Science Luminaries
Curated quotes from Daniel Liberzon
Worst Predictions


It follows that the Scientist, like the Pilgrim, must wend a straight and narrow path between the Pitfalls of Oversimplification and the Morass of Overcomplication.” ~ R.E. Bellman, on including too many features of reality in a mathematical model or constructing a model in too simple a fashion.

In science as in the lottery, luck favors those who wager the most – that is, by another analogy, those who are tilling constantly the ground in their garden.” ~ Ramón y Cajal, Letters to a Young Investigator

Curiosity demands that we ask questions, that we try to put things together and try to understand this multitude of aspects as perhaps resulting from the action of a relatively small number of elemental things and forces acting in an infinite variety of combinations.” ~ Feynman, Lectures on Physics, Caltech

Knowing that no mathematical model can yield a complete description of reality, we must resign ourselves to the task of using a succession of models of greater and greater complexity in our efforts to understand. If we observe similar structural features possessed by the solutions of a sequence of models, then we may feel that we have an approximation to what is called a “law of nature.”” ~ R.E. Bellman

…there is every reason to believe that when the human intellect ignores reality and concentrates within, it can no longer explain the simplest inner workings of life’s machinery or of the world around us.” ~ Ramón y Cajal, Letters to a Young Investigator

Academia has largely become a small-idea factory. Rewarded for publishing more frequently, we search for “minimum publishable units.” Not surprisingly, many papers turn out to be early “progress reports”, quickly superseded. At the same time, there is a hugely increased pressure to secure outside funding, converting most of our best scientists into government contractors” ~ PNA Report

Jira’s actually pretty great if you set it up correctly. The ninth circle of hell is trying to manage complex, interconnected projects across multiple teams with multiple milestones in GitHub issues and project boards. There’s a place for both.” ~ Brandon Black

The intellect is presented with phenomena marching in review before the sensory organs. It can be truly useful and productive only when limiting itself to the modest tasks of observation, description, and comparison, and of classification that is based on analogies and differences. A knowledge of underlying causes and empirical laws will then come slowly through the use of inductive methods.” ~ Ramón y Cajal, Letters to a Young Investigator

That which is static and repetitive is boring. That which is dynamic and random is confusing. In between lies art.” ~ John A. Locke

Science is a differential equation. Religion is a boundary condition.” ~ Alan Turing

An academic career, in which a person is forced to produce scientific writings in great amounts, creates a danger of intellectual superficiality” ~ Albert Einstein

We should forget about small efficiencies, say about 97% of the time: premature optimization is the root of all evil.” ~ Knuth, Donald

Good professors love smart students who delight in learning, even those who are smarter. But few delight in the presence of a self-centered and mean-spirited ass, even if they happen to be the brightest on the planet.” – Tim Poston

Look for the student who can learn the most, who can carry on a long term legacy of what the professor has to teach.” ~ Richard Muller

For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” ~ Richard Feynman. “Appendix F – Personal observations on the reliability of the Shuttle”. Kennedy Space Center.

So here is some useful advice: if you’ve won a Nobel Prize, and want to win a second one, work with a collaborator” ~ Richard Muller

Maybe this is why data mining has largely replaced traditional hypothesis-driven science. We are awash in small discoveries, most of which are essentially detections of “statistically significant” patterns in big data. Usually, there is no unifying model or theory that generates predictions, testable or not. That would take too much time and thought. Even the elite scientific journals seem too favorable to observations of patterns in new data, even if irreproducible, possibly explained by chance, or utterly lacking any supporting theory. Except in a few areas, such as string theory and climate studies, there are few incentives to search for unifying principles, let alone large-scale models” ~ PNA report

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.” ~ Feynman

What will the theories and technologies of 2065 look like? If we are not careful, if we do not sufficiently value explanatory science and individual creativity, they will look pretty much like they do today. But if we do, many wonders may lie ahead—not only the elusive unified field theory for physics but perhaps also a new type of “theory” for cognition and consciousness, or maybe theories matching the scope and elegance of natural selection for other great challenges of biology, including the mechanisms of regulation and dysregulation (e.g., cancer and aging) at the cellular level and the prediction of structure and function at the molecular level. There is no lack of frontiers.” ~ PNA Report

“We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or to describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn’t any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work.” – Richard Feynman in “The Development of the Space-Time View of Quantum Electrodynamics,” Nobel Lecture (11 December 1965)

“Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in the night.
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

    – Alexander Pope, Epitaph on Sir Isaac Newton

“My father was a Stalinist and sent me to a private Christian school where we had to pray every morning. From a very young age I was convinced that many of the things that the teachers and other kids believed were just obvious nonsense. That’s great training for a scientist and it transferred very well to artificial intelligence. But it was a nasty shock when I found out what Stalin actually did.” – Geoff Hinton

“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius – and a lot of courage – to move in the opposite direction.” ~ Albert Einstein

