Wednesday, May 21, 2008


The Bees Quote

In recent times, a slow but dramatic decline of the world bee population has been reported. The reasons are uncertain, leading to a lot of speculation. In the process of searching for the causes and possible remedies the bee-keepers came upon a statement that must have expressed their deepest convictions : If the bee disappears off the surface of the globe, mankind will only have four years of life left: no bees, no pollination, no plants, no animals, no humans. This verdict not only reflects and thus justifies their worries; but thanks to the authoritative name it is attributed to, it promises to be just as unassailable as it is irresistible. The name which so elevates the value of the statement, is none other than Albert Einstein. Beekeepers and other people concerned with the survival of mankind provided for the thousandfold propagation of the quote. It is a pity that the authenticity of this statement cannot be verified.There is every indication that Einstein never made such a statement. The archivists at the Albert Einstein Archives in Jerusalem can neither find any comparable remarks on ecological subjects in his writings, nor does such a precise prognostication of four years regarding human survival correspond to Einstein’s approach.

Vegetarianism Quote

Closer yet to Einstein’s approach is the following quote: Nothing will benefit human health and increase the chances for survival of life on Earth as much as the evolution to a vegetarian diet. Again there is an issue the public, for better or for worse, associates with “Einstein”, namely the survival of mankind. And there is an interest group promoting the spread of the statement.Einstein, when asked by vegetarians about vegetarianism , did speak out several times on the subject. Evidently, he was not closed to arguments favoring vegetarian views. But like every pretension of an absolute truth, this ideology provoked Einstein’s resistance. He kept aloof from any ideological commitments and prudently expressed his skepticism regarding vegetarianism’s practicability. This does not conflict with a comment he made after his many years of partly meatless diets: „I have always eaten animal flesh with a somewhat guilty conscience“ [i] and his rather jocular speculation that „man was not born to be a carnivore“ [ii]. It is rather unlikely that Einstein would have declared vegetarianism the sine qua non for human survival. The absolutist phrase „Nothing will benefit..” may well be a pretty much refurbished version of the far less radical yet authentic statement: „It is my view that a vegetarian manner of living by its purely physical effect on the human temperament would most beneficially influence the lot of mankind.“[iii]Questionable quotesHow does one deal with the fact that dubious quotations became so popular and appear on all sorts of websites and even in academic publications? The archivist, confronted with the request for authentication, no doubt takes it seriously, because not even he, a professional skeptic, can escape the popularity of such quotations. After some research, however, he has to admit: These quotes cannot be authenticated. He doubts their provenance and is of the opinion that these quotes are misattributed to Einstein. Therefore the inquirer is urged not to contribute to the further circulation of the respective quote under Albert Einstein’s name.Such feedback, in turn, may influence those who, on account of their own doubts, approached the archivist for help. What, though, about the many others who are dazzled by Einstein’s name and uncritically reproduce the quote on their freeenergy website, on their globalclimatechange website, or in the Beekeper’s Union’s flyer?I am still waiting for a brilliant idea as to how to make the fake quotes disappear.And the two quotes mentioned above are not the only ones that give me a headache.SimplicityOne of my biggest pet peeves, among the most popular quotes attributed to Einstein, is:Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.Einstein, I am sure, would never have uttered such nonsense.No doubt that the words: Everything should be made as simple as possible,express an idea that Einstein often emphasized. He said, for instance,The[..] fundamental concepts and postulates, which cannot be further reduced logically, form the essential part of a theory, which reason cannot touch. It is the grand object of all theory to make these irreducible elements as simple and as few in number as possible, without having to renounce the adequate representation of any empirical content whatever.[iv]He said also: Our experience hitherto justifies us in believing that nature is the realization of the simplest conceivable mathematical ideas.[v]Thus the theorist’s task ought to be, as Einstein states, a search for the logically simplest possibilities and their consequences [vi].One recognizes that Einstein strongly believed in the logical simplicity of the order and harmony of nature’s laws, and even his simple and frugal private life reflected this conviction. So much, for now, about Einstein’s undeniable preference for simplification. Let’s go back to the quote under discussion.