What’s the most famous sentence in the scientific literature?

Last week I allowed myself to vent a little about one of my writing pet peeves: the all-too-common but always incorrect construction “an unrelated genus”.  As a card-carrying nerd, I also allowed myself to segue from that into the beautiful and profound closing sentence of The Origin of Species:

There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.  (Darwin 1859)

 I suggested that this might be the most famous single sentence in our literature, and that raises two obvious but interesting questions.  First, is it?  And second, what are its competitors?

The answers to both questions surely depend on what I meant by “our literature”.  Let’s (because it will make this the most fun) open the competition to all of the natural sciences, including mathematics; but let’s confine ourselves to the scientific literature as opposed to popular science or other forms of communication.  (That immediately disqualifies “Eppur si muove”*.)

Despite opening the competition to all of science, I’m still going to nominate “There is grandeur in this view of life…” as our champion.  Another contender would surely be:

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material. (Watson and Crick 1953)**

 Two points here about writing.

First, it has not escaped my notice that both of my nominations are from the very ends of things.  “There is grandeur” is the concluding sentence of The Origin of Species, while “It has not escaped our notice” is the next-to-last sentence of Watson and Crick’s paper.  We’re all used to being told how important opening sentences are to strong writing, but our closing sentences are as important, if not more important.  The beginnings and ends of papers (and of paragraphs, for that matter) are “power positions”: readers pay close attention to them, and expect to find important things there.  I’m not particularly good at opening sentences, myself; but I work hard to find good concluding ones***.

Second, it may matter that both sentences are interesting for their construction as well as for their content.  Darwin’s is lyrical.  Watson and Crick’s has a dry wit and false modesty that makes it stand out against a technical background.  I’ve speculated elsewhere about the value of humour, whimsy, and beauty in scientific writing, and these sentences might – in very different ways – be evidence of that.

So I have two nominees, but my biological biases are showing, because I’m struggling to come up with strong contenders from other fields.  A quick read-through of Einstein’s (1905) On the electrodynamics of moving bodies surprised me by not yielding any obvious nominations (and the idea of skimming the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica tempted me only for a moment).  So I’m throwing this open to readers.  What have you got for me (please use the Replies)?  Can you dethrone “There is grandeur in this view of life”?  You’re up.

 © Stephen Heard  January 22, 2018


References

Darwin, Charles. 1859. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. J. Murray, London.

Einstein, A. 1905. On the electrodynamics of moving bodies. Annalen der Physik 17:891-921.

Newton, I. 1687. Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Jussu Societatis Regiae ac Typis Josephi Streater,  London. (How’s that for a publisher?)

Watson, J.D. and F.H.C. Crick. 1953. Molecular structure of nucleic acids: a structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171: 737–738.


*^Even if Galileo actually said it, which is doubtful.  The same distinction might also seem to threaten the status of “There is grandeur…”, because The Origin of Species was a popular bestseller.  However, there is no doubt that it was first a piece of technical work, in which Darwin aimed to communicate his insights to other scientists.  It’s just that the boundaries between the scientific and popular literatures were less clean then than they are now, so a piece of scientific writing could end up on office desks and on bedside tables too.

**^This sentence is often described as a “throwaway line”, but of course it was anything but.  It might well be the most important sentence in the whole paper, and I’m certain that Watson and Crick knew it.

***^You just skipped to the end of this post to evaluate this claim, didn’t you?  No, don’t try to deny it; I saw you.  And you were disappointed, too, I bet.  I should know better than to set myself up that way.

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37 thoughts on “What’s the most famous sentence in the scientific literature?

  1. sleather2012

    I may be biased but I like T H Huxley’s (1858) comment about aphids and their reproductive prowess “I will assume that an Aphis weighs 1/1000th of a grain which is certainly vastly under the mark. A quintillion of Aphides will, on this estimate, weight a quatrillion grains. He is a very stout man who weighs two million grains; consequently the tenth brood alone, if all its members survive the perils to which they are exposed, contains more substance than 500,000,000 stout men; to say the least, more than the whole population of China.”

    If you want to be pedantic and say this is more than one sentence, I think the bit starting at “He is a very stout man…” fits your definition 🙂

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      1. jeffollerton

        True, but I’d argue that the reviews themselves form part of the “literature” it’s just that only a restricted number of people get to see it. Perhaps we should call it Dark Literature, similar to Dark Matter….?

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  2. jeffollerton

    More seriously though, Darwin’s section about the tangled bank gives the grandeur line a run for its money. Interestingly Darwin used “entangled” in the first edition but then it was changed (presumably by him) to “tangled” in subsequent editions. I’ve yet to discover why.

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  3. Markus Eichhorn

    In my experience the only quotation which undergraduate students in biology can reliably recall is that “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”, even if their spelling of Dobzhansky is often less accurate.

