I am a fan of many authors and songwriters who are famous for their brevity and wit, for their pithy epigrams, for their quotability. Franklin, Twain, Heinlein, Sagan; I pepper my speech with references to all of them.
My favorite quote, however, is not a nice, tidy little soundbite. It's not an epigram. It's not pithy. I can't randomly drop make an oblique reference to it in casual conversation.
I first discovered it in a book my grandmother left me: The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski, based on his PBS series of the same name. More than any other passage, it spoke to me.
It is said that science will dehumanise people and turn them into numbers. This is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashed of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.
Science is a very human form of knowledge. We are always at the brink of the known, we always feel forward for what is to be hoped. Every judgment in science stands on the edge of error, and is personal. Science is a tribute to what we can know although we are fallible. In the end the words were said by Oliver Cromwell: 'I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible that you may be mistaken.'
I owe it as a scientist to my friend Leo Szilard, I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.