Advertisement for Mathey-Tissot watches

Velocity=mass x acceleration (Each moment must be precise and confident)


The world is divided into people who think they are right  

Arabian Nights (anticipation of Einstein’s principle of equivalence)

[the bird]…rose and rose until I thought that I was about to touch the vault of heaven, then suddenly it dropped, so swiftly that I could not feel my own weight…

(Sinbad speaking, in The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night,
Translated by J C Mardrus and Powys Mathers, Routlledge paperback 1986,
volume 2 p 189 (the two-hundred-and-ninety-sixth night).)

Ayurvedic medicine

from a poster in Mahalabalipuram, advertising ayurvedic medicine

“…will cure secret male diseases, including importance [sic]…”

Vladimir Arnold

I was forever poisoned by René Thom’s dream of the irresponsible mathematical speculation with no exact meaning.

John Berger (final paragraph of his novel’G’)

The sun is low in the sky and the sea is calm. Like a mirror as they say. Only it is not like a mirror. The waves which are scarcely waves, for they come and go in many different directions and their rising and falling is barely percptible, are made up of innumerable tiny surfaces at variegating angles to one another – of these surfaces those which reflect the sunlight straight into one’s eyes, sparkle with a white light during the instant before their angle, relative to oneself and the sun, shifts and they merge again into the blackish blue of the rest of the sea. Each time the light lasts for no longer than a spark stays bright when shot out from a fire. But as the sea recedes towards the sun, the number of sparkling surfaces multiplies until the sea indeed looks somewhat like a silver mirror. But unlike a mirror it is not still. Its granular surface is in continual agitation. The further away the ricochetting grains, of which the mass become silver and the visibly distinct minority a darl leaden colour, the greater is their apparent speed. Uninterruptedly receding towards the sun, the transmission of its reflexions becoming ever faster, the sea neither requires nor recognizes any limit. The horizon is the straight bottom edge of a curtain arbitrarily and suddenly lowered on a performance.

Yogi Berra (on quantum mechanics?)

When you come to a fork in the road, take it.

Charlotte Bronte

You do well…to wax impatient of that trite twaddle about “nothing newness” – a jargon that simply proves, in those who habitually use it, a coarse and feeble faculty of appreciation; an inability to discern the relative value of originality and novelty; a lack of that refined perception which, dispensing with the stimulus of an ever-new subject, can derive sufficiency of pleasure from freshness of treatment. To such critics, the prime of a summer morning would bring no delight; wholly occupied with railing at their cook for not having provided a novel and piquant breakfast-dish, they would remain insensible to such influences as lie in sunrise, dew, and breeze; therein would be “nothing new”.

Ramon Y Cajal

(Nobel Prize for medicine 1906, on recognition)

The sour flattery of celebrity

Robert Cawdrey

(Dictionary 1604) Chaos: A Confused Heap of Mingle-Mangle

Chaucer (from House of Fame)

If that thou

Throw in water now a stone,

Well wottest thou it will make anon

A little roundel as a circle.

Per’venture as broad as a covércle;

And right anon thou shalt see weel

That circle cause another wheel,

And that the third, and so forth, brother,

Every circle causing another

Much broader than himselfen was.

Salvador Dali painting

Me at the age of six, lifting the skin of the sea with great care, to look at a dog sleeping in the shadow of the water.

Albert Einstein

(on Hilbert’s approach to general relativity)

Childish…in the sense of a child that recognizes no malice in the external world.

(Ending a quarrel with David Hilbert over priority)

There has been a certain resentment between us, the cause of which I do not know. I have fought against the feeling of bitterness associated with it and indeed with complete success. I again think of you with undiminished kindness and I ask you to attempt the same with me. It is objectively a pity, if the genuine chaps who have liberated themselves to some extent from this shabby world are not giving pleasure to each other.


Physics should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

(attributed, after hearing a philosopher lecturing on relativity)

Not well digested, but brilliantly shat.

