Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. Orbiting this at a distance of roughly ninety-two million miles is an utterly insignificant little blue green planet whose ape-descended life forms are so amazingly primitive that they still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea.

The planet has — or rather had — a problem, which was this: most of the people living on it were unhappy for pretty much most of the time. Many solutions were suggested for this problem, but most of them were largely concerned with the movements of small green pieces of paper, which is odd because on the whole it wasn’t the small green pieces of paper that were unhappy.

And so the problem remained; lots of people were mean, and most of them were miserable, even the ones with digital watches.

Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, p. 7

Religion has convinced people that there’s an invisible man … living in the sky. Who watches everything you do every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a list of ten specific things he doesn’t want you to do. And if you do any of these things, he will send you to a special place, of burning and fire and smoke and torture and anguish for you to live forever, and suffer, and suffer, and burn, and scream, until the end of time. But he loves you. He loves you. He loves you and he needs money.

George Carlin.

The Church worked hard at it night and day during nine centuries and imprisoned, tortured, hanged, and burned whole hordes and armies of witches, and washed the Christian world clean with their foul blood. Then it was discovered that there was no such thing as witches, and never had been. One doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. Who discovered that there was no such thing as a witch – the priest, the parson? No, these never discover anything.

Mark Twain.

I once inhaled a pretty full dose of ether, with the determination to put on record, at the earliest moment of regaining consciousness, the thought I should find uppermost in my mind. The mighty music of the triumphal march into nothingness reverberated through my brain, and filled me with a sense of infinite possibilities, which made me an archangel for the moment. The veil of eternity was lifted. The one great truth which underlies all human experience, and is the key to all the mysteries that philosophy has sought in vain to solve, flashed upon me in a sudden revelation. Henceforth all was clear: a few words had lifted my intelligence to the level of the knowledge of the cherubim. As my natural condition returned, I remembered my resolution; and, staggering to my desk, I wrote, in ill-shaped, straggling characters, the all-embracing truth still glimmering in my consciousness. The words were these (children may smile; the wise will ponder): “A strong smell of turpentine prevails throughout.”

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr.

Well, I can’t believe the stuff that is not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter is not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter. And I can’t believe that both I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter and the stuff that I can’t believe is not I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter are both, in fact, not butter. And I believe… they both might be butter… in a cunning disguise. And, in fact, there’s a lot more butter around than we all thought there was.

Alice Tinker, The Vicar of Dibley

Language is my whore, my mistress, my wife, my pen-friend, my check-out girl. Language is a complimentary moist lemon-scented cleansing square or handy freshen-up wipette. Language is the breath of God, the dew on a fresh apple, it’s the soft rain of dust that falls into a shaft of morning light as you pluck from an old bookshelf a forgotten book of erotic memoirs; language is the creak on the stair, it’s a spluttering match held to a frosted pane, it’s a half-remembered childhood birthday party, it’s the warm wet, trusting touch of a leaking nappy,  the hulk of a charred Panzer, the underside of a granite boulder, the first downy growth on the upper lip of a Mediterranean girl, cobwebs long since overrun by an old Wellington boot.

Stephen Fry, A bit of Fry & Laurie.

Ludwig Boltzmann, who spent much of his life studying statistical mechanics, died in 1906, by his own hand. Paul Ehrenfest, carrying on the same work, died similarly in 1933. Now it is our turn to study statistical mechanics. Perhaps it will be wise to approach the subject cautiously

David Goodstein, Introduction of States of Matter

There is a cult of ignorance in the United States, and there has always been. The strain of anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge’.

Isaac Asimov

The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore so it eats it! (It’s rather like getting tenure.)

D. Dennett, Consciousness Explained, p. 177.

For surely the atoms did not hold council, assigning order to each, flexing their keen minds with questions of place and motion and who goes where. But shuffled and jumbled in many ways, in the course of endless time they are buffeted, driven along, chancing upon all motions, combinations. At last they fall into such an arrangement as would create this universe.

Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 50 BC.

