John Herschel

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To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling.

Sir John Frederick William Herschel (7 March 179211 May 1871) English scientist, astronomer and mathematician; son of astronomer William Herschel, his discoveries and influence spanned several scientific fields.

Quotes[edit]

I hope we shall never allow ourselves to forget the infinitely higher and more important circumstance, that it is the great truths of science, that it is the interpretation of God's great book of nature, and not the men who interpret these pages, that are the ultimate objects of all this praise.
  • Time! Time! Time! — we must not impugn the Scripture Chronology, but we must interpret it in accordance with whatever shall appear on fair enquiry to be the truth for there cannot be two truths. And really there is scope enough: for the lives of the Patriarchs may as reasonably be extended to 5000 or 50000 years apiece as the days of Creation to as many thousand millions of years.
    • Letter to Charles Lyell after being inspired by his Principles of Geology (1830-1833)
  • Not to feel elevated on an occasion like the present, by this noble, this magnificent testimony of approbation of my friends, is not in human nature — at all events, it is not in my nature; but if any overweaning self-complacency might arise, and mix itself with my feelings at this moment, there is one consideration which would suffice to set it at rest for ever. . . The assembly, magnificent as it is, comprising in itself, as it does, , the elite of everything that is illustrious in rank, talent, wealth, in the metropolis — this very assembly is a proof of the justice to which I have adverted I should be weak indeed, if I supposed that all this glorious array has reference to myself. No; it has reference to a far higher and more dignified object. I am but as one drop in the ocean. Every man of science will feel quite as much a sharer in the honors of the day, will feel quite as much distinguished by this assembly as I can be; for when, ere this, would it have been possible to collect together such an assembly as is around me to do honor to science, place it n preeminence, and crown it with distinction? This is, indeed, a new era — this is a memorable day for science, and every man who regards truth for its own sake will feel that on this occasion the eyes of the country are on him, and that England expects every man to do his duty! By that I have been able to accomplish in Africa, I have been amply rewarded; but I stand here not so much for anything of this nature, but as the representative of a class that is distinguished — of a principle which is triumphant; and I hope we shall never allow ourselves to forget the infinitely higher and more important circumstance, that it is the great truths of science, that it is the interpretation of God's great book of nature, and not the men who interpret these pages, that are the ultimate objects of all this praise.
    • The Athenaeum, Journal of English Foreign Literature, Science, and the fine arts., London (16 June 1838), p. 555
  • Self-respect is the cornerstone of all virtue.
    • As quoted in A Toolbox for Humanity : More Than 9000 Years of Thought (2004) by Lloyd Albert Johnson, p. 147
  • What God sends is welcome.
    • Diary entry (November 1855), as quoted in The Shadow of the Telescope: A Biography of John Herschel by Günther Buttmann
  • God knows how ardently I wish I had ten lives
    • In a letter to Charles Babbage, as quoted in The Shadow of the Telescope: A Biography of John Herschel by Günther Buttmann, p. 14

A Preliminary Discourse on the Study of Natural Philosophy (1831)[edit]

