Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Paul Davies

English Physicist, Author and Broadcaster, Professor at Arizona State University, Chair of SETI, Director of BEYOND: Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science

"In spite of the fact that religion looks backward to revealed truth while science looks forward to new vistas and discoveries, both activities produce a sense of awe and a curious mixture of humility and arrogance in practitioners. All great scientists are inspired by the subtlety and beauty of the natural world that they are seeking to understand. Each new subatomic particle, every unexpected object, produces delight and wonderment. In constructing their theories, physicists are frequently guided by arcane concepts of elegance in the belief that the universe is intrinsically beautiful."

"A universe that came from nothing in the big bang will disappear into nothing at the big crunch. Its glorious few zillion years of existence not even a memory."

"As a scientist I haven't made up my mind (on religious beliefs). Scientists may have temporary beliefs or inclinations or opinions, but the essence of science is that we should always be prepared to change our minds. I think we're on a voyage of discovery and to pretend we know the deep answers to the universe seems to me extraordinarily arrogant. "

"Cosmologists are convinced that the big bang was the coming into being, not just of matter and energy, but of space and time as well. Time itself began with the big bang. If this sounds baffling, it is by no means new. Already in the fifth century, Augustine proclaimed that 'The world was made with time, not in time.'"

"Darwinism is a testable scientific theory. Intelligent design is a belief system. "

"Example: neutrons are just a tad heavier than protons. If it were the other way around, atoms couldn't exist, because all the protons in the universe would have decayed into neutrons shortly after the big bang. No protons, then no atomic nucleuses and no atoms. No atoms, no chemistry, no life. Like Baby Bear's porridge in the story of Goldilocks, the universe seems to be just right for life. "

"For comparison, there was a nation over there and all they had was a grappling hook and a line... When they found something they would have to drag it to see if it would blow up. Whereas at the other end of the spectrum, we had the remote control robot that could take pictures and has all kinds of weapons attached to keep the operator himself from having to touch it."

"I think progress in religion is actually great idea and I think if ever there is a time we need progress, it is now. Religion isn't going to go away, whatever Richard Dawkins says. People aren't just going to be persuaded that religion is all nonsense so we'll just drop it. People, even atheists, have what (evolutionary theologian) John F. Haught calls 'a God-shaped hole in their hearts.' Everyone has some sort of spiritual yearning and we need to recognize that human dimension. It may not be the whole story but I think scientists should be sensitive to the fact that people have those genuine needs."

"If you don't feel it, flee from it. Go where you are celebrated, not merely tolerated. "

"In an abstract sense I believe that human beings are part of a grand scheme of things. Not a central part. I don't think the world revolves around us or the universe is designed for us, but I think we have a place."

"Many investigators feel uneasy stating in public that the origin of life is a mystery, even though behind closed doors they admit they are baffled. "

"No attempt to explain the world, either scientifically or theologically can be considered successful until it accounts for the paradoxical conjunction of the temporal and the atemporal, of being and becoming. And no subject conforms this paradoxical conjunction more starkly than the origin of the universe."

"Next, in importance to books are their titles."

"Of course science is a work in progress. And of course there are gaps (in our knowledge), particularly in evolutionary biology, because it's over about three and a half billion years. But the fact that there are gaps in our knowledge doesn't mean that we need a miracle to plug them. So that's my take on the intelligent design thing."

"On the one hand you've got intelligent designers and on the other hand we've got Richard Dawkins (biologist, outspoken atheist and author of The God Delusion), which polarizes the debate and that undermines the fertile ground in between (science and religion). So among the community of the people who try to do this on a more serious academic level, I think there's a sort of tacit agreement that we just keep our heads down and get on with the job."

"Science and the Ultimate Reality: Quantum Theory, Cosmology, and Complexity."

"Scientists are slowly waking up to an inconvenient truth - the universe looks suspiciously like a fix. The issue concerns the very laws of nature themselves. For 40 years, physicists and cosmologists have been quietly collecting examples of all too convenient coincidences and special features in the underlying laws of the universe that seem to be necessary in order for life, and hence conscious beings, to exist. Change any one of them and the consequences would be lethal. Fred Hoyle, the distinguished cosmologist, once said it was as if a super-intellect has monkeyed with physics. "

"On What the Bleep: I think there's an awful lot of what we might call flaky pop science, where people look at modern physics, because it's a sort of wonderland of abstract ideas and they look at quantum mechanics and black holes and at a very superficial level think that it opens the way to spiritual enlightenment without fully understanding what these subjects are about."

