Aca-deca-mania

Pokmeon GIF: Alakazam by Clint Hess on Dribbble


RESEARCH, TEACHING, AND SERVICE | SCIENTIFIC JOURNALISM | COURSEWORK


SCIENCE?


Science and improv by Uri Alon | Theatre Lab by Uri Alon | What is a chlorine bond? | Chicken | Chalk | A mathematical model for the dynamics and synchronization of cows | The fastest check-out lane at the grocery store? by Mona Chalabi | Caramelization by Science Geist | Does your mind jump around? by Yasmin Anwar | Berkeley commencement speech by Sheryl Sandberg | When science was groovy by W. Patrick McCray and David Kaiser | Science is a liar… sometimes by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia | I don’t believe in science by Nate Bargatze | How the giant tortoise got its name by QI | History of the entire world, I guess by Bill Wurtz | Archaeological replication of knives | Captain Math | The Universe by Tim and Eric | Our Fascinating Planet by Demetri Martin | Expert wasted entire life studying anteaters by The Onion | Nerds | Really incorrect Jeopardy! answers | Science doesn’t know everything by Dara O’Briain | Two-Headed Chemistry Expert | Mentoring undergraduates is very important by Heather Forsythe | Learning to say ‘yes, and’ by Ellen K. W. Brennan | Tenure Announcement by James Mickens | Minecraft Institvte of Technology by MITGameLab | Probability Words by Casper Albers | Sean Eddy Sued | The Placebo Effect by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia | Queer Theory for Lichens by David Griffiths | True Facts about the CuttleFish 


“We can only deduce that concentrated bullshit makes scientists look harder for facts.”

(from The Bugle Podcast, episode 150)


“Gamow had a passion for practical jokes- including the rarity, the scientific joke. He wrote his most important paper on the Big Bang in 1948 with Ralph Alpher, a research student. Then Gamow asked an old friend, the physicist Hans Bethe, to allow his name to be added to the list of authors- solely for the fun of being able to cite it as Alpher, Bethe, Gamow, as it is indeed known to this day. By luck, it was published on April 1… ‘You never met him? Crick asked. ‘Oh, I see. Well he was extremely jovial; used to drink a bit too much- by the time I knew him, anyway; and was fond of card tricks… He had a marvelous card trick; one of the best amateur card tricks I’ve ever seen was done by Gamow!’ Crick laughed. ‘And he was what is called good company, was Gamow. I wouldn’t say quite a buffoon, but yes, a bit of that, in the nicest way possible. You always knew, if you were going to spend the evening with Gamow you would have a jolly time. You know. And yet there was something behind it all.’”

[…] “François Jacob once described the next encounter. He found Lwoff in his laboratory, eating his lunch with his secretary and his lab technician. ‘I told him of my wishes, my ignorance, my eagerness. He fixed me for a long time with his large blue eyes, tossed his head, and said to me, ‘Impossible; I haven’t got the least space.’’ Jacob kept coming back- three or four times by Lwoff’s memory, seven or eight in Monod’s account. Each time he got the same blue-eyed look, the same shrug, the same refusal. He tried for a last time in June 1950. The eyes were bluer than usual. ‘Without giving me time to explain anew my wishes, my ignorance, my eagerness, he announced, ‘You know, we have discovered the induction of the prophage!’ I said, ‘Oh!’ putting into it all the admiration I could and thinking to myself, ‘What the devil is a prophage?’… Then he asked, ‘Would it interest you to work on phage?’ I stammered out that that was exactly what I had hoped. ‘Good; come along on the first of September.’’ Jacob went down the stairs, out the street, into the first bookstore to find a dictionary.”

(from The Eight Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson)


“Then there are the times when Levine sets other people on fire. Literally. ‘The most famous thing I ever did is I torched one of my postdocs,’ says Levine. Corbo was there at the time. ‘Mike got a squirt bottle of ethanol, unbeknownst to this hapless postdoc who was sitting at his bench minding his own business,’ says Corbo. Levine shot a ring of ethanol around the young man’s seat and trailed a wick into the hallway. Then he lit it. ‘So this tongue of flame snaked into the lab and encircled this postdoc,’ says Corbo.

‘My technique was a little off and I put a little too much ethanol around his bench. So it’s true, he was temporarily enveloped in a curtain of fire,’ says Levine. ‘But the fire receded and he was ok.’

‘People heard I did this because the guy wasn’t making any data,’ he adds. ‘That’s not true. It was just a joke.'”

(from Fire Fly by Karen Hopkin)


“Vernon Ingram and I spent some time trying to look at lysozyme, from different fowls to see if we could find difference that we could then find down in the amino-acid sequence… We were using just a crude screening. We looked at duck lysozyme, pheasant lysozyme, guinea fowl- and we could easily pick up the differences between these. And I used to go into the lab every morning and weep- the lab assistant would produce an onion, and I would look at that, and I would think sad thoughts, because that helps, and we would take some tears- and it was easy to show that human lysozyme was different from chick lysozyme. But we never found a difference between two hens. […] We can easily pick up the differences between lysozymes of chick and human tears… It is all rather discouraging. Even if we find a difference we shall still have to show it is due to amino acid composition, and also do the generics (which may mean doing tears of cocks!)”

(Francis Crick)


“So it’s not all those other terrible drivers holding things up. It’s everyone’s inability to hold a steady speed and following distance … Removing just a few cars from a road has a disproportionate impact on congestion. Experts would call this traffic being ‘non-linear’. What they mean is that the relationship between cars and delay is not one-to-one. If you remove just 1 percent of commuters off the rush-hour road in especially high-traffic corridors, as some work has shown, you can reduce travel times by 18%.“

(from Traffic Myths by Eric Jaffe)


“I rather suspect that my visual analyses are better indices of the amount of amylose present than the chemical analyses.”

(Barbara McClintock)


“It is important to express oneself very briefly because biologists are wont to read long papers very superficially. Therefore they can never comprehend a new subtle thought correctly, and they must always force it into the ready-made scheme of their concepts.”

(Max Delbrück to Niels Bohr)


“For a British physicist the Cavendish had a unique glamour. It had been named after the eighteenth-century physicist Henry Cavendish, a recluse and an experimenter of genius. The first professor had been the Scottish theoretical physicist James Clerk Maxwell, of Maxwell’s equations. While the laboratory was being built he did experiments in his kitchen at home, his wife raising the room temperature for him by boiling pans of water.”

[…] “Sir Lawrence Bragg was one of those scientists with a boyish enthusiasm for research, which he never lost. He was also a keen gardener. When he moved in 1954 from his large house and garden in West Road, Cambridge, to London, to head the Royal Institution in Albemarle Street, he lived in the official apartment at the top of the building. Missing his garden, he arranged that for one afternoon each week he would hire himself out as a gardener to an unknown lady living in The Boltons, a select inner-London suburb. He respectfully tipped his hat to her and told her his name was Willie. For several months all went well till one day a visitor, glancing out of the window, said to her hostess, ‘My dear, what is Sir Lawrence Bragg doing in your garden?’ I can think of few other scientists of his distinction who would do something like this.”

[…] “In parenthesis let me say that the English school of molecular biologists, when they needed a word for a new concept, usually use a common English word such as ‘nonsense’ or ‘overlapping,’ whereas the Paris school like to coin one with classical roots, such as ‘capsomere’ or ‘allosteric.’ Ex-physicists, such as Seymour Benzer, enjoyed inventing new words ending in ‘-on,’ such as ‘mutton,’ ‘recon,’ and ‘cistron.’ These new words often obtained rapid currency. I was once persuaded by the molecular biologist François Jacob to give a talk to the physiology club in Paris. It was then the rule that all such talks had to be given in French. As I hardly speak French I did not warm to this suggestion at all, but François pointed out to Odile (who is bilingual in French and English) that if I gave the talk she also could have a trip to Paris, so my opposition was soon worn down. I decided to talk on the problem of the genetic code, thinking, quite incorrectly, that I could do most of it by simply writing on the blackboard. It soon became clear that I would have to speak some French in order to get the idea across, so I started by dictating the whole talk to a secretary (normally I speak from notes). I then deleted all the jokes, since even when giving a talk to a secretary I found that my ad lib jokes intruded, and I felt I could hardly read them out in cold blood. Odile then translated the talk into French, and a typed version of her manuscript was produced, with various stress marks added to make it easier to read. There was a problem, however, about the translation of ‘overlapping.’ What could be the French for that? Odile eventually remembered a suitable word, and we set off for Paris. I was sufficiently mistrustful of this strange word that on arrival I asked François what word they used for ‘overlapping.’ ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘we simply say ‘oh-ver-lap-pang.’”

(from What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick)


“At this point, I wish I could persuade you that the direction in which this helical drive will move is not obvious. Put yourself back in that swimming pool under molasses and move around very, very slowly. Your intuitions about pushing water backwards are irrelevant. That’s not what counts. Now, unfortunately, it turns out that the thing does move the way your naive, untutored, and actually incorrect argument would indicate, but that’s just a pedagogical misfortune we are always running into.”

(from Life at Low Reynolds Number by Edward Mills Purcell)


“It’s always very risky to gamble against nature. Nature has a very perverse sense of humor.”

(Mike Muller)


“If the eternal dance of molecules
Is too entangled for us mortal fools
To follow, on what grounds should we complain?
Who promised us that Nature’s arcane rules
Would make sense to a merely human brain?”

(Peter Shor)


“Think of all the men who never know the answers
think of all those who never even cared.
Still there are some who ask why
who want to know, who dare to try.”

(from Here He Comes Again by Rod McKuen)


“I also felt a deep gratitude to Fermi, not unmixed with suspicion that my excursion into physics in Rome had misled him into thinking highly of me. I thought of this again one evening some twenty-five years later, when Fermi was already dead and I was back at Columbia Medical School to give a dinner speech to the graduating class. I wondered whether or not I had let him down, whether he would be pleased with me or think me a shallow man who went around giving after-dinner speeches. As I was so musing and looking down along the Hudson River in the golden twilight, suddenly before my eyes the lights of the city failed: the great blackout of 1965. It seemed a rather exaggerated response to my questioning.”

[…] “Traditional wisdom among bacteriologists in those days had it that bacteria had no chromosomes and no genes. This idea was bolstered by the authoritative opinion of an eminent British physical chemist, Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, who through mathematical models explained all hereditary changes in bacteria as due solely to altered chemical equilibria. I have often noticed in later years that biologists are readily intimidated by a bit of mathematics laid before them by chemists or physicists. It was one of the blessings of my too short stay among physicists to be immunized against mathematical hambug.”

[…] “I have respected an admired those colleagues whose scientific work seems to fill their life and pervade every minute of their wakeful time—perhaps their dreams as well. In an extreme form this concentration on science makes one expect a similar concentration in others. An anecdote is told about the great German mathematician David Hilbert, who one day seeing a young colleague in tears (his wife had left him) put his arms around the young man’s shoulders and said comfortingly: ‘Es wird convergieren, es wird convergieren!’ (It will converge.) What else could make a mathematician cry than an integral that refused to converge?”

(from A Slot Machine, A Broken Test Tube by Salvador Luria)


“Shannon proposed an idea that even he admitted sounded ‘grandiose and utterly impractical–the ideal dream of a mathematician.’ His solution was to create a fourth dimension, one that reversed perceptions of right and left:

‘How will we do this? In a word, with mirrors. If you hold your right hand in front of a mirror, the image appears as a left hand. If you view it in a second mirror, after two reflections it appears now as a right hand, and after three reflections again as a left hand, and so on. Our general plan is to encompass our American driver with mirror systems which reflect his view of England an odd number of times. Thus he sees the world about him not as it is but as it would be after 180 degrees fourth-dimensional rotation.’

Finally, a series of adjustments to the steering system would translate the American driver’s motions into British English: turning the wheel left would make the car go right, and vice versa, et voilà.

Complete with drawings, figures, and schematics, the paper was, of course, written with tongue firmly in cheek. But it remains the most memorable record of Shannon’s time at Oxford. At more than 2,100 words, it was not simply a throwaway idea–it shows Shannon’s willingness to spend hours fleshing out the implications of a joke, as well as his imperturbable indifference to the honors that came his way.”

(from A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman)


TEACHING


Active Learning in Physics by Jeff Gore

Why I Teach by Eric Lander

One concept at 5 levels by Bobby Kasthuri

You Can Learn Anything by Khan Academy

Materials for Nurturing Scientists by Uri Alon

Translate Jargon by Alan Alda

Kurzgesagt


“Memorization is a frontage road: It runs parallel to the best parts of learning, never intersecting. It’s a detour around all the action, a way of knowing without learning, of answering without understanding.”

(Ben Orlin)


“So how do you go about teaching them something new? By mixing what they know with what they don’t know. Then, when they see vaguely in their fog something they recognize, they think, ‘Ah, I know that.’ And then it’s just one more step to, ‘Ah, I know the whole thing.’ And their mind thrusts forward into the unknown and they begin to recognize what they didn’t know before and they increase their powers of understanding.”

(From Life With Picasso by Francoise Gilot and Carlton Lake)


“Your brain craves novelty. It’s always searching, scanning, waiting for something unusual. It was built that way, and it helps you stay alive. Today, you’re less likely to be a tiger snack. But your brain’s still looking. You just never know. So what does your brain do with all the routine, ordinary, normal things you encounter? Everything it can to stop them from interfering with the brain’s real job- recording things that matter. It doesn’t bother saving the boring things; they never make it past the “this is obviously not important” filter. How does your brain know what’s important? Suppose you’re out for a day hike and a tiger jumps in front of you, what happens inside your head? Neurons fire. Emotions crank up. Chemicals surge. And that’s how your brain knows this must be important, don’t forget it!

But imaging you’re at home, or in a library. It’s a safe, warm, tiger-free zone. You’re studying. Getting ready for an exam. Or trying to learn some tough technical topic your boss thinks will take a week, ten days at most. Just one problem. Your brain’s trying to do you a big favor. It’s trying to make sure that this obviously non-important content doesn’t clutter up scarce resources. Resources that are better spent storing the really big things. Like tigers. Like the danger of fire. Like how you should never again snowboard in shorts. And there’s simply no way to tell your brain, “Hey brain, thank you very much, but no matter how dull this books, and how little I’m registering on the emotional richer scale right now, I really  do  want you to keep this stuff around.”

(from Head First Java by Kathy Sierra and Bert Bates)


“Science is not too hard for you to understand. That was Jackie Novatt’s attitude during every tour she gave at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, where she herself was a researcher, and it showed… Novatt proclaims, ‘I firmly believe science doesn’t have to be hard and it doesn’t have to be scary.’ Her story shows how that determination can pay off.

[…] “Novatt explained what causes spinal muscular atrophy (SMA) and how the drug addresses this, just as she normally would. The problem is with a process called RNA splicing, which is the focus of all of the work in Krainer Lab. She compares this complex genetic phenomenon to editing a word in different ways. During RNA splicing, the information in genes gets rearranged and repurposed in a way that’s like editing a word. She liked to use “cataloging” as an example. Chop off the “ing” and you get a related word, “catalog.” Or, “keep chopping and you get ‘cat,’ which is a furry animal with whiskers that makes me sneeze,” she adds with a laugh. But in SMA, the editing process of RNA splicing yields a nonsense word, in the same way you can get “logi” from “cataloging” if you cut in the right spots.”

