Wit and Wisdom I Have Scarfed Off The Net

Every few months or so, I run across some interesting quotation or text-bite that strikes me as so funny or insightful that I have to save it. In the olden days of the Internet, these would go into my .plan, but now it seems that finger servers have disappeared off the face of net--just another security hole that needs to be plugged. [Note: if you understand what I'm talking about, then you must be an old-school Unix guru.] Anyway, what I have collected here is an archive of some of the items that have appeared in my .plan, going back many years.

Quotations about math and the practitioners thereof

If I have seen farther than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants.

--Isaac Newton

If I have not seen as far as others, it is because there were giants standing on my shoulders.

--Hal Abelson

Gambling is nothing but the applied representation theory of the symmetric groups.

--I. V. Cherednik

It was a dark and stormy night when R. H. Bing volunteered to drive some stranded mathematicians from the fogged-in Madison airport to Chicago. Freezing rain pelted the windscreen and iced the roadway as Bing drove on--concentrating deeply on the mathematical theorem he was explaining. Soon the windshield was fogged from the energetic explanation. The passengers too had beaded brows, but their sweat arose from fear. As the mathematical description got brighter, the visibility got dimmer. Finally, the conferees felt a trace of hope for their survival when Bing reached forward--apparently to wipe off the the moisture from the windshield. Their hope turned to horror when, instead, Bing drew a figure with his finger on the foggy pane and continued his proof--embellishing the illustration with arrows and helpful labels as needed for the demonstration.

--William Jaco

Mathematics requires a small dose, not of genius, but of an imaginative freedom which, in a larger dose, would be insanity. And if mathematicians tend to burn out early in their careers, it is probably because life has forced them to acquire too much common sense, thereby rendering them too sane to work. But by then they are sane enough to teach, so a use can still be found for them.

--Angus K. Rodgers

...I was unable to find flaws in my "proof" for quite a while, even though the error is very obvious. It was a psychological problem, a blindness, an excitement, an inhibition of reasoning by an underlying fear of being wrong. Techniques leading to the abandonment of such inhibitions should be cultivated by every honest mathematician.

--from How Not to Prove the Poincare Conjecture, by John Stallings

Oh, he seems like an okay person, except for being a little strange in some ways. All day he sits at his desk and scribbles, scribbles, scribbles. Then, at the end of the day, he takes the sheets of paper he's scribbled on, scrunges them all up, and throws them in the trash can.

--J. von Neumann's housekeeper, describing her employer

He is rather a good mathematician, but he will never be as good as Schottky.

--G. Frobenius, in a letter recommending the appointment of David Hilbert at Gottingen

The worst thing you can do is to completely solve a problem.

--Dan Kleitman

I called the math department at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to find out the proper way to count and whether zero is a real number. Apparently, counting is not MIT's forte. I was told that no one in the math department would comment on that topic. As for zero, a department administrator said, "Our people are interested more in numbers invented after 1972." He told me I needed a number theorist.

--Dick Teresi, writing in the Atlantic Monthly about his attempt
to establish whether it is proper to count starting from zero.

Usually mathematicians have to shoot somebody to get this much publicity.

--Thomas R. Nicely, on the attention he received
in 1994 after finding a flaw in the Intel Pentium.

Mathematics: a branch of physics in which the experiments are cheap.

--V. I. Arnold [not an exact quote]

Pure mathematics is on the whole distinctly more useful than applied. For what is useful above all is technique, and mathematical technique is taught mainly through pure mathematics.

--G. H. Hardy

Quotations about school and education

The only real difference between grad school and jail is that when you get out of jail there are agencies to assist you in finding a job.

--Kevin Dooley, Physics PostDoc

Try not to have a good time--this is supposed to be educational.

--Charles Schulz

Are we going to have to think today, or is it going to be all math?

--a student in Phil Hanlon's Math 115 class

On the contrary, if anything, a good education should lead to a permanent dissatisfaction. Complacency is the very opposite of the intellectual life. The dirty secret is that first rate work requires an enormous amount of effort, anxiety and even desperation.

--John Searle

Calvin: You know, I don't think math is a science, I think it's a religion.
Hobbes: A religion?
Calvin: Yeah. All these equations are like miracles. You take two numbers and when you add them, they magically become one NEW number! No one can say how it happens. You either believe it or you don't. [Pointing at his math book] This whole book is full of things that have to be accepted on faith! It's a religion!
Hobbes: And in the public schools no less. Call a lawyer.
Calvin: [Looking at his homework] As a math atheist, I should be excused from this.