“You can’t believe in math. You have to understand it. You can’t understand religion. You have to believe in it.” – Unattributed

“Science is but language well arranged.” ~ Lavoiser

There are several ways in which a mathematician can proceed to extend his research efforts, particularly one who is deeply interested in problems arising from the physical world. He can, on one hand, examine the equations he has been working with and modify them in a variety of ways. Or he can ask questions that have not been asked before concerning the nature of the solution of the original equations. This is basically a very difficult way to carry out research. It is very easy to change the form of an equation in a large number of ways. The great majority of the new equations are not meaningful, and, in consequence, lead to both difficult and unimportant problems. Similarly, there are many questions that are difficult to answer, but hardly worth asking. The well-trained mathematician does not measure the value of a problem solely by its intractability. The challenge is there, but even very small boys do not accept all dares.” – Richard E. Bellman

Finally, I’d like to challenge you to think of a PhD as more than just a sequence of papers. You’re not a paper writer. You’re a member of a research community and your goal is to push the field forward. Papers are one common way of doing that but I would encourage you to look beyond the established academic game. Think for yourself and from first principles. Do things others don’t do but should. Step off the treadmill that has been put before you.” – Andrej Karpathy

Math is not something boys are better at, it’s not a spectator sport, it’s not a system of arbitrary rules, it’s not dependent on the laws of physics, it’s not easier or better in base 12 or base π, it’s not a young man’s game, it’s not useless in the real world, it’s not beholden to the real world, it’s not learnable in one year or from one book or one website, it is not particularly interested in the golden ratio or the digits of pi or trivial calculation tricks that aren’t actually from the Vedas, it is not always explainable to a 6-year-old or in “layman’s terms”, it’s not beyond your grasp if you recognize that it will take time and dedication and active effort, it is not dry, it is not cold, it is not boring, it is not the opposite of “human” or “people-oriented” or “spiritual” or “artistic”, and for Pete’s sake, it doesn’t say that if you add 1 and 2 and 3 and 4 “and so on” you’ll “in the end” get 1/12.” -– Alon Amit, What is Mathematics not?

C++ leads to really really bad design choices. You invariably start using the “nice” library features of the language like STL and Boost and other total and utter crap, that may “help” you program, but causes:

  • infinite amounts of pain when they don’t work (and anybody who tells me that STL and especially Boost are stable and portable is just so full of BS that it’s not even funny)

  • inefficient abstracted programming models where two years down the road you notice that some abstraction wasn’t very efficient, but now all your code depends on all the nice object models around it, and you cannot fix it without rewriting your app.” – Linus Torvalds

This is the Unix philosophy: Write programs that do one thing and do it well. Write programs to work together. Write programs to handle text streams, because that is a universal interface.” –Doug McIlroy

Religion is a very useful tool to give meaning to the unknown; but science or philosophy gives more accurate explanations.” - Cesar Diaz

What I cannot create, I do not understand.” – Richard Feynman

The trick that one learns over time, a basic part of mathematical methodology, is to sidestep the equation and focus instead on the structure of the underlying physical process. One learns to submit oneself to a catechism: ‘When I set up these equations originally, I made certain assumptions. How realistic were these assumptions? What state variables, and what effects did I ignore?’’ …In the real world, none of these assumptions are uniformly valid. Often people want to know why mathematics and computers cannot be used to handle the meaningful problems of society, as opposed, let us say, to the moon boondoggle and high energy–high cost physics. The answer lies in the fact that we don’t know how to describe the complex systems of society involving people, we don’t understand cause and effect, which is to say the consequences of decisions, and we don’t even know how to make our objectives reasonably precise. None of the requirements of classical science are met.” – Richard Bellman

Write simple parts connected by clean interfaces. Clarity is better than cleverness. Design programs to be connected to other programs. Separate policy from mechanism; separate interfaces from engines. Design for simplicity; add complexity only where you must. Write a big program only when it is clear by demonstration that nothing else will do. Design for visibility to make inspection and debugging easier. Robustness is the child of transparency and simplicity. Fold knowledge into data so program logic can be stupid and robust. In interface design, always do the least surprising thing. When a program has nothing surprising to say, it should say nothing. When you must fail, fail noisily and as soon as possible. Programmer time is expensive; conserve it in preference to machine time. Avoid hand-hacking; write programs to write programs when you can. Prototype before polishing. Get it working before you optimize it. Distrust all claims for ‘one true way’. Design for the future, because it will be here sooner than you think.” –The Zen of Unix

He was very clear that entering a new field always meant discomfort. It was hard to raise money to do an experiment, and the existing experts would resent your entry. He told me that the only way to do it was with complete humility; you had to recognize that you didn’t know much. You have to become a student again. No shortcuts. Before you talk to any of the experts, study hard so that they won’t feel that you are wasting their time. If you can bring something new to an existing field, then you might make an important discovery.” – Richard Muller on Luis Alvarez