(from Welcome to the real world of science, I’ll be your guide by Andrea Alfano)


“Children, of course, are rigorous scientists. Toddlers observing something unusual respond with an attitude every researcher strives to maintain: open to many interpretations until they have decisive evidence for one… One experiment at a time, children test and refine their understanding of the world.”

(from Sundays are the Altar of Science by Thomas Hooven)


“The ultimate test of your knowledge is your capacity to convey it to another.”

(Richard Feynman)


“… Effective communication is not throwing facts at an audience or “dumbing down” a message. Rather, effective communication is defined by making an effort to know and comprehend the unique aspects of your audience, understanding that they may be approaching this topic from a different place than you, and being prepared to listen and reflect. In essence, it means taking the time to build trust, and that is hard work, but ultimately necessary and fulfilling. The effort spent articulating how science transforms our lives catalyzes wonder, reassurance, and hope for a better future.”

(from Learning more about science communication and engagement by Abbie Groff)


“… Science can’t be studied or taught from the confines of an ivory tower. Science needs to be studied holistically and taught with compassion and empathy.”

(from Science can’t be taught in a vacuum by David R. Wessner)


“You have many opportunities to make yourself sound smart; you have fewer to make others feel smart.”

(Cole Trapnell)


SCIENCE!


Total Eclipse by Annie Dillard

Conversations with Scientists by MIT Biology

Science Heroes by Massive Science

Picture a Scientist by Sharon Shattuck and Ian Cheney


“A theory is the more impressive the greater the simplicity of its premises, the more different kinds of things it relates, and the more extended its area of applicability. Therefore the deep impression which classical thermodynamics made upon me. It is the only physical theory of universal content concerning which I am convinced that, within the framework of the applicability of its basic concepts, it will never be overthrown.”

(Albert Einstein on thermodynamics)


“Most of the crucial discoveries in science are of such a simplifying nature that they are very hard even to conceive without actually having gone through the experience involved in the discovery.”

(Walter Gilbert on Jacob and Manod’s work)


“[I hope students take away a] respect for the power of drugs, and specifically that all drugs are poisons as well as medicines. This is embedded in the ancient Greek word pharmakon, it means both medicine and poison. While the ancients appreciated this dual property of drugs, it is often overlooked, even forgotten, in contemporary society. Some drugs are more poisonous than others. One poison quality associated with some drugs is the risk of abusive relationship, including what we call addiction. As a teacher, I come to this discussion with the belief that education matters—that one benefits from knowing the facts. And through education, I hope that whatever relationships one might have with a given drug—be it tea, beer, cannabis, Adderall, or any one of many, many more—are grounded in respect for the drug’s power.”

(from Five questions for David Presti by Alastair Boone)


“There is, however, nothing unique about this. Tabulation or enumeration of fundamentals also features in physics (the particles of the standard model) and biology (the genetic code, lists of genes and taxonomy). These classification schemes loom large in the popular consciousness, so that physics is deemed to be about finding new particles (after the Higgs boson come supersymmetric particles, particles of dark matter and so on) and biology becomes about identifying ‘genes for’ certain traits.

“An enthusiasm for list-making is understandable. Not only does it seem to make complex ideas simpler, but it brings order to chaos, and may genuinely point — as the periodic table and the standard model do — to underlying symmetries and principles. We all like a good system. But the danger is that science then starts to look like a ‘piling up of facts’ — a tendency that seems, in the age of big data, to be colouring public perception and infecting research agendas.”

(from New chemistry revives elementary question by Richard Haughton)


“In some of the most interesting cases, patterns are able to arise spontaneously. In the most general sense, de novo pattern formation can be thought of as a kind of symmetry breaking where spontaneous events within a uniform field of molecules or cells can cause the creation of large-scale order.”

[…] “As is often the case, some of the most critical insights arise not when we see how the data supports the simple quantitative models but rather when we see the precise points of disagreements between then.”

[…] “Any good model has to overlook some of the full complexity and detail of a given biological problem in order to generate an abstraction that is simple enough to be easily grasped by the human mind.”

[…] “When a person who is familiar with a particular biological system writes down a quantitative model for that system incorporating the correct basic physical models and uses the correct order of magnitude estimates for relevant parameters nevertheless finds that it makes dramatically incorrect predictions, this is almost always an opportunity to learn something fundamentally new about the system”

(from Physical Biology of the Cell by Rob Phillips et al.)


“I think that scientists need to have some level of fluency not only with the methods and techniques of mathematics but also with the its potency: the ways that mathematics can be used to sharpen the type of questions we can ask about problems of all kinds.”

(from A Vision for Quantitative Biology by Rob Phillips)


“In our view, one of the most important reasons for the potency of the quantitative slant which equilibrium models are but one example of is that they are a tool for generating specific and detailed hypotheses which are a step along the way to turning mysteries into problems and which give us an opportunity to design experiments that can tell us whether we are wrong. The rigorous framework of statistical mechanics provides no space for being vapid.”

(from Thermodynamics of Biological Processes by Hernan Garcia et al.)


“Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”

(Theodosius Dobzhansky)


“A theorist goes astray in two ways:

  1. The devil leads him by the nose with a false hypothesis. (For this he deserves our pity.)
  2. His arguments are erroneous and sloppy. (For this he deserves a beating.)”

(Albert Einstein to H. A. Lorentz)


“The scientist does not study Nature because it is useful; he studies it because he delights in it, and he delights in it because it is beautiful. If Nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing, and if Nature were not worth knowing, life would not be worth living.”

(Henri Poincaré)


“English biologist Thomas Henry Huxley famously described the ‘great tragedy of science’ as ‘the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact’. Huxley, known as Darwin’s bulldog for his sterling defense of evolution, was once asked by William Wilberforce whether it was from his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey. Huxley is said to have replied that he would not be ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor, but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used his great gifts to obscure the truth.”

[…] “Here lies another insight into science. With each new level of understanding, a more accurate worldview emerges. The current worldview is never claimed to be correct, in the very important sense that there are no absolute truths in science. The body of scientific knowledge at any point in history, including now, is simply the collection of theories and views of the world that have not yet been shown to be wrong.”

[…] “In a public lecture in 1810, Humphry Davy put it beautifully: ‘Northing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose our views of science are ultimate; that there are no new mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete; and that there are not new worlds to conquer.'”

[…] “Newton was rather modest. He once said, ‘I was like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.'”

(from Why does E=mc² by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw)


“A mathematical problem should be difficult in order to entice us, yet not completely inaccessible, lest it mock at our efforts. It should be to us a guide post on the mazy paths to hidden truths, and ultimately a reminder of our pleasure in the successful solution.”

(David Hilbert)


“Hardy and Littlewood’s collaboration was based on very clear axiomatic foundations:

  • Axiom 1: It didn’t matter whether what they wrote to each other was right or wrong.
  • Axiom 2: There was no obligation to reply, or even read, any letter one sent to the other.
  • Axiom 3: They should try not to think about the same things.
  • Axiom 4: To avoid any quarrels, all papers would be under their joint name regardless of whether one of them had contributed nothing to the work.

Bohr summed up their relationship thus: ‘Never was such an important and harmonious collaboration founded on such apparently negative axioms.’

[…] Like Hardy before him, God played a leading albeit unconventional role in his view of the world. The ‘Supreme Fascist’ was the name Erdös gave to the custodian of the “Great Book’, which contained details of all the most elegant proofs of mathematical problems, both solved and unsolved. Erdös’s highest compliment for a proof was ‘that’s straight from the Book!’ He believed that all babies – or ‘epsilons’ as he called them, after the Greek letter that mathematicians use for a very small number – are born with knowledge of the Great Book’s proof of the Riemann Hypothesis. The trouble was that, after six months, they had forgotten it.

Erdös enjoyed doing his mathematics to music, and was often to be seen at concerts scribbling away in a notebook, unable to contain the excitement of a new idea. Although he was a great collaborator and hated to be alone, he found physical contact quite abhorrent. It was mental pleasure that sustained him, fueled by a diet of coffee and caffeine tablets. As he once famously exclaimed, ‘A mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems.”

[…] “Gödel had provided mathematics with a proof that the mathematical universe was built on a tower of turtles. One can have a theory without contradictions but one can’t prove that within that theory there won’t be contradictions. All one can do is to prove the consistency within another system whose own consistency could not be proved.”

(from The Music of the Primes by Marcus du Sautoy)


“The way I do mathematics is very similar to magic. In both subjects you have a problem you’re trying to solve with constraints. In mathematics, it’s the limitations of a reasoned argument with the tools you have available, and with magic it’s to use your tools and sleight of hand to bring about a certain effect without the audience knowing what you’re doing. The intellectual process of solving problems in the tow areas is almost the same.”

(Persi Diaconis)


“The moment illumination occurs, it engages the emotions in such a way that it’s impossible to remain passive or indifferent. On those rare occasions when I’ve actually experienced it, I couldn’t keep tears from coming to my eyes.”

(Alain Connes)


“When things get too complicated, it sometimes makes sense to stop and wonder: Have I asked the right question?”

(Enrico Bombieri)


“The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless.”

(Steven Weinberg)


“I shall take the simple-minded view that a theory is just a model of the universe, or a restricted part of it, and a set of rules that relate quantities in the model to observations that we make. A good theory is a good theory if it satisfies two requirements: It must accurately describe a large class of observations on the basis of a model that contains only a few arbitrary elements, and it must make definite predications about the results of future observations.”

[…] “The whole history of science has been the gradual realization that events do not happen in an arbitrary manner, but that they reflect a certain underlying order, which may or may not be divinely inspired. It would be only natural to suppose that this order should apply not only to the laws, but also to the conditions at the boundary of space-time that specify the initial state of the universe. There may be a large number of models of the universe with different initial conditions that all obey the laws. There ought to be some principle that picks out one initial state, and hence one model, to represent our universe.”

(from A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking)


“The meta-lesson of both relativity and quantum mechanics is that when we deeply probe the fundamental workings of the universe we may come upon aspects that are vastly different from our expectations. The boldness of asking deep questions may require unforeseen flexibility if we are to accept the answers.”

[…] “While a theory is being constructed, its incomplete state of development often prevents its detailed experimental consequences from being assessed. Nevertheless, physicists must make choices and exercise judgments about the research direction in which to take their partially completed theory. Some of these decisions are dictated by internal logical consistency; we certainly require that any sensible theory avoid logical absurdities. Other decisions are guided by a sense of the qualitative experimental implications of one theoretical construct relative to another; we are generally not interested in a theory it has no capacity to resemble anything we encountered in the world around us. But it certainly the case that some decisions made by theoretical physicists are founded upon an aesthetic sense- a sense of which theories have an elegance and beauty of structure on par with the world we experience. Of course, nothing ensures that this strategy leads to truth.”

[…] “The history of science teaches us that each time we think that we have it all figured out, nature has a radical surprise in store for us that requires significant and sometimes drastic changes in how we think the world works.”

[…] “As Einstein said some time ago, ‘The most incomprehensible thing about our universe is that it is comprehensible.’ The astonishment at our ability to understand the universe at all is easily lost sight of in an age of rapid and impressive progress… The success of the scientific method in the past has encouraged us to think that with enough time and effort we can unravel nature’s mysteries.”

[…] “The search for the fundamental laws of the universe is a distinctly human drama, one that has stretched the mind and enriched the spirit. Einstein’s vivid description of his own quest to understand gravity- ‘the years of anxious searching in the dark, with their intense longing, their alterations of confidence and exhaustion, and final emergence into the light’- encompasses, surely, the whole human struggle. We are all, each in our own way, seekers of the truth and we each long for an answer to why we are here. As we collectively scale the mountain of explanation, each generation stands firmly on the shoulders of the previous, bravely reaching for the peak. And as our generation marvels at our new view of the universe- our new way of asserting the world’s coherence- we are fulfilling our part, contributing our rung to the human ladder reaching for the stars.”

(from The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene)


“The interplay among the chemical components of a living organism is dynamic; changes in one component cause coordinating and compensating changes in another, with the whole ensemble displaying a character beyond that of its individual parts. The collection of molecules carries out a program, the end result of which is reproduction of the program and self-perpetuation of that collection of molecules- in short, life.”

(from Lehninger Principles of Biochemistry by David Nelson and Michael Cox)


“Very little of the day-to-day work of science is discovery, so the fact that scientific routine can be carried out by teams, can even be published by teams, says nothing for sure about discovery. In defense of scientific individualism, it must be said that in the process of discovery there comes a unique moment: where great confusion reigned, the shape of the answer springs out- or at least the form of a question. The insight occurs in the prepared mind of some one person. It is the first of the scientist’s two ruling rewards for his endeavors- and the second reward, the recognition granted by his peers, depends on the first. Yet from the collective viewpoint it must be said that the insight, however exalting, is not the discovery; it is a moment at the end of a process and the beginning of another. What the insight touches off, even before anything gets published, is the familiar and most characteristic work of the scientific community: criticism, modification, and the development of consequences.”

[…] ” Bragg’s last paper, published in 1958, was a method for calculating the preliminary but most difficult key coordinates of atoms within the protein molecule, to unlock the mass of diffraction data that Perutz had devised the way to obtain. Perutz was with Bragg when he put the method to the test. “As the correct values… emerged from his calculations he realized that the problem of protein structure, that seemingly hopeless venture he had backed against all odds for the past eighteen years, could now be solved, and tears of emotion streamed down his face.” … ‘People thought we were very foolish to dream we could ever do it,’ Bragg said. ‘It looked absolutely impossible, when you thought that the most complicated structures ever yet to got out were for molecules only about two hundred atoms… with hemoglobin we were trying ten thousand atoms. Remember I’m not a biologist, I’m an x-ray crystallographer. My pat, my great interest, has been in seeing how one could push x-ray analysis to do more difficult problems of structure. This -art let’s call it, of finding out what the structure is actually like, by purely physical means, optical means, is the thing that I’ve been interested in, all my life.'”

[…] “Crick has to a pronounced degree a habit that most scientists cultivate, a careful and constant self-depreciation that distinguishes between what a man knows for sure and what he knows only speculatively or by hearsay. ‘I do not speak now from secure knowledge,’ said one, expressing a typical car with a graceful turn; or as Crick sometimes puts it, ‘I don’t know this subject, I only know about it.’ The habit has little to do with modesty. It is a hedge against being caught in error. More, it is an intellectual courtesy, a running contribution to evaluation of the weight of statements in truth-seeking talk.'”

[…] “The sport would be to see how little data they could make do with and still get it right: the less scaffolding visible, the more elegant and astonishing the structure. ‘You must remember, we were trying to solve it with the fewest possible assumptions,’ Crick said. ‘There’s a perfectly sound reason- it isn’t just a matter of aesthetics or because we thought it was a nice game-why you should use the minimum of experimental data… The point is that evidence can be unreliable, and therefore you should use as little of it as you can. And when we confront problems today, we’re in exactly the same situation. We have three or four bits of data, we don’t know which one is reliable, so we say, now, if we discard that one and assume it’s wrong- even though we have no evidence that it’s wrong- then we can look at the rest of the data and see if we can make sense of that. And that’s what we do all the time. I mean, people don’t realize that not only can data be wrong in science, it can be misleading. There isn’t such a thing as a hard fact when you’re trying to discover something. It’s only afterwards that the facts become hard.’”

