Great Throughts Treasury

A database of quotes

Humphry Davy, fully Sir Humphry Davy, 1st Baronet

English Chemist and Inventor whose laboratory assistant was Michael Faraday

"Life is made up, not of great sacrifices or duties, but of little things, in which smiles and kindnesses and small obligations, given habitually, are what win and preserve the heart, and secure comfort."

"All our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike--and yet it is the most precious thing we have."

"And by the influence of heat, light, and electrical powers, there is a constant series of changes [in animal and vegetal substances]; matter assumes new forms, the destruction of one order of beings tends to the conservation of another, solution and consolidation, decay and renovation, are connected, and whilst the parts of the system, continue in a state of fluctuation and change, the order and harmony of the whole remain unalterable."

"But if the two countries or governments are at war, the men of science are not. That would, indeed be a civil war of the worst description: we should rather, through the instrumentality of the men of science soften the asperities of national hostility."

"By science calmed, over the peaceful soul, bright with eternal Wisdom's lucid ray, Peace, meek of eye, extends her soft control, and drives the puny Passions far away."

"Cavendish was a great Man with extraordinary singularities—His voice was squeaking his manner nervous He was afraid of strangers & seemed when embarrassed to articulate with difficulty—He wore the costume of our grandfathers. Was enormously rich but made no use of his wealth... He Cavendish lived latterly the life of a solitary, came to the Club dinner & to the Royal Society: but received nobody at his home. He was acute sagacious & profound & I think the most accomplished British Philosopher of his time."

"Cuvier had even in his address & manner the character of a superior Man, much general power & eloquence in conversation & great variety of information on scientific as well as popular subjects. I should say of him that he is the most distinguished man of talents I have ever known on the continent: but I doubt if He be entitled to the appellation of a Man of Genius."

"Even in a moral point of view, I think the analogies derived from the transformation of insects admit of some beautiful applications, which have not been neglected by pious entomologists. The three states—of the caterpillar, larva, and butterfly—have, since the time of the Greek poets, been applied to typify the human being,—its terrestrial form, apparent death and ultimate celestial destination; and it seems more extraordinary that a sordid and crawling worm should become a beautiful and active fly—that an inhabitant of the dark and fetid dunghill should in an instant entirely change its form, rise into the blue air, and enjoy the sunbeams—than that a being whose pursuits here have been after an undying name, and whose purest happiness has been derived from the acquisition of intellectual power and finite knowledge, should rise hereafter into a state of being where immortality is no longer a name, and ascend to the source of Unbounded Power and Infinite Wisdom."

"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."

"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."

"Geology, perhaps more than any other department of natural philosophy, is a science of contemplation. It requires no experience or complicated apparatus, no minute processes upon the unknown processes of matter. It demands only an enquiring mind and senses alive to the facts almost everywhere presented in nature. And as it may be acquired without much difficulty, so it may be improved without much painful exertion."

"I envy not quality of the mind or intellect in others; not genius, power, wit, or 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: for it makes life a discipline of goodness,—creates new hopes when all earthly hopes vanish; and throws over all decay, the destruction of existence, the most gorgeous of all lights; awakes life even in death, and from corruption and decay calls up beauty and divinity; makes an instrument of torture and of shame the ladder of ascent to paradise; and far above all combinations of earthly hopes calls up the most delightful visions of plains and amaranths, the gardens of the blest, the security of everlasting joys, where the sensualist and the skleptic view only gloom, decay, annihilation, and despair."

"I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorized; I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the sight of persons about me. My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked about the room perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavored to recall the ideas--they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself, and, with most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr. Kinglake, 'Nothing exists but thoughts! The universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures, and pains.' [while high on nitrous oxide]"

"I have learned more from my mistakes than from my successes."

"I thank God that I was not made a dexterous manipulator, for the most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by my failures."

"In science one tries to tell people, in such a way as to be understood by everyone, something that no one ever knew before. But in poetry, it's the exact opposite."

"In the present state of our knowledge, it would be useless to attempt to speculate on the remote cause of the electrical energy, or the reason why different bodies, after being brought into contact, should be found differently electrified; its relation to chemical affinity is, however, sufficiently evident. May it not be identical with it, and an essential property of matter?"

