The Great Tragedy of Science—The Slaying of a Beautiful Hypothesis by an Ugly Fact

Thomas Henry Huxley? Charles Darwin? Herbert Spencer? Benjamin Franklin? John Dougall? John Tyndall?

Dear Quote Investigator: An elaborate and magnificent scientific theory can completely collapse if a contradictory fact is uncovered. A prominent scientist called this methodological occurrence one of great tragedies of science. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1870 biologist Thomas Henry Huxley delivered a speech to fellow scientists in Liverpool, England. The text appeared in the leading journal “Nature”. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

But the great tragedy of Science—the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact—which is so constantly being enacted under the eyes of philosophers, was played, almost immediately, for the benefit of Buffon and Needham.

Huxley used a different phrasing for the expression during a personal conversation with philosopher Herbert Spencer according to statistician Francis Galton. See the 1908 citation presented further below.

This thought has displayed a powerful cultural resonance, and Huxley’s phrase has been repeated, modified, and propagated up to the present day. Here is a sampling with dates:

1870: The slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact
1871: Here is a beautiful hypothesis slain by an ugly fact
1878: A beautiful theory killed by an incontrovertible fact
1886: The slaying of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact
1890: The slaying of a beautiful theory by an awkward fact
1891: The murder of a beautiful theory by an ugly fact
1908: A beautiful theory, killed by a nasty, ugly little fact
1911: A beautiful theory killed by a wicked fact
1912: A beautiful induction killed by a nasty little fact
1918: A beautiful theory killed by a devilish little fact
1920: The murder of a beautiful theory by a gang of brutal facts
1922: A murder of a lovely theory by a gang of brutal facts

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Great Tragedy of Science—The Slaying of a Beautiful Hypothesis by an Ugly Fact

Notes:

  1. 1870 September 15, Nature, Section: The British Association – Liverpool Meeting, 1870, Address of Thomas Henry Huxley, President, Start Page 400, Quote Page 402, Column 1, Macmillan and Company, London. (Google Books Full View) link

There Is No God, and Harriet Martineau Is His Prophet

Prophet: Harriet Martineau? William Tweed? John Tyndall? Auguste Comte? Robert G. Ingersoll? Karl Marx? Charles Darwin? Herbert Spencer? Henry George Atkinson? Paul Dirac? Felix Adler?

Critic: Mark Twain? Douglas William Jerrold? George Grote? J. P. Jacobsen? Isaac M. Wise? Wolfgang Pauli?

Dear Quote Investigator: The prominent physicist Paul Dirac was hostile toward religion, and sometimes he would lecture his colleagues on the topic. One fellow scientist responded with a humorous summary of Dirac’s metaphysical position:

There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.

Do you know who crafted this expression? Would you please explore its history?

Quote Investigator: Substantive evidence indicates that physicist Wolfgang Pauli coined the statement above, but this template has an extensive history, and many different names have appeared in analogous phrases in the past.

The earliest template matches located by QI referred to Harriet Martineau and Henry George Atkinson who together published a controversial work titled “Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development” in 1851. 1 Contemporaries believed that the duo was espousing atheism, and both faced tremendous criticism; in April 1851 a periodical about mesmerism printed a statement referring to Atkinson. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2

A celebrated wit declares the great religious view of the book to be, There is no God, and Mr. Atkinson is his prophet.—Zoist.

In July 1851 a piece in “The Worcestershire Chronicle” of Worcestershire, England discussed an essay that analyzed the pair’s book. The following jest was aimed at Martineau: 3

Two valuable essays on “The History of Logic” and “Primitive Alphabets” are followed by one on “Materialism,” in which Miss Martineau and her tutor, “Henry George Atkinson, F.G.S.,” are treated to a little commonsense criticism. Her theory—so ably epitomised by a popular writer of the present day—”that there is no God, and that Miss Martineau is his prophet,” finds no quarter at the hands of the talented reviewer…

The “popular writer” was probably the dramatist Douglas William Jerrold as stated in a September 1851 newspaper item. Additional selected citations in chronological order appear below. Continue reading There Is No God, and Harriet Martineau Is His Prophet

Notes:

  1. 1851, Letters on the Laws of Man’s Nature and Development by Henry George Atkinson and Harriet Martineau, Published by Josiah P. Mendum, Boston, Massachusetts. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1851 April, The Zoist: A Journal of Cerebral Physiology & Mesmerism and Their Applications to Human Welfare, Number 33, XVII: The Fire-away Style of Philosophy briefly Examined and Illustrated by Anti-Glorioso, Footnote, Start Page 65, Quote Page 67, Hippolyte Bailliere, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  3. 1851 July 23, Worcestershire Chronicle, Literary Notices: The Church of England Quarterly Review, Quote Page 6, Column 2, Worcestershire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)