[…] “Politeness, Francis Crick said over the BBS at the time he got the Nobel prize, is the poison of all good collaboration in science. The soul of collaboration is perfect candor, rudeness if need be. It’s prerequisite, Crick said, is parity of standing in science, for if one figure is too much senior to the other, that’s when the serpent politeness creeps in. A good scientist values criticism almost higher than friendship: no, in science criticism is the height and measure of friendship. The collaborator points out the obvious, with due impatience. He stops the nonsense, Crick said-speaking of James Watson.”

[…] “Discovery, examined closely, I said to Crick, seemed curiously difficult to pin to a moment or to an insight or even to a single person ‘No, I don’t think that’s curious,’ Crick said. ‘I think that’s the nature of discoveries, many times: that the reason they’re difficult to make is that you’ve got to take a series of steps, three or four steps, which if you don’t make them you won’t get there, and if you go wrong in any one of them you won’t get there. It isn’t a matter of one jump- that would be easy. You’ve got to make several successive jumps. And usually the pennies drop one after another until eventually it all clicks. Otherwise it would be too easy!'”

[…] “‘Molecular biology can be defined as anything that interests molecular biologists,’ Francis Crick said in Nature several years ago. To be sure, he threw the line away in a footnote but he wasn’t just joking. Molecular biology is no one single province, marked off by natural boundaries from the rest of the realm. It is, rather, an intellectual transformation- indeed, a new conceptual dynasty- arisen within the realm. As a dynasty, molecular biology is by no means identical, any longer, with its ancestral heartland, the physical chemistry of the gene-stuff. It has a history now, and, some might claim, a culture of sorts, and, others have charged, an ideology… Beyond all that, simply, molecular biology is an expectation. Molecular biologists take it for granted that a certain kind of explanation can be reached, a kind of explanation not even conceivable forty years ago, and they get restless whenever for the moment they must settle for less.”

[…] “The one angle of view that commanded a consistent, clear perspective of the next complexities in biology was Crick’s. He thought up many of the developments, or stimulated them. Most of what he did not originate he soon became aware of. Besides the talent for theory for which he is known, he had a talent for friendship in science that quickly grew into the role, for this decade, that Max Delbrück’s knack for leadership and unification had played before. By brain, wit, vigor of personality, strength of voice, intellectual charm and scorn, a lot of travel, and ceaseless letter-writing, Crick coordinated the research of many other biologists, disciplined their thinking, arbitrated their conflicts, communicated and explained their results. As he went, he sorted the important from the less important with a brisk efficiency that now serves well to distinguish the main line of molecular biology from all else that was happing in biochemistry.”

[…] “The character of a scientific revolution depends in part on its opposition. The great set pieces of the history of science have been the Copernican, the Einsteinian, the Darwinian, the quantum-mechanical revolutions. In these, the confrontation was direct and was fought out vigorously. Th new men with new ideas met a structure of theory as fully articulated as their own, with a history of success. The last swords of the age of bronze were far better edged, after all, and tougher than the first coarse iron blades: one thinks perhaps of the predictive accuracy of the Ptolemaic system, or of the admiration for Newton that Einstein expressed. The patterns of such classic revolutions have been closely anatomized. It has become- it always was- the naïvest sort of error to suppose that progress has amounted to clearing away the tangled confusions of the past with the scythe of a true idea.”

[…] “Monod’s was far from the Jim Watson style of science. Rather, there was a long series of experiments, each precisely calculated to test one point before he went further. He was mountain climbing, setting each piton carefully before moving to set the next; he was mountain climbing in a mist that would only occasionally swirl and break open to let him see more than a step or two ahead. Monod, as I was told by everyone I met who had worked with him, had a gift for the design of experiments that would isolate exactly the point he wanted to test: this was the sense in which he was correct when he said that he was a man of rigorous logic, not intuition.”

[…] “Discovery of the permease led Monod to the next essential realization- a succinct example of his particular style in science, for the realization was obvious, provided one came at it exactly aright. Scientists reach an extreme, sustained identification of the patterns of their thought with the patterns that they perceive in, and project into, the phenomena they are trying to elucidate. Lawrence Bragg was a lifelong student of optics: the power and focus of his spatial imagination were peerless. Linus Pauling, more than any other, brought quantum mechanics into the study of molecular structures: he was believed by his contemporaries- Bernal found him uncanny- to apprehend problems directly in their quantum relations. The phenomena that Monod dealt with, though one can’t say they were more difficult, were different, for they were not in the first place spatial but instead temporal- the unfolding of an interlocking, often highly reflexive, sequential pattern. In each of the discoveries he made in the ensuing ten years there was a moment of total absorption as he evolved the bacterial cell like a partly cut diamond slowly in the light, then a flame of perception so quick- and so quickly resolved into its place in the sequential pattern- that to Monod himself, on his testimony at least, there had been nothing much to call an intuitive leap, merely an extension, subject to test, of the inevitable logic of the system itself. The discoveries were about control. They had to be indirect.”

[…] “But if control operated directly on the gene, the mechanism would seem to be either on or off: the model would also have to explain how the rate of synthesis of enzymes varied. Writing the lecture, Jacob happened to observe one of his sons playing nearby with an electric train. The train was a simple set with a switch but no rheostat for controlling the strength of the current to change the speed. ‘And my son wanted to slow down the train, and I saw he was doing that’- Jacob pinched an imaginary switch between thumb and forefinger and made a quick back-and-forth gesture, on and off. ‘Just an oscillation. And depending on the speed of the oscillation he could regulate the rate.’ Thus Jacob got the first glimmer of how expression of a gene might be controlled”

[…] “‘I call it the discovery of allosteric systems,’ Monod said. ‘Of the principle of allosteric systems. Of the basic principle, that in specific regulatory effects, which are all-important, the interaction is always indirect. And the secondary realization that if it were not that way, we wouldn’t be around to talk about it, because no cell could be constructed otherwise. No system of intracellular information could function unless it was independent of immediate chemical requirements. What you need is a system which is built for its utility, to the interacting chemical fluxes that have to be regulated. But which cannot be dependent on, for instance, the capacity of two small molecules to interact together.’ He called this concept of gratuity- the freedom from any chemical or structural necessity in the relation between the substrate of an enzyme and the other small molecules that promoted or inhibited its activity. ‘It has to be a system which has the basic property of an electronic system.’ he said. Allosteric proteins were relays, mediating interactions between compounds which themselves had no chemical affinity, and by that regulating the flux of energy and materials through the major system, while themselves requiring little energy. The gratuity of allosteric reactions all but transcended chemistry, to give molecular evolution a particularly limitless field for biological elaboration.”

[…] “The sciences have sometimes been thought to form ladders: by one convention, mathematics as most fundamental, mathematical physics, physics, physical chemistry, chemistry, organic chemistry and biochemistry, cellular physiology, and so on to ecology. (What such ladders represent, though, is unclear. Is a step upward a decrease in abstraction? An increase in complexity? Perhaps merely an increase in the size of things treated? A decrease in that factor of academic prestige which one might label “difficult ultimateness”?) In such terms, molecular biology is taken to be the conquest of biochemistry by what has been called its “anti discipline”- the science more basic in the hierarchy, physics or physical chemistry. This simple dialectic is made more plausible by the very name “molecular” biology and by the fact that physicists  moved into the science.”

[…] “Historians of science, in trying to account for revolutionary change, have relied upon the history of physics almost exclusively, and in physics have appealed to certain great set-piece battles. The important and fascinating cases, since the beginning of the history have science, have been those associated with the eras of Copernicus, Newton, Einstein, and the quantum. In each of these, it can be asserted that one cluster of ideas, closely interrelated and fully worked out, was overturned and replaced by another cluster of ideas, closely interrelated and fully worked out… 

The rise of molecular biology asks for a different model. Copernican astronomy, Newtonian physics, relativity, quantum mechanics- but biology has no such towering, overarching theory save the theory of evolution by mutating and natural selection. … Biology has proceeded not by great set-piece battles but by multiple small-scale encounters- guerrilla actions- across the landscape. In biology, no large-scale, closely interlocking, fully worked out ruling set of ideas has ever been overthrown. In the normal way of growth of the science, variant local states of knowledge and understanding may persist for considerable periods. In the tent of our understanding of the phenomena of life, among the panels covered with brilliant pictures that seem to tell a continuous tale, suddenly a new panel begins to appear and grow. Revolution in biology, from the beginnings of biochemistry and the study of cells, and surely in the rise of molecular biology and on to the present day, has taken place not by over-turnings but by openings-up.” 

[…] “A quarter-century of following the development of molecular biology, acquaintance with hundreds of molecular biologists and friendship with many, perhaps gives me license to ask a last question: Are molecular biologists doomed forever to be arguing the practical benefits of their research? Must you forever be selling cures? We must never let go of the principle that has served the sciences so well from the second world war. Yes, science brings immense practical rewards: but we must teach and teach again that often the delay between discovery and application is long, decades, perhaps, and rarely can we tell which results will turn out to be useful.

Beyond that, science offers the highest sort of human satisfaction. It provides a unique and sublime pleasure; it fills a need nothing else can touch. Molecular biologists, geneticists, ecologists, immunologists, neurobiologists are forgetting what is for ourselves and for the lay public the greatest gift we bring… We must always remember that what we offer beyond all else is the understanding of origins- the origins of the human race, the origin and nature of life itself. This is what the public most deeply wants to know. This is after all what validates the choice of science as a vocation.”

(from The Eight Day of Creation by Horace Freeland Judson)


“But what I learned from Bragg was to grasp for the essence of the problem- and then when you’ve got something, get on with it and by and a large publish it reasonably quickly. Though let me tell you that in the past I’ve often been dilatory, being from time to time of a lazy temperament. But more- from Bragg and Pauling I learned how to see problems, how not to be confused by the details, and that is a sort of boldness; and how to make oversimple hypotheses- you have to, you see, it’s the only way you can proceed- and how to test them, and how to discard them without getting too enamored of them. All that is a sort of boldness. Just as important as having ideas is getting rid of them.”

(James Watson)


“It probably takes a few years before you know what sorts of questions people are trying to answer, but can’t. And, you say you have to know all these facts-well, clearly the facts, some of them, that you learn are wrong, so if you take them too seriously you won’t discover the truth. You could say that is you become too imbued in the ideas and talk about them too long, maybe your capacity for ever believing they’re false would be burned out. Probably what you should learn if you’re a graduate student is, not large numbers of facts, especially if they’re in books, but what the important problems are, and to sense- which experiments, work that’s been done, probably aren’t quite right. And which things you’d like to do yourself if a method came up to do it.”

“The particular field which excites my interest is the division between the living and the non-living, as typified by say, proteins, viruses, bacteria and the structure of chromosomes. The eventual goal, which is somewhat remote, is the description of these activities in terms of their structure, i.e. the spatial distribution of their constituent atoms, in so far as this may prove possible. This might be called the chemical physics of biology.”

(Francis Crick)


“It’s lots of fun to blow bubbles, but it’s wiser to prick them yourself before someone else tries to”

(Oswald Avery)


“As I try to remember the state of my development at that time, I am led to believe that this desire was the result of pure intellectual curiosity, and did not have any theological or philosophical basis. I was skeptical of dogmatic religion, and had passed the period when it was a cause of worry; and my understanding of the experiential world was so fragmentary as to be unsatisfactory as the basis for the development of a philosophical system. I was simply entranced by chemical phenomenon by the reactions in which substances disappear and other substances, often with strikingly different properties, appear; and I hoped to learn more and more about this aspect of the world.”

“I have contended that scientists- first that they have the responsibilities of ordinary citizens, but then that they also have a responsibility because of their understanding of science, and of those problems of society in which science is involved closely, to help their fellow citizens to understand, by explaining to them what their own understanding of these problems is. And I have contended that they the duty also to express their own opinions- if they have opinions.”

(Linus Pauling)


“Je cherche à comprendre.”

[…] “The aim of molecular biology is to find, in the structures of macromolecules, interpretations of the fundamentals of life… What is new in molecular biology is the recognition that the essential properties of living beings could be interpreted in terms of the structures of their macromolecules. This, you see, is much more specific- and in fact it partly contradicts the hope of the physical-chemical school of the beginning of the century. The biologists of that time believed, to put it roughly, that the laws of gases would explain living beings. This is to say, metabolism in the cells would be explained by the general laws of chemistry. This was natural because it was the time when great advances were being made in the understanding of the behavior of substances in solutions, and of semipermeable membranes, and so on… A corollary was the belief that the life of the cell was the expression of a particular dynamic equilibrium in a polyphasic system.

But the general point is that if the cell, for regulation, really did have at its disposal only direct chemical interactions, understandable by the general laws of chemistry, then the overall tendency of the system would be to go to equilibrium. Now chemical equilibrium means death. The cell survives only be being very far off equilibrium. What we now understand is quite the reverse: the cell is entirely a cybernetic feedback system. The regulation is entirely due to a certain kind of circuitry like an advanced electronic circuit. But it is a chemical circuitry- and yet it transcends chemistry. It is indirect. It enables the cell to gain a degree of liberty from the extreme stringencies of direct, general chemical interactions.”

[…] “I had no doubt that I wanted to be a biologist; and that, I think, is one of the few good intuitions I have ever had- namely, that there is a basic epistemological problem posed by the existence of living beings, that either living beings could be explained in terms which did not contradict or supersede physical laws, or else the interpretation of the whole universe had to be something different. I think I was aware of this- quite early, when I was sixteen or seventeen. And I decided to become a biologist for that specific reason.”

[…] “Anything found to be true of E. coli must also be true of elephants.”

(Jacques Monod)


“I feel that, y’know, when I came into molecular biology it was a pioneering science. But when a science become a discipline, which is essentially true of molecular biology now, when you can buy a textbook, take a course- There’s no question there are many surprises left. But a field to work in, to me personally, when it becomes a discipline, becomes less attractive. I find it more fun to be striking out in something which is more on the amorphous side. Which was true of molecular biology when I started. Another thing that becomes unpleasant is the redundancy of effort, a number of people doing the same thing- so that even when you make a discovery, six different guys discover it in the same week.”

(Seymour Benzer)


“I think the habit of truth is very important. If, as a scientist, you’re holding onto a wrong view, that’s it. You’re doing the wrong thing, and you’ve got to learn to throw your pet ideas away however much you love them. You’ve got to bring them out and kill them on the table, and get on with the truth.”

[…] ”You can’t grow exponentially all the time. After all, if it continued at the past rate, by 1990 every man, woman and child would be a scientist. But I think there is a much more insidious change. I think there is going to be much less pure science practiced. Everyone, the man in the street, government, business, students- all distrust pure science. Legislators are suspicious of pure science. They don’t think scientists can produce the effects fast enough; many of them don’t think they can produce the effects at all. They are suspicious of universities. It’s a very complicated business; but they want mission-oriented science. I mean, that’s the squeeze from the top.

