Helmholtz, 
     Academic discourse (1862)


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


Why think? Why not try the experiment?
     John Hunter, letter to Edward Jenner


Research! A mere excuse for idleness; it has never achieved, and will never achieve any results of the slightest value.
     Benjamin Jowett


The best person to decide what research shall be done is the man who is doing the research. The next best is the head of the department. After that you leave the field of best persons and meet increasingly worse groups. The first of these is the research director, who is probably wrong more than half the time. Then comes a committee which is wrong most of the time. Finally there is a committee of company vice-presidents, which is wrong all the time.
     Charles Edward Kenneth Mees, Biographical Memoirs 
     of Fellows of the Royal Society 1961, 7, 182


Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.
     Wilson Mizner


For God's sake, stop researching for a while and begin to think.
     Sir Walter Hamilton Moberly, The Crisis in the University (1949)


It is not the possession of truth, but the success which attends the seeking after it, that enriches the seeker and brings happiness to him.
     Max Planck


Scientific discovery and scientific knowledge have been achieved only by those who have gone in pursuit of them without any practical purpose whatsoever in view.
     Max Planck


I didn't think; I experimented.
     Wilhelm Roentgen


We haven't the money, so we've got to think.
     Ernest Rutherford, in R. V. Jones, Bulletin of 
     the Institute of Physics 1962, 13, 102


You can create life in the bathtub, easy. Mix twelve dozen cartons of Jell-O in your bathtub, run 220 volts of electricity through it, and there you are. Science even has a hunch that this is probably how all life itself began. . . . Psychologists might waste their time and ours by wondering why anyone in his right mind would want to electrocute a gelatinous blob, but it is only by saying no to the rules and yes to the impulse that real beginnings are made.
     Dr. Science (with Dan Coffey and Merle Kessler), 
     Dr. Science's Book of Shocking Domestic Revelations


Research is fundamentally a state of mind involving continual reexamination of doctrines and axioms upon which current thought and action are based. It is, therefore, critical of existing practices.
     Theobald Smith


The joy of research must be found in doing, since every other harvest is uncertain.
     Theobald Smith


The really important breakthroughs are always unpredictable. It is their very unpredictability that makes them important: they change our world in ways we didn't see coming. ... There is nothing wrong with goal-oriented research as a way of achieving specific feasible goals. But the dreamers and the mavericks must be allowed some free rein, too. Our world is not static: new problems constantly arise, and old answers often stop working. Like Lewis Carroll's Red Queen, we must run very fast in order to stand still.
     Ian Stewart, Nature's Numbers: The Unreal 
     Reality of Mathematics (1995)


If any student comes to me and says he wants to be useful to mankind and go into research to alleviate human suffering, I advise him to go into charity instead. Research wants real egotists who seek their own pleasure and satisfaction, but find it in solving the puzzles of nature.
     Albert Szent-Györgi


Research means going out into the unknown with the hope of finding something new to bring home. If you know in advance what you are going to do, or even to find there, then it is not research at all: then it is only a kind of honourable occupation.
     Albert Szent-Györgi, Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (1971)


In science in general, one characteristic feature is the awareness of error in the selection and pursuit of a problem. This is the most commonplace of criteria: if a scientist is going to engage in research of any kind, he has to have it on his mind, from the outset, that he may be on to a dud. You can tell a world-class scientist from the run-of-the-mill investigator by the speed with which he recognizes that he is heading into a blind alley. Blind alleys and garden paths leading nowhere are the principal hazards in research.
     Lewis Thomas, Late Night Thoughts on Listening 
     to Mahler's Ninth Symphony (1983)


This example illustrates the differences in the effects which may be produced by research in pure or applied science. A research on the lines of applied science would doubtless have led to improvement and development of the older methods — the research in pure science has given us an entirely new and much more powerful method. In fact, research in applied science leads to reforms, research in pure science leads to revolutions, and revolutions, whether political or industrial, are exceedingly profitable things if you are on the winning side.
     Sir Joseph John Thomson, quoted in 
     Lord Rayleigh, J. J. Thomson (1943)


If a research project is not worth doing at all, it is not worth doing properly.
     Unknown, Journal of Irreproducible Results 1961, 9, 43


The outcome of any serious research can only be to make two questions grow where only one grew before.
     Thorstein Veblen, The Place of Science in Modern 
     Civilization and Other Essays (1919)


Lost in a gloom of uninspired research.
     William Wordsworth, The Excursion, Book 4