Sir Charles Frank

(retirement speech 1976)

Physics is not just Concerning the Nature of Things, but Concerning the Interconnectedness of all the Natures of Things

Dr Samuel Johnson

Kindness is in our power even when fondness is not

Andrew Keller

On entering the H H Wills Physics Laboratory [in Bristol in 1955],

I was rather stunned by what I saw…The most positive aspect was the extraordinary intellectual ferment coupled with open-mindedness which permeated the whole place. Physics was in the air, was discussed everywhere: on the stairs, over tea, in the doors (in the process of leaving the building – which could become protracted to the despair of spouses waiting with the dinner at home); passage of time was simply forgotten or ignored. The topics themselves were as wide as the universe. There was no distinction between high and low brow, it was all one intellectual adventure. That is how polymers eventually slotted in between quantum mechanics, disclocations, particle physics, liquid helium, design of new optical instruments and much else. Here I saw science in action, not as fragmented into specialities but as an indivisible whole, a single enterprise of the human mind. It is this spirit that has guided me ever since in my research an in my associated educational activities and which, in my own way, I am still trying to perpetuate. And Sir Charles [Frank] was central to it all! Like a chess virtuoso playing several games simultaneously he was conducting these unforgettable tea-time discussions on virtually all subjects in science. While a protagonist in one subject was pausing to think for a reply Charles was turning to something quite different with somebody else only to return to the previous subject when the reply arrived….

Karl Kraus (Vienna, 1920s)

When the sun of culture is low, even pygmies cast long shadows

Doris Lessing

I have most bitterly regretted that I didn’t study physics when I was at school, because it is the key to the most exciting research and discoveries of our time, and physicists are the adventurers and the risktakers. Young people who study physics can expect to find themselves at the frontier of human thought.

James Clerk Maxwell

The dimmed outlines of phenomenal things all merge into one another unless we put on the focusing-glass of theory, and screw it up sometimes to one pitch of definition and sometimes to another, so as to see down into different depths through the great millstone of the world.

(age 23, from Campbell and Garnett, The life of James Clerk Maxwell))

He that would enjoy life and act with freedom must have the work of the day continually before his eyes. Not yesterday’s work, lest he fall into despair, nor tomorrow’s, lest he become a visionary, – not that which ends with the day, which is a worldly work, nor yet that only which remains to eternity, for by it he cannot shape his actions.

Happy is the man who can recognise in the work of To-day a connected portion of the work of Eternity. The foundations of his confidence are unchangeable, for he has been made a partaker of infinity. He strenuously works out his daily enterprises, because the present is given him for a possession.

Charles Mees (Research director, Kodak)

The best person to decide what research shall be done is the one doing the research. The next best is the head of the department. After that you leave the field of best persons and meet increasingly worse groups. The first of these is the research director, who is probably wrong more than half the time. Then comes a committee which is wrong most of the time. Finally there is a committee of company vice-presidents, which is wrong all the time.

(attributed to) The Prophet Muhammed

The ink of a scholar is more holy than the blood of a martyr

Seeking knowledge for one hour is better than praying for seventy years

John O’Neill

From VisualCulture (Chris Jenks, ed, Routledge 1995) p190)

(The “Foucault” here is the 20thC philosopher, not the 19thC physicist. Unlike Sokal’s celebrated spoof paper, this article is apparently serious.)

Foucault’s Optics: The (in)vision of mortality and modernity

At the high point of modernity, God and man are called upon to die in favour of each other. Or, as Foucault tells us, our vision of ourselves now derives from an autopsical finitude grounded in the clinical optic that has opened the dark interior of thehuman body to the light of mankind’s own practices of pleasure and suffering. With the effacement of the divine landscape of time-space, mankind has begun to inhabit the earth and the body for the first time, and to essay a history of good and evil that is likely to be inscribed for the first time on a human scale. Thus, ‘mankind’ set aside any comparative transcendental measure in favour of its own embrace, the fold (le pli) within which we must see and think and speak for ourself.

Whereas so much commentary has focused upon Foucault’s genealogical and archeological studies, I propose to explore Foucault’s poetics of the visual regime of modernity and morality that have constituted modern man in a moment of history that may be about to efface itself….

Wolfgang Pauli

…our good friend Kramers and his coloured picture books. Children, they like pictures. The desire of children for visualizability is reasonable and healthy, still such a desire in physics can never be an argument for maintaining a particular system of concepts.

Tim Poston

A knot and

another knot may

not be the same knot,

though the knot group

of one knot

and the knot group

of another knot differ not;

but if the knot group

of a knot

is the knot group

of the not-knotted


the knot is

not knotted.

Thomas Pynchon

Murphy’s law: that brash proletarian restatement of Gödel’s theorem.