The attitude of my generation that all problems can be solved in the next decade, and should be solved in the next decade- these expectations are changed. Maybe science should be done better, but more slowly. I think a large number of mediocre people are in science today, and carried along by the system. General concepts are rare. Nobody publishes theory in biology- with few exceptions. Instead they get out the structure of still another protein. I’m not saying it’s mindless. But the mind only acts on the day-to-day.

At least there is a body of slogans. Biologists can only be interested in three questions: How do things work? How are they built? How did they evolve? First, how does it work- how does it run around, how does it breathe and eat, how does it die? But the second question is the deeper question that comes before you can answer the evolutionary question: How are organisms built? We know from molecular biology that organisms not only have something ‘like’ a computer program, they actually do have a program. But saying that does not, of itself, help me to understand how to make a mouse.

If you were to sat to me, here is a protein, what is its genetic specification? We could answer in tremendous detail. But if you say to me, here is a hand, here is an eye, how do you make a hand or an eye, what is its genetic specification? We can’t do it. It is necessary to know the exact number and sequences of the genes, how they interact, what they do. We have to know the program, and know it in machine language which is molecular language; to know it so that one could tell a computer to generate a set of procedures for growing a hand, or an eye.

I mean, these are all vert crude things- but I think in the next twenty-five years we are going to have to teach biologists another language still. I don’t know what it’s called yet; nobody knows. But what one is aiming at, I think, is the fundamental problem of the theory of elaborate systems. Especially, elaborate systems that arise under conditions of natural selection. And here there is a grave problem of levels: it may be wrong to believe that all the logic is at the molecular level… In other words, where a science like physics works in terms of laws, or a science like molecular biology, to now, is stated in terms of mechanism, maybe now what one has to begin to think of is algorithms. Recipes. Procedures.”

(Sydney Brenner)


“The major problem really was that when you’re doing experiments in a domain that you do not understand at all, you have no guidance to what the experiment should even look like. Experiments come in a number of categories. There are experiments which you can describe entirely, formulate completely so that an answer must emerge; the experiment will show you A or B; both forms of the result will be meaningful; and you understand the world well enough so there are only those two outcomes. Now, there’s a large other class of experiments that do not have that property. In which you do not understand the world well enough to be able to restrict the answers to the experiment. So you do the experiment, and you stare at it and you say, Now, does it mean anything, or can it suggest something which I might be able to amplify in further experiment? What is the world really going to look like?

The messenger experiments had that property. We did not know what it should look like. And therefore as you do the experiments, you do not know what in the result is your artifact, and what is the phenomenon. There can be a long period in which there is experimentation that circles the topic. But finally you learn how to do experiments in a certain way: you discover ways of doing them that are reproducible… That’s actually a bad way of saying it- bad criterion, if it’s just reproducibility, because you can reproduce artifacts very very well. There’s a larger domain of experiments where the phenomena have to be reproducible and have to be interconnected. Over a large range of variation of parameters, so you believe you understand something.”

[…] “When you read these papers, read them and try to ask yourself several questions about them, just to form your own thinking about them. Whenever you read a paper, ask yourself what questions are the authors trying to ask. Ask yourself, also, what questions have they managed to answer. It may not be at all the same as those they think they are asking, those they say they’re asking and those they are in effect asking. And ask yourself, also, what questions have they left unresolved or what questions get posed by the papers.”

[…] “The practical function of the scientist is to make other scientists. That’s not really the reason that scientists teach. They don’t think of it in terms of making other scientists… but it is in fact much more self-serving. There is a self-serving aspect to making other scientists. But the major thing you’re looking for is an audience. The science that we do is one that we take pleasure in. And we’d like other people to take pleasure in it. The only way of finding people who take pleasure in it is to teach them. We have to have an audience to play against.

The academic world can be very dangerous because as a professor, you’re supposed to be an expert. And your teaching role is one of showing your expertise, continually, over and over again to new class of students. And it’s a very dangerous role. It’s very dangerous because after a while you come to believe that you are an expert, that you do know something, you’ve got something to say to these people coming. And it tends to work against your own sense of wonder, your own imaginative abilities… you’ve seen the answer too many times before, you’ve provided the answer too many times before, you’ve heard that question asked too many times before. And that’s very dangerous because very often the question that is answered is not a new question but it is a question that strikes somebody who hears it for the first time as a new question. And strikes in such a way it provides a new answer. And this is something that’s harder and harder to do and is one of the reasons scientists might grow old. It’s harder and harder to do so as you get older because you’ve heard the question before and you’re likely to, in hearing the question, know the old answer. You don’t see the world with new eyes.”

(Walter Gilbert)


“Science is not a major or a career. It is a commitment to a systematic way of thinking, an allegiance to a way of building knowledge and explaining the universe through testing and factual observation. The thing is, that isn’t a normal way of thinking. It is unnatural and counterintuitive. It has to be learned. Scientific explanation stands in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense.”

[…] “You are supposed to have skepticism and imagination, but not too much. You are supposed to suspend judgment, yet exercise it. Ultimately, you hope to observe the world with an open mind, gathering facts and testing your predictions and expectations against them. Then you make up your mind and either affirm or reject the ideas at hand. But you also hope to accept that nothing is ever completely settled, that all knowledge is just probable knowledge. A contradictory piece of evidence can always emerge.”

[…] “You have to be able to recognize the difference between claims of science and of pseudoscience. Science’s defenders have identified five hallmark moves of pseudoscientists that you need to know. They argue that the scientific consensus emerges from a conspiracy to suppress dissenting views. They produce fake experts who have views contrary to established knowledge but do not have a credible scientific record. They cherrypick the data and the papers that challenge the dominant views and discredit entire fields. They deploy false analogies and other logical fallacies and they set impossible expectations of research. When scientists produce one level of certainty, pseudoscientists insist they achieve another. It’s not that some of these approaches never provide valid arguments. Sometimes an analogy is useful or higher levels of certainty are required but when you see some or all of these tactics employed, you know you’re not dealing with a scientific claim anymore. Pseudoscience is the form of science without the substance.”

(from The Mistrust of Science by Atul Gawande)


“The scientist, like other men, lives most of his life in the world of values, and there he may be great or small. But occasionally he slips out of the circle, into another realm that knows nothing of values. There, he attempts to explore the universe as it is, or as it appears to him, uninfluenced by his own desires. The urge to pure science is disinterested curiosity. The research man does not necessarily seek to benefit mankind; he does not seek to reform the world; he seeks merely to understand the world.”

[…] “The laws of science are the permanent contributions to knowledge- the individual pieces that are fitted together in an attempt to form a picture of the physical universe in action. As the pieces fall into place, we often catch glimpses of emerging patterns, called theories; they set us searching for the missing pieces that will fill in the gaps and complete the patterns. We are constantly guessing at patterns of ever increasing generality. These theories, these provisional interpretations of the data in hand, are mere working hypotheses, and they are treated with scant respect until they can be tested by new pieces of the puzzle.

The formulation of a working hypothesis to account for data already available is definitely an ex post facto procedure- it gives a plausible, but not always a necessary, interpretation of the data. The essence of the scientific method lies in the testing of theories by new data, and especially by data in new fields. The validity of theories is measured by the verification of the predictions. When theories cannot be tested, their appeal is largely aesthetic.”

[…] “Throughout the process, science is concerned with knowledge that can be freely transmitted, knowledge that comes from observation and experiment. Such knowledge has two characteristics. In the first place, it is empirical. It has no direct contact with ultimate reality; it represents the physical world as the world appears to men. In the second place, it is probable knowledge; it never attains absolute precision. The scientist explores the world of phenomena by successive approximations.”

(from Experiment and Experience by Edwin Hubble)


“Our men of science are not necessarily more intelligent than those of old; yet one thing is certain, their knowledge is at once more extensive and more accurate. The acquisition and systemization of positive knowledge is the only human activity that is truly cumulative and progressive.”

(George Sarton)


“Alone, McClintock was free. She loved to just sit alone. ‘I do not know what I would be doing when I was sitting alone, but I know that it disturbed my mother, and she would sometimes ask me to do something else, because she did not know what was going on in my mind while I was sitting there alone.'”

[…] “She did not remember feeling great pain as a child, except when she had been required to conform. ‘That kind of pain I felt very seriously, and that happened mainly in relationship to standard procedures, in relationship to having to conform in a group way. I think that always caused me trouble.’  A person is freest when sitting alone, thinking. No group rules or pressures constrain her. Social conventions fall away; she is no longer ‘she,’ or young, or odd. Her body imposes no limitations of strength or speed. Even time ceases to exist. McClintock discovered she could think anything she wanted, solve any problem, fast. As she discovered the pleasures of here mind, social relations came to seem not anchors but tethers.”

[…] “McClintock’s personal myth of freedom was part of the foundation of her sense of herself as a scientist. She had, she said, a desire to be anonymous, ‘to be completely free of what I called the body. The body was something you dragged around. I always wished that I could be an objective observer, and not be what is known as me to other people.'”

[…] “She looked at life through a microscope, not a telescope. Her greatest concern was to keep her options open so that she could follow what interested her at the moment. ‘I think the sense of freedom was more important than any aspiration. The sense of being able to do what you want to do. It doesn’t make any difference whether it’s genetics or something else, but the sense of freedom to be able to pursue any extraordinary type of investigation was the most important aspect. No other aspect could compete with it.'”

[…] “When she reflected on how she had solved a given problem, decades later in some cases, she nearly always could reconstruct the reasoning. It usually involved the synthesis of many bits of knowledge about chromosomes and gene action, combined with an extraordinary ability to visualize chromosome behavior. There was nothing mystical about it. When other scientists failed to solve problems, often it was because they had gathered all the data but had not integrated it.”

[…] ” Scientists and mathematicians share a concept, never explicitly defined but universally understood, they call elegance. It is an aesthetic, a value, a quality of an experiment or proof. Its opposite is the ‘brute-force’ approach, a blind, mechanical exhaustion of all possibilities until a solution is found… Elegance connotes simplicity, resourcefulness, economy, and above all, intelligence. McClintock’s experiments were the embodiment of elegance, but her rhetorical style was quirky. Often, she would state a widely recognized problem or theory- so far, standard scientific style. But she would follow with a hypothetical solution, typically an intricate or farfetched one. Then she would reveal that she had in fact invented the technique, found an example, or done the experiment that demonstrated it.”

[…] “A revolution was occurring in genetics, she believed, and she wanted to aid the cause: ‘It has become obvious to most active geneticists that the good old days of mapping genes… without the main clarifying objective are over… From now on, it seems to me, there must be a phase of integration where the various isolated phenomenon are drawn together and where the biochemical, histochemical, chromosomal, cytological, developmental etc. phases are more clearly integrated.’”

[…] “Scientists often take plausibility as a quick and dirty test of a hypothesis. If they cannot think of a mechanism by which something might occur, they are unlikely to take it seriously. This of course is a weak test; it neither supports nor refutes a hypothesis with any strength. But it often works, and it relies on the faith that scientists have discovered the basic elements of the way nature really works.”

[…] “McClintock’s interest in complexity, however, was unusual even among maize geneticists. Her turn of mind enabled her to grasp, embrace, and even exploit the complexity of her organism. While other geneticists sought to reduce genetic systems to their simplest, most fundamental components, she sought to incorporate new variables, to synthesize all evidence she could muster into a grand, holistic theory… Among the phage and bacterial geneticists who made up most of the staff and summer visitors [at Cold Spring Harbor], the scientific aesthetic was that simplicity was elegance, and elegance was truth. McClintock’s aesthetic embraced complexity as nature expression of beauty and truth.”

[…] “Perhaps the most telling citation was one by Guido Pontecorvo, which concluded, ‘The outstanding work in maize (review: McClintock, 1956)… is probably very relevant here. Unfortunately I do not understand the details of this work well enough to put my finder on what may be particularly significant.’”

[…] “Science is distinguished from art by having a means- experiment- by which to test the value of its metaphors.”

[…] “Some of her last writings are more like works of art than science. They are open to interpretation, their truth emerging not from data and logic, but from their ability to change the way other scientists think. Jeffrey Strathern, a yeast geneticist, wrote in 1992, ‘In some senses it does not matter whether I understood Barbara completely or correctly, it only matters that in trying to understand her, my thoughts traversed new ground.’”

(from The Tangled Field by Nathaniel C. Comfort)


“The medium in which [the scientist] works does not lend itself to the delight of the listener’s ear. When he designs his experiments or executes them with devoted attention to the details he may say to himself, ‘This is my composition; the pipette is my clarinet.’ And the orchestra may include instruments of the most subtle design. To others, however, his music is as silent as the music of the spheres. He may say to himself, ‘My story is an everlasting possession, not a prize composition which is heard and forgotten,’ but he fools only himself. The books of the great scientists are gathering dust on the shelves of learned libraries. And rightly so. The scientist addresses an infinitesimal audience of fellow composers. His message is not devoid of universality but its universality is disembodied and anonymous. While the artist’s communication is linked forever with its original form, that of the scientist is modified, amplified, fused with the ideas and results of others, and melts into the stream of knowledge and ideas which forms our culture. The scientist has in common with the artist only this: that he can find no better retreat from the world and also no stronger link with the world than his work.”

(Max Delbrück)


“One of the characteristics you see, and many people have it including great scientists, is that usually when they were young they had independent thoughts and had the courage to pursue them.”

[…] “One of the characteristics of successful scientists is having courage. Once you get your courage up and believe that you can do important problems, then you can. If you think you can’t, almost surely you are not going to… That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and continue to think.”

[…] “When you are famous it is hard to work on small problems. This is what did Shannon in. After information theory, what do you do for an encore? The great scientists often make this error. They fail to continue to plant the little acorns from which the mighty oak trees grow. They try to get the big thing right off. And that isn’t the way things go.”

[…] “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest.”

[…] “The misapplication of effort is a very serious matter. Just hard work is not enough – it must be applied sensibly.”

[…] “Most people like to believe something is or is not true. Great scientists tolerate ambiguity very well. They believe the theory enough to go ahead; they doubt it enough to notice the errors and faults so they can step forward and create the new replacement theory. If you believe too much you’ll never notice the flaws; if you doubt too much you won’t get started.”

[…] “If you are deeply immersed and committed to a topic, day after day after day, your subconscious has nothing to do but work on your problem. And so you wake up one morning, or on some afternoon, and there’s the answer. For those who don’t get committed to their current problem, the subconscious goofs off on other things and doesn’t produce the big result. So the way to manage yourself is that when you have a real important problem you don’t let anything else get the center of your attention – you keep your thoughts on the problem.”

[…] “If you do not work on an important problem, it’s unlikely you’ll do important work. It’s perfectly obvious. Great scientists have thought through, in a careful way, a number of important problems in their field, and they keep an eye on wondering how to attack them… The average scientist, so far as I can make out, spends almost all his time working on problems which he believes will not be important and he also doesn’t believe that they will lead to important problems.”

