Quotes

Quotes from books and speeches on the following topics.

Our five senses are faulty data-taking devices, and they need help.

Center for Inquiry, New York Academy of Sciences, July 21, 2009

The value of science is not simply what the next model of the iPod you will buy next week, but its real value comes about when it’s time to distinguish reality from everything else. And to be scientifically literate is to be trained in what it is, to recognize your own frailty as a data-taking device.

Center for Inquiry, New York Academy of Sciences, July 21, 2009

Like no other science, astrophysics cross-pollinates the expertise of chemists, biologists, geologists and physicists, all to discover the past, present, and future of the cosmos—and our humble place within it.

NRAO Press Release: “Astronomers Unveiling Life’s Cosmic Origins,” February 13, 2009

The telescope… is a conduit to the cosmos.

There are photons that have been traveling for 30,000 years, and I’m…snatching them from this journey and planting them into my digital detector. And then I started feeling bad for the photon, and I said maybe it wanted to continue but I got in its way. But then I said, no, those are probably happier photons than the one that slammed into the mountainside that will go unanalyzed and will not contribute to the depth of our understanding of the universe.

[P]hotons are accurately and legitimately described as waves and particles at the same time. They are genuine “wavicles.”

UV is bad for molecules because its high energy breaks the bonds between a molecule’s constituent atoms. That’s why UV is bad for you, too: it’s always best to avoid things that decompose the molecules of your flesh.

Gamma rays are the sort of radiation you should avoid. Want proof? Just remember how the comic strip character “The Hulk” became big, green, and ugly.

Note, however, that you cannot simply add temperatures the way you can add volumes or weights. Two people in bed, each with body temperatures of 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit, do not normally create a 197.2 degree under-the-cover oven.

And extracting one molecule’s signature [in spectral analysis] from the rest of the signatures is hard work, sort of like picking out the sound of your toddler’s voice in a roomful of screaming children during playtime. It’s hard, but you can do it.

Your center of mass is a place you cannot visit but you always carry with you. Like memories, it is part of life’s baggage.

Chimpanzees are an evolutionary hair’s-width from us.… Now imagine a species on Earth, or anywhere else, as smart compared with humans as humans are compared with chimpanzees. How much of the universe might they figure out?

Publicly and among themselves biologists rightly celebrate the diversity of life on Earth.… At the end of the day, however, their confession is heard by no one: they work with a single scientific sample—life on Earth.

If there were biologists among the extremophiles [organisms that live in extreme conditions], they would surely classify themselves as normal and any life that thrived in room temperature as an extremophile.

Regarding the Gaia Hypothesis:

This influential, yet controversial idea requires that the mixture of species on Earth at any moment acts as a collective organism that continuously (yet unwittingly) tunes Earth’s atmospheric composition and climate to promote the presence of life.… But I’d bet there are some dead Martians and Venusians who advanced the same theory about their own planets a billion years ago.

While the Copernican principle comes with no guarantees that it will forever guide us to cosmic truths, it’s worked quite well so far: not only is Earth not in the center of the solar system, but the solar system is not in the center of the Milky Way galaxy, the Milky Way galaxy is not in the center of the universe, and it may come to pass that our universe is just one of many that comprise a multiverse. And in case you’re one of those people who thinks that the edge may be a special place, we are not at the edge of anything either.

But my vote for Venus’s most peculiar feature is the presence of craters that are all relatively young and uniformly distributed over its surface. This innocuous-sounding feature implicates a single planetwide catastrophe that reset the cratering clock…turning Venus’s entire surface into the American automotive dream—a totally paved planet.

On Venus you could cook a 16-inch pepperoni pizza in seven seconds, just by holding it out to the air. (Yes, I did the math.)

What scientists want next is a thorough comparison of what we and exosolar planets and vagabonds look like. Only in this way will we know whether our home life is normal or whether we live in a dysfunctional solar family.

[D]eep in the world of atomic nuclei, life is not always tranquil.

We can trace the elements. They were forged in the centers of high-mass stars that went unstable at the ends of their lives, they exploded, scattered their enriched contents across the galaxy, sprinkled into gas clouds that then collapsed and formed stars and planets and life.