If you want to put the holes in your knowledge on display, try teaching someone.

--Linux guru Alan Cox

Quotations about life, society, and the human condition

My Daddy is a movie actor. Sometimes he gets to play the good guy, and sometimes he gets to play the lawyer.

--Harrison Ford's son, explaining to his preschool classmates what his father does for a living.

What a waste it is to lose one's mind.

--Dan Quayle, trying to remember the slogan of the United
Negro College Fund, "A mind is a terrible thing to waste."

Hubble, hubble, toil and trouble,
NASA burn and Congress bubble
Twist of cable, too much slack,
Mirror testing out of whack.


"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in a rather scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean--neither more nor less."

--from Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll

My abacus doesn't have a modem.

--Whitehouse spokesman Michael McCurry, when asked if he had ever surfed the Web

Football exemplifies the worst aspects of American society: violence punctuated by committee meetings.

--George F. Will

For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press 3.

--Alice Kahn

There are no significant bugs in our released software that any significant number of users want fixed.

--Bill Gates, October 23, 1995 (see FOCUS Magazine Interview with Bill Gates)

If The Chute Doesn't Open Your Next Jump is Free!

--ad from the Baldwin Sport Parachute Center

Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy.

--Franz Kafka

Ann Arbor: An enclave of Volvo-driving Birkenstock-wearing organic vegetarian liberals surrounded by a sea of gun-toting xenophobic anti-abortion Bible-waving militia members.

--yours truly

Superfluity does not vitiate.

--Section 3537 of the California Civil Code

Sometimes you're the windshield. Sometimes you're the bug.

--Mark Knopfler

If it had been the backstroke, obviously I would have stopped.

--Matt Zelen, explaining his decision to continue swimming in a 100-yard
butterfly race at St. John's University after his racing suit came off.
(He won the race, but was disqualified for an "equipment violation".)

It does not matter how they vote. It matters how we count.

--Joseph Stalin

The Greatest Opening Paragraph in American Literature

There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands' necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.

--from Red Wind, by Raymond Chandler

The Greatest Opening Paragraph in a Work of Non-Fiction

Julian Skidmore is lithe and petite, with small wrists and delicate features, and a serene but determined countenance. Watching Skidmore at work for a while, her auburn hair held back by a blue ribbon, a glint of light catching the small pearl in each earlobe, I was reminded of Gainsborough's portrait of the young Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Then Skidmore removed her left arm from a camel's rectum, peeled off a shoulder-length Krause Super-Sensitive disposable examination glove, and said, "Can I make you a cup of coffee?" She had completed eight of the morning's sixteen ultrasound scans. It was time for a break.

--from Lulu, Queen of the Camels, by Cullen Murphy
Atlantic Monthly, October 1999

The Pithiest Book Review of all Time

When pygmies cast such long shadows, it must be very late in the day.

--Gian-Carlo Rota, reviewing a book on contemporary philosophers

On the reality of science education in school

Once a week we were given a lesson called "Science". I liked this lesson because then we were allowed to stand round the table and you could push and shove and have fun.

Mr Tucker opened the cupboard containing some glass tubes, a spirit lamp, a bottle of mercury and a leather disc with a piece of string attached to the centre. He placed these things on the table and said, "Today we are concerned with the weight of air which is fourteen pounds to the square inch".

This didn't make sense to me but the fact that I was standing beside Maggie Mulligan made me wish to shine, so I proffered the information that my father had told me the fuller you are with air the lighter you are and you couldn't sink in the river. I thought this had some bearing on the subject but Mr Tucker slowly put the piece of leather back on the table then looked at me with his eyes, so that I could not face him and said through his teeth, "Marshall, I would have you know that we are not interested in your father or in any observation made by your father even if such observations proclaim the stupidity of his son. Would you please attend to the lesson".

He then wet the leather disc and pressed it on the desk and none of us could pull it off except Maggie Mulligan who ripped the guts out of it with one yank and proved air didn't weigh anything.

She told me when she was wheeling me home that what I said was right and that air weighed nothing.

--Alan Marshall

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This page last modified Tue Jan 6 09:58:16 EST 2004