In my e-mail signature you find a number of quotes that were inserted over time. Since a number of people keep asking about the meaning of this signature here is a short explanation.
»We shall not grow wiser before we learn that much that we have done was very foolish«
Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, The University of Chicago Press, Fiftieth anniversary edition, 1994, p 262.
Friedrich Hayek (Austrian-British Economist 1899 – 1992) wrote “Road to Serfdom” as a reaction to World War I and World War II between 1940 and 1943. In his book he elaborates on the issue of conviction and the consequences of our actions based on our convictions. The phrase quoted here points at the fact that we typically prefer to assume that reality is flawed if it does not coincide with our convictions. As scientists we tend to believe that we are immune to such interference of conviction and facts. However, the history of science is full of errors and mistakes based on such convictions. If such scientific convictions spill over into the political arena – as Hayek observed – they can get out of control. He addresses this problem by saying « … there could hardly be a more unbearable – and more irrational – world than one in which the most eminent specialists in each field were allowed to proceed unchecked with the realization of their ideals. « RtS, 1994, p 62
»Je ne capitule pas«
Eugéne Ionesco, Rhinocéros, 1958
This is the final sentence of a play by the Romanian/French author Eugéne Ionesco (1909 – 1994) in which Ionesco addresses the issue of mass movements. His play Rhinocéros was obviously inspired by the massive French patriotic and rassist uprise during the Algerien war in 1956/1957 but later on Ionesco stated that it should be seen as a general criticism of mass movements. The phrase quoted here is the last sentence of the play in which the protagonist Berenger defends himself against a world in which all other humans have turned voluntarily into rhinoceroses.
The full qoute is: « Je suis le dernier homme, je le resterai jusqu’au bout ! Je ne capitule pas ! «
The quote struck me because the least "qualified expert" in the play is able to resist a mass movement by simply sticking to basic logic and humanness.
»e l'ambizione è un vizio che scompare soltanto on la morte«
Leonardo Da Vinci, Favole sulli uccelli, around 1495
This is a quote from Leonardo da Vinci’s (1452 - 1519) collection of fables that he wrote around 1495. In the fable The Peacock - from which I took the quote - the peacock keeps showing his beautiful tail walking around in pride although everyone - including the peacock - is starving to death. A young chicken asks his mother about this strange behaviour and she replies that ambition is a vice that finds its end only when we die. As a scientist ambition is part of my professional career and in a sense ambition is what drives scientists to keep pushing for new questions and answers. The quote keeps reminding me of the limits of ambition.
»wir alle gehen der Richtung nach, in die wir geworfen worden sind«
Christine Lavant, Aufzeichnungen aus einem Irrenhaus, Haymon, 2001, p 29
Christine Lavant (1915 – 1973) was an Austrian author and I hence share the experience of growing up in the Austrian catholic society of the alpine region. In Records from a madhouse Lavant describes her time in an Austrian mental institution. As a keen observer she also notices her own desire to describe things and write them down. Reflecting about her own urge to write she generalizes “Andere müssen Brücken bauen, andere Kinder zum Leben bringen oder Dinge, die in ihnen liegen, in Töne umsetzen, irgendwo malt einer vielleicht ein Bild und haßt sich bei jedem Pinselzug mehr, ach, wir alle gehen der Richtung nach, in die wir geworfen worden sind.“ (Others have to build bridges, others have to bear children or have to transform into tones things that lie inside them, somewhere maybe someone is painting a picture and hates himself more with every stroke of his brush, alas, we all follow the direction in which we were thrown.). Reflecting on Christine Lavant I feel the ambivalence between what we ourselves want and actively pursue and the forces that act upon us through education and social pressure.
A reader once told me that salmons just do the opposite of following the direction in which they were thrown. But, this is exactly what Lavant describes here. Salmons have to swim against the current. This is the direction in which they were thrown. A salmon not following this direction would give up swimming against the current and turn around.
Drei Zeichen Klassiker, S.Fischer, 2009, p 9
This one I found as the initial line of the Three-Character Classical when reading through classical Chinese literature in 2009 (China was the guest country of the Frankfurt book fair in 2009). The quote translates roughly to “People at birth are naturally good”. Discussions with my Chinese colleagues showed that a literal translation is not easily possible. However, the translation given above pretty much reflects the meaning of these six (2x3) signs. The meaning resonates with my basic believe that all people have the ability to do good and that every child is born naturally good. The Three-Character Classical for a long time was a mandatory poem for Chinese school children. It was removed from public education in 1949 when the foundation of the People’s Republic of China officially replaced the traditional Confucian thinking by Marxism. The poem is known from a compilation created by Wang Yinglin (1223 – 1296). The quote shown here is said to be originally a thought of Meng Zi (~370 B.C. – ~290 B.C.).
»Soli omnium otiosi sunt qui sapientiae vacant, soli vivunt«
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, "De brevitate vitae - Über die Kürze des Lebens", Reclam, 2008, 14 (1)
Lucius Annaeus Seneca (1 - 65) was born around 1 A. D. and wrote "On the Shortness of Life" in 49 A.D. when having come back to Rome from exile. The key message of the book is that life is not short at all but that we are too busy to realize that our time is running. Seneca explicitely writes "Satis longa vita et in maximarum rerum consummationem large data est, si tota bene conlocaretur" (Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested.) As the director of a computing center I especially like this quote because it speaks of "large data".
Seneca compares "otium" (often translated as "leisure") and "negotium" (often translated as "business"). Business is what Seneca considers perhaps necessary, but being way too important in the Rome of his time. He gives a vivid – and pretty ironical - description of the capital of the western world in 49 A.D. with its busy craving for public offices and private patronage. Leisure on the other hand is to Seneca the key for a real life. He strongly believes that leisure can be found in the reading of the thoughts of old philosophers (mainly Greek) - thus being able to add the life of those wise men to ones own life. The qoute translates to "Of all men they alone are at leisure who take time for philosophy, they alone really live;" Seneca may sound a little rigorous - or even arrogant - here but there is some food for thought in this quote. One may also wonder to which extent this emphasis of leisure is similar to the Gospel according to St. Matthew 6,25 – 34 (… Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they labour not, neither do they spin …). Given that the Gospel is assumed to have been written sometime between 60 A.D. and 100 A.D. this is an interesting question. On the other hand one may wonder whether our interpretation is simply so much biased by our Christian believe that we tend to translate what we expect to see.