"It is contrary to the usual order of things, that events so harmonious as those of the system of the world, should depend on such diversified agents as are supposed to exist in our artificial arrangements; and there is reason to anticipate a great reduction in the number of undecompounded bodies, and to expect that the analogies of nature will be found conformable to the refined operations of art. The more the phenomena of the universe are studied, the more distinct their connection appears, and the more simple their causes, the more magnificent their design, and the more wonderful the wisdom and power of their Author."

"It stands to the everlasting credit of science that by acting on the human mind it has overcome man's insecurity before himself and before nature."

"It will be a general expression of the facts that have been detailed, relating to the changes and transitions by electricity, in common philosophical language, to say, that hydrogen, the alkaline substances, the metals, and certain metallic oxides, are all attracted by negatively electrified metallic surfaces; and contrariwise, that oxygen and acid substances are attracted by positively electrified metallic surfaces and rejected by negatively electrified metallic surfaces; and these attractive and repulsive forces are sufficiently energetic to destroy or suspend the usual operation of elective affinity."

"John Dalton was a very singular Man, a Quaker by profession and practice: He has none of the manners or ways of the world. A tolerable mathematician He gained his livelihood I believe by teaching the mathematics to young people. He pursued science always with mathematical views. He seemed little attentive to the labors of men except when they countenanced or confirmed his own ideas... He was a very disinterested man, seemed to have no ambition beyond that of being thought a good Philosopher. He was a very coarse Experimenter & almost always found the results he required. Memory and observation were subordinate qualities in his mind. He followed with ardor analogies and inductions and however his claims to originality may admit of question I have no doubt that he was one of the most original philosophers of his time & one of the most ingenious."

"Language is not only the vehicle of thought; it is a great and efficient instrument in thinking."

"My sole object was to serve the cause of humanity, and if I succeeded I am amply rewarded in the gratifying of having done so."

"Natural science is founded on minute critical views of the general order of events taking place upon our globe, corrected, enlarged, or exalted by experiments, in which the agents concerned are placed under new circumstances, and their diversified properties separately examined. The body of natural science, then, consists of facts; is analogy,—the relation of resemblance of facts by which its different parts are connected, arranged, and employed, either for popular use, or for new speculative improvements."

"Nature never deceives you: the rocks, the mountains, the streams, always speak the same language; a shower of snow may hide the verdant woods in spring, a thunder-storm may render the blue limpid streams foul and turbulent; but these effects are rare and transient: in a few hours, or at most in a few days, all the sources of beauty are renovated. And nature affords no continued trains of misfortunes and miseries, such as depend upon the constitution of humanity; no hopes forever blighted in the bud, no beings, full of life, beauty, and promise, taken from us in the prime of youth. Her fruits are all balmy and sweet; she affords none of those blighted ones, so common in the life of man, and so like the fabled apples of the Dead Sea, fresh and beautiful to the sight, but, when tasted, full of bitterness and ashes."

"Nothing exists but thoughts!—the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!"

"Nothing is so dangerous to the progress of the human mind than to assume 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."

"Nothing tends so much to the advancement of knowledge as the application of a new instrument."

"Oh, most magnificent and noble Nature! Have I not worshipped thee with such a love as never mortal man before displayed? Adored thee in thy majesty of visible creation, and searched into thy hidden and mysterious ways as Poet, as Philosopher, as Sage?"

"Religion, whether natural or revealed, has always the most beneficial influence on the mind. In youth, in health, and prosperity, it awakens feelings of gratitude, and sublime love, and purifies at the same time that which it exalts: but it is in misfortune, in sickness, in age, that its effects are most truly and beneficially felt: when submission in faith, and humble trust in the divine will, from duties become pleasures, undecaying sources of consolation; then it creates powers which were believed to be extinct, and gives a freshness to the mind which was supposed to have passed away forever, but which is now renovated as an immortal hope. Its influence outlives all earthly enjoyments, and becomes stronger as the organs decay and the frame dissolves; it appears as that evening star of light, in the horizon of life, which we are sure is to become, in another season, a morning star, and it throws its radiance through the gloom and shadow of death."

"Science is a wonderful thing if one does not have to earn one's living at it."

"Scientists were rated as great heretics by the church, but they were truly religious men because of their faith in the orderliness of the universe."