We must never forget that it is principles, not phenomena, — laws not insulated independent facts, — which are the objects of inquiry to the natural philosopher.
Science is the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one.
  • Man is constituted as a speculative being; he contemplates the world, and the objects around him, not with a passive indifferent eye, but as a system disposed with order and design.
  • We must never forget that it is principles, not phenomena, — laws not insulated independent facts, — which are the objects of inquiry to the natural philosopher. As truth is single, and consistent with itself, a principle may be as completely and as plainly elucidated by the most familiar and simple fact, as by the most imposing and uncommon phenomenon. The colours which glitter on a soapbubble are the immediate consequence of a principle the most important, from the variety of phenomena it explains, and the most beautiful, from its simplicity and compendious neatness, in the whole science of optics. If the nature of periodical colours can be made intelligible by the contemplation of such a trivial object, from that moment it becomes a noble instrument in the eye of correct judgment; and to blow a large, regular, and durable soap-bubble may become the serious and praise-worthy endeavour of a sage, while children stand round and scoff, or children of a larger growth hold up their hands in astonishment at such waste of time and trouble. To the natural philosopher there is no natural object unimportant or trifling. From the least of nature's works he may learn the greatest lessons. The fall of an apple to the ground may raise his thoughts to the laws which govern the revolutions of the planets in their orbits; or the situation of a pebble may afford him evidence of the state of the globe he inhabits, myriads of ages ago, before his species became its denizens.
    And this, is, in fact, one of the great sources of delight which the study of natural science imparts to its votaries. A mind which has once imbibed a taste for scientific inquiry, and has learnt the habit of applying its principles readily to the cases which occur, has within itself an inexhaustible source of pure and exciting contemplations. One would think that Shakspeare had such a mind in view when he describes a contemplative man as finding
"Tongues in treesbooks in the running brooks — Sermons in stones — and good in every thing."
Accustomed to trace the operation of general causes, and the exemplification of general laws, in circumstances where the uninformed and uninquiring eye perceives neither novelty nor beauty, he walks in the midst of wonders: every object which I fells in his way elucidates some principle, affords some instruction, and impresses him with a sense of harmony and order. Nor is it a mere passive pleasure which is thus communicated. A thousand questions are continually arising in his mind, a thousand subjects of inquiry presenting themselves, which keep his faculties in constant exercise, and his thoughts perpetually on the wing, so that lassitude is excluded from his life, and that craving after artificial excitement and dissipation of mind, which leads so many into frivolous, unworthy, and destructive pursuits, is altogether eradicated from his bosom.
  • To ascend to the origin of things and speculate on the creation, is not the business of the natural philosopher. An humbler field is sufficient for him in the endeavor to discover, as far as our faculties will permit; what are these primary qualities impressed on matter, and to discover the spirit of the laws of nature
  • Science is the knowledge of many, orderly and methodically digested and arranged, so as to become attainable by one.
  • The question "cui bono" to what practical end and advantage do your researches tend? is one which the speculative philosopher who loves knowledge for its own sake, and enjoys, as a rational being should enjoy, the mere contemplation of harmonious and mutually dependent truths, can seldom hear without a sense of humiliation. He feels that there is a lofty and disinterested pleasure in his speculations which ought to exempt them from such questioning; communicating as they do to his own mind the purest happiness (after the exercise of the benevolent and moral feelings) of which human nature is susceptible, and tending to the injury of no one, he might surely allege this as a sufficient and direct reply to those who, having themselves little capacity, and less relish for intellectual pursuits, are constantly repeating upon him this enquiry.
  • Unfortunately... the philosophy of Aristotle laid it down as a principle, that the celestial motions were regulated by laws proper to themselves, and bearing no affinity to those which prevail on earth. By thus drawing a broad and impassable line of separation between celestial and terrestrial mechanics, it placed the former altogether out of the pale of experimental research, while it at the same time impeded the progress of the latter by the assumption of principles respecting natural and unnatural motions, hastily adopted from the most superficial and cursory and remark, undeserving even the name of observation. Astronomy therefore continued for ages a science of mere record, in which theory had no part, except in so far as it attempted to conciliate the inequalities of the celestial motions with that assumed law of uniform circular revolution which was alone considered consistent with the perfection of the heavenly mechanism.
    • Ch.3 Of Cosmical Phenomena

Quotes about Herschel[edit]

  • What is there in Paradise Lost to elevate and astonish like Herschel or Somerville?
    • Ralph Waldo Emerson, quoted in Robert D. Richardson, Jr., Emerson, the Mind On Fire (Univ. of Calif Press 1995), p124
  • Herschel has noticed how the Stagirite obstructed the progress of astronomy by not identifying celestial with terrestrial mechanics, but laying down the principle that celestial motions were regulated by peculiar laws, thus placing them entirely without the pale of experimental research, while at the same time the progress of mechanics was impeded by the assumption of natural and unnatural motions.
  • As an astronomer in the true sense of the term, Sir John Herschel stood before all his contemporaries. Nay, he stood almost alone.

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