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Musings > Friday, 26 November 2010 16:45:13 EST

Did Einstein Really Say That?

Keywords: epistemology, uncertainty

When I designed this website, I included a quote underneath the title of the page which I've attributed to the great Albert Einstein: "Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe."

It's a great quote, right?  The only problem is that it seems too good.  It seems like exactly the kind of quote that somebody would attribute to a well known figure like Albert Einstein just to give it some extra weight.  Perhaps it won't surprise you to know that I had that exact same thought while putting this website together.

A while back, Doug Delong of the Planet Japan podcast plugged my blog, but mentioned that he had trouble believing that the quote was accurate.  This is what I wrote to him in response:

I was also uncertain about the quote attribution when I first read it.  I know that quotes are often given false sources just because they sound good.  But I did some googling, and I have yet to find any version of that quote attributed to anybody but Albert Einstein.

But I also haven't been able to figure out when he said the quote or in what context.  Was it part of some speech?  An interview?  Did he write it in a book?  Or was it just a casual comment to a friend?

I have a good sized book on Einstein on my reading list, maybe it will make mention of this attribution.

Anyway, without any evidence to the contrary, I'm going to accept the attribution of Albert Einstein for the time being. 

On his podcast, Doug reported that I had written in to assure him that the quote was, indeed, from Albert Einstein.  As you can see, that wasn't exactly what I said, but there wasn't really any reason for him to bore his audience with all the details.

Like I said, though, I looked extensively through different versions of this quote, and wherever I found mention of it, it was attributed to Albert Einstein.  If somebody else actually said it, there's no trace of it that I can find.

That doesn't mean that this is a genuine Einstein quote, though.  On this blog, I'm always talking about things that people believe without question but for which the evidence just isn't there.  It could very well be the case that this quote was never uttered by Einstein at all.

Einstein and Jesus discuss the origins of the quote.

The truth of the matter is that I would really love it if this quote turned out to be a false attribution.   I'm not above lying to you guys when it doesn't matter, just to see who's paying attention.  It's all part of what I've been saying all along, that I don't want people to blindly trust what I have to say just because I'm on this particular soap box.

The reason I bring this up is because I've gotten two recent posts in the comments section from visitors to the website saying that they're familiar with Einstein's work, but they have never heard of this particular quote.  That makes it look to me like the quote is less likely to be true.

Of course, it could still be the case that this is one of Einstein's lesser known quotes.  If I get word from somebody who's intimately familiar with everything we know about Albert Einstein, I'll have to take his or her word, whatever it may be, as definitive.

As it stands, though, it's looking less likely to me that this is a true Einstein quote.  But I love it, possible false attribution and all.  To everybody who's questioned it, give yourselves a pat on the back.  I love having inquisitive people who question things reading my blog!  I hope you'll humour me if I leave the quote up there.


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