The iron from that meteorite and the iron from your blood have common origin in the core of a star.

So you’re made of detritus [from exploded stars]. Get over it. Or better yet, celebrate it. After all, what nobler thought can one cherish than that the universe lives within us all?

To achieve this density [of a neutron star] at home, just cram a herd of 50 million elephants into the volume of a thimble.

So while you’re getting ripped apart head to toe [as you fall into a black hole], you will also extrude through the fabric of space and time, like toothpaste squeezed through a tube. To all the words in the English language that describe ways to die (e.g., homicide, suicide, electrocution, suffocation, starvation) we add the term spaghettification.

It is astonishing to realize that until Galileo performed his experiments on the acceleration of gravity in the early seventeenth century, nobody questioned Aristotle's falling balls. Nobody said, Show Me!

[A] television advertisement must illustrate the scientific method to substantiate any claim.… That is why stains are lifted, ring-around-the-collar is removed, paper towels become soaked, excess stomach acid is absorbed, and headaches go away—all during the commercial.

We fail in even the simplest of all scientific observations—nobody looks up anymore.

On the light pollution in New York City and the lack of starry nights:

I didn't even know there were stars to look at to not see. If you don't know that they're there, you don't know that you're missing them.

Exceptional Research Opportunities Program meeting, HHMI, May 15 and 16, 2008

For your own safety, do not ever tell an astrophysicist, I hope all your stars are twinkling.

And I don't care what else anyone has ever told you, the Sun is white, not yellow. Human color perception is a complicated business, but if the Sun were yellow, like a yellow lightbulb, then white stuff such as snow would reflect this light and appear yellow—a snow condition confirmed to happen only near fire hydrants.

[T]here is a theorem that colloquially translates, You cannot comb the hair on a bowling ball. … Clearly, none of these mathematicians had Afros, because to “comb” an Afro is to pick it straight away from the scalp. If bowling balls had Afros, then yes, they could be combed without violation of mathematical theorems.

As a child, I knew that at night, with the lights out, infrared vision would discover monsters hiding in the bedroom closet only if they were warm-blooded. But everybody knows that your average bedroom monster is reptilian and cold-blooded. Infrared vision would thus miss a bedroom monster completely…

Regarding a 14-year-old student at a school science fair:

He invited people to sign a petition that demanded either strict control of, or a total ban on, dihydrogen monoxide.… Yes, 86 percent of the passersby voted to ban water (H2O) from the environment. Maybe that's what really happened to all the water on Mars.

A common way to compute density is, of course, to take the ratio of an object's mass to its volume. But other types of densities exist, such as the resistance of somebody's brain to the imparting of common sense….

I suppose I can live with missing decimals, missing floors to tall buildings, and floors that are named instead of numbered. A more serious problem is the limited capacity of the human mind to grasp the relative magnitudes of large numbers. Counting at the rate of one number per second…[t]o count to a trillion takes 32,000 years, which is as much time as has elapsed since people first drew on cave walls.

On the claim that McDonalds has sold 100 billion hamburgers:

You can make a stack high enough to reach the moon and back, and only then will you have used your 100 billion hamburgers. This is terrifying news to cows.

Last I checked, Bill Gates was worth $50 billion. If the average employed adult, who is walking in a hurry, will pick up a quarter from the sidewalk, but not a dime, then the corresponding amount of money (given their relative wealth) that Bill Gates would ignore if he saw it lying on the street is $25,000.

One thing is for certain, the more profoundly baffled you have been in your life, the more open your mind becomes to new ideas.

People like it when they understand something that they previously thought they couldn't understand. It's a sense of empowerment.

Exceptional Research Opportunities Program meeting, HHMI, May 15 and 16, 2008

I am proud to be part of a species where a subset of its members willingly put their lives at risk to push the boundaries of our existence.

Ever since there have been people, there have been explorers, looking in places where other hadn't been before. Not everyone does it, but we are part of a species where some members of the species do—to the benefit of us all.

The news media reported the $250 million [the cost of two failed Mars missions] as an unthinkably huge waste of money and proclaimed that something was wrong with NASA. The result was an investigation and a congressional hearing. Not to defend failure, but $250 million is not much more than the cost to produce Kevin Costner's film flop Waterworld.

