Humphry Davy

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The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply, — there are always new worlds to conquer.

Sir Humphry Davy (17 December, 177829 May, 1829), often incorrectly spelled Humphrey, was a Cornish chemist who discovered several chemical elements and studied the human body's response to electricity. He is generally credited with inventing the Miners' Safety Lamp, although George Stephenson also claimed the invention.


The greater the circle of light, the greater the boundary of darkness by which it is surrounded.
  • Fortunately science, like that nature to which it belongs, is neither limited by time nor by space. It belongs to the world, and is of no country and of no age. The more we know, the more we feel our ignorance; the more we feel how much remains unknown; and in philosophy, the sentiment of the Macedonian hero can never apply, — there are always new worlds to conquer.
    • Discourse Delivered at the Royal Society (30 November 1825), published in Six Discourses delivered before the Royal Society, at their Anniversary Meetings, on the Award of the Royal and Copley Medals, preceded by an Address to the Society on the Progress and Prospects of Science (1827); also in The Edinburgh Review Or Critical Journal (October 1827)
  • It is surely a pure delight to know, how and by what processes this earth is clothed with verdure and life, how the clouds, mists and rain are formed, what causes all the changes of this terrestrial system of things, and by what divine laws order is preserved amidst apparent confusion. It is a sublime occupation to investigate the cause of the tempest and the volcano, and to point out their use in the economy of things, — to bring the lightning from the clouds and make it subservient to our experiments, — to produce as it were a microcosm in the laboratory of art, and to measure and weigh those invisible atoms, which, by their motions and changes according to laws impressed upon them by the Divine Intelligence, constitute the universe of things. The true chemical philosopher sees good in all the diversified forms of the external world. Whilst he investigates the operations of infinite power guided by infinite wisdom, all low prejudices, all mean superstitions disappear from his mind. He sees man an atom amidst atoms fixed upon a point in space; and yet modifying the laws that are around him by understanding them; and gaining, as it were, a kind of dominion over time, and an empire in material space, and exerting on a scale infinitely small a power seeming a sort of shadow or reflection of a creative energy, and which entitles him to the distinction of being made in the image of God and animated by a spark of the divine mind. Whilst chemical pursuits exalt the understanding, they do not depress the imagination or weaken genuine feelings; whilst they give the mind habits of accuracy, by obliging it to attend to facts, they likewise extend its analogies; and, though conversant with the minute forms of things, they have for their ultimate end the great and magnificent objects of nature. They regard the formation of a crystal, the structure of a pebble, the nature of a clay or earth; and they apply to the causes of the diversity of our mountain chains, the appearances of the winds, thunder-storms, meteors, the earthquake, the volcano, and all those phenomena which offer the most striking images to the poet and the painter. They keep alive that inextinguishable thirst after knowledge, which is one of the greatest charactics of our nature; — for every discovery opens a new field for investigation of facts, shows us the imperfection of our theories. It has justly been said, that the greater the circle of light, the greater the boundary of darkness by which it is surrounded.
  • I envy no quality of the mind or intellect in others; not genius, power, wit, nor fancy; but, if I could choose what would be most delightful, and, I believe, most useful to me, I should prefer a firm religious belief to every other blessing.
    • Reported in Josiah Hotchkiss Gilbert, Dictionary of Burning Words of Brilliant Writers (1895), p. 241
  • Nothing is so fatal to the progress of the human mind as to suppose that our views of science are ultimate; that there are no mysteries in nature; that our triumphs are complete, and that there are no new worlds to conquer.
    • As quoted in Humphry Davy : Science & Power (1998) by David Knight, p. 87

Quotes about Davy[edit]

  • Davy held that if the battery is strong enough any compound may be decomposed, and that chemical affinity is merely a form of electric attraction. He vigorously put his theory into practice...
  • Berthollet's conclusion that chlorine is oxymuriatic acid was universally accepted until Gay-Lussac and Thénard in 1809 endeavoured to decompose the gas and failed. They concluded that it contained water because it yielded water when passed over litharge. Their researches read to the Institute in 1809 led Davy to investigate muriatic acid (hydrochloric acid) gas, which in 1808 he had shown to be decomposed by potassium, with evolution of hydrogen. In 1810 he proved that chlorine is an element, and that muriatic acid gas is a compound of chlorine and hydrogen. He thus overturned the oxygen-acid theory, and demonstrated that muriates are compounds of metals with chlorine. He pointed to the fact that some acids, such as sulphuretted hydrogen, contain no oxygen, and argued that muriatic acid gas was one of these, chlorine in it taking the place of oxygen. ...The conclusions of Davy were at first doubted, but when iodine and bromine were also discovered, Gay-Lussac and his followers adopted Davy's views. The latter worked out fluorine, and proved that hydrofluoric acid (HF) contains no oxygen. Berzelius also opposed Davy until the discovery of iodine, but embraced the latter's opinion in 1820.
    • James Campbell Brown, A History of Chemistry from the Earliest Times (1920) pp.340-341
  • I need only remind you of Davy's great researches: nitrous oxide; electric conduction and decomposition—resulting, on the one hand, in the separation of potassium and sodium, the decomposition of the earths following as a necessary consequence, and on the other in the electro-chemical theory; iodine and chlorine—resulting in the extension and confirmation of the word element, the discovery of the so-called hydrogen acids, and the important modification of the French theory of the constitution of acids; the investigation of gaseous explosion and of flame, and the invention of the safety lamp. These are the contributions to science which stand out more prominently in connection with Davy. But over and above all this is the peculiar manner of his discoveries. He was no patient plodder. He did not elaborate his work in minute detail. He dashed it off in broad masses; but just on that account there has never been anyone to follow up his investigations. Davy's mantle fell on no one, not even on Faraday.

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