the downward course of energy, from its noble solar form to the degraded one of low-temperature heat. In this downward course, which leads to equilibrium and thus death, life draws a bend and nests in it.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Carbon), Trans. R. Rosenthal

this refined, minute and quick-witted chemistry was "invented" two or three billion years ago by our silent sisters, the plants .... If to comprehend is the same as forming an image, we will never form an image of a happening whose scale is a millionth of a millimeter, whose rhythm is a millionth of second, and whose protagonists are in their essence invisible.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Carbon), Trans. R. Rosenthal

We are here for this - to make mistakes and to correct ourselves, to stand the blows and hand them out. We must never feel disarmed: nature is immense and complex, but it is not impermeable to the intelligence; we must circle around it, pierce and probe it, look for the opening or make it.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Nickel), Trans. R. Rosenthal

you thrash about in the dark for a week or a month, it seems that it will be dark forever, and you feel like throwing it all up and changing your trade; then in the dark you espy a glimmer, proceed groping in that direction, and the light grows, and finally order follows chaos. Cerrato said seriously that indeed sometimes things went like that, and that he would try to come up with something; but in general it was really dark all the time. You couldn't see the glimmer, you beat your head again and again against an ever lower ceiling, and ended up coming out of the cave on your hands and knees and backward, a little older than when you went in.

Primo Levi, The Periodic Table (Silver), Trans. R. Rosenthal


The triumphs of industry, which have enriched so many practical men, would never have seen the light if only these practical men had existed, and if they had not been preceded by disinterested fools who died poor, who never thought of the useful, and yet had a guide that was not their own caprice.

Henri Poincare, The Value of Science

The men who, obeying their inner impulses, make sacrifices for an idea instead of advancing their material welfare, may appear to the full-blooded Philistine as fools.

Ernst Mach, On the Part Played by Accident in Invention and Discovery


The most rudimentary classical principles of taxonomy, however will at once exclude a large chunk of these, rightly or not, such as mammals bearing fruits or laying eggs. Now classical evolutionists made much song and dance about the discovery of one measly egg-laying animal - the duck billed platypus; they never tried to explain the absence of a fruit bearing mammal, though had they found one they might have made an even bigger song and dance about that find.

Schejter & Agassi, Molecular Phylogenetics: Biological Parsimony and Methodological Extravagance


"No, no! The adventures first," said the Gryphon in an impatient tone, "explanations take such a dreadful time."

Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland


A lifelong atheist she admitted that she had been tempted to believe in a creator when she discovered that a flea had a penis.

Obituary of Miriam Rothschild, The Economist, 5th Feb 2005

No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.

Herman Melville, Moby Dick


so fruitful are the Works of the great Author of Nature in rewarding by farther Discoveries, the Researches of those who have Pleasure therein: We can never indeed want Matter for new experiments; and tho' the History of Nature as recorded from almost innumerable Experiments, which have been made within the compass of a Century, be very large, yet the Properties of Bodies are so various, and the different Ways by which they may be examined so infinite, that 'tis no wonder that we are as yet got little farther than to the surface of Things: Yet ought we not to be discouraged, for tho' we can never hope to attain to the compleat Knowledge of the Texture, or constituent Frame and Nature of Bodies, yet may we reasonably expect by this Method of Experiments, to make farther and farther Advances abundantly sufficient to reward our Pains.

And tho' this Method be tedious, yet our Abilities can proceed no faster; for as the learned Author of the Procedure of human Understanding observes, "All the real true Knowledge we have of Nature is entirely experimental, insomuch that, how strange the Assertion seems, we may lay this down as the first fundamental unerring Rule in Physicks, That it is not within the compass of human Understanding to assign a purely speculative Reason for nay one Phenomenon in Nature." So that in natural Philosophy, we cannot depend on any meer Speculations of the Mind; we can only with the Mathematicians, reason with any tolerable Certainty from proper Data, such as arise from the united Testimony of many good and credible Experiments.

Yet it seems not unreasonable on the other hand, tho' not far to indulge, yet to carry our Reasonings a little farther than the plain Evidence of Experiments will warrant; for since at the utmost Boundaries of those Things which we clearly know, there is a kind of Twilight cast from what we know, on the adjoining Borders of Terra incognita, it seems therefore reasonable in some degree to indulge Conjecture there; otherwise we should make but very slow Advances in future Discoveries, either by Experiments or Reasoning: For new Experiments and Discoveries do usually owe their first Rise only to lucky Guesses and probable Conjectures, and even Disappointments in these Conjectures, do often lead to the Thing sought for: Thus by observing the Errors and Defects of a first Experiment in any Researches, we are sometimes carried to such fundamental Experiments, as lead to a large Series of many other useful Experiments and important Discoveries.