Johnny von Neumann was a great mathematician and a great physicist. So someone (I don’t remember who) challenged him with this problem: Two trains are 100 meters apart, moving towards each other. Each train is moving at 10 meters per second. A bee is flying back and forth between those two trains at 20 meters per second. Eventually the bee will be squished when the two trains crash against each other. When they do, what will be the total distance flown by the bee? According to legend, von Neumann thought for a moment, and then said “100 meters”. The questioner said, “Correct. But now I know, from the quickness of your response, that you are really a physicist, not a mathematician. The mathematician would have calculated when each bee-train encounter takes place, calculated the position, taken the sum of those distances as an infinite series, and then summed the series. But a physicist would have taken a short-cut; the physicists would have realized that the bee was flying for 5 seconds at 20 meters per second, so it would have traveled 100 meters total. Von Neumann’s purported response: “Oh, that’s a clever way to solve it! No, I summed the series.” – Richard Muller on “What does it mean to think Mathematically?”

Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though chequered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither suffer much nor enjoy much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

In the midst of the word he was trying to say, In the midst of his laughter and glee, He had softly and suddenly vanished away — For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.” – The Hunter’s Snark, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson)

Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored.” – Abraham Lincoln



Daniel Liberzon Quotes

Worst wrong predictions in history

I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943.

Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.” – Popular Mechanics, 1949

I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.” – The editor in charge of business books for Prentice Hall, 1957.

But what…is it good for?” – Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968, commenting on the microchip.

There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.” – Ken Olson, president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., 1977.

640K ought to be enough for anybody.” – Attributed to Bill Gates, 1981, but believed to be an urban legend.

This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.” – Western Union internal memo, 1876.

The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.” – Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, 1876.

The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” – David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for investment in the radio in the 1920s.

While theoretically and technically television may be feasible, commercially and financially it is an impossibility.” – Lee DeForest, inventor.

The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C’, the idea must be feasible.” – A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. (Smith went on to found Federal Express Corp.)

Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” – H. M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927.

I’m just glad it’ll be Clark Gable who’s falling on his face and not Gary Cooper.” – Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the leading role in “Gone with the Wind.”

A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy cookies like you make.” – Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies.

We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.” – Decca Recording Co. rejecting the Beatles, 1962.

Radio has no future. Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible. X-rays will prove to be a hoax.” – William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, British scientist, 1899.

So we went to Atari and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got this amazing thing, even built with some of your parts, and what do you think about funding us? Or we’ll give it to you. We just want to do it. Pay our salary, we’ll come work for you.’ And they said, ‘No.’ So then we went to Hewlett-Packard, and they said, ‘Hey, we don’t need you. You haven’t got through college yet.’” – Apple Computer Inc. founder Steve Jobs on attempts to get Atari and HP interested in his and Steve Wozniak’s personal computer.

If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have done the experiment. The literature was full of examples that said you can’t do this.” – Spencer Silver on the work that led to the unique adhesives for 3-M “Post-It” Notepads.

It will be years – not in my time – before a woman will become Prime Minister.” – Margaret Thatcher, 1974.

I see no good reasons why the views given in this volume should shock the religious sensibilities of anyone.” – Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, 1869.

With over 50 foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn’t likely to carve out a big slice of the U.S. market.” – Business Week, August 2, 1968.

That Professor Goddard with his ‘chair’ in Clark College and the countenancing of the Smithsonian Institution does not know the relation of action to reaction, and of the need to have something better than a vacuum against which to react–to say that would be absurd. Of course, he only seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.

– 1921 New York Times editorial about Robert Goddard’s revolutionary rocket work. The remark was retracted in the July 17, 1969 issue.

You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across all of your muscles? It can’t be done. It’s just a fact of life. You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an unalterable condition of weight training.” – Response to Arthur Jones, who solved the “unsolvable” problem by inventing Nautilus.

Ours has been the first, and doubtless to be the last, to visit this profitless locality.” – Lt. Joseph Ives, after visiting the Grand Canyon in 1861.

Drill for oil? You mean drill into the ground to try and find oil? You’re crazy.” – Workers whom Edwin L. Drake tried to enlist to his project to drill for oil in 1859.

Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.” – Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929.

There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” – Albert Einstein, 1932.

The bomb will never go off. I speak as an expert in explosives.” – Admiral William Leahy, on the U.S. Atomic Bomb Project.

Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.” – Marechal Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure de Guerre.

There will never be a bigger plane built.” – A Boeing engineer, after the first flight of the 247, a twin engine plane that holds ten people.

Everything that can be invented has been invented.” – Attributed to Charles H. Duell, Commissioner, U.S. Office of Patents, 1899, but known to be an urban legend.

Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.” – Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872.

The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.” – Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, appointed Surgeon-Extraordinary to Queen Victoria 1873.