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What is your favorite definition of science?
August 24, 2014 2:58 PM   Subscribe

I've heard some great quotations from famous scientists that succinctly embody the nuances and beauty of the practice of science. I'm teaching high school science for the first time (starting tomorrow! eek!) and I'm looking for some good examples to share with my students. What are your favorite quotations on the subject? How do you personally define the practice of science? Thanks!
posted by garuda to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
You wake up one icy morning and look out the window. But you don't see anything familiar. The world is full of odd patterns. It takes a second for you to realize that you are seeing icicles on the window, which suddenly focus into place. The intricate patterns reflecting the sun's light then begin to captivate you. Science museums call it the 'aha' experience. Mystics probably have another name for it. This sudden rearrangement of the world, this new gestalt, when disparate data merge together to form a new pattern, causing you to see the same old things again in a totally new light, almost defines progress in physics. Each time we have peeled back another layer, we have discovered that what was hidden often masked an underlying simplicity. The usual signal? Things with no apparent connection can be recognized as one and the same.
—Lawrence Krauss, in Fear of Physics: A Guide for the Perplexed

In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite.
—Paul Dirac

A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.
― Marie Curie

The aim of science is not to open the door to infinite wisdom, but to set a limit to infinite error.
—Bertolt Brecht

I can think of very few science books I've read that I've called useful. What they've been is wonderful. They've actually made me feel that the world around me is a much fuller, much more wonderful, much more awesome place than I ever realized it was. That has been, for me, the wonder of science. That's why science fiction retains its compelling fascination for people. That's why the move of science fiction into biology is so intriguing. I think that science has got a wonderful story to tell.
—Simon Jenkins

We must not forget that when radium was discovered no one knew that it would prove useful in hospitals. The work was one of pure science. And this is a proof that scientific work must not be considered from the point of view of the direct usefulness of it. It must be done for itself, for the beauty of science, and then there is always the chance that a scientific discovery may become like the radium a benefit for mankind.
―Marie Curie
posted by you're a kitty! at 3:07 PM on August 24 [5 favorites]

Das ist nicht nur nicht richtig, es ist nicht einmal falsch! - Wolfgang Pauli

Though a snarky quote, it more or less defines science: If an explanation for how reality works isn't falsifiable — if the claim isn't testable or reproducible — it isn't science.
posted by Mr. Six at 3:24 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

I really like the idea of science as a way of thinking:

All of science is nothing more than the refinement of everyday thinking.
Albert Einstein

Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge.
Carl Sagan


Science knows no country, because knowledge belongs to humanity, and is the torch which illuminates the world.
Louis Pasteur
posted by Laura_J at 3:34 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

The principle of science, the definition, almost, is the following: The test of all knowledge is experiment. Experiment is the sole judge of scientific “truth.”
- Richard Feynman.
posted by Thug at 3:40 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries , is not “Eureka” but “That's funny...”
—Isaac Asimov
posted by hydropsyche at 3:55 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right; a single experiment can prove me wrong.
Albert Einstein

Science, my lad, is made up of mistakes, but they are mistakes which it is useful to make, because they lead little by little to the truth.
Jules Verne

Science ... commits suicide when it adopts a creed.
Thomas Henry Huxley

Science is much more than a body of knowledge. It is a way of thinking. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which ones best match the facts. It urges on us a fine balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom.
Carl Sagan
posted by learnsome at 4:02 PM on August 24 [1 favorite]

No good quote, but could you do something fun to kick the class off like play Thomas Dolby's She Blinded Me With Science?
posted by sfkiddo at 6:01 PM on August 24

"The good thing about science is that it's true whether or not you believe in it." -- Neil deGrasse Tyson
posted by trillian at 6:16 PM on August 24 [2 favorites]

One of my favorites (since I studied molecular biology) is from Louis Pasteur:

"The role of the infinitely small in nature is infinitely large."