When provoked, the itsy-bitsy invertebrates known as tardigrades can suspend their metabolism. In that state, they can survive temperatures of… 73 K (-328 degrees F) for days on end, making them hardy enough to endure being stranded on Neptune. So the next time you need space travelers with the “right stuff,” you might want to choose yeast and tardigrades, and leave your astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts at home.

Regarding polar craters on the Moon:

Apart from the obvious advantages of having ice to melt, filter, then drink, you can also break apart the water's hydrogen from its oxygen. Use the hydrogen and some of the oxygen as active ingredients in rocket fuel and keep the rest of the oxygen for breathing. And in your spare time between space missions, you can always go ice skating on the frozen lake created with the extracted water.

What are the lessons to be learned from this journey of the mind [through the universe]? That humans are emotionally fragile, perennially gullible, hopelessly ignorant masters of an insignificantly small speck in the cosmos. Have a nice day.

I have found that when calculating what no one has calculated before, like my observing sessions on the mountain, my mental acuity peaks. Ironically, these are the times that I would flunk the reality check normally reserved for mental patients and dazed boxers: What is your name? What day is it? Who is the president of the United States?… I do not know, and I do not care. I am at peace with my equations as I connect to the cosmic engines that drive our universe.

Great scientific minds, from Claudius Ptolemy of the second century to Isaac Newton of the seventeenth, invested their formidable intellects in attempts to deduce the nature of the universe from the statements and philosophies contained in religious writings.… Had any of these efforts worked, science and religion today might be one and the same. But they are not.

They [scientists of centuries past] call on God only from the lonely and precarious edge of incomprehension. Where they feel certain about their explanations, however, God gets hardly a mention.

Regarding a seventeenth-century scientist's invocation of the Almighty to explain phenomena:

Today secular philosophers call that kind of divine invocation “God of the gaps”—which comes in handy, because there has never been a shortage of gaps in people's knowledge.

[A]s they are currently practiced, there is no common ground between science and religion.…Although just as in hostage negotiations, it's probably best to keep both sides talking to each other.

Whenever people have used religious documents to make accurate predictions about our base knowledge of the physical world, they have been famously wrong.

I simply go with what works. And what works is the healthy skepticism embodied in the scientific method. Believe me, if the Bible had ever been shown to be a rich source of scientific answers and enlightenment, we would be mining it daily for cosmic discovery.

Regarding the unanswered questions the religious community poses to science:

We should not be ashamed of not having answers to all questions yet…I'm perfectly happy staring somebody in the face saying, I don't know yet, and we've got top people working on it. The moment you feel compelled to provide an answer, then you're doing the same thing that the religious community does: providing answers to every possible question.

Center for Inquiry, New York Academy of Sciences, July 21, 2009

I don't have an issue with what you do in the church, but I'm going to be up in your face if you're going to knock on my science classroom and tell me they've got to teach what you're teaching in your Sunday school. Because that's when we're going to fight.

There's no tradition of scientists knocking down the Sunday school door, telling the preacher, That might not necessarily be true. That's never happened. There're no scientists picketing outside of churches.

If all that you see, do, measure and discover is the will of a deity, then ideas can never be proven wrong, you have no predictive power, and you are at a loss to understand the principles behind most of the fundamental interconnections of nature.

Once upon a time, people identified the god Neptune as the source of storms at sea. Today we call these storms hurricanes.… The only people who still call hurricanes “acts of God” are the people who write insurance forms.

It's quite literally true that we are star dust, in the highest exalted way one can use that phrase. … I bask in the majesty of the cosmos. I use words, compose sentences that sound like the sentences I hear out of people that had revelation of Jesus, who go on their pilgrimages to Mecca.

Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion and Survival, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, November 7, 2006

Not only are we in the universe, the universe is in us. I don't know of any deeper spiritual feeling than what that brings upon me.

Beyond Belief: Science, Reason, Religion and Survival, Salk Institute for Biological Studies, November 7, 2006

So what is true for life itself is no less true for the universe: knowing where you came from is no less important than knowing where you are going.