[…] “He who works with the door open gets all kinds of interruptions, but he also occasionally gets clues as to what the world is and what might be important.“

[…] “I have now come down to a topic which is very distasteful; it is not sufficient to do a job, you have to sell it… There are three things you have to do in selling. You have to learn to write clearly and well so that people will read it, you must learn to give reasonably formal talks, and you also must learn to give informal talks… Most of the time the audience wants a broad general talk and wants much more survey and background than the speaker is willing to give. As a result, many talks are ineffective. The speaker names a topic and suddenly plunges into the details he’s solved. Few people in the audience may follow. You should paint a general picture to say why it’s important, and then slowly give a sketch of what was done.”

[…] “If you read all the time what other people have done you will think the way they thought. If you want to think new thoughts that are different, then do what a lot of creative people do – get the problem reasonably clear and then refuse to look at any answers until you’ve thought the problem through carefully how you would do it, how you could slightly change the problem to be the correct one. So yes, you need to keep up. You need to keep up more to find out what the problems are than to read to find the solutions. The reading is necessary to know what is going on and what is possible. But reading to get the solutions does not seem to be the way to do great research. So I’ll give you two answers. You read; but it is not the amount, it is the way you read that counts.”

[…] “The day your vision, what you think needs to be done, is bigger than what you can do single-handedly, then you have to move toward management.”

[…] “I think it’s very valuable to have first-class people around. I sought out the best people. The moment that physics table lost the best people, I left. The moment I saw that the same was true of the chemistry table, I left. I tried to go with people who had great ability so I could learn from them and who would expect great results out of me. By deliberately managing myself, I think I did much better than laissez faire.” 

(from You and Your Research by Richard Hamming)


“An organism is a complex assembly of different kinds of cells that perform many different functions. A major goal of biological research is to understand how that complexity is generated. The problem becomes especially fascinating when one considers that the human genome has surprisingly few genes, only a few fold more than much simpler creatures. Where is all the extra information that accounts for this complexity? And as complex systems evolve, does each advance in cellular function require the invention of an entirely new way of doing things, or are pre-existing molecular devices re-used in more complex ways, much as standard bricks can be used to make increasingly palatial buildings.”

(from a Foreword to Genes & Signals by Tony Pawson)


“… the so-called file drawer problem- a scientific field has a drastically distorted view of the evidence for a hypothesis when public dissemination is cut off by a statistical significance threshold. But we’ve already given the problem another name. It’s the Baltimore stockbroker… The investor, like the scientist, gets to see the one rendition of the experiment that went well by chance, but is blind to the much larger group of experiments that failed. There’s one big difference, though. In science, there’s no shady con man and no innocent victim. When the scientific community file-drawers its failed experiments, it plays both parts at once. They’re running the con on themselves.”

[…] “… Grothendieck, who remade much of pure mathematics in his own image in the 1960s and ‘70s, had a different view: ‘The unknown thing to be known appeared to me as some stretch of earth or hard marl, resisting penetration… the sea advances insensibly in silence, nothing seems to happen, nothing moves, the water is so far off you hardly hear it… yet it finally surrounds the resistant substance.’ 

The unknown is a stone in the sea, which obstructs our progress. We can try to pack dynamite in the crevices of rock, detonate it, and repeat until the rock breaks apart, as Buffon did with his complicated computations in calculus. Or you can take a more contemplative approach, allowing your level of understanding gradually and gently to rise, until after a time what appeared as an obstacle is overtopped by the calm water, and is gone.

Mathematics as currently practices is a delicate interplay between monastic contemplation and blowing stuff up with dynamite.”

[…] “One of the most painful parts of teaching mathematics is seeing students damaged by the cult of the genius. The genius cult tells students it’s not worth doing mathematics unless you’re the best at mathematics, because those special few are the only ones whose contributions matter. We don’t treat any other subject that way! I’ve never heard a student say, ‘I like Hamlet, but I don’t belong in AP English- that kid who sits in the front row knows all the plays, and he started reading Shakespeare when he was nine!’ Athletes don’t quit their sport just because one of their teammates outshines them. And yet I see promising young mathematicians quit every year, even though they love mathematics, because someone in their range of vision was ‘ahead’ of them. 

We lose a lot of math majors this way. Thus, we lose a lot of future mathematicians; but that’s not the whole of the problem. I think we need more math majors who don’t become mathematicians. More math major doctors, more math major high school teachers, more math major CEOs, more math major senators. But we won’t get there until we dump the stereotype that math is only worthwhile for kid geniuses. 

The cult of the genius also tends to undervalue hard work. When I was starting out, I thought ‘hardworking’ was a kind of veiled insult- something to say about a student when you can’t honestly say they’re smart. But the ability to work hard- to keep one’s whole attention and energy focused on a problem, systematically turning it over and over and pushing at everything that looks like a crack, despite the lack of outward signs of progress- is not a skill that everybody has. Psychologists nowadays call it ‘grit,’ and it’s impossible to do math without it. It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of work, because mathematical inspiration, when it finally does come, can feel effortless and instant.”

[…] “Poincaré explains. That moment of inspiration is the product of weeks of work, both conscious and unconscious, which somehow prepare the mind to make the necessary connection of ideas. Sitting around waiting for inspiration leads to failure, no matter how much of a whiz kid you are.”

[…] “What you learn after a long time in math- and I think the lesson applies much more broadly- is that there’s always somebody ahead of you, whether they’re right there in class with you or not. People just starting out look to people with good theorems, people with lots of good theorems look to people with Fields Medals, people with Fields Medals look to the ‘inner circle’ medalists, and those people can always look toward the dead. Nobody ever looks in the mirror and says, ‘Let’s face it, I’m smarter than Gauss.’ And yet, in the last hundred years, the joined effort of all these dummies-compared-to-Gauss has produced the greatest flowering of mathematical knowledge the world has ever seen. 

Mathematics, mostly, is a communal enterprise, each advance the product of a huge network of minds working towards a common purpose, even if we accord special honor to the person who places the last stone in the arch. Mark Twain is good on this: ‘It takes a thousand men to invent a telegraph, or a steam engine, or a phonograph, or a telephone or any other important thing- and the last last man gets the credit and we forget the others.’”

[…] “It’s not wrong to say Hilbert was a genius. But it’s more right to say that what Hilbert accomplished was genius. Genius is a thing that happens, not a kind of person.”

(from How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg)


“A scientific fact should be regarded as experimentally established only if a properly designed experiment rarely fails to give this level of significance” 

(Ronald Fisher on p-values)


“The popular image of the lone (and possibly slightly mad) genius- who ignores the literature and other conventional wisdom and manages by some inexplicable inspiration (enhanced, perhaps, with a liberal dash of suffering) to come up with a breathtakingly original solution to a problem that confounded all the experts- is a charming and romantic image, but also a widely inaccurate one, at least in the world of modern mathematics. We do have spectacular, deep and remarkable results and insights in this subject, of course, but they are the hard-won and cumulative achievement of years, decades, or even centuries of steady work and progress of many good and great mathematicians; the advance from one stage of understanding to the next can be highly non-trivial, and sometimes rather unexpected, but still builds upon the foundation of earlier work rather than starting totally anew… Actually, I find the reality of mathematical research today- in which progress is obtained naturally and cumulatively as a consequence of hard work, directed by intuition, literature, and a bit of luck- to be far more satisfying than the romantic image that I had as a student of mathematics being advanced primarily by the mystic inspirations of some rare breed of ‘geniuses.’”

(Terry Tao)


“To believe something is to believe that it is true; therefore a reasonable person believes each of his beliefs to be true; yet experience has taught him to expect some of his beliefs, he knows not which, will turn out to be false. A reasonable person believes, in short, that each of his beliefs is true and that some of them are false.”

(W. V. O. Quine)


“It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction ; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse : a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.”

(from On The Origin of Species by Charles Darwin)


“The intellectual project of ontological reductionism- the claim that life can be fully explained through the categories of the physical sciences- has major implications for the understanding of human identity, the nature of ‘life,’ and many social and political issues surrounding the relations of organismic biology to analytic biology.”

[…] “Entering the domain of genetics as a theorist migrating from physics, Delbrück was able to make some new kinds of connections between several strands of discussion taking place in the Grünewald conversations. Comparisons and differences between photosynthesis and genetics are drawn out; a style of theorizing is employed that is not typical of the biology of his day; he has linked together the concept of genes and mutations with issues in atomic physics. Delbrück’s contribution is not at the level of empirical research, but on the plane of theoretical unification through simplifying assumptions.”

[…] “… target-theoretical discourse as it developed during the 1930s and into the 1940s entailed several bold assumptions- which could be and were strongly contested- about the nature of the organic, which were somewhat at odds with the traditional disciplinary culture of biology. To put it into a rather stark dichotomy: Can living organisms be usefully, albeit incompletely, understood in terms of an abstract model with homogenous components that respond at the submicroscopic level in a uniform yet probabilistic fashion to physical events? Or is the life scientist, by definition, essentially concerned with a world of diverse, heterogeneous, unique forms and individuals, each of whom responds in an individually characteristic yet causally deterministic way to the stimuli of its environment? To have taken target theory as even plausible reflected a willingness to accept a radically new, abstract, even simplified conception of life itself, a theme that historians have sometimes identified with molecular biology as a whole.”

[…] “This ‘thanatological principle’ is based on a thought experiment similar to the one supporting Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle: since even the least possible intervention needed for a measurement will change the object, there is a definite limit to our knowledge about the state of the object determined by the physical quantum of action. But the relevance of such an argument in the case of biology is unclear. Knowledge about molecular structures and processes are not built on direct observation alone, but also on indirect inference from the results or products of interventions under various specified conditions. So Bohr’s argument is perhaps best understood as a not very precise historical analogy between atomic physics and the science of living organisms. His own discussion suggests such a historical analogy rather than an epistemically limiting physiological fact: ‘On this view, the existence of life myst be taken as a starting point in biology… The asserted impossibility of a physical or chemical explanation of the function peculiar to life would in this sense be analogous to the insufficiency of the mechanical analysis for the understanding of the stability of atoms’.”

[…] “Delbrück dearly desires a reductionist approach to succeed, but fears that it may not- as exemplified by his statement that biology is depressing for the physicist because ‘insofar as physical explanations of seemingly physical phenomena go… the analysis seems to have stalled around in a semidescriptive manner without noticeably progressing towards a radical physical explanation.’ A reductionist driven to the wall of non-reductionism by epistemological frustration, Delbrück nevertheless does not forsake reductionist beliefs on the nature of adequate explanation.”

[…] “As [Bohr] put it in 1951: ‘These remarks, however do in no way imply that, even if quantum theory is indispensable for dealing with biological phenomena, it should in itself suffice for an explanation of life. On the contrary, the point which I want to emphasize is the wider implication of the lesson atomic physics has taught us about our position as observers of natural phenomena and, in particular, about the rational use of words like cause and purpose.

Although science will of course strive for ever more detailed knowledge of the physical mechanism underlying the functions of organism, a description of life corresponding to the ideal of mechanism will only constitute one line of approach. In fact, we must recognize that experimental conditions demanded for an exhaustive description conforming with this ideal would involve a control of the organism to an extent which would preclude the display of life. In actual biological research, a vitalistic approach is equally indispensable, since the primary object must often be the studies of the reaction of the organism as a whole for the purpose of upholding life, a point of which we are not least reminded in medical research. We are here neither speaking of any crude attempt of tracing an analogy to life in simple machinery, nor of the old idea of a mystic life force, but of two scientific approaches which only together exhaust the possibilities of increasing our knowledge. In this sense, mechanistic and vitalistic viewpoints may be considered as complementary, and in the harmonious balance between their applications we find the basis for the practical and rational use of the word life.'”

[…] “… Delbrück writes: ‘Physics has a tradition of long standing in biology of trying to lay down the law. So does chemistry… To men like Helmholtz it seemed clear that both the substrate and processes are essentially the same in the organic as in the inorganic world, and that this precluded the existence of specific vital forces. This led to the concept of life as essentially a mechanical problem. It seemed as if the phenomena observed in living material should be deducible from the laws of Newton’s mechanics as movements of particles due to forces originating in these particles. This is the mechanistic view of life, in contra-distinction to the postulate of specific vital actions. Such a view, I believe, is still in the back of the minds of biologists of today and is the driving force of most biochemists…. There are, of course, branches of biology which flourish without direct recourse to this ideal. The most notable is genetics, which in its pure form operates with ‘hereditary factors’ and ‘phenotypic characters’ in a perfectly logical system, without ever having to both with the processes by which the ‘characters’ originate from the ‘factors’. The root of this science lies in the existence of natural units of observation, the individual living organisms which in genetics play much the same role as atoms and molecules in chemistry.

However, though geneticists may be content to stop here, chemists and physicists will not… Is this process simply a trick of organic chemistry which the organic chemists have not yet run across in their test tubes or is it phenomenon of an entirely difference nature, depending on the ‘complex organization of the living cell’? The answer to this question is at presently totally unknown. The old-line mechanists, of course, would consider it a sacrilegious thought that the reproduction of genes might not be a purely mechanical process, but modern physicists may well be inclined to take a more liberal view…

This being the situation, it becomes a matter of great interest to the physicist, and perhaps to the biologist too, to find out just how far atomic physics does carry us in the understanding of phenomena of the living cell.'”

(from Creating a Physical Biology by Phillip Sloan and Brandon Fogel)


“Courage is one fo the things that Shannon had supremely. You have only to think of his major theorem. He wants to create a method of coding, but he doesn’t know what to do so he makes a random code. Then he is stuck. And then he asks the impossible question, ‘What would the average random code do?’ He then proves that the average code is arbitrarily good, and that therefore there must be at least one good code. Who but a man of infinite courage could have dared to think those thoughts? That is the characteristic of great scientists; they have courage. They will go forward under incredible circumstances; they think and they continue to think.”

(Richard Hamming on Claude Shannon)


“We tend to find younger scientists least surprised by what we have to say. If that is generally true, perhaps it is because they are accustomed to hearing about matters that would strike the older variety as strange. They are used to hearing about (and working with) the two-hybrid system, in which a simple binding interaction triggers gene expression. They are used to regarding proteins (particularly eukaryotic ones) not so much as highly integrated units, but as collections of domains; and they are familiar with the notion that those domains, often, can be rearranged or separated from their natural neighbors- even attached to new neighbors- without loss of function. 

That so much of the specificity of regulation- and hence so much of development and evolutionary change- depends on simple binding interactions is (or we think should be) hard to swallow. It certainly is for us. We, and we suspect many others, had expected that the meanings of biological signals would have been, somehow, more solidly based. As we have explained in the earlier part of this chapter, the rather crudely based systems are poised to go awry, and many of the complexities we see seem to be add-ons to get those systems to work. 

It is understandable that we describe individual cases as ‘beautiful’ and ‘elegant’. But unlike Creationists (who revel in such descriptions), we realize that these systems evolved, stepwise. And so it should hardly be surprising that underlying all the complexities are certain rather simple mechanisms that, by being reiterated and constantly added to, can produce living systems.”