I would like also to direct your attention to quotes by famous women scientists, collected by an aspiring astrophysicist.


... it is shameful that there are so few women in science... In China there are many, many women in physics. There is a misconception in America that women scientists are all dowdy spinsters. This is the fault of men. In Chinese society, a woman is valued for what she is, and men encourage her to accomplishments yet she remains eternally feminine.
— Chien-Shiung Wu
Quoted in 'Queen of Physics', Newsweek (20 May 1963) no. 61, 20.
posted by GoLikeHellMachine at 6:23 PM on August 24

Relevant xkcd comic.
posted by kjs4 at 8:59 PM on August 24

Some of you may remember Edwin Markham's poem, "The Man with the Hoe,"
based on Millet's famous picture.

Bowed by the weight of centuries he leans
Upon his hoe and gazes on the ground,
The emptiness of ages in his face,
And on his back the burden of the world.
Who made him dead to rapture and despair,
A thing that grieves not and that never hopes,
Stolid and stunned, a brother to the ox?


A slow, painful progress, through three centuries, science crept on
from point to point, with many mistakes and many failures, a progress
often marked and flecked with the stains of human effort, but all the
same the most revolutionary and far-reaching advance ever made by man's
intellect. We are too close to the events to appreciate fully the
changes which it has wrought in man's relation to the world; and the
marvellous thing is that the most important of these changes have been
effected within the memory of those living. Three stand out as of the
first importance.

My generation was brought up in the belief that "Man was in his
original state a very noble and exalted creature, being placed as the
head and lord of this world, having all the creatures in subjection to
him. The powers and operations of his mind were extensive, capacious
and perfect"--to quote the words of one of my old Sunday-school
lessons. It is not too much to say that Charles Darwin has so turned
man right-about-face that, no longer looking back with regret upon a
Paradise Lost, he feels already within the gates of a Paradise Regained.

Secondly, Chemistry and Physics have at last given him control of the
four elements, and he has harnessed the forces of Nature. As usual
Kipling touches the very heart of the matter in his poem on "The Four
Angels," who in succession offered to Adam fire, air, earth and water.
Happy in the garden, watching the apple tree in bud, in leaf, in
blossom and in fruit, he had no use for them; but when the apple tree
was cut down, and he had to work outside of Eden wall,--then--

out of black disaster
He arose to be the master
Of Earth and Water, Air and Fire.

And this mastery, won in our day, has made the man with the hoe look up.

But the third and greatest glory is that the leaves of the tree of
science have availed for the healing of the nations. Measure as we may
the progress of the world--intellectually in the growth and spread of
education, materially in the application to life of all mechanical
appliances, and morally in a higher standard of ethics between nation
and nation, and between individuals, there is no one measure which can
compare with the decrease of disease and suffering in man, woman and
child. The Psalmist will have it that no man may redeem his brother,
but this redemption of his body has been bought at a price of the lives
of those who have sought out Nature's processes by study and
experiment. Silent workers, often unknown and neglected by their
generation, these men have kept alive the fires on the altars of
science, and have so opened the doors of knowledge that we now know the
laws of health and disease.


In the comedies and tragedies of life our immutable human nature reacts
very much as in the dawn of science, and yet, with a widening of
knowledge, the lights and shadows of the landscape have shifted, and
the picture is brighter. Nothing can bring back the hour when sin and
disease were correlated as confidently as night and day; and how shall
we assess the enormous gain of a new criterion, a new estimate of the
value of man's life!

Excerpts from Sir William Osler's "Man's Redemption of Man"
posted by hobo gitano de queretaro at 10:33 PM on August 24

As our circle of knowledge expands, so does the circumference of darkness surrounding it.
– Albert Einstein

I have used this quote to open a discussion about scientific endeavor and the importance of science in our society. Kids often think that all the "important" science has already been done - but that's the beauty of science, every question answered leads to 10 more questions.

Good luck on your first day!
posted by amelliferae at 5:53 PM on August 25

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