Bonnie Webber's Commonplace Book

These are quotes that have touched a chord in me, that I find worth recalling from time to time.

By recognizing the full complement of extraordinary ordinary wormen who have contributed to the success of NASA, we can change our understanding of their abilities from the exception to the rule. Their goal wsan't to stand out because of their differences; it was to fit in because of their talent.

[Margot Lee Shetterly, Hidden Figures: The untold story of the African American Women who helped win the Space Race, 2016]

Mussolini's hard-headed realism about his own limitations contrasted with his delusions about the martial ambitions and general malleability of his fellow Italians: his famous last words, or near enough, were:

"It is not true that it is hard to govern Italy. It is useless."

[Edward Luttwak, review of Archie Brown, The myth of the strong leader

I write to discover what I think.

[Daniel Boorstin]

You only need two tools in life: WD-40 and Duct Tape. If it doesn't move and should, use the WD-40. If it shouldn't move and does, use the Duct Tape.


You can accomplish anything you want in life provided you don't mind who gets the credit.

[Harry Truman]

No less a feminist than Lady Violet Bonham Carter admitted that in spite of having devoted her life to the furtherance of women's rights, she had come to the conclusion that there were three occupations in which men would always have the edge: hairdressing, dressmaking and cooking.

A couple's first task, it has always seemed to me, is to solve the problem of breakfast; if this can be worked out amicably, most other difficulties can too.

Julian Barnes, from the story Carcassonne.

We Americans live in a nation where the medical-care system is second to none in the world, unless you count maybe 25 or 30 little scuzzball countries like Scotland that we could vaporize in seconds if we felt like it.

[Dave Barry]

In spite of the certainties and empirical trappings of scientific research, Halpern reminds us that it is a collection of stories like any other, each following its own plot line. Her accomplishment is to have drawn out the myriad threads of these stories, connecting them when possible, to produce a panoramic portrait of an intricate and largely unknown world.

Michael Greenberg, Review of Sue Halpern's Can't Remember What I Forgot, NYRB

Your younger nerd takes offense quickly when someone near him begins to utter declarative sentences, because he reads into it an assertion that he, the nerd, does not already know the information being imparted.

[Neal Stephensen, "Cryptonomicon", 1999]

A physicist friend of mine once said that in facing death, he drew some consolation from the reflection that he would never again have to look up the word "hermeneutics" in the dictionary.

[Steven Weinberg, "Sokal's Hoax", NYRB, 8 August 1996, p.11]

Everything, no matter how evident or obvious, should be doubted, questioned, viewed with suspicion....There is much to be gained from the discovery that one has been deeply, persistently, and utterly wrong.

[David Mermin, "Boojums All the Way Through: Communicating Science in a Prosaic Age"]

Whether or not science can be applied to that mental construct [i.e. the designed entity] is a matter of availability. If there is body of scientific knowledge that can be applied, then it would be foolish not to exploit it. However, if there is none, it does not mean that the thing cannot be designed, made, and used safely.

[Henry Petroski, "Small Things Considered: Why there is no perfect design"]

I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.

[Rebecca West, 1913]

Anything that makes a simpler description possible makes the description more easily handleable.

Anything that looks below the previously described surface makes the description more effective.

To be able to say that we looked one layer deeper and found nothing, is a definite step forward, though not as far as to be able to say that we looked deeper and found thus-and-such.

To be able to say that "if we change our point of view in the following way ... things are simpler" is always a gain.

[John Tukey, "Exploratory Data Analysis"]

An approximate answer to the right question is worth a great deal more than a precise answer to the wrong question.

[John Tukey]

When I say that a thing is true, I mean that I cannot help believing it... But...I do not venture to assume that my inabilities in the way of thought are inabilities of the universe. I therefore define truth as the system of my limitations, and leave absolute truth for those who are better equipped.

[Judge Learned Hand]

Never tell people how to do things. Tell them what to do and they will surprise you with their ingenuity.

[Gen. George S. Patton, Jr.]

Sleep is a luxury I will be able to afford when my kids go to college and I can't afford anything else.

[Professor Wendy Gerzog]

[Literary-minded] men choose Hamlet because every man sees himself as a disinherited monarch. Women choose Alice [in Wonderland] because every woman sees herself as the only reasonable creature among crazy people who think they are disinherited monarchs.

[Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker

As the Prussian historian Treitschke later complained, the proponents of free trade in Hamburg had 'in German fashion made out of necessity not just a virtue but a theory'.

[Richard J. Evans, Death in Hamburg: Society and Politics in the Cholera Years 1830-1910, Penguin Books, 1987, p. 10]

Luckily, I remembered something Malcolm Cowley had taught us at Stanford -- perhaps the most important lesson a writing class (not a writer, understand, but a class) can ever learn. 'Be gentle with one another's efforts,' he often admonished us. 'Be kind and considerate with your criticism. Always remember that it's just as hard to write a bad book as it is to write a good book.

[Ken Kesey, "Remember This: Write what you don't know", NYTBR, 31 Dec 1989]

When Louis Agassiz (with some assistance certainly) "discovered" the ice age, that astounding revelation propelled him into the first rank of science's heroes. But then he lingered on ... If science really were the bloodless pursuit of truth, achieved by piling one discovery atop the next, then it would be immune to tragedy. But ideas have life spans of their own, and they can, when the time comes, leave the scene grudgingly, carrying with them into irrelevance all those people who cannot bear to give them up. Agassiz's utlimate fall into a peculiarly precise brand of creationism overlaid with a nasty streak of racism has the air of tragedy to me ... He does leave behind, though, an object lesson about the stakes for which science and scientists play. The stories scientists tell are not simply bedtime tales. They place us in the world, and they can force us to alter the way we think and what we do.

[Thomas Levenson, "Ice Time: Climate, Science and Life on Earth"]

From this simple but arresting finding Gould moves on to some remarkable illustrations of other ways in which statistical analysis of a distribution -- a ``full house'' of numbers -- can change our view of life (in his case, quite literally so). In 1982, at the age of forty, Gould was diagnosed with abdominal mesothelioma, a disease with a median survival of eight months. Fifteen years later, he is still very much around. Statistics helped him stay optimistic. The median is the halfway point: half the patients will be dead in thirty-two short weeks. In other words, half of the variation in mortality must be squeezed into that brief period: anyone who lasts longer has a ``tail'' of time -- up to threescore years and ten -- into which he might survive. Once the terrifying figure of eight months is seen as just a fragment of the whole story there is hope. The median is not the message. Every patient is part of a distribution, and to understand his plight must use all the information available and not see himself as uniquely damned.

[Steve Jones, New York Review of Books 17 October 1996, p.34. Review of Stephen Jay Gould, Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin]

Gardening and scholarship were not so different; both took long hours and single-mindedness, resiliency in the face of major setbacks, a gift for tedium and a flair for the marriage of the unusual. Both strained the eyes and lower back and depended to some degree on fate, prejudice, perspective and the intuitive flash. In scholarship intellectual prejudice became theory, in the yard a personal design: if you hated hydrangeas you left them out. And while research was not prey to the night routs of the armadillo, back-stabbing was no more prevalent in the natural world than in the halls of learning. Armadillos were just odder looking, if more predictable.

[Beverly Lowry, Breaking Gentle ]

Once I was looking through the kitchen window at dusk and I saw an old woman looking in. Suddenly the light changed and I realized that the old woman was myself. You see, it all happens on the outside, inside one doesn't change.

[Molly Keene, quoted in Looking Back , by Shusha Guppy, Paris Review Editions]

This parrot is no more. It has ceased to be. It's expired and gone to meet its maker. This is a late parrot. It's a stiff. Bereft of life, it rests in pease. If you hadn't nailed it to the perch, it would be pushing up the daisies. It's rung down the curtain and joined the choir invisible. This is an ex-parrot.

[Monty Python]

Hap ``thought perhaps we ought to go over to Kmart, see if they had something in sheen green. Something we got tired of wearing, we could use to upholster a chair.''

[Joe R. Lansdale], Mucho Mojo, The Mysterious Press, 1994.

Gillian Parkin sighed. She was an intelligent, enthusiastic 24-year old, and it always depressed her when people hadn't heard of her thesis topic.

Robert Barnard, A Gathering of Vultures

Ari Fleischer, then White House spokesman, speaking about the fact that Saddam Hussain's weapons of mass destruction were nowhere to be found: "I think the burden is on those people who think he didn't have weapons of mass destruction to thell the world where they are."

Dana Milbank, Homo Politicus: The strange and barbaric tribes of the beltway
Revised 13 March 2008