"The beginning of civilization is the discovery of some useful arts, by which men acquire property, comforts, or luxuries. The necessity or desire of preserving them leads to laws and social institutions. The discovery of peculiar arts gives superiority to particular nations ... to subjugate other nations, who learn their arts, and ultimately adopt their manners;— so that in reality the origin as well as the progress and improvement of civil society is founded in mechanical and chemical inventions."

"The caterpillar, on being converted into an inert scaly mass, does not appear to be fitting itself for an inhabitant of the air, and can have no consciousness of the brilliancy of its future being. We are masters of the earth, but perhaps we are the slaves of some great and unknown being. The fly that we crush with our finger or feed with our viands has no knowledge of man, and no consciousness of his superiority. We suppose that we are acquainted with matter and all its elements; yet we cannot even guess at the cause of electricity, or explain the laws of the formation of the stones that fall from meteors. There may be beings, thinking beings, near or surrounding us, which we do not perceive, which we cannot imagine. We know very little; but, in my opinion, we know enough to hope for the immortality, the individual immortality, of the better part of man."

"The child of trial, to mortality and all its changeful influences given; on the green earth decreed to move and die, and yet by such a fate prepared for heaven."

"The grand aim of all science is to cover the greatest number of empirical facts by logical deduction from the smallest number of hypotheses or axioms."

"The moment after, I began to respire 20 quarts of unmingled nitrous oxide. A thrilling, extending from the chest to the extremities, was almost immediately produced. I felt a sense of tangible extension highly pleasurable in every limb; my visible impressions were dazzling, and apparently magnified, I heard distinctly every sound in the room and was perfectly aware of my situation. By degrees, as the pleasurable sensations increased, I last all connection with external things; trains of vivid visible images rapidly passed through my mind, and were connected with words in such a manner, as to produce perceptions perfectly novel. I existed in a world of newly connected and newly modified ideas. I theorized—I imagined that I made discoveries. When I was awakened from this semi-delirious trance by Dr. Kinglake, who took the bag from my mouth, indignation and pride were the first feelings produced by the sight of the persons about me. My emotions were enthusiastic and sublime; and for a minute I walked round the room, perfectly regardless of what was said to me. As I recovered my former state of mind, I felt an inclination to communicate the discoveries I had made during the experiment. I endeavored to recall the ideas, they were feeble and indistinct; one collection of terms, however, presented itself: and with the most intense belief and prophetic manner, I exclaimed to Dr Kinglake, 'Nothing exists but thoughts!—the universe is composed of impressions, ideas, pleasures and pains!'"

"The most important of my discoveries have been suggested to me by my failures."

"The progression of physical science is much more connected with your prosperity than is usually imagined. You owe to experimental philosophy some of the most important and peculiar of your advantages. It is not by foreign conquests chiefly that you are become great, but by a conquest of nature in your own country."

"The three states of the caterpillar, larva, and butterfly have, since the time of the Greek poets, been applied to typify the human being,--its terrestrial form, apparent death, and ultimate celestial destination."

"The tree of knowledge is grafted upon the tree of life; and that fruit which brought the fear of death into the world, budding on an immortal stock, becomes the fruit of the promise of immortality."

"The wealth and prosperity of the country are only the comeliness of the body, the fullness of the flesh and fat; but the spirit is independent of them; it requires only muscle, bone and nerve for the true exercise of its functions. We cannot lose our liberty, because we cannot cease to think."

"There are very few persons who pursue science with true dignity."

"There may be beings, thinking beings, near or surrounding us, which we do not perceive, which we cannot imagine. We know very little; but, in my opinion, we know enough to hope for the immortality, the individual immortality, of the better part of man."

"To me there never has been a higher source of honor or distinction than that connected with advances in science. I have not possessed enough of the eagle in my character to make a direct flight to the loftiest altitudes in the social world; and I certainly never endeavored to reach those heights by using the creeping powers of the reptile, who in ascending, generally chooses the dirtiest path, because it is the easiest."

"Today, for the first time in my life, I have had a distinct sympathy with nature. I was lying on the top of a rock to leeward; the wind was high, and everything was in motion... the whole sky was in motion... everything was alive, and myself part of the series of visual impressions; I should have felt pain in tearing a leaf from one of the trees."

"When two elements combine and form more than one compound, the masses of one element that react with a fixed mass of the other are in the ratio of small whole numbers."