We should not measure our space-faring era by where footprints have been laid.… We should measure our era by how many people take no notice at all. A legacy rises to become culture only when its elements are so common that they no longer attract comment.…

Perhaps these ancient observatories [like Stonehenge] perennially impress modern people because modern people have no idea how the Sun, Moon, or stars move. We are too busy watching evening television to care what's going on in the sky.

Regarding Titanic, James Cameron's meticulously researched film:

In the movie, the stars above the ship bear no correspondence to any constellations in a real sky. Worse yet, while the heroine bobs... we are treated to her view of this Hollywood sky—one where the stars on the right half of the scene trace the mirror image of the stars in the left half. How lazy can you get?

During the 1970s and 1980s, the popular television soap opera As The World Turns portrayed sunrise during the opening credits and sunset during the closing credits.… The soap-opera sunrise showed the sun moving toward the left as it rose [rather than to the right]. They obviously had gotten a piece of film showing a sunset and played it in reverse.… Had they called their local astrophysicists, any one of us might have recommended that if they needed to save money, they could have shown the sunset in a mirror before they showed it running backward.

Regarding the movie Close Encounters of the Third Kind:

They all knew the mothership was coming, they all knew it was a flying saucer, they all knew it came from another planet through the vacuum of space. And so what do they do, to the left of that monument? They set up runway lights. And I'm thinking, if you could travel through the vacuum of space, you don't need runway lights. Runway lights are if you're using air for lift. Aliens would not need air for lift.

Astronomers do not commonly use Venereal, in favor of the less contagious-sounding Venutian. Blame the medical community, who snatched the word long before astronomers had any good use for it. I suppose you can't blame the doctors. Venus is the goddess of beauty and love, so she ought to be the goddess of its medical consequences.

If cosmological theory were dominated by women, who are no strangers to cycles, how can we know for sure that we wouldn't then be told that the oscillating universe is the more aesthetically fulfilling alternative?

Regarding element-forming stars:

But you will hardly ever read about them. Why? Because once again, the media has predetermined what is not worthy of coverage, even when the news item is something as uninteresting as the cosmic origin of every element in your body.

To the scientist, the universality of physical laws makes the cosmos a marvelously simple place. By comparison, human nature—the psychologist's domain—is infinitely more daunting.

Emotional truths woven by lawyers in the court of law are apparently more important than the truths of actual events. I have grown to fear for those whose innocence became trapped within the legal system.

No matter what eyewitness testimony is in the court of law, it is the lowest form of evidence in the court of science.

The word “smart” is not applied to all professions, even if you are smart in that profession. No one talks about smart lawyers. They may say a brilliant lawyer. They'll talk about a creative artist. Smart is saved for scientists. It just is. It's not even really applied to medical doctors. It applies to scientists in the lab figuring out what hadn't been figured out before.

Exceptional Research Opportunities Program meeting, May 15 and 16, 2008

I want [upon death] to be buried, just like in the old days, where I decompose by the action of microorganisms, and I am dined upon by any form of creeping animal or root system that sees fit to do so.… I will have recycled back to the universe at least some of the energy that I have taken from it. And in so doing, at the conclusion of my scientific adventures, I will have come closer to the heavens than to Earth.

I remain fearless of airplanes [after 9/11]. But during a trip to Los Angeles on a Boeing 767, I couldn't keep my mind from drifting: What's the largest piece of this airplane that could crash into the World Trade Center, explode out the other side, and survive intact? The landing gear? My computer battery? My belt buckle? My wedding ring?

When you're a hammer (as the saying goes), all your problems look like nails. If you're a meteorite expert pondering the sudden extinction of boatloads of species, you'll want to say an impact did it. If you're an igneous petrologist, volcanoes did it. If you're into spaceborne bioclouds, an interstellar virus did it. If you're a hypernova expert, gamma rays did it.

The chunks of [comet] Shoemaker-Levy 9 were so large, and were moving so fast, that each hit Jupiter with at least the equivalent energy of the dinosaur-killing collision between Earth and an asteroid 65 million years ago. Whatever damage Jupiter sustained, one thing is for sure: it's got no dinosaurs left.

The number of people in the world engaged in this search [for catastrophic impactors] totals one or two dozen. How long into the future are you willing to protect Homo sapiens on Earth? Before you answer that question, take a detour to Arizona's Meteor Crater during your next vacation.