Mamphela Ramphele (vice-chancellor, Cape Town University)

The insights, methods, and ways of thinking attendant on scientific inquiry hold, I believe, the key to personal and national development in much of the developing world…The characterization of science as ‘Western’ by some social scientists is unfortunate: It serves to deligitimize scientific enquiry and the application of science to everyday problems. It finds resonance among elites in the developing world who see the entrenchment of a science culture as a threat to their power over the poor and marginal.


to Eddington (who wondered at table whether we should ever come to know electrons as more than mental concepts)

Not exist? Not exist! Why, I can see the little buggers as plain as I can see that spoon in front of me!

Thomas Schelling

from the The Strategy of Conflict (1960)

He, thinking I was about to kill him in self-defense, was about to kill me in self-defense, so I had to kill him in self-defense.

Arthur Schopenhauer

Has it not been observed how directly after copulation the devil’s laughter is heard?

Neal Stephenson

from the novel Anathem:
Dictionary, 4th ed, from the year 3000


(1)….a derogatory term for false speech in general, esp. knowing and deliberate falsehood and obfuscation.

(2)…a more technical and clinical term denoting speech (typically but not necessarily commercial or political) that employs euphemism, convenient vagueness, numbing repetition, and other such rhetorical subterfuges to create the impression that something has been said.

usage note:…spoken in a moderate tone of voice, it takes on sense (2) which long ago lost any vulgar connotations it may once have had. [but]…it is easily confused with sense (1) and deemed a vulgarity or even an obscenity. It is inherent in the mentality of … bulshytt-talkers that they are more prone than anyone else to taking offense (or pretending to) when their bulshytt is pointed out to them. This places the …. observer in a nearly impossible position. One is forced either to use this “offensive” word and be deemed a disagreeable person and as such excluded from polite discourse, or to say the same thing in a different way, which means becoming a purveyor of bulshytt oneself and thereby lending strength to what one is trying to attack. The latter quality probably explains the uncanny stability and resiliency of bulshytt. Resolving this dilemma is beyond the scope of this Dictionary…

Wallace Stevens

(from The man with the blue guitar, but equally a manifesto for theoretical physics)

They said, ‘You have a blue guitar,

You do not play things as they are.’

The man replied, ‘Things as they are

Are changed upon the blue guitar.’

John Updike

V.B. Nimble, V.B. Quick

(inspired by V.B. Wigglesworth, F.R.S., Quick Professor of Biology at the University of Cambridge, and broadcast on the BBC in February 1955)

V.B. Wigglesworth wakes at noon,

Washes, shaves and very soon

Is at the lab; he reads his mail,

Swings a tadpole by the tail,

Undoes his coat, removes his hat,

Dips a spider in a vat

Of alkaline, phones the press,

Tells them he is F.R.S.,

Subdivides six protocells,

Kills a rat by ringing bells,

Writes a treatise, edits two

Symposia on “Will man do?,”

Gives a lecture, audits three,

Has the sperm club in for tea,

Pensions off an ageing spore,

Cracks a test tube, takes some pure,

Science and applies it, finds,

His hat, adjusts it, pulls the blinds,

Instructs the jellyfish to spawn,

And, by one o’clock, is gone.

Virginia Woolf

(from A Room of One’s Own, 1928 – on the assessment culture?)

…delightful as the pastime of measuring may be, it is the most futile of all occupations, and to submit to the decrees of the measurers is the most servile of attitudes….to sacrifice a hair of the head of your vision, a shade of its colour, in deference to some Headmaster with a silver pot in his hand or to some professor with a measuring rod up his sleeve, is the most abject treachery…

Three laws of discovery

1. Arnold’s law (implied by statements in his many letters disputing priority, usually in response to what he sees as neglect of Russian mathematicians)

Discoveries are rarely attributed to the correct person

(Of course Arnold’s law is self-referential.)

2. Berry’s law (prompted by the observation that the sequence of antecedents under law 1 seems endless)

Nothing is ever discovered for the first time

3. Whitehead’s law (quoted by Max Dresden at the beginning of his biography of Kramers)

Everything of importance has been said before by someone who did not discover it.

and a related thought from André Gide:

Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens; we have to keep going back and beginning all over again

from a student report

Thanks to Professor Berry, who without none of this, would have been possible.

From a student response to my quantum mechanics lectures

…didn’t explain what use quantum mechanics is…alright, so it explains things, but they would happen anyway.

From a (rejected) paper (not mine)

Exact solutions are specific situationwise impossible…to gain a proper hindsight…