Pretty quotes

As you could perhaps guess from the epigraph on my homepage, I like quotes. Here's a small collection I've built up so far (Excluding some of the more well-known ones, like the Darwin quote that everyone likes). Of course, just because I've included a quote doesn't mean I completely agree with everything it says or implies, it just means I liked the quote. You can also find a list of quotes on Allison Shaw's website.

On Theory/Modelling

All models are wrong and nothing in biology makes sense

- Two cliché quotes in one :)

“Our future advances will not be concerned with universal laws, but instead with universal approaches to tackling particular problems.”

Peter Kareiva

“Writing in the last months of this millenium, it is clear that the prime intellectual task of the future lies in constructing an appropriate theoretical framework for biology”

- Sydney Brenner

“The epistemic aim of science is not truth, but understanding”

- Angela Potochnik

“The simplicity and straightforwardness of a pattern at once increase its usefulness for limited humans and decrease its universality in a world that is neither simple nor straightforward”

- Angela Potochnik

“A theory, or, more concretely, a model, of a mechanism is not a description of reality; it is a description of our assumptions about reality”

- Jeremy Gunawardena

“We only need models because our brains suffer from too many limitations and are not able to consider all sides of a complicated argument in a balanced way”

- Hanna Kokko

“we attempt to treat the same problem with several alternative models each with different simplifications but with a common biological assumption. [...] Hence our truth is the intersection of independent lies.”

- Richard Levins

“A good theoretical model of a complex system should be like a good caricature: it should emphasize those features which are most important and should downplay the inessential details. Now the only snag with this advice is that one does not really know which are the inessential details until one has understood the phenomena under study. Consequently, one should investigate a wide range of models and not stake one’s life (or one’s theoretical insight) on one particular model only”

- Michael Fisher

“The value of theory is often claimed to lie in making predictions or in fitting models to data, both of which are no doubt commendable, but, [in biology], theory has played a far more valuable role by showing us how to think about entities that lie beyond our grasp.”

- Jeremy Gunawardena

“There are worse sins for a scientist than to be wrong. One is to be trivial”

- Robert MacArthur

“The result has been forty years of bewilderment about what he meant, whereas if he had been willing to make a slight sacrifice of strict mathematical propriety (as I have done) he could have expressed himself in a way that everyone would have understood”

- George Price (speaking about Fisher)

“Like most mathematicians, he takes the hopeful biologist to the edge of a pond, points out that a good swim will help his work, and then pushes him in and leaves him to drown.”

- Charles Elton (speaking about Lotka)

“The economic world is a misty region. The first explorers used unaided vision. Mathematics is the lantern by which what before was dimly visible now looms up in firm, bold outlines. The old phantasmagoria disappear. We see better. We also see further.”

- Irving Fisher

“Not only is algebraic reasoning exact; it imposes an exactness on the verbal postulates made before algebra can start which is usually lacking in the first verbal formulations of scientific principles”

- J.B.S. Haldane

“At any time, there is only a thin layer separating what is trivial from what is impossibly difficult. It is in that layer that discoveries are made”

- Andrei Kolmogorov
(The original source is present only in Russian, from his personal diary. I think it is the entry dated September 14 1943. I've also seen it translated slightly differently here, page 212)

“An orgy of regression failed-

so algebra I then assailed,

with all the fun that this entailed

I modelled….and results prevailed

My future now was quite secure,

And to the field I go no more,

Papers, papers by the score

Full of sums and such a bore”
- Geoff Parker

“we should be careful not to be distracted by the biological equivalents of friction, if we are interested in discovering the biological equivalents of inertia.”

- Bertram Murray

“There is only one thing which is more unreasonable than the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in physics, and this is the unreasonable ineffectiveness of mathematics in biology”

- Israel Gelfand

“Well, the stripes are easy but what about the horse part?”

- Alan Turing (According to Francis Crick), speaking about Turing Patterns

“The heart and soul of much mathematics consists of the fact that the ‘same’ object can be presented to us in different ways. [...] This issue has been with us, of course, forever: the general question of abstraction, as separating what we want from what we are presented with.[...] if it is whiteness we want to think about, we must somehow separate it from white horse, white house, white hose and all the other white things that it invariably must come along with, in order for us to experience it at all”

- Barry Mazur

“We have not succeeded in answering all our problems. The answers we have found only serve to raise a whole set of new questions. In some ways we feel we are as confused as ever, but we believe we are confused on a higher level and about more important things.”

- Preface to the fifth edition of Stochastic differential equations : an introduction with applications by Øksendal. The author says the quote was 'Posted outside the mathematics reading room in Tromsø University'

“Biology turns out [...] to be a good deal more theoretical than physics. However contrary this may be to the party line, we really should not be so surprised. Biology, after all, is a good deal harder than physics. If scientific research is stumbling around in a dark cellar looking for a black cat, then biology is doing so without knowing there is a cat there until one accidentally falls over it. Theory can sometimes conjure up the cat before the accident.”

