10 Great Zingers From Scientists

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Just because scientists don't generally major in English doesn't mean they can't turn a phrase. Especially when that phrase is mean-spirited. Take a look at ten verbal burns that scientists have issued over the years.

1. Feynman gets snide with biology students

Richard Feynman was a brilliant man with an admirable curiosity and sense of playfulness, but he was also insufferably smug. In one of his books he describes giving a lecture to fourth-year biology students. He draws a cat and starts naming the muscles in it. They tell him they know the muscle groups:

"Oh," I say, "you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.


It would be kind of hilarious if one of them had grown up to be a doctor, had waited until Feynman had had some kind of medical emergency and then said, "Just give me fifteen minutes to look up what to do! Didn't want to waste my time with memorization!"

2. Marie Curie gives a verbal slap to reporters

Marie Curie's extraordinary success, her gender, and her tragic early-widowhood made her an icon. Everywhere she went, reporters followed her. They reported scandal whenever it seemed that she had initiated a new relationship. In the end, Curie got tired of all the questions, and issued the terse quote, "In science we must be interested in things, not people." It didn't work, but it was a nice line.

3. Marie Curie also verbally slaps other scientists

Curie herself, her husband, her daughter, and her daughter's husband were all well-known scientists, and much embedded in the community. In any community feuds spring up. Since Curie was famous, she managed to get the last word in. Here was her great line: "There are sadistic scientists who hurry to hunt down errors instead of establishing the truth."

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4. Rutherford slams everyone except for physicists

Ernest Rutherford was a hard-working New Zealander who is considered the father of nuclear physics. And like all proud papas, he thought his kid was the best on the block. And like all proud jerks, he let people know about it. He lived in a time when physicists were making great discoveries about the structure of the universe, while other scientists were often sidelined into tedious classification rather than field study. And so he came out with the famous, if obnoxious quote: "All of science is either physics or stamp collecting." Good thing he didn't live to seen the genetics revolution.


5. Richard Feynman tells people that Physicists Do It Superfluously

Good old Feynman. You can always depend on him for a good line. One of his most famouse one-liners was in reply to people who questioned the practicality of some forms of physics. To them he said, "Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give us some practical results but that's not why we do it."


6. Ernest Lawrence shuts down a General

General Leslie Groves was in charge of the Manhattan Project during the war. He was not pleased with his assignment. The scientists working on the project were not pleased with his assignment either. From the beginning there were personality conflicts. On Groves' first meeting with Ernest Lawrence, the inventor of the cyclotron atom smasher and a famous Nobel Prize winner, Groves told Lawrence that his reputation depended on his work on the Manhattan Project. Lawrence replied, "My reputation is already made. It is yours that depends on the outcome of the Manhattan Project."


7. Newton stands on the shoulders of giants and spits on his short friend

The phrase, "If I have seen farther than other men, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants," has deep roots. Plenty of people have used it, including Isaac Newton. Many people have interpreted this as Newton being humble about his genius. Others have pointed out that he wrote this line in a letter to Robert Hooke, after passive-aggressively panning Hooke's theories. They also point out that Hooke had suffered some childhood medical problems and was a slight man. It's not clear if this quote really is a burn - which makes it the biggest burn of all, since Hooke would have had to reply politely.

Illustration for article titled 10 Great Zingers From Scientists

8. Wolfgang Pauli gives a paper the ultimate insult

Wolfgang Pauli was a physicist and a perfectionist. Not only did he drive himself to perfection, but he expected it of those around him. When they fell far short, he knew how to kick them when they were down. He famously said of one paper, "This isn't right! It's not even wrong!" The phrase has since been used to describe the shortcomings of an argument that doesn't manage to grasp the basics of a problem. If someone were to say that five squared equals twenty-five, they'd be right. If they said it equaled one hundred and twenty-five, they'd be wrong. If they drew the number five in a square and said that was the answer, they'd have demonstrated that they needed to be educated on the meaning of 'five squared' before they could even get the wrong answer. They'd have given an answer that's 'not even wrong'.


9. Niels Bohr slaps down Einstein

One of the best lines in all of science was used to score points against arguably the most famous scientist of all time. One night, a group of physicists including Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein were discussing the frustrating nature of quantum mechanics. Einstein was in full form, uttering his famous quote, "God does not play dice with the universe." Bohr looked at him and replied, "Einstein, don't tell God what to do."


10. Lewis Thomas gives me an excuse.

Oops. My original post only had 9 items. In looking for an actual tenth quote for this daily ten, I leafed through Richard Dawkins - he's got a million of them - but then I found this little gem from Lewis Thomas, a physician, researcher, and famous science writer:

The capacity to blunder slightly is the real marvel of DNA. Without this special attribute, we would still be anaerobic bacteria and there would be no music.


Damn, Lewis. If you took away the 'slightly' part - I'm well ahead of the curve.

Via Astro Central, Columbia, Quotations Page, Brainyquote, and Good Reads.


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Dr Emilio Lizardo

Sometimes the insult is wrong. When Barry Marshall and Robin Warren submitted a paper concluding that must stomach ulcers were caused by a bacteria (H. pylori) one of the reviewers sent back a cassette tape that was just 15 minutes of laughter. They had the last laugh in 2005 when they accepted their Nobel Prize.