“Ideas Too Are a Life and a World”

More aphorisms from German physicist G.C. Lichtenberg (1742-1799):

  • “How much depends on the way things are presented in this world can be seen from the very fact that coffee drunk out of wine glasses is really miserable stuff, as is meat cut at the table with a pair of scissors. Worst of all, as I once actually saw, is butter spread on a piece of bread with an old though very clean razor.”
  • “A good metaphor is something even the police should keep an eye on.”
  • “There are two ways of extending life: firstly by moving the two points ‘born’ and ‘died’ farther away from one another … The other method is to go more slowly and leave the two points wherever God wills they should be, and this method is for the philosophers.”
  • “As the few adepts in such things well know, universal morality is to be found in little everyday penny-events just as much as in great ones. There is so much goodness and ingenuity in a raindrop that an apothecary wouldn’t let it go for less than half-a-crown.”
  • “One has to do something new in order to see something new.”
  • “People often become scholars for the same reason they become soldiers: simply because they are unfit for any other station. Their right hand has to earn them a livelihood; one might say they lie down like bears in winter and seek sustenance from their paws.”
  • “Nothing makes one old so quickly as the ever-present thought that one is growing older.”
  • “First we have to believe, and then we believe.”
  • “Of all the inventions of man I doubt whether any was more easily accomplished than that of a Heaven.”
  • “What most clearly characterizes true freedom and its true employment is its misemployment.”
  • “I have remarked very clearly that I am often of one opinion when I am lying down and of another when I am standing up.”
  • “It is certainly not a matter of indifference whether I learn something without effort or finally arrive at it myself through my system of thought. In the latter case everything has roots, in the former it is merely superficial.”
  • “A grave is still the best fortification against the storms of destiny.”

See The Sage of Göttingen, From the Notebooks, Diamonds and Pearls, and Insight.



  • The Dutch word for cease-fire negotiations is wapenstilstandsonderhandelingen.
  • Rearrange the letters in ONE THOUSAND KILOS and you get OH, SOUNDS LIKE A TON! (Hans-Peter Reich)
  • 1167882 + 3211682 = 116788321168
  • The Irish for chess, ficheall, derives from the Old Irish fidchell, “wood intelligence.”
  • “Life is a school of probability.” — Walter Bagehot

A tiny detail that I hope is true: In Time in World History (2019), historian Peter Stearns writes that before watches became affordable, some European soldiers “took their own roosters with them so they would wake up on time.”


“Politeness and a sense of honor have this advantage: we bestow them on others without losing a thing.” — Baltasar Gracián

“Be not niggardly of what costs thee nothing, as courtesy, counsel, & countenance.” — Ben Franklin


Letter to the Times, Oct. 23, 2001:

Sir, As a schoolboy in the 1940s I heard the late Sir Robert Wood, Principal of the (then) University College of Southampton, proclaim at a school speech day:

‘The advantage of a classical education is that it teaches you to do without the money it makes you unable to acquire.’

Yours faithfully,

Bill Kirkman
Willingham, Cambridge


Advice in problem solving:

“You must always invert.” — Carl Gustav Jacob Jacobi

“Whenever you can, count.” — Francis Galton

“Each problem that I solved became a rule, which served afterwards to solve other problems.” — Descartes

“By studying the masters, not their pupils.” — Niels Henrik Abel

“Truth is the offspring of silence and meditation. I keep the subject constantly before me and wait ’til the first dawnings open slowly, by little and little, into a full and clear light.” — Isaac Newton