- Jeremy Gunawardena

On Laws, Generality, and Knowledge

“Somewhere [ ... ] between the specific that has no meaning and the general that has no content there must be, for each purpose and at each level of abstraction, an optimum degree of generality”

- Kenneth Boulding

“I believe there can be great benefit to shifting the emphasis away from an organizational structure based on the useful lines of inquiry carved out by researchers, to one based on the fundamental processes that underlie community dynamics and patterns.”

- Mark Vellend

“General events are only seen by ecologists with rather blurred vision. The very sharp-sighted always find discrepancies and are able to see that there is no generality, only a spectrum of special cases”

- Robert MacArthur

“To do science is to search for repeated patterns, not simply to accumulate facts”

- Robert MacArthur

“The grand aim of all science [is] to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms.”

- Albert Einstein (according to Lincoln Barnett)

“Wir müssen wissen – wir werden wissen” ("We must know – we will know")

- David Hilbert, Mathematician

“ignoramus et ignorabimus” ("we do not know and will not know”)

- Emil du Bois-Reymond, Biologist

“we don't need no stinkin’ laws”

- Robert O'Hara, speaking about ecology

“Very few high-level features of the world have necessary and sufficient properties. In everyday life and in ecology, concepts are fuzzy, being held together by an open-ended set of correlated properties”

Evan C. Johnson, Oscar Godoy, and Alan Hastings (Appendix B.4)

On Ecology and evolution

“In nature, nothing exists alone.”

- Rachel Carson

“There are two ways to be a student of nature. You can collect, preserve, dissect and describe it, accurate in every sinew and cell. Or you can breathe along with it, engage with its messiness and feel what it feels to be a thing in the world.”

- Aparajita Dutta, Rohan Arthur, and T.R. Shankar Raman

“The dry-balls cannot possibly learn a thing every starfish knows in the core of his soul and in the vesicle between his rays. He must, so know the starfish and the student biologist who sits at the feet of living things, proliferate in all directions.”

- John Steinbeck

“Why all this silly rigamarole of sex? Why this gavotte of chromosomes? Why all these useless males, this striving and wasteful bloodshed, these grotesque horns, colours ... and why, in the end, novels ... about love?”

- W.D. Hamilton

“The theory of evolution by natural selection is an ecological theory—founded on ecological observation by perhaps the greatest of all ecologists. It has been adopted by and brought up by the science of genetics, and ecologists, being modest people, are apt to forget their distinguished parenthood.”

- John Harper

“The mathematical theory of evolution is in a somewhat unfortunate position, too mathematical to interest most biologists and not sufficiently mathematical to interest most mathematicians”

- J.B.S. Haldane

“Nothing in evolution makes sense except in the light of population genetics”

- Michael Lynch

“As good evolutionary biologists we should go once a year to the zoo and visit the elephant. We should greet it and say ‘Elephant, I believe you got about by random mutation’”

- John Maynard Smith, on evolutionary biology's attempts at explaining the complexity of life

“It is an occupational risk of biologists to claim, towards the end of their careers, that the problems which they have not solved are insoluble.”

- John Maynard Smith

“For a biologist, the alternative to thinking in evolutionary terms is not to think at all”

- Peter Medawar

“The development of a definite biological system is conditioned not only on its state at a given moment [...] the past history of the system exerts a powerful influence together with its present state”

- G.F. Gause

“Evolution is cleverer than you are”

- Leslie Orgel

“What we want to know is how the biological forces of natality and mortality are so integrated and correlated in their action as to lead to a final result in size of population which follows this particular curve rather than some other one”

- Raymond Pearl

“Unlike population genetics, ecology has no known underlying regularities in its basic processes”

Leigh Van Valen and Frank Pitelka

“Community ecology is often perceived as a mess, given the seemingly vast number of processes that can underlie the many patterns of interest, and the apparent uniqueness of each study system. However, at the most general level, patterns in the composition and diversity of species–the subject matter of community ecology–are influenced by only four classes of process: selection, drift, speciation, and dispersal.”

Mark Vellend

“The pursuit of [broad generalizations in ecology] is desirable, because they will bring a cohesion to ecology. However, calling them laws is to give them an epistemological status that they do not deserve. Quite simply, the “Laws” are not strict enough to judge if a species has broken a law; in its defence the species can simply suggest that the law should be re-interpreted.”

Robert O'Hara

“Physics wants to simplify and unify things, as much as possible. Biology resists the reductionist approach and is happy about diversification and complexity.”

Alexei Kornyshev


“The ideal scientist thinks like a poet and works like a bookkeeper, and I suppose that if gifted with a full quiver, he also writes like a journalist.”

Edward O. Wilson

“Science walks forward on two feet, namely theory and experiment [...] Sometimes it is one foot which is put forward first, sometimes the other, but continuous progress is only made by the use of both - by theorizing and then testing, or by finding new relations in the process of experimenting and then bringing the theoretical foot up and pushing it on beyond, and so on in unending alterations.”

Robert Millikan