“As simple as possible”stands for the simplest possible version. There is nothing simpler than simplest, and the simplest possible is the ultimate state of simplicity.An author demanding that things “be made as simple as possible”, offers a reasonable suggestion.What, though, are we supposed to think of the additional “but not simpler”? [vii]I think that Einstein would never have added such an illogical tail to a postulate so dear to him.Moreover, as free-spirited and anti-bourgeois as Einstein may have appeared to be all his life, his language remained the refined German of the Bildungsb├╝rger of his time, a language he mastered with virtuosity. This language does not allow for a grammatical lapse of this kind.I wonder how a statement, whose intrinsic inconsistency cannot but catch the attentive reader’s eyes and ears, could become so popular.Imagination & knowledgeThat is a moot question regarding the assertion “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” This quote cannot be challenged for reasons of either illogical combinations or audacious predictions. What is more, this quote was presented to posterity as part of an interview with Einstein.. In the periodical where it was published for the first time in 1929 the context reads:AE: I was not surprised, when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions [viii] and I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.GSV: Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?AE: I am enough of the artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.Already in 1921, confronted with the Edison questionnaire about what is essential in education, Einstein publicly expressed disdain for book learning. He clearly maintained that there is no need to stuff one’s mind with information readily available in text books.Yet we would completely misinterpret Einstein by concluding that he spoke out against the acquisition of knowledge in general. What displeased him was the way teaching was widely practiced in schools and universities, namely the cramming of the brain with names, numbers and facts for which the pupil had no practical use and to which he could not relate anything. First and foremost, however, Einstein scorned men’s foolish faith in, and thoughtless adoption of, commonly accepted knowledge.[ix]There cannot be any doubt that Einstein himself had gained considerable knowledge, partly from books, partly from the environment of his childhood and youth, partly at school and university, and that until the very end of his life he never stopped longing for and acquiring additional knowledge. It was this knowledge that provided the basis for his discoveries.Einstein’s willingness and distinctive ability to deal with his knowledge in a playful, independent, creative manner led to extraordinary results. And thus it is this specific open-minded vagabonding of the imagination which he praises in our oft-quoted statement.Taken out of context, and reduced to a short calendar motto, however, the quote became a multi-functional platitude abetting the anarchy of any iconoclast as well as the woolgathering of all sorts of amateurs.Should Einstein be made responsible for the misunderstandings resulting from this perfect phrase, especially given the fact that we may doubt that he ever formulated such a sentence ?In 1929, George Sylvester Viereck, an American journalist of German descent, interviewed Einstein in Berlin. It is obvious that the authenticity of the eventually published statements at that time depended solely on the interviewer’s ability to understand, and his skill to write down exactly what the interviewee said. The conversation was conducted in German. We do not know in which language the interviewer put down his notes. Yet we know that the interview was first published in English, and that a later German version, rather than resorting to Einstein’s own German words, was translated from the English article. To make matters worse, G.S.Viereck’s capacity to decipher his own notes, seems to have been inadequate and he was notorious for his rather casual handling of those illegible notes and for filling in some gaps with his own words and ideas. The reliability of the article about Einstein is all the more undermined with various facts contained therein being identifiably doubtful or inaccurate.So, it is a legitimate question whether Einstein actually said that imagination is more important than knowledge. One can neither verify nor deny it; he may have said it this way or with different words. What he did intend to express, he phrased for instance in The Evolution of Physics:[T]he scientist must collect the unordered facts available and make them coherent and understandable by creative thought.To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle, requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.[x]PlagiarizingEinstein valued creativity as one of the most important preconditions for scientific research. His own creativeness enabled him to re-combine existent data in an unorthodox way. Naturally, he based his research on the work of his predecessors. Puzzling over problems that were in the air, he may, mainly in his earlier years, not always have been aware of the origin of each element of his ideas. It is highly improbable, however, that he exalted plagiarizing and the concealment of external sources as a method worth emulating. A witticism like "The secret of creativity is knowing how to hide your sources." sounds rather like a pupil’s gag. By attributing it to Einstein, the real author possibly made an allusion to the heavily debated fact that Einstein, in his early papers, did not give credit to any of the scientists who are said to have deserved it. I may, though, over-interpret the author’s intention, while he simply aimed at providing his bon mot with