Books are useless! I only ever read one book, To Kill A Mockingbird, and it gave me absolutely no insight on how to kill mockingbirds! Sure it taught me not to judge a man by the color of his skin . . . but what good does that do me?

Homer J. Simpson, Diatribe of a Mad Housewife, 2004.

Pursuing this idea I came to construct arbitrary expressions for the entropy which were more complicated than those of Wien … but acceptable. Among those expressions my attention was caught by

\[\frac{\partial^2s_\nu}{\partial e_\nu^2} = \frac{\alpha}{e_\nu(\beta +e_\nu)}\]which comes closest to Wien’s in simplicity and deserves to be further investigated.

… a piece of mathematical jugglery without any correspondence to anything real in nature.

Max Planck, on the invention of his radiation law.

What exactly qualifies some physical systems to play the role of ‘measurer’? Was the wavefunction of the world waiting to jump for thousands of millions of years until a single–celled living creature appeared? Or did it have to wait a little longer, for some better qualified system . . . with a PhD?

J.S. Bell, Against ‘Measurement’, Phys. World 3, (1990), 33.

Just as the Library of Babel is filled mainly with junk, unreadable books of nonsense, Design Space is filled mainly with nonsensical stuff of no interest or function or competence at all, but here and there, Vanishingly thin threads of actual and possible design shine through; things that can do things aside from just waiting around to crumble under the inexorable edict of the second law of thermodynamics.

D.C. Dennett, Intuition Pumps and other Tools for Thinking, p. 225

Why, for example, should a group of simple, stable compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen struggle for billions of years to organize themselves into a professor of chemistry? [….] If we leave a chemistry professor out on a rock in the sun long enough the forces of nature will convert him into simple compounds of carbon, oxygen, hydrogen and nitrogen, calcium, phosphorus and small amounts of other minerals …

Robert Pirsig, Lila, p. 294.

There must then be in the universe, which is in thermal equilibrium as a whole and therefore dead, here and there relatively small regions of the size of our galaxy (which we call worlds), which during the relatively short time of eons deviate significantly from thermal equilibrium. Among these worlds the state probability increases as often as it decreases.

Ludwig Boltzmann, 1897.

After a lecture on cosmology and the structure of the solar system, William James was accosted by a little old lady.

“Your theory that the sun is the centre of the solar system, and the earth is a ball which rotates around it has a very convincing ring to it, Mr. James, but it’s wrong. I’ve got a better theory,” said the little old lady.

” And what is that, madam?” Inquired James politely.

“That we live on a crust of earth which is on the back of a giant turtle,”

Not wishing to demolish this absurd little theory by bringing to bear the masses of scientific evidence he had at his command, James decided to gently dissuade his opponent by making her see some of the inadequacies of her position.

“If your theory is correct, madam,” he asked, “what does this turtle stand on?”

“You’re a very clever man, Mr. James, and that’s a very good question,” replied the little old lady, “but I have an answer to it. And it is this: The first turtle stands on the back of a second, far larger, turtle, who stands directly under him.”

“But what does this second turtle stand on?” Persisted James patiently.

To this the little old lady crowed triumphantly. “It’s no use, Mr. James—it’s turtles all the way down.”

J.R. Ross, Constraints on Variables in Syntax, (1967), p. 4.

Gay Byrne: “Suppose it’s all true, and you walk up to the pearly gates, and are confronted by God. What will Stephen Fry say to him, her, or it?”

Stephen Fry: “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean–minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”

Gay Byrne: “And you think you are going to get in, like that?”

Stephen Fry: “But I wouldn’t want to, I wouldn’t want to get in on his terms. They are wrong. Now, if I died and it was Pluto, Hades, and if it was the 12 Greek gods then I would have more truck with it, because the Greeks didn’t pretend to not be human in their appetites, in their capriciousness, and in their unreasonableness… they didn’t present themselves as being all–seeing, all–wise, all–kind, all–beneficent, because the god that created this universe, if it was created by god, is quite clearly a maniac… utter maniac, totally selfish. We have to spend our life on our knees thanking him? What kind of god would do that?”

Gay Byrne en Stephen Fry, RTE, The Meaning of Life