"The sun always shines above the clouds. "

"Scientists will accept the existence of timeless eternal laws just like (theists) accept the existence of a timeless eternal God. And that these laws exist necessarily and that they are not chosen by anybody or any agency but are simply there, that they are universal and there is a linear time, it's all just taken straight from theology."

"The universe contains vastly more order than Earth-life could ever demand. All those distant galaxies, irrelevant for our existence, seem as equally well-ordered as our own."

"To see the problem, imagine playing God with the cosmos. Before you is a designer machine that lets you tinker with the basics of physics. Twiddle this knob and you make all electrons a bit lighter, twiddle that one and you make gravity a bit stronger, and so on. It happens that you need to set thirtysomething knobs to fully describe the world about us. The crucial point is that some of those metaphorical knobs must be tuned very precisely, or the universe would be sterile."

"There is no misunderstanding about the scholar-offenses under the larger of the growing belief that they are individuals who are cold, hard, and without life. "

"When I was a child, I often used to lie awake at night, in fearful anticipation of some unpleasant event the following day, such as a visit to the dentist, and wish I could press some sort of button that would have the effect of instantly transporting me twenty-four hours into the future. The following night, I would wonder whether that magic button was in fact real, and that the trick had indeed worked. After all, it was twenty-four hours later, and though I could remember the visit to the dentist, it was, at that time, only a memory of an experience, not an experience. "

"The mechanism of the coming-into-being of the universe, as discussed in modern science, is actually much more profound than the biblical version because it does not merely involve order emerging out of chaos. It’s not just a matter of imposing some sort of organisation or structure upon a previous incoherent state, but literally the coming-into-being of all physical things from nothing."

"There is for me powerful evidence that there is something going on behind it all....It seems as though somebody has fine-tuned nature's numbers to make the Universe....The impression of design is overwhelming."

"We’re talking about why the universe looks like it’s been fixed up for habitation. For most people, the first interpretation is, “Well, God did it.” What I’m saying is that that gets us nowhere at all. It just shoves the problem off to some other realm. But saying “God did it” is no worse than saying “the laws of physics did it.” They both basically appeal to something outside the universe. The problem with saying God did it is that God himself or herself is unexplained, so you’re appealing to an unexplained designer. It doesn’t actually explain anything; it just shoves the problem off."

"A lot of people are hostile to science because it demystifies nature. They prefer the mystery. They would rather live in ignorance of the way the world works and our place within it. For me, the beauty of science is precisely the demystification, because it reveals just how truly wonderful the physical universe really is. It is impossible to be a scientist working at the frontier without being awed by the elegance, ingenuity, and harmony of the law-like order in nature. In my attempts to popularize science, I am driven by the desire to share my own sense of excitement and awe with the wider community; I want to tell people the good news. The fact that we are able to do science, that we can comprehend the hidden laws of nature, I regard as a gift of immense significance. Science, properly conducted, is a wonderfully enriching and humanizing enterprise. I cannot believe that using this gift called science-using it wisely, of course-is wrong. It is good that we should know."

"A permanent base on Mars would have a number of advantages beyond being a bonanza for planetary science and geology. If, as some evidence suggests, exotic micro-organisms have arisen independently of terrestrial life, studying them could revolutionize biology, medicine and biotechnology."

"Acknowledging the interdependability of the component molecules within a living organism immediately presents with a stark philosophical puzzle. If everything needs everything else, how did the community of molecules ever arise in the first place?"

"Albert Einstein showed us that time and space are part of the physical world, just as much as matter and energy. Indeed, time can be manipulated in the laboratory. Dramatic time warps occur, for example, when subatomic particles are accelerated to near the speed of light. Black holes stretch time by an infinite amount. It is therefore wrong to think of time as simply "there," as a universal, eternal backdrop to existence. So a complete theory of the universe needs to explain not only how matter and energy came to exist, it must also explain the origin of time."

"All my career, I?ve been fascinated by the fact that the universe looks not just beautiful but in some sense deeply ingenious. It looks like it?s been put together in a way that makes it work exceptionally well. I suppose the most striking example is that the laws of physics and the various parameters that go into those laws seem to be just right for life. If they were even slightly different, it?s quite likely there would be no life, no observers, and no people like you and me having this conversation."

"Among the general population there is a widespread belief that science and theology are forever at loggerheads that every scientific discovery pushes God further and further out of the picture. It is clear that many religious people still cling to an image of a God-of-the-gaps, a cosmic magician invoked to explain all those mysteries about nature that currently have the scientists stumped. It is a dangerous position, for as science advances, so the God-of-the-gaps retreats, perhaps to be pushed off the edge of space and time altogether, and into redundancy."