If therefore some may be apt to think that I have sometimes too far indulged Conjecture, in the Inferences I have drawn from the Events of some Experiments: they ought to consider that it is from these kind of Conjectures that fresh Discoveries first take their Rise; for tho' some of them may prove false, yet they often lead to farther and new Discoveries. It is by the like Conjectures that I have been led on, Step by Step, thro' this long and laborious Series of Experiments; in any of which I did not certainly know what the Event would be, till I had made the Trial, which Trial often led on to more Conjectures and farther Experiments.

In which Method we may be continually making farther and farther Advances in the Knowledge of Nature, in proportion to the Number of Observations which we have: But as we can never hope to be furnished with a sufficient Number of these, to let us into a thorough knowledge of the great and intricate Scheme of Nature, so it would be but dry Work to be ever laying Foundations, but never attempting to build on them. We must be content in this our infant State of Knowledge, while we know in part only, to imitate Children, who for want of better Skill and Abilities, and of more proper Materials, amuse themselves with slight Buildings. The farther Advances we make in the Knowledge of Nature, the more probable and the nearer to Truth will our Conjectures approach: so that succeeding Generations, who shall have the Benefit and Advantage both of their own Observations, and those of preceding Generations, may then make considerable Advances, when many shall run to and fro, and Knowledge shall be increased, Dan. xii. 4. In the mean time, it would but ill become us in this our State of Uncertainty, to treat the Errors and Mistakes of others with Scorn and Contempt, when we cannot but be conscious, that we ourselves see Things but as thro' a Glass darkly, and are very far from any Pretensions to Infallibility.

Stephen Hales, Statical Essays


Which sort of experiments seem so strange, that we were obliged to make it several times, which gained it the advantage of having persons of differing qualities, professions and sexes (as not only ladies and lords, but doctors and mathematicians) to witness it.


we scarce ever saw any thing that seemed so much as this experiment to manifest, that even living things (man always excepted) are a kind of curious engines, framed and contrived by nature (or rather the author of it) much more skilfully than our gross tools and imperfect wits can reach to.

Robert Boyle, The Spring of Air


The lore which he was believed to pass his days brooding upon so that it had rapt him from the companionships of youth was only a garner of slender sentences from Aristotle's poetics and psychology and a Synopsis Philosophie Scholasticae ad mentem divi Thomae. His thinking was a dusk of doubt and self mistrust lit up at moments by the lightnings of intuition, but lightnings of so clear a splendour that in those moments the world perished about his feet as if it had been fire consumed: and thereafter his tongue grew heavy and he met the eyes of others with unaswering eyes for he felt that the spirit of beauty had folded round him like a mantle and that in revery at least he had been acquainted with nobility. But when this brief pride of silence upheld him no longer, he was glad to find himself still in the midst of common lives, passing on his way amid the squalor and noise and sloth of the city fearlessly and with a light heart.

James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


It was their dedication to precision which made their work a game, not a job. Being thus dedicated, they belonged to a higher caste than their employers, the businessmen who ran the studios; and they knew it. They feuded with each other, they grumbled about being overworked and underpaid, but their lives were spent in the happy absorption of children at play. Their jokes were about their game.

Christopher Isherwood, Christopher and His Kind


If I understood my host aright, then what occupied him was the essential unity of animate and so-called inanimate nature, it was the thought that we sin against the latter when we draw too hard and fast a line between the two fields, since in reality it is pervious and there is no elementary capacity which is reserved entirely to the living creature and which the biologist could not also study on an inanimate subject.

Thomas Mann, Dr Faustus, Trans. H.T. Lowe-Porter

Chapter 3 of Dr Faustus is a portrait of a proto-biophysicist, Dr Jonathan Leverkuhn (brother of the main protagonist, Adrian). It includes wonderful descriptions of Chaldni plates and the chemical gardens of St├ęphane Leduc.

"Its as if the body were going off on its own and no longer had any connection to your soul, more or less like a dead body that is not really dead - even though there is no such thing - and goes on living a very active life, but all of its own accord. The hair and the nails keep on growing, and for that matter in terms of the chemistry and physics, or so I've heard, its a regular hustle and bustle there inside."