    Liked by 5 people

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  4. Richard Browne

    My candidate is: “Science advances one funeral at a time”   – Max Planck Senior people with a vested interest in a point of view will exert great influence to see that an alternative point of view is not given serious consideration.  Look at what happened to Semmelweis and his approach to reducing fatal infections (died in an asylum). Richard Browne 

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  5. Christopher Moore (@lifedispersing)

    In the niche space of mutualism and population ecology an abbreviation of this quote is used frequently (with frequency being the measure of famousness):
    “One initial difficulty is that the simple, quadratically nonlinear, Lotka-Volterra models . . . are inadequate for even a first discussion of mutualism, as they tend to lead to silly solutions in which both populations undergo unbounded exponential growth, in an orgy of mutual benefaction.”

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      That’s a really lovely sentence. (And I used to teach that, although not using that quote, in my Pop Bio courses). Now, I don’t think it can touch the others for fame more broadly, but I’m so pleased by the sentence (especially its end) that I don’t care!

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  6. Robert Buchkowski

    I doubt this is a contender for most famous–certainly outside of ecology. But I always get a chuckle out of Sir Tansley’s line about disagreeing politely:

    “If some of my comments are blunt and provocative I am sure my old friend Dr. Clements and my younger friend Professor Phillips will forgive me. Bluntness makes for conciseness and has other advantages, always provided that it is not malicious and does not overstep the line which separates it from rudeness.”

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  7. atmurre

    For a ‘not all famous quotations are correct’ entry – “Ontology recapitulates phylogeny”.

    If you’re considering shorter famous quotations, “demonic intrusion” is used very frequently to refer to a specific paper and concept.

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  8. Emilie Champagne (@MissEmilieC)

    Not famous, but because others shared their favorite, I will indulge:
    “To many ecologists, such an approach risks the peril of being drawn into the black hole of reductionism, in which one becomes so preoccupied with the details of every situation that generalizations never emerge.”
    Wiens et al. 1993 Oikos 66:369-380
    It has been on my office(s) wall since my master degree!

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  9. Pingback: Friday links: link to ALL the geeky things! | Dynamic Ecology

  10. ric charnov

    Well, if one is allowed sentences not in real literature [ not in technical paper/book], then Einstein’s ‘ God does not play with dice’ is the best; It was wrong, but what the heck.

    While I love the Watson/Crick closing quote, the opening sentence of Murray GellMann’s 1964 Quark paper is much more interesting: It is here;
    ” If we assume that the strong interactions of baryons and mesons are correctly described in terms of the broken “eightfold way” 1-3) we are tempted to look for some fundamental explanation of the situation.”.
    The paper was tiny ( 8 paragraphs, if i recall), and followed the logic relentlessly.Not widely known outside particle physics, but the look-for led to a great advance coupled with some absurdities, and particle physicists were forced to live with those contradictions for many yrs. It turned out correct, but that was much later.

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  11. ric charnov

    Or consider the almost last sentence of Sheldon Glashow’s 1961 Nobel prize winning paper on the Electroweak unification:

    ” Unfortunately our considerations seem without decisive experimental consequence”

    Again physicists were confronted with a new idea that had MAJOR flaws [ read…could not be true, most likely not true, etc]. and its fatal flaws had to be lived with . Deciding to work with an idea like this [ clearly wrong by the standards of the day] is the art of science.
    In a way the Watson/Crick quote is almost too obivious.

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    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      So, interesting question: if I’m right that the Watson/Crick line is more “famous” (whatever that means), why? Has DNA structure had more cultural penetration than quarks or electroweak? And if so, it that better Scicomm by biologists, or some kind of intrinsically greater accessibility?

      Or, am I just showing my Biology bias by thinking what *I* know is more generally known?

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      1. ric charnov

        I am clearly not using famous in a popular, cultural penetration, sense;
        I am using it in the sense of a pithy statement associated with a moment in science when SCIENTISTS were confronted with a great paradox; some idea seemed very insightful, but CLEARLY was wrong/wrongheaded/etc by some standards of the day. So scientists had to make choices about whether the idea was worth paying attention to. Great moments in science are often like this; not ecology,,,but…..

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  12. Rafael Pinheiro (@rafabppinheiro)

    Among non-academics in Brazil I think the most famous scientific sentence is probably:
    “Na natureza nada se perde, nada se cria, tudo se transforma” -> “Nothing is lost, nothing is created, everything is transformed.” (Antoine Lavoisier)

    Every high-school student knows it.

    * I had to google it to know if Lavoisier really wrote this sentence or if it was a phrase created a posteriori to explain the concept.

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  13. kakapo

    Not the most famous, and not strictly a scientific sentence, but one of my favorites and I think quite fitting for this blog:

    The little girl had the making of a poet in her who, being told to be sure of her meaning before she spoke, said, ‘How can I know what I think till I see what I say?’
    Graham Wallas, The Art of Thought (1926)

    Liked by 1 person

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