(from Genes & Signals by Mark Ptashne and Alexander Gann)


“Cells live in a complex environment and can sense many different signals, including physical parameters such as temperature and osmotic pressure, biological signaling molecules from other cells, beneficial nutrients, and harmful chemicals. Information about the internal state of the cell, such as the level of key metabolites and internal damage, is also important. Cells respond to these signals by producing appropriate proteins that act upon the internal or external environment. To represent these environmental states, the cell uses special proteins called transcription factors as symbols. Transcription factors are usually designed to transit rapidly between active and inactive molecular states, at a rate that is modulated by a specific environmental signal (input). Each active transcription factor can bind the DNA to regulate the rate at which specific target genes are read. The genes are read (transcribed) into mRNA, which is then translated into protein, which can act on the environment. The activities of the transcription factors in a cell therefore can be considered an internal representation of the environment.”

(from An introduction to Systems Biology by Uri Alon)


“As scientific knowledge expands, the goal of general public understanding of science becomes increasingly difficult to reach. Yet an understanding of the scientific enterprise, as distinct from data, concepts, and theories, is certainly within the grasp of us all. It is an enterprise conducted by men and women who are stimulated by hopes and purposes that are universal, rewarded by occasional successes, and distressed by setbacks. Science is an enterprise with its own rules and customs, but an understanding of that enterprise is accessible, for it is quintessentially human. And an understanding of the enterprise inevitably brings with it insights into the nature of its products.”

(from a Preface to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Series)


“[Natural selection] is this basic mechanism that makes biology different from all other sciences. Of course anyone can grasp the mechanism itself, though remarkably few people actually do so. Most surprising, however, are the results of such a process, acting over billions of generations. It is the general character of the resulting organisms that is unexpected. Natural selection almost always builds on what went before, so that a basically simple process becomes encumbered with many subsidiary gadgets. As François Jacob has so aptly put it, ‘Evolution is a tinkerer.’ It is the resulting complexity that makes biological organisms so hard to unscramble. Biology is very different from physics. The basic laws of physics can usually be expressed in exact mathematical form, and they are probably the same throughout the universe. The ‘laws’ of biology, by contrast, are often only broad generalizations, since they describe rather elaborate chemical mechanisms that natural selection has evolved over billions of years.”

[…] “It is interesting to note the curious mental attitude of scientists working on ‘hopeless’ subjects. Contrary to what one might at first expect, they are all buoyed up by irrepressible optimism. I believe there is a simple explanation for this. Anyone without such optimism simply leaves the field and takes up some other line of work. Only the optimists remain. So one has the curious phenomenon that workers in subjects in which the prize is big but the prospects of success very small always appear very optimistic. And this in spite of the fact that, although plenty appears to be going on, they never seem to get appreciably nearer their goal.”

[…] “[Pauling] believed that much that we need to explain could be done using well-established ideas of chemistry and, in particular, the chemistry of macromolecules and that our knowledge of the various kinds of atoms, especially carbon, and of the bonds that hold atoms together [the homopolar bond, electrostatic interactions, hydrogen bonds, and van der Waal’s forces] would be enough to crack the mysteries of life. 

Max Delbrück, on the other hand, who started as a physicist, hoped that biology would enable us to discover new laws of physics. Delbrück also worked at CalTech, where Pauling was. He had pioneered important studies of certain viruses, called bacteriophage, and was one of the leaders of the very influential Phage Group, of which Jim Watson was a more junior member. I don’t think Delbrück much cared for chemistry. Like most physicists, he regarded chemistry as a rather trivial application of quantum mechanics. He had not fully imagined what remarkable structures can be built by natural selection, nor just how many distinct types of proteins there might be. 

Time has shown that, so far, Pauling was right and Delbrück was wrong… Everything we know about molecular biology appears to be explainable in a standard chemical way. We also now appreciate that molecular biology is not a trivial aspect of biological systems. It is at the heart of the matter. Almost all aspects of life are engineered at the molecular level, and without understanding molecules we can only have a very sketchy understanding of life itself. App approaches at a higher level are suspect until confirmed at the molecular level.”

[…] “This still left the geometrical dilemma. In the process of protein synthesis, how could one amino acid get near enough to the next one to enable them to be joined together, since their triplets would have to be some distance apart as they were not overlapping? Sydney suggested that the postulated adaptors might each have a small flexible tail, to the end of which the appropriate amino acid was joined. Sydney and I did not at the time take this idea very seriously, referring to it as a ‘don’t worry’ theory, meaning that we could see at least one way that nature might have solved the problem, so why worry at this stage what the correct answer actually was, especially as we had more important problems to tackle.”

[…] “I think that there is a lesson here for those wanting to build a bridge between two distinct but obviously related fields… I am not sure that reasoned arguments, however well constructed, do much good. They may produce an awareness of possible connection, but not much more. Most geneticists could not have been easily persuaded to learn protein chemistry, for example, just because a few clever people thought that was where geneticists ought to go. They thought (as functionalists do today) that the logic of their subject did not depend on knowing all the biochemical details… What makes people really appreciate the connection between two fields is some new and striking result that obviously connects them in a dramatic way. One good example is worth a ton of theoretical arguments.”

[…] “What is the use of such general ideas? Obviously they are speculative and so may turn out to be wrong. Nevertheless, they help organize more positive and explicit hypotheses. If well formulated, they can act as a guide through a jumble of theories. Without such a guide, any theory seems possible. With it, many hypotheses fall away and one sees more clearly which ones to concentrate on. If such an approach still leaves one lost in the jungle, one tries again with a new dogma, to see if that fares any better… 

I believe this is one of the most useful functions a theorist can perform in biology. In almost all cases it is virtually impossible for a theorist, by thought alone, to arrive at the correct solution to a set of biological problems. Because they have evolved by natural selection, the mechanisms involved are usually too accidental and too intricate. The best a theorist can hope to do is to point an experimentalist in the right direction, and this is often done by suggesting what directions to avoid. If one has little hope of arriving, unaided, at the correct theory, then it is more useful to suggest which class of theories are unlikely to be true, using some general argument about what is known of the nature of the system.”

[…] “The path to success in theoretical biology is thus fraught with hazards. It is all too easy to make some plausible simplifying assumptions, do some elaborate mathematics that appear to give a rough fit with at least some experimental data, and think one has achieved something. The chance of such an approach doing anything useful, apart from soothing the theorist’s ego, is rather small, and especially so in biology. Moreover I have found, to my surprise, that most theorists do not appreciate the difference between a model and a demonstration, often mistaking the latter for the former.

In my terminology, a ‘demonstration’ is a ‘don’t worry’ theory. That is, it does not pretend to approximate to the right answer, but it shows that at least a theory of that general type can be constructed. In a sense it is only an existence proof. Curiously enough, there exists in the literature an example of such a demonstration in relation to genes and DNA. 

Lionel Penrose, who died in 1972, was a distinguished geneticist who in his later years held the prestigious Galton chair at University College, London. He was interested in the possible structure of the gene (which not all geneticists were at that time). He also loved doing ‘fretwork’, making objects out of plywood with a fine saw. He constructed a number of such models to demonstrate how genes might replicate. The wooden parts had ingenious shapes, with hooks and other devices, so that when shaken they would come apart and join together in an amusing way…

I was taken to meet Lionel Penrose and his models by the zoologist Mudroch Mitchison. I tried to show a polite interest but had some difficulty in taking it all seriously. What to me was bizarre was that this was in the middle 1950s, after the publication of the DNA double helix. I tried to bring out model to Penrose’s attention but he was far more interested in his own ‘models.’ He thought that perhaps they might be relevant for a pre-DNA period in the origin of life. 

His wooden pieces, as far as I could see, had no obvious relation to known (or unknown) chemical compounds. I cannot believe that he thought genes were made of pieces of wood, yet he didn’t seem at all interested in organic chemicals as such. Why, then, was his approach of so little use? The reason is that his model did not approximate the real thing closely enough. Of course, any model is necessarily a simplification of some sort. Our DNA model was made of metal, but embodied very closely the known distances between chemical atoms and, in the hydrogen bonds, took into account the different strengths of the various chemical bonds. The model did not itself obey the laws of quantum mechanics, but it embodied them to some extent. It did not vibrate, due to thermal motion, but we could make allowance for such vibrations. The crucial difference between our model and Penrose’s was that ours led to detailed predictions on matters that had not been explicitly put into the model. There is perhaps no precise dividing line between a demonstration and a model, but in this case the difference is very clear. The double helix, since it embodied detailed chemical features, was a true model, whereas Penrose’s was no better than a demonstration, a ‘don’t worry’ theory…

A good model in biology, then, not only should address the problem in hand but if at all possible should serve to unite evidence from several different approaches so that various sorts of tests can be made of it. This may not always be possible to do straight away- the theory of natural selection could not immediately be tested at the cellular and the molecular level- but a theory will always command more attention if it is supported by unexpected evidence, particularly evidence of a different kind.”

[…] “The message to experimentalists is: Be sensible but don’t be impressed too much by negative arguments. If at all possible, try it and see what turns up. Theorists almost always dislike this sort of approach”

[…] “Theorist in biology should realize that it is extremely unlikely that they will produce a useful theory (as opposed to a mere demonstration) just by having a bright idea distantly related to what they imagine to be the facts. Even more unlikely is that they will produce a good theory at their first attempt. It is amateurs who have one bright beautiful idea that they can never abandon. Professionals know that they have to produce theory after theory before they are likely to hit the jackpot. The very process of abandoning one theory for another gives them a degree of critical detachment that is almost essential if they are to succeed.

The job of theorists, especially in biology, is to suggest new experiments. A good theory makes not only predictions, but surprising predictions that then turn out to be true. (If its predictions appear obvious to experimentalists, why would they need a theory?) Theorists will often complain that experimentalists ignore their work. Let a theorist produce just one theory of the type sketched above an the world will jump to the conclusion (not always true) that he has special insight into difficult problems. He may then be embarrassed by the flood of problems he is asked to tackle by those very experimentalists who previously ignored him.”

(from What Mad Pursuit by Francis Crick)


“I took a good clear piece of Cork, and.. cut off… an exceeding thin piece of it, and placing it on a black object plate, because it was it self a white body,… I could exceeding plainly perceive it to be all perforated and pours… these pours, or cells,… were indeed the first microscopic pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any writer or person that had made mention of them before this.”

(from Micrographia by Robert Hooke)


“Our surroundings are beautiful, but they’re even more beautiful to understand”

(Brian Cox)


“But, as Crick learned, the same isn’t necessarily true of all scientific pursuits. “In biology, it’s possible to be elegant and be wrong,” Newsome, who began his career in physics but now studies the neuroscience of vision, told me. Nature doesn’t always find the most elegant solution. “Evolution just seizes on certain convenient solutions that present themselves,” he said. “They get frozen in place, reproduced, and used again and again.””

(from What is Elegance in Science? by Patrick House)


“This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; the being thoroughly worn out before you are thrown on the scrap heap.”

(from Preface to Man and Superman by Bernard Shaw)


“If the biography of a king must deal with a life of power, the biography of a scientist must inevitably deal with science. Yet, just as a king’s biography limited to the story of power would be nothing but a tale of battle and intrigues, a scientist’s biography confined to his or her scientific work would turn into popular science. There is seldom any terribilità in a scientist’s life. Even the moments of greatest excitement in science can hardly be conveyed to the lay public. Though everybody has heard of Albert Einstein’s equation E = mc^2, very few readers can grasp its meaning, no matter how much their own lives are affected by it. A scientist’s biographer deals with much duller material than does a chronicler of kings.”

[…] “It is characteristic of scientists to transfer from their work to their lives a deep respect for rationality, the essential element in the structure of science. In Jacob Bronowski’s words, ‘a mode of knowledge not formalizable is an exploration.’ ‘Not formalizable’ here means that the knowledge cannot be organized in sets of formulae or relations that are parts of a comprehensive theory. Most scientists distrust those aspects of their personalities that drive them away from the domain of the formalizable. Thus they tend to distrust romantic love and abstract art, poetry and politics. Since enthusiasm is a potentially dangerous weapon in the laboratory, scientists tend to avoid fervor in other areas of activity. No one is more aware of this than one who like myself has worked at stimulating scientists’ participation in public affairs. Distrust of the nonformalizable would tend to make scientists avoid expressing in their autobiographies the anguish of doubt they must certainly feel. Even in recounting their relations with power centers- as members of or advisers to government- scientists tend to be studiously technical.”

[…] “… autobiographies of scientists (except those of a few physicists) have failed to convey the sense of adventure that is intrinsic in the work of science itself. Attempts to explain scientific methods and ideas in full to a broad public either leave readers baffled or cause the writing to sink to the level of newspaper science. What best conveys the sense of science as adventure is not the substance but the process of discovery. Did the scientist use a screwdriver, or break a test tube at a critical moment, or find crystals in a solution? And how did these events lead to discovery? Just as insights into the process of literary creation illuminate the workings of the minds of poets and novelists, so do insights into the scientists’ day-by-day operations tell us more about the humanity of their trade than does the packaged final output.”

[…] “[Alfred Hershey] is a remarkable person, so silent that even Delbrück appeared garrulous by comparison. His writings like his experiments have a spare elegance that I greatly admire and envy. They often represent the last word on a subject. Once, asked for his idea of Heaven, he replied: ‘To find a perfect experiment and do it every day for the first time.’”

[…] “The opening up of bacterial genetics proved to be one of the key steps in the growth of molecular biology- the fusion of biochemistry and genetics. To me the development of bacterials genetics was not only a rewarding outgrowth of my study of phage-resistant mutants. It was also a strong reinforcement of the choice I had made years earlier, choosing to approach biological problems through a paradigm resembling those of physics. The fluctuation test was directly related to the way of thinking I had absorbed from physicists- from Ugo Fano, Franco Rasetti, Max Delbrück- thinking in terms of individual spontaneous events, be they radioactive decay or mutations. The commitment had been a gamble; and the gamble had proved successful.”

[…] “An eminent biochemist is reported to have defined molecular biology as the practice of biochemistry without a license. Some classical geneticist may have maintained that molecular biology is the study of genetics upon the wrong organisms. They both would be wrong and right at the same time.”

[…] “… the triplet-amino acid correspondence is the same in bacteria as in all plants and animals, including humans. This is really a marvelous thing, the essence of unity of living organisms. All organisms have their program inscribed in the same alphabet, and they all decipher it by the same rules. Apparently, since the early days when organisms appeared on Earth, there has never been a tower of Babel to create a confusion of molecular language. Our cells have kept their ancestral molecular wisdom, even when we went astray in our multiple ways.”

[…] “The chemical details of how the language of DNA —  the violin sound of triplets —  is translated into the language of protein —  the twenty notes of the bassoon —  need not concern us here. It may be left for biochemists and contrapuntists to worry about. The reader may, however, be interested in an important feature of gene action, and that is the exquisite efficiency by which it responds to the needs of the cells. Individual genes are continuously turned on, slowed down, or turned off in response to appropriate chemical signals in much the same way that electric bulbs can be turned on, off, or regulated by a dimmer switch.”

[…] “A scientist’s ego is in there fighting, but fighting against the secrets of nature rather than against other scientists. Rivalries are tempered by mutual professional respect, enhanced by personal trust as well as by admiration for the quality of the work. Personal frustrations arising from lack of success or what appears to be lack of adequate recognition may embitter personal relations, but such frustrations do not engender ideological or scholastic splits as they do in more abstract disciplines. In a science that is forging vigorously ahead there is not much space for divisions. Those whose priority is work proceed apace; those who nourish grudges may find themselves left behind.”

