Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Heinz Pagels

American Physicist, Physics Professor at Rockefeller University, Executive Director and CEO of the New York Academy of Sciences

"Science provides a vision of reality seen from the perspective of reason, a perspective that sees the vast order of the universe, living and nonliving matter, as a material system governed by rules that can be known by the human mind. It is a powerful vision, formal and austere but strangely silent about many of the questions that deeply concern us. Science shows us what exists but not what to do about it."

"No one can possibly simulate you or me with a system that is less complex than you or me. The products that we produce may be viewed as a simulation, and while products can endure in ways that our bodies cannot, they can never capture the richness, complexity, or depth of purpose of their creator. Beethoven once remarked that the music he had written was nothing compared with the music he had heard."

"The capacity to tolerate complexity and welcome contradiction, not the need for simplicity and certainty, is the attribute of an explorer."

"Science cannot resolve moral conflicts, but it can help to more accurately frame the debates about those conflicts. "

"I like to browse in occult bookshops if for no other reason than to refresh my commitment to science."

"Information is just signs and numbers, while knowledge involves their meaning. What we want is knowledge, but what we get is information."

"It is unlikely that we will ever see a star being born. Stars are like animals in the wild. We may see the very young, but never their actual birth, which is a veiled and secret event. Stars are born inside thick clouds of dust and gas in the spiral arms of the galaxy, so thick that visible light cannot penetrate them."

"Perhaps our thinking exemplifies a selective system. First lots of random scattered ideas compete for survival. Then comes the selection for what works best ?one idea dominates, and this is followed by its amplification. Perhaps the moral... is that you never learn anything unless you are willing to take a risk and tolerate a little randomness in your life."

"Physicists speak of the particle representation or the wave representation. Bohr's principle of complementarity asserts that there exist complementary properties of the same object of knowledge, one of which if known will exclude knowledge of the other. We may therefore describe an object like an electron in ways which are mutually exclusive?e.g., as wave or particle?without logical contradiction provided we also realize that the experimental arrangements that determine these descriptions are similarly mutually exclusive. Which experiment?and hence which description one chooses?is purely a matter of human choice."

"Science shows us what exists but not what to do about it."

"Science is not the enemy of humanity but one of the deepest expressions of the human desire to realize that vision of infinite knowledge. Science shows us that the visible world is neither matter nor spirit; the visible world is the invisible organization of energy."

"Possession of a program with unique analytic capabilities puts a scientist in as much of a privileged position to make new discoveries as the possession of a powerful telescope."

"The words are strung together, with their own special grammar ? the laws of quantum theory ? to form sentences, which are molecules. Soon we have books, entire libraries, made out of molecular "sentences." The universe is like a library in which the words are atoms. Just look at what has been written with these hundred words! Our own bodies are books in that library, specified by the organization of molecules ? but the universe and literature are organizations of identical, interchangeable objects; they are information systems."

"Stars are like animals in the wild. We may see the young but never the actual birth, which is a veiled and secret event."

"Theoretical and experimental physicists are now studying nothing at all?the vacuum. But that nothingness contains all of being."

"The world changed from having the determinism of a clock to having the contingency of a pinball machine."

"There was emptiness more profound than the void between the stars, for which there was no here and there and before and after, and yet out of that void the entire plenum of existence sprang forth."

"When Kepler found his long-cherished belief did not agree with the most precise observation, he accepted the uncomfortable fact. He preferred the hard truth to his dearest illusions; that is the heart of science."