Smart Thoughts From Smart People

From Ilya Nemenman: Theoretical Biophysics @ Emory
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On science in society

Isaac Asimov
Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that 'my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.'

On the importance of theory

Leonardo da Vinci
He who loves practice without theory is like the sailor who boards ship without a rudder and compass and never knows where he may cast.

On the quest for ever more detailed models in science

Jorge Luis Borges
Of Exactitude in Science
...In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.
From Travels of Praiseworthy Men (1658) by J. A. Suarez Miranda (a fictional reference). By Jorge Luis Borges and Adolfo Bioy Casares. English translation quoted from J. L. Borges, A Universal History of Infamy, Penguin Books, London, 1975.
Norbert Wiener and Arturo Rosenblueth
The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same, cat.
Philosophy of Science (1945), A. Rosenlueth and N. Wiener.
Leonardo da Vinci
Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.

On data versus knowledge

Oscar Wilde
It is a very sad thing that nowadays there is so little useless information.
Oscar Wilde, A Few Maxims for the Instruction of the Over-Educated (1894)
Arthur D. Lander
A culture’s icons are a window onto its soul. Few would disagree that, in the culture of molecular biology that dominated much of the life sciences for the last third of the 20th century, the dominant icon was the double helix. In the present, post-modern, ‘systems biology’ era, however, it is, arguably, the hairball.
A.D. Lander. The Edges of Understanding. BMC Biology 2010, 8:40.
Mark Twain
Pray observe some of the effects of this ditching business. The Mississippi between Cairo and New Orleans was twelve hundred and fifteen miles long one hundred and seventy-six years ago. It was eleven hundred and eighty after the cut-off of 1722. It was one thousand and forty after the American Bend cut-off. It has lost sixty-seven miles since. Consequently its length is only nine hundred and seventy-three miles at present.
Now, if I wanted to be one of those ponderous scientific people, and `let on' to prove what had occurred in the remote past by what had occurred in a given time in the recent past, or what will occur in the far future by what has occurred in late years, what an opportunity is here! Geology never had such a chance, nor such exact data to argue from! Nor `development of species', either! Glacial epochs are great things, but they are vague--vague. Please observe. In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. This is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upward of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three-quarters long, and Cairo and New Orleans will have joined their streets together, and be plodding comfortably along under a single mayor and a mutual board of aldermen. There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi 173-6 (1883)

On the Nature of Physical Laws

Richard P. Feynman
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