[…] “The discovery itself was not much of a feat: the restriction phenomenon was there for the asking. If I had not discovered it, someone else would soon have done so. My fluctuation-test work, on the other hand, was essentially unique. If I had not thought of it, bacterial mutations would certainly have been discovered soon in some other way, but that specific experiment, although fully purposeful and decisive, might well never have been invented because it would not have been needed. Science’s path is essentially opportunistic. It aims at solving problems, not at doing good or bad experiments. If a problem happens to be solved clumsily, the elegant solution may never be looked for. This is not so, I believe, in mathematics or analytical philosophy, where a good deal of effort is expended in refining the precision and simplicity and elegance of solutions.”

[…] “… it made clear to me the basic differences between industrial and academic research. The university is a world of scholarship and trust, where the reward for success is intellectual recognition. Industry is a world of contracts and insecurity, where pay is the reward for work, and success may make one expendable. I have seen industrial scientists being told at noontime that they are fired and must be out by five. More disturbing, I have seen managers deciding on purely commercial grounds whether scientific projects of great merit should be continued or terminated. Maybe the university, for all its limitations, approximates what an ideal intellectual community should be— a microcosm where shared purpose and mutual respect counterbalance the centrifugal momentum of individual passions and drives.”

[…] “… had just completed a major biochemical feat and was now searching for a new system worth exploring. (The reader may wonder about the meaning of such a ‘search for a system,’ which is a common operational way in research. One defines a problem that seems significant in its implications and worth exploring; then one looks for a system—an organism, a material, a set of observations—that offers a promising point of attack. This is not unlike the way mountain climbers approach the climbing of some still unreached peak.)”

[…] “I should explain that I was not only looking for knowledge; I was looking for an escape. By the time I am speaking of, 1962-1963, the molecular biology of bacteria and bacteriophage was reaching a double climax. The number of young practitioners was increasing by leaps and bounds. Phage research meetings attracted tow or three hundred people instead of a dozen or so as ten years earlier. The field was crowded; research findings were beginning to be circulated by phone rather than by publication. One had to be an eager seeker of ‘last-minute news’ to function effectively; and I have never been that kind of scientist. I need to have time and leisure to work at my own pace. I often found the frantic activity of my young colleagues somewhat ludicrous.”

[…] “… it is also why in my own field I am not an eager seeker of information. I like to operate with only a fraction of the enormous accumulation of knowledge. When I open a new issue of a scientific journal I do not scan the table of contents looking for exciting novelty; on the contrary, I hope that there will be nothing in it that I must read. I once mentioned this fear of input to Al Hershey, who replied that everyone felt more or less as I did, but I was the only one arrogant enough to admit it. Maybe so.

My avoidance of superfluous scientific input is not simply a resistance to effort. For the problem-solving kind of scientist like me science is truly, in the words of Peter Medawar, the ‘art of the soluble.’ When one tries to solve an intriguing problem one wants to be left alone…

Medawar’s definition implies something more than the search for solutions to scientific puzzles. It emphasizes a most important feature of scientific research, the sense of what will work and what won’t, which problems are likely to yield to and which will rebuff your efforts. Proclaiming some grand scientific goal—such as finding a cure for cancer or creating a better variety of corn plants—and then trying to go at it like a ram battering against a wall is alien to the methodology of science. Patient pathways of simple soluble steps are the effective way. The problem-solving approach has been congenial to me. Its most satisfying moments are those that lead to ‘strong inferences,’ that is, predictions that will be strongly supported or sharply rejected by a clear-cut experimental step… These are stellar moments in research, the times when one’s thinking seems suddenly to mesh precisely with the structure of the phenomenon under study.”

[…] “The concept of the ‘team’ led by a ‘leader,’ a favorite theme of science writers, in inapplicable to the way most serious laboratories work. The leader is simply the one whose prestige, based on previous accomplishments, attracts the financial backing needed for the research.

In fact, science is an immensely supportive activity, which has been one of its strongest attractions. The support that science offers is both intellectual—the sharing of knowledge—and emotional—the sharing of purpose. The reassurance a physicist gets from knowing that every colleague the world over believes in the correctness of Maxwell’s or Boltzmann’s equations, or a biologist from knowing that all biologists know Darwin’s theory of evolution and the structure of the DNA molecule, is not just intellectually reassuring; it is also emotionally satisfying because it implies a sharing of knowledge and membership in a segment of humanity that speaks and thinks in a common language. In fact, the world of science may be the only existing participatory democracy.”

[…]  “… the pursuit of scientific knowledge and more generally the pursuit of knowledge is the outcome of an ethical choice: a commitment to rationality. It is never a commitment to give cold, analytical reason top billing over emotions such as compassion or justice.”

[…] “Years ago, in a lecture before the American Philosophical Society entitled Slippery When Wet, I explored, as many other have done, the question of scientists’ responsibility or lack thereof for the uses to which technology is being put. I mildly concluded that scientists should at least feel responsible for informing their government and the public of potential dangers that might arise from the uses of science, just as they actively publicize potential benefits.”

[…] “More distressing, at least to me, however, is what the wide support for such nonsense as creation science means in terms of the position of science in the culture of our supposedly scientific society. In fact, our society is permeated not by science, but by an exploitive distortion of science-based technology, as irrational as the irrational aspects of religion. Science itself, the sober evaluation of data, the restrained proposition of hypotheses, and the building of verifiable or at least disprovable theories, is probably as alien to the majority of people in America society as it was the Hebrews of the Old Testament. Despite a plethora of science writers and reporters, the methods and beauty of science have remained concealed from the majority of the people. This majority includes those legislators, in Arkansas and elsewhere, who see no contradiction between a belief in a biblical universe six thousand years old and the presence of million-year-old oil deposits whose exploitation by special interests they are elected to protect.”

[…] “To begin with, it may be worth repeating something that has already been asserted, that nothing could be further from the truth than the popular image of how scientists work: observing and measuring objects and phenomena more and more precisely; mechanically analyzing the data; deriving from them clear-cut hypotheses; performing critical tests of these hypotheses; and finally moving on to complex theories. In reality, the scientist “plays” with continuously emerging patterns of data and ideas, just as a child plays with toys and learns from the play. Like the child, the scientist devises explanations and chooses among them not only for plausibility but also for aesthetic quality. He often agonizes over what to do next in the same way a painter may in the midst of work on a canvas. Sometimes a scientist agonizes not over the data he has but over those he does not have yet but needs in order to form a coherent picture. Hundreds of facts may bear on the interpretation of a new observation—is the available part of the pattern sufficient to set the new fragment into place? Sometimes, like the playing child, the scientist abandons a search. But sometimes the agony becomes ecstasy—the illumination that clarifies the structure of a problem. This was my ecstasy when I intuited the distribution of bacterial mutants from the seemingly irrelevant contemplation of a slot machine in action, or when I interpreted the revival of irradiated bacteriophage. But the imagination does not just enter into play at special starry moments. The entire work of the scientist, like that of the writer or the painted, is a succession of imaginative efforts—some vast, some narrower, and many that fall flat. Potent illuminations are rare, of course, and it it they that mark the advance of science.”

(from A Slot Machine, A Broken Test Tube by Salvador Luria)


“A great deal more was hidden in the Dirac equation than the author had expected when he wrote it down in 1928. Dirac himself remarked in one of his talks that his equation was more intelligent than its author. It should be added, however, that it was Dirac who found most of the additional insights.”

(Victor Weisskopf)


“Theoretical physics is the search for simple and universal mathematical descriptions of the natural world. In contrast, much of modern biology is an exploration of the complexity and diversity of life. For many, this contrast is prima facie evidence that theory, in the sense that physicists use the word, is impossible in a biological context. For others, this contrast serves to highlight a grand challenge. I’m an optimist, and believe that the time is ripe for the emergence of a more unified theoretical physics of biological systems, building on successes in thinking about particular phenomena.”

(from Perspectives on theory at the interface of physics and biology by William Bialek)


“We might even think of the thesis, as Eco envisions it, as a formal version of the open-mindedness, care, rigor, and gusto with which we should greet every new day. It’s about committing oneself to a task that seems big and impossible.”

(from A Guide to Thesis-Writing that is A Guide to Life by Hua Hsu)


“Our understanding of the way the world works is fragmentary and incomplete, which means that progress does not occur in a simple, direct and linear manner. It is important to connect the unconnected, to make leaps and to take risks, and to have fun talking and playing with ideas that might at first seem outlandish. Fundamental advances are often stimulated by unexplained observations made in the course of applied work, and the resulting growth in understanding directs our attention to new avenues of research.”

(Jack Szostak)


“I come from a culture that views scientists as public servants. All my research has been funded by taxpayer dollars, and with that comes a responsibility to help address threats to the community. The very history of my department, the MIT Department of Biology, is tied to scientists taking a stand against social and political issues. I was just a young assistant professor when faculty members like David Baltimore and Ethan Signer led demonstrations to oppose the Vietnam War. It was a very open environment and we supported one another.

These days, science is simply a career. You do your work and you keep your eyes to the bench. But the world can be a better place if we take our eyes off the bench occasionally. So this letter is a reminder to our colleagues: Get involved, and consider it our contribution to the general public who support our research.”

(from Jonathan King on the future of nuclear weapons testing by Raleigh McElvery)


“However little we understand the device we cannot but think that it must be in some way very relevant to the functioning of the organism, that every single cell, even a less important one, should be in possession of a complete (double) copy of the code-script. Some time ago we were told in the newspapers that in his African campaign General Montgomery made a point of having every single soldier of his army meticulously informed of all his designs. If that is true (as it conceivably might be, considering the high intelligence and reliability of his troops) it provides an excellent analogy to our case, in which the corresponding fact certainly is literally true. The most surprising fact is the doubleness of the chromosome set, maintained throughout the mitotic divisions.”

[…] “Let us now turn to the second highly relevant question: What degree of permanence do we encounter in hereditary properties and what must we therefore attribute to the material structures which carry them? 

The answer to this can really be given without any special investigation. The mere fact that we speak of hereditary properties indicates that we recognize the permanence to be of the almost absolute. For we must not forget that what is passed on by the parent to the child is not just this or that peculiarity, a hooked nose, short fingers, a tendency to rheumatism, haemophilia, dichromasy, etc. Such features we may conveniently select for studying the laws of heredity. But actually it is the whole (four-dimensional) pattern of the ‘phenotype’, the all the visible and manifest nature of the individual, which is reproduced without appreciable change for generations, permanent within centuries -though not within tens of thousands of years -and borne at each transmission by the material in a structure of the nuclei of the two cells which unite to form the fertilized egg cell. That is a marvel -than which only one is greater; one that, if intimately connected with it, yet lies on a different plane. I mean the fact that we, whose total being is entirely based on a marvellous interplay of this very kind, yet if all possess the power of acquiring considerable knowledge about it. I think it possible that this knowledge may advance to little just a short of a complete understanding -of the first marvel. The second may well be beyond human understanding.”

[…] “How can we, from the point of view of statistical physics, reconcile the facts that the gene structure seems to involve only a comparatively small number of atoms (of the order of 1,000 and possibly much less), and that value nevertheless it displays a most regular and lawful activity -with a durability or permanence that borders upon the miraculous?

… In this case it is supplied by quantum theory. In the light of present knowledge, the mechanism of heredity is closely related to, nay, founded on, the very basis of quantum theory. This theory was discovered by Max Planck in 1900. Modern genetics can be dated from the rediscovery of Mendel’s paper by de Vries, Correns and Tschermak (1900) and from de Vries’s paper on mutations (l901-3). Thus the births of the two great theories nearly coincide, and it is small wonder that both of them had to reach a certain maturity before the connection could emerge.”

[…] “Was it absolutely essential for the biological question to dig up the deepest roots and found the picture on quantum mechanics? The conjecture that a gene is a molecule is today, I dare say, a commonplace. Few biologists, whether familiar with quantum theory or not, would disagree with it. On p. 47 we ventured to put it into the mouth of a pre-quantum physicist, as the only reasonable explanation of the observed permanence. The subsequent considerations about isomerism, threshold energy, the paramount role of the ratio W:kT in determining the probability of an isomeric transition -all that could very well be introduced to our purely empirical basis, at any rate without drawing on quantum theory. Why did I so strongly insist on the quantum-mechanical periods the point of view, though I could not really make it clear in this little book and may well have bored many a reader? Quantum mechanics is the first theoretical aspect which accounts from first principles for all kinds of aggregates of atoms actually encountered in Nature. The Heitler- London bondage is a unique, singular feature of the theory, not invented for the purpose of explaining the chemical bond. It comes in quite by itself, in a highly interesting and puzzling manner, being forced upon us by entirely different considerations. It proves to correspond exactly with the observed chemical facts, and, as I said, it is a unique feature, well enough understood to tell with reasonable certainty that ‘such a thing could not happen again’ in the further development of quantum theory. Consequently, we may safely assert that there is no alternative to the molecular explanation of the hereditary substance. The physical aspect leaves no other possibility to account for itself and of its permanence.”

[…] “It has often been asked how this tiny speck of material, nucleus of the fertilized egg, could contain an elaborate code-script involving all the future development of the organism. A well-ordered association of atoms, endowed with sufficient resistivity to keep its order permanently, appears to be the only conceivable material structure that offers a variety of possible (‘isomeric’) arrangements, sufficiently large to embody a complicated system of ‘determinations’ within a small spatial boundary. Indeed, the number of atoms in such a structure need not be very large to produce an almost unlimited number of possible arrangements. For illustration, think of the Morse code. The two different signs of dot and dash in well-ordered groups of not more than four allow thirty different specifications. Now, if you allowed yourself the use of a third sign, in addition to dot and dash, and used groups of not more than ten, you could form 88,572 different ‘letters’; with five signs and groups up to 25, the number is 372,529,029,846,19 1,405.”

[…] “But, to reconcile the high durability of the hereditary substance with its minute size, we had to evade the tendency to disorder by ‘inventing the molecule’, in fact, an unusually large molecule which has to be a masterpiece of highly differentiated order, safeguarded by the conjuring rod of quantum theory. The laws of chance are not invalidated by this ‘invention’, but their outcome is modified. The physicist is familiar with the fact that the classical laws of physics are modified by quantum theory, especially at low temperature. There are many instances of this. Life seems to be one of them, a particularly striking one. Life seems to be orderly and lawful behaviour of matter, not based exclusively on its tendency to go over from order to disorder, but based partly on existing order that is kept up. To the physicist -but only to him -I could hope to make my view clearer by saying: The living organism seems to be a macroscopic system which in part of its behaviour approaches to that purely mechanical (as contrasted with thermodynamical) conduct to which all systems tend, as the temperature approaches absolute zero and the molecular disorder is removed.”