"Any of the components of an organism-say, a hemoglobin molecule-can be given an arbitrarily complete and precise description in the language of atomic physics or chemistry, and yet this description will miss something that is nevertheless materially relevant to its structure and its very existence. Specifically, it will provide no hint of why this highly improbable molecular configuration is so prevalent, as compared with the astronomical number of molecular forms that are not present."

"Although the elusive 'cure' may be a distant dream, understanding the true nature of cancer will enable it to be better controlled and less menacing."

"An argument often given for why Earth couldn't host another form of life is that once the life we know became established, it would have eliminated any competition through natural selection. But if another form of life were confined to its own niche, there would be little direct competition with regular life."

"Can the mighty edifice of physical order we perceive in the world about us ultimately be rooted in reasonless absurdity? If so, then nature is a fiendishly clever bit of trickery: meaninglessness and absurdity somehow masquerading as ingenious order and rationality."

"Astonishingly, in spite of decades of research, there is no agreed theory of cancer, no explanation for why, inside almost all healthy cells, there lurks a highly efficient cancer subroutine that can be activated by a variety of agents - radiation, chemicals, inflammation and infection."

"Astronauts have been stuck in low-Earth orbit, boldly going nowhere. American attempts to kick-start a new phase of lunar exploration have stalled amid the realization that NASA's budget is too small for the job."

"Cancer is such a ruthless adversary because it behaves as if it has its own fiendishly cunning agenda."

"Cancer cells come pre-programmed to execute a well-defined cascade of changes, seemingly designed to facilitate both their enhanced survival and their dissemination through the bloodstream. There is even an air of conspiracy in the way that tumors use chemical signals to create cancer-friendly niches in remote organs."

"Cancer touches every family in one way or another. As other diseases are brought under control, cancer is set to become the number one killer, and is already in epidemic proportions worldwide."

"Changing some of those laws by even a tiny amount would wreck the chances for life. Others seem to have a bit more flexibility. Overall, the total number of these coincidences, or special factors, is probably somewhere between a half a dozen and a dozen. I think most scientists would now agree that you couldn?t change things very much and still have life."

"Clearly, some creative thinking is badly needed if humans are to have a future beyond Earth. Returning to the Moon may be worthy and attainable, but it fails to capture the public's imagination. What does get people excited is the prospect of a mission to Mars."

"Consider the most general multiverse theories? where even laws are abandoned and anything at all can happen. At least some of these universes will feature miraculous events - water turning into wine, etc. They will also contain thoroughly convincing religious experiences, such as direct revelation of a transcendent God. It follows that a general multiverse set must contain a subset that conforms to traditional religious notions of God and design."

"Cosmologists have attempted to account for the day-to-day laws you find in textbooks in terms of fundamental 'superlaws,' but the superlaws themselves must still be accepted as brute facts. So maybe the ultimate laws of nature will always be off-limits to science."

"David Park is a physicist and philosopher at Williams College in Massachusetts with a lifelong interest in a time which he too thinks doesn't pass. For Park, the passage of time is not so much an illusion as a myth, because it involves no deception of the senses.... One cannot perform any experiment to tell unambiguously whether time passes or not. This is certainly a telling argument. After all, what reality can be attached to a phenomenon that can never be demonstrated experimentally? In fact, it is not even clear how to think about demonstrating the flow of time experimentally. As the apparatus, laboratory, experimenter, technicians, humanity generally and the universe as a whole are apparently caught up in the same inescapable flow, how can any bit of the universe be stopped in time in order to register the flow going on in the rest of it? It is analogous to claiming that the whole universe is moving through space at the same speed?or, to make the analogy closer, that space is moving through space. How can such a claim ever be tested?"

"First, much of the mathematics that is so spectacularly effective in physical theory was worked out as an abstract exercise by pure mathematicians long before it was applied to the real world . . . . The British mathematician G. H. Hardy wrote that he practiced mathematics for its beauty, not for its practical value... and yet we discover, often years afterward, that nature is playing by the very same mathematical rules that these pure mathematicians have already formulated."

"Everyone plays a little tighter, and I'm just trying to create something. If you can get a turnover and convert it, it's a big lift for the team."

"For me, science is already fantastical enough. Unlocking the secrets of nature with fundamental physics or cosmology or astrobiology leads you into a wonderland compared with which beliefs in things like alien abductions pale into insignificance."