"What sort of an expression is that," Joachim reprimanded him discreetly. "'A regular hustle and bustle!'".

Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain, Trans. J.E. Woods


Thirty years have passed, and Voltaire, now at the height of his fame, holds a pair of scissors in one hand and a slug in the other. Let me repeat: in the one hand he holds a large brown slug, and in the other a pair of scissors. The slug is of Swiss extraction, and comes off one of his estates, where it has been eating the lettuces. Ecrasez l'infame? But no: he reserves it for another purpose. Looking into its face, he surveys the gloomy unresponsive snout which is all a slug offers, he compares it with the face of a snail, so much more piquant, and both with the face of a man. All three are different, but all are faces, and he does not know whether he trembles at the edge of a great discovery or of a joke. Beneath him are the blue waters of the Lake Leman, beyond them the walls of Mont Blanc, he stands with one foot in Genevan territory to escape the French, and the other in France, to be safe from the Swiss. He stands triumphant, all his possessions are around him, thousands of his trees grow, his invalid cousin dozes, the bells of the church he built chime - and he cuts off the slug's head.

His niece, Madame Denis, keeps house for him now - or rather houses, for he possesses three. Awkward and torpid, Madame Denis holds at bay the ambassadors, savants, mountebanks, princesses, who have come from all over Europe to see her uncle. He is researching, he must not be disturbed. The scissors approach again, and a second slug is decapitated, and a third, until there are twelve. Nor does this conclude the gruesome tale: in a box hard by seethes a clot of headless snails. Voltaire surveys his victims with affability. He does not like the slugs much, but has great sympathy with the snails, he finds their courtships gallant if curious, their contours intelligent, and their taste delightful. Nevertheless, he continues to snip off their heads. It is Science. He is trying to find out whether heads grow again.

E.M. Forster, Abinger Harvest (Voltaire's Laboratory)


I am stupid enough to always think that the idea I have at the moment is going to work out, and this is really lucky, it saves me a lot of anguish, but more important, by the time I realize that it does not work, it has led to another idea which of course is going to work. At the end of this recursive process there is indeed something which works, which generally has nothing to do with the original idea, but who cares?

St├ęphane Mallat, Wavelet pioneer (in The World According to Wavelets, Barbara Hubbard)


We understand a whole by means of its parts, and the parts by means of the whole. But this "circle" seems to imply that we can understand nothing - the whole is made of parts we cannot understand until it exists, and we cannot see the whole without understanding the parts. Something, therefore, must happen, some intuition by which we break out of the situation - a leap, a divination.. whereby we are enabled to understand both part and whole.

Frank Kermode, An Appetite for Poetry

If there is one belief (however the facts resist it) that unites us all... it is the conviction that somehow, in some occult fashion, if we could only detect it, everything will be found to hang together.

Frank Kermode, The Genesis of Secrecy




Yes, in all things, at all times, let us rejoice, not in regions loftier than the truth, for that were impossible, but in regions higher than the little truths that our eyes can seize. Should a chance, a recollection, an illusion, a passion, - in a word, should any motive whatever cause an object to reveal itself to us in a more beautiful light than to others, let that motive be first of all dear to us. It may only be error perhaps; but this error will not prevent the moment wherein we are likeliest to perceive its real beauty. The beauty we lend it directs our attention to its veritable beauty and grandeur, which, derived as they are from the relation wherein every object must of necessity stand to general, eternal, forces and laws, might otherwise escape observation. The faculty of admiring which an illusion may have created within us will serve for the truth that must come, be it sooner or later. It is with the words, the feelings and ardor created by ancient and imaginary beauties, that humanity welcomes today truths which perhaps would have never been born, which might not have been able to find a propitious home, had these sanctified illusions not first of all dwelt in, and kindled, the heart and the reason whereinto these truths should descend. Happy the eye that need no illusion to see that the spectacle is great! It is illusion that teaches the others to look, to admire and rejoice. And look as high as they will, they never can look too high. Truth rises as they draw nearer; they draw nearer when they admire. And whatever the heights may be whereon they rejoice, this rejoicing can never take place in the void, or above the unknown and eternal truth that rests over all things like beauty in suspense.

Maurice Maeterlinck, The Life of the Bee (The Nuptial Flight), Trans. A. Sutro