But to carve the Grand Canyon, Earth required millions of years. To excavate Meteor Crater, the universe, using a sixty-thousand-ton asteroid traveling upward of twenty miles per second, required a fraction of a second. No offense to Grand Canyon lovers, but for my money, Meteor Crater is the most amazing natural landmark in the world.

Seventy percent of Earth's surface is water and over 99 percent is uninhabited, so you would expect nearly all impactors to hit either the ocean or desolate regions on Earth's surface. So why do movie meteors have such good aim?

If Earth ever suffers a runaway greenhouse effect (like what has happened on Venus), then our atmosphere would trap excess amounts of solar energy, the air temperature would rise, and the oceans would swiftly evaporate into the atmosphere as they sustained a rolling boil. This would be bad.

Something bad happened on both Mars [with its dried-up watercourses] and Venus [with its runaway greenhouse effect]. Could something bad happen on Earth too? Our species currently turns row upon row of environmental knobs, without much regard to long-term consequences.

The dominant species that replaces us in postapocalyptic Earth just might wonder, as they gaze upon our mounted skeletons in their natural history museums, why large-headed Homo sapiens fared no better than the proverbially pea-brained dinosaurs.

Eventually, the Sun will swell to occupy the entire sky as its expansion subsumes the orbit of earth. Earth's surface temperature will rise until it matches the 3,000-degree rarified outer layers of the expanded Sun.… But not to worry. We will surely go extinct for some other reason long before this scenario unfolds.

Trillions of years into the future, when all stars are gone…all parts of the cosmos will cool to the same temperature as the ever-cooling background. At that time, space travel will no longer provide refuge because even Hell will have frozen over. We may then declare that the universe has died—not with a bang, but with a whimper.

[T]he persistent failures of controlled, double-blind experiments to support the claims of parapsychology suggest that what's going on is nonsense rather than sixth sense.

But to measure cause and effect… you must ensure that a simple correlation, however tempting it may be, is not mistaken for a cause. In the 1990s the stork population of Germany increased and the German at-home birth rate rose as well. Shall we credit storks for airlifting the babies?

On correlations between a full Moon and a high number of child-births:

Everyone says, Oh, it's the gravity in the full Moon yanking the baby from the womb. I'm thinking maybe there's another explanation. So if you look at the gestation period of the human female, it's basically about 295 days. Not from their date of missed period, but from when you actually got pregnant. (…) How long is the average cycle between consecutive full Moons? 29-and-a-half days. So take 29-and-a-half days, multiply it by ten, you get 295 days. So if your child was born under a full moon, that just simply meant you got knocked up under a full moon, ok? And no one argues the romantic effects of a moonlit night.

On crazy behavior associated with a full Moon:

People say, Oh they acted crazy, the Moon pulls the tides, the tides are made of water, the human body is mostly water, the Moon must affect the human body. (…) You can ask the question, what is the tidal force of the Moon on your cranium? (…) Because if that were severe, it could be messing with you, right? So you do the calculation, and it turns out, if you were one of these people who sleep with a lot of pillows, and one of the pillows is kind of leaning on your head overnight, the pressure from that pillow on your head is a trillion times greater than the tidal force of the Moon across your cranium. But nobody talks about the effects of down pillows on your behavior the next day.

Upon receiving a diagnosis of 6 months to live, but then your cancer goes into remission:

If you are that person, you are more likely to believe that God cured you, this invisible force, creator of the universe, cured you, than that you had three idiotic doctors diagnose you. (…) I taught physics to pre-med students who became doctors. Not all of them are smart, I assure you.

Regarding the book, How to Defend Yourself Against Alien Abduction:

I bought it, I read it, and I heeded its advice. I remain unabducted.

Regarding apocalyptic web links about 2012:

There's no greater sign of the failure of the American educational system than the extent to which Americans are distracted by the possibility that Earth might end on December 21, 2012. It's a profound absence of awareness of the laws of physics and how nature works. So they're missing some science classes in their training in high school or in college that would empower [them] to understand and to judge when someone else is basically just full of it. Science is like an inoculation against charlatans who would have you believe whatever it is they tell you.

Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, Internet personality test, June 24, 2009

I'm a fan of the planets in any combination. When I was born, Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, the Sun, and the Moon were all in the sky.

[I]f our solar system is not unusual, then there are so many planets in the universe that, for example, they outnumber the sum of all sounds and words ever uttered by every human who has ever lived. To declare that Earth must be the only planet with life in the universe would be inexcusably bigheaded of us.

Regarding whether aliens tried to contact us before we had radio:

For all we know, the aliens have already done this and unwittingly concluded that there was no intelligent life on Earth. They would now be looking elsewhere. A more humbling possibility would be if aliens had become aware of the technologically proficient species that now inhabits Earth, yet they had drawn the same conclusion.

FM signals and those of broadcast television…[travel] out to space at the speed of light. Any eavesdropping alien civilization will know all about our TV programs (probably a bad thing), will hear all our FM music (probably a good thing), and know nothing of the politics of AM talk-show hosts (probably a safe thing).

Regarding radio signals that have been sent out into space in order to contact alien life:

In any case, the leading edge of our “on purpose” radio signals is 30 light years away and, if intercepted, may mend the aliens' image of us based on the radio bubble of our television shows. But this will happen only if the aliens can somehow determine which type of signal comes closer to the truth of who we are, and what our cosmic identity deserves to be.

My only hope is that every other [alien] civilization isn't doing exactly what we are doing because then everybody would be listening, nobody would be receiving, and we would collectively conclude that there is no other intelligent life in the universe.

I'd bet almost anything that life from another planet, if formed independently from life on Earth, would be more different from all species of Earth life than any two species of Earth life are from each other.

[I]f an alien lands on your front lawn and extends an appendage as a gesture of greeting, before you get friendly, toss it an eightball. If the appendage explodes, then the alien was probably made of antimatter. If not, then you can proceed to take it to your leader.

On how to prove an alien abduction:

Grab something off the shelf that's on the spaceship—an ashtray, it doesn't matter what. Because I can tell you, if they flew here from another galaxy, no matter what you've pulled off the shelf, it'll be unlike anything we have on Earth.

Another practice that isn't science is embracing ignorance. Yet it's fundamental to the philosophy of intelligent design: I don't know what this is.… So it must be the product of a higher intelligence.

Science is a philosophy of discovery. Intelligent design is a philosophy of ignorance.

This present-day version of God of the gaps goes by a fresh name: “intelligent design.” …Instead, why not tally all those things whose design…reflect[s] the absence of intelligence?

Regarding the “intelligent design” of the human body:

And what comedian configured the region between our legs—an entertainment complex built around a sewage system?

[T]he English astronomer William Herschel… named his new planet after King George III. For years, the planets of the solar system would be identified as Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Georgium Sidus. I don't know about you, but I find something unsettling about a planet named George, even if he is a king. Apparently, so did everybody else.

No matter when or where you live, no matter your nationality or age or aesthetic proclivities, no matter your religion or whether you vote Democrat or Republican, if you calculate the value of pi you will get the same answer as everybody else in the universe. Constants such as pi enjoy a level of internationality that human affairs do not, never did, and never will….

Astrophysics is not the first subject you think of to put food on somebody's plate or to somehow improve the situation of the underprivileged in the world.

Exceptional Research Opportunities Program meeting, HHMI, May 15 and 16, 2008

Cosmic dreams and the innate human desire to explore the frontier are just not as effective at dislodging $100 billion to go to the Moon as a cold war enemy and the mandate of a beloved, assassinated president.

[L]et us not fool ourselves into thinking we went to the Moon because we are pioneers, or discoverers, or adventurers. We went to the Moon because it was the militaristically expedient thing to do.

A review of history's ambitious projects… demonstrates that only three drivers have been sufficient to create them: defense… the promise of economic return… and the praise of power….

If, in fact, science and technology win wars, as the history of military conflict suggests, then, instead of taking count of our smart bombs, perhaps we should be taking court of our smart scientists and engineers.

After the 9/11 attacks, when President George W. Bush, in a speech aimed at distinguishing the U.S. from the Muslim fundamentalists, said, Our God is the God who named the stars. The problem is two-thirds of all the stars that have names, have Arabic names. I don't think he knew this. This would confound the point that he was making.