[…] “In biology we are faced with an entirely different situation. A single group of atoms existing only in one copy produces orderly events, marvellously tuned in with each other and us number of with the environment according to most subtle laws. I said existing only in one copy, for after all we have the example of the egg and of the unicellular organism. In the following stages of a higher organism the copies are multiplied, that is true. But to what extent? Something like 1014 in a grown mammal, I understand. What is that! Only a millionth of the number of molecules in one cubic inch of air. Though comparatively bulky, by coalescing they would form but a tiny drop of liquid. And look at the way they are actually distributed. Every cell harbours just one of them (or two, if we bear in mind diploidy). Since we know the power this tiny central office has in the isolated cell, do they not resemble stations of local government dispersed through the body, communicating with each other with great ease, thanks to the code that is common to all of them? Well, this is a fantastic description, perhaps less becoming a scientist than a poet. However, it needs no poetical imagination but only clear and sober scientific reflection to recognize that we are here obviously faced with events whose regular and lawful unfolding is guided by a ‘mechanism’ entirely different from the ‘probability mechanism’ of physics. For it is simply a fact of observation that the guiding principle in every cell is embodied in a single atomic association existing only one copy (or sometimes two) -and a fact of observation that it may results in producing events which are a paragon of orderliness. Whether we find it astonishing or whether we find it quite plausible that a small but highly organized group of atoms be capable of acting in this manner, the situation is unprecedented, it is unknown anywhere else except in living matter. The physicist and the chemist, investigating inanimate matter, have never witnessed phenomena which they had to interpret in this way. The case did not arise and so our theory does not cover it -our beautiful statistical theory of which we were so justly proud because it allowed us to look behind the curtain, to watch the magnificent order of exact physical law coming forth from atomic and molecular disorder; because it revealed that the most important, the most general, the all-embracing law of entropy could be understood without a special assumption ad hoc, for it is nothing but molecular disorder itself.

The orderliness encountered in the unfolding of life springs from a different source. It appears that there are two different ‘mechanisms’ by which orderly events can be produced: the ‘statistical mechanism’ which produces order from disorder and the new one, producing order from order. To the unprejudiced mind the second principle appears to be much simpler, much more plausible. No a doubt it is. That is why physicists were so proud to have fallen in with the other one, the ‘order-from-disorder’ principle, which is actually followed in Nature and which alone conveys an understanding of the great line of natural events, in the first place of their irreversibility. But we cannot expect that the ‘laws of physics’ derived from it suffice straightaway to explain the behaviour of living matter, whose most striking features are visibly based to a large extent on the ‘order-from-order’ principle. You would not expect two entirely different mechanisms to bring about the same type of law -you would not expect your latch-key, to open your neighbour’s door as well. We must therefore not be discouraged by the difficulty of interpreting life by the ordinary laws of physics. For that is just what is to be expected from the knowledge we have gained of the structure of living matter. We must be prepared to find a new type of physical law prevailing in it. Or are we to term it a non- physical, not to say a super-physical, law?

No. I do not think that. For the new principle that is involved is a genuinely physical one: it is, in my opinion, nothing else than the principle of quantum theory over again. To explain this, we have to go to some length, including a refinement, not to say an amendment, of the assertion previously made, namely, that all physical laws are based on statistics. This assertion, made again and again, could not fail to arouse contradiction. For, indeed, there are phenomena whose conspicuous features are visibly based directly on the ‘order-from-order’ principle and appear to have nothing to do with statistics or molecular disorder. The order of the solar system, the motion of the planets, is maintained for an almost indefinite time. The constellation of principle this moment is directly connected with the constellation at any particular moment in the times of the Pyramids; it can be traced back to it, or vice versa. Historical eclipses have been calculated and have been found in close agreement with historical records or have even in some cases served to correct the accepted chronology. These calculations do not imply any statistics, they are based solely on Newton’s law of universal attraction. Nor does the regular motion of a good clock or any similar mechanism appear to have anything to do with statistics. In short, all purely mechanical events seem to follow distinctly and directly the ‘order-from-order’ principle. And if we say ‘mechanical’, the term must be taken in a wide sense. A very useful kind of clock is, as you know, based on the regular transmission of electric pulses from the power station. I remember an interesting little paper by Max Planck on we have the topic ‘The Dynamical and the Statistical Type of Law’. The distinction is precisely the one we have here labelled as ‘order from order’ and ‘order from disorder’. The object of that paper was to show how the interesting statistical type of law, controlling large-scale events, is constituted from the dynamical laws supposed to govern the small-scale events, the interaction of the single atoms and molecules. The latter type is illustrated by large-scale mechanical phenomena, as the motion of the planets or of a clock, etc. Thus it would appear that the ‘new’ principle, the order- from-order principle, to which we have pointed with great solemnity as being the real clue to the understanding of life, is not at all new to physics. Planck’s attitude even vindicates priority for it. We seem to arrive at the ridiculous conclusion that the clue to the understanding of life is that it is based on a pure mechanism, a ‘clock-work’ in the sense of Planck’s paper…”

[…] “Clockworks are capable of functioning ‘dynamically’, because they are built of solids, which are kept in shape by London-Heider forces, strong enough to elude the disorderly tendency of heat motion at ordinary temperature. Now, I think, few words more are needed to disclose the point of resemblance between a clockwork and an organism. It is simply and solely that the latter also hinges upon a solid –the aperiodic crystal forming the hereditary substance, largely withdrawn from the disorder of heat motion. But please do not accuse me of calling the chromosome fibres just the ‘cogs of the organic machine’ -at least not without a reference to the profound physical theories on which the simile is based. For, indeed, it needs still less rhetoric to recall the fundamental difference between the two and to justify the epithets novel and unprecedented in the biological case. The most striking features are: first, the curious distribution of the cogs in a many-celled organism, for which I may refer to a very the somewhat poetical description on p. 79; and secondly, by fact that the single cog is not of coarse human make, but is the finest masterpiece ever achieved along the lines of the Lord’s quantum mechanics.”

(from What is Life? by Erwin Schrödinger)


“Do what you are passionate about! Treat your career as if you were a professional athlete who pursues his/her sport with sportsmanship, great intensity, tireless energy, high tolerance for frustration, and optimism.”

(Matthias Hentze)


“The study of biology is partly an exercise in natural esthetics. We derive much of our pleasure as biologists from the continuing realization of how economical, elegant and intelligent are the accidents of evolution that have been maintained by selection. A virologist is among the luckiest of biologists because he can see into his chosen pet down to the details of all of its molecules. The virologist sees how an extreme parasite functions using just the most fundamental aspects of biological behavior.”

(David Baltimore)


“Seldom do more than a few of nature’s secrets give way at one time.”

(Claude Shannon)


“First, communication is a war against noise. Noise is interference between telephone wire, or static that interrupts a radio transmission, or a telegraph signal corrupted by failing insulation and decaying on its way across an ocean. It is the randomness that creeps into our conversations, accidentally or deliberately, and blocks our understanding. Across short distances, or over relatively uncomplicated media… noise could be coped with. But as distances increased and the means of sending and storing messages proliferated, the problems of noise grew with them. And the provisional solutions—whether… listening more closely or… shouting louder—were ad hoc and distinct from source to source… At certain distances, or in certain channels of communication, perfect accuracy looked impossible: communication would be permanently linked to doubt. Until Claude Shannon, few people, if any, suspected that there could be a unified answer to noise.”

[…] “The real measure of information is not in the symbols we send—it’s in the symbols we could have sent, but did not. To send a message is to make a selection from a pool of possible symbols, and ‘at each selection there are eliminated all of the other symbols which might have been chosen.’ To choose is to kill off alternatives… The information value of a symbol depends on the number of alternatives that were killed off in its choosing. Symbols from large vocabularies bear more information that symbols from small ones. Information measures freedom of choice.”

[…] “What does information really measure? It measures the uncertainty we overcome. It measures our chances of learning something we haven’t yet learned… The messages that resolve the greatest amount of uncertainty—that are picked from the widest range of symbols with the fairest odds—are the richest in information. But where there is perfect certainty, there is no information: there is nothing to be said.”

[…] “”Workers in other fields should realize that the basic results of the subject are aimed in a very specific direction… Indeed, the hard core of information theory is, essentially, a branch of mathematics, a strictly deductive system… I personally believe that many of the concepts of information theory will prove useful in [other fields]—and, indeed, some results are already quite promising—but the establishing of such applications is not a trivial matter of translating words to a new domain, but rather the slow tedious process of hypothesis and experimental verification… The subject of information theory has certainly been sold, if not oversold. We should now turn our attention to the business of research and development at the highest scientific plane we can maintain. Research rather than exposition is the keynote, and our critical thresholds should be raised. Authors should submit only their best efforts, and these only after careful criticism by themselves and their colleagues. A few first rate research papers are preferable to a large number that are poorly conceived or half-finished. The latter are no credit to their writers and a waste of time to their reader.””

[…] “Ostensibly a lecture on ‘Creative Thinking,’ it turned out to be a tantalizingly brief tutorial on the appearance of the world from the eyes of a Shannon-level genius… once the prerequisites of talent and training had been satisfied, a third quality was still missing—something without which the world would have its full share of competent engineers but would lack even one real innovator. It was here, naturally, that Shannon was at his fuzziest. It is a quality of ‘motivation.. some kind of desire to find out the answer, the desire to find out what makes things tick.’ For Shannon, this was a requirement: ‘If you don’t have that, you may have all the training and intelligence in the world, [but] you don’t have the questions and you won’t just find the answers.’ Yet he himself was unable to nail down its source. As he put it, ‘It is a matter of temperament probably; that is, a matter of probably early training, early childhood experiences.’ Finally, at a loss for exactly what to call it, he settled on curiosity…

But then the great insights don’t spring from curiosity alone, but from dissatisfaction—not the depressive kind of dissatisfaction (of which, he did not say, he had experienced his fair share), but rather a ‘constructive dissatisfaction,’ or ‘a slight irritation when things don’t look quite right.’ It was, at least, a refreshingly unsentimental picture of genius: a genius is simply someone who is usefully irritated. 

And finally: the genius must delight in finding solutions. It must have seemed to Shannon that though many around him were of equal intellect, not everyone derived equal joy from the application of intellect. For his part, ‘I get a big bang out of proving a theorem. If I’ve been trying to prove a mathematical theorem for a week or so and I finally get the solution, I get a big bang out of it. And I get a big kick out of seeing a clever way or doing some engineering problem, a clever design for a circuit which uses a very small amount of equipment and gets apparently a great deal of result out of it.’ For Shannon, there was no substitute for the ‘pleasure in seeing net results.’

[…] “Shannon’s enjoyment seems sui generis. But perhaps his example can still remind us of the vast room for lightness in fields usually discussed in sober tones. These days it’s rare to talk about math and science as opportunities to revel in discovery. We speak, instead, about their practical benefits—to society, the economy, our prospects for employment. STEM courses are the means to job security, not joy. Studying them becomes the academic equivalent of eating your vegetables—something valuable, and state sanctioned, but vaguely distasteful. 

This seems, at least to us, not as Shannon would have wanted it. Shannon was an engineer—a man more attuned to practicality than most—and yet he was drawn to the idea that knowledge was valuable for its own sake and that discovery was pleasurable in its own right. As he himself put it, ‘I’ve been more interested in whether a problem is exciting that what it will do.’ One of his contemporaries, remarking on the peculiarity of a world-class mathematician with a series interest in unicycles, put Shannon’s love of these strange machines specifically, as well as his passions generally, in perspective: ‘He was not interested in forming a company to build unicycles. He was interested in finding out what made unicycles fun and finding out more about them.’”

(from A Mind at Play by Jimmy Soni and Rob Goodman)


“The scientist’s art is first of all to find himself a good master.”

(André Lwoff)


“The atom bomb brought home to every citizen of the world the fact that a great discovery of science had been applied directly to mass destruction even before its possible constructive uses had had a chance to be explored. Even more disconcerting, the peace of the world has since then been based, not on mutual understanding, but on the balance of nuclear terror… at enormous expense of scientific and technological resources.”

[…] “Modern technology, while contributing unquestionable benefits to large parts of humanity, has by its size and complexity brought about the need for ever larger, more elaborate, more impersonal institutions in order to run the technological machinery… These institutions become increasingly depersonalized. The human element seems to disappear. The average individual feels that he has less and less understanding and less control over the forces that mold the world in which he lives. Puzzlement becomes discouragement and then alienation.” 

[…] “Science will discover what is there to be discovered. But is it necessary that every possible technology be developed? And, once developed, must it be used, irrespective of consequences?… In a well-ordered society, the decision-making process with regard to technology-as in all other respects-should be one that is maximally responsive to the range of different and often conflicting values with society… Only a social organization that provides maximum opportunities for public debate, evaluation, and effective decision-making protects society against the surge of technocracy”

[…] “If society needs to e reformed or redirected, this is not going to be done by walking out on it. And, at any rate, rejecting technology implies rejecting the aspirations of the masses of humanity in developing parts of the world, for whom a properly used scientific technology represents the only hope for a better life.”

[…] “What is the way out? We must avoid both the slippery path of overcommitment to the technological imperative and the equally slippery way of anti-rationalism. We must find means to use the power that science and technology put at our disposal in a rational way, for goals of human satisfaction freely chosen by an informed population.”

[…] “The responsibility for creating the future society rests with all mankind. But I believe that as scientists we have certain special responsibilities, because our work is the source of the technology that society must decide whether and how to use… In the first place, it is important for scientists to realize that science can never be neutral in a world that employs the products of science. There is no value-free science just as there is no value-free literature or value-free art. Science’s purity is in the search for new knowledge to be added to the intellectual patrimony of mankind. But the acquisition of new knowledge does not absolve the scientist from an active concern with the role of scientific knowledge in society. The illusion of purity and neutrality is again a treacherous path-slippery when wet.”

[…] “There is one important function that scientists can try to fulfill individually and collectively, and that is to educate the public in the facts of science, explaining new developments and their technological consequences. If in a well-ordered society decisions are to be made by the consensus of an informed public, then it is the responsibility of those who know the facts to make them known and explain them to others. Too many of us live in ivory towers, publishing scholarly papers, but neglecting to make contact with the outside world or to understand the workings of the society that makes use of our discoveries.

The disaffection and even the hostility of the general public toward science is based in great part on ignorance and misunderstanding, not only of the relations between scientists, technologists, managers, and politicians in society, but of the elementary facts of science… What educated citizens should have-and, therefore, should get in school as well as in books and in the mass media-is not so much a superficial knowledge of some physics, chemistry, geology, and biology as an appreciation of the method of science and of the mutual interactions between science, technology, and politics…

Finally, there is another task that concerned scientists can undertake, but rarely do. This task is to be actively involved, as citizens but also as scientists, in the affairs of the society which their work may ultimately change and transform. This involvement, in my opinion, ought not to be limited to acting as expert consultants to government and industries. It could take the form of participation as individuals-not institutionally-at the political level where the basic decisions are or should be made.”

[…] “It may be, however, that a sound foundation to the continuous advance of science may require from scientists a new and heightened sensitivity to the aspirations of humanity in its struggle toward a better life. It may require the exercise of an active sense of responsibility for involvement in the social aspects of science. This may be the best way for us to legitimize the pursuit of our chosen enterprise.”

(from Slippery When Wet: Being an essay on science, technology, and responsibility by Salvador Luria)