unchallengeable repute.Harder than relativityApparently the same intention generated various other forgeries. Neither The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax, nor Compounded interest is more complicated than relativity theory can be authenticated among Einstein’s writings, either in the version mentioned here or in any similar wording. Since financial consultants prepared Einstein's taxes and investments, he hardly had to wrestle with income tax and compounded interest. But if he ever did drop such a remark, it would have been in jest.StupidityIrony colors the following quote as well: Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe." Is it Einstein’s irony ? As a matter of fact, Einstein sometimes lamented the stupidity of particular contemporaries, be it because they took at face value every press blabber, or because they did not debunk their political leaders’ cheap slogans as simple bragging. In short, Einstein scathed their reluctance to show judgment. Yet there is a good reason to believe that Einstein did not globally ridicule the infinite human stupidity. This aphorism, too, has never been authenticated.How to create a theory ?Also Einstein has never been identified as the author of If the facts don't fit the theory, change the facts, here, too, due to the inherent assertion, one cannot help having severe doubts. While Einstein repeatedly advocated the changing of the facts in the political field, in his own scientific field „facts“ are regarded as irrevocable. A fact like the constancy of the speed of light cannot be adapted to a preconceived theory, rather the theory has to develop from the fact. So often did Einstein, when his newly developed theorem would not withstand the facts, simply discard his work of many weeks or months, just to start research anew, that even his friends poked fun at it.[xi] Therefore a quotation as inconsistent with Einstein’s real attitude as the one under discussion, should not be treated as an authentic statement.IngenuityIt is more difficult to form an opinion about : Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage — to move in the opposite direction.To some extent this proposition sounds as if Einstein could have said it. It reflects his aversion toward what is larger and more complex than necessary, and his intolerance for violence – although ‘violence’, in this context, seems to be in the wrong spot.[xii] The aphorism refers as well to an experience Einstein had early in his life: that it takes some courage and much self-confidence to swim against the current. The stumbling block is in the words: It takes a touch of genius. Would Einstein ever have said that his own searching for the logically simplest possible way to do things, is something only a genius can do? Einstein disliked the word genius. With a certain understatement he ascribed his scientific success to passionate curiosity and perseverance and denied any special talents. To a boy who once asked him whether he considered himself a genius, Einstein replied in particularly stern tone “It is not clear to me what you do mean by the word 'genius.' It is better, in my opinion, to avoid such foggy expressions altogether.”[xiii] We may, therefore, assume that this quote is at the best an embellished paraphrase of something Einstein might have uttered, yet we do not take it for an original quote.Eventually...By chance, the following quotation has been successfully authenticated:It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the part wrapped inside it.Though it was not Einstein who wrote it. It was Spinoza. The journalist, who first used the quote referring to Einstein’s notorious disregard for personal appearance, may have known that. Those who later copied it ignored the source and soon Einstein remained the only person related to the quote. Although it fits so well the scientist who attached so little value to formality and outwardness, this quote is demonstrably no Einstein quote.Also in an additional case, the true author of a quote misattributed to Einstein could be identified. With the definition of insanity : doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, Rita Mae Brown must be credited. As far as I know – and I hope sincerely that I did not fall for the same tactic of arbitrary attribution which I so condemn when Einstein is affected - the definition of insanity was first published in Rita Mae Brown: Sudden Death, Bantam Books, New York, 1983, p. 68.One more open questionI would be especially satisfied if a genuine source could be found even for the last quote I wish to mention here:There are two ways to live your life - one is as though nothing is a miracle, the other is as though everything is a miracle. Why do I believe that this statement, too, was not penned by Einstein who attached so high a value to the ability to marvel at, and to wonder about, the world we are born into? Not only does the flat, pointless formulation perplex me, but, again, the absolutist wording, as if the author considered himself a know-it-all. What Einstein thought about those wiseacres reads, in his own biting words: “Whoever undertakes to set himself up as a judge of Truth and Knowledge is shipwrecked by the laughter of the gods.”ConclusionI have to underscore that any serious verification is only possible in one single sense, namely evidence based on textual proof. Nothing could prove that Einstein never said this or that. There are obviously a large number of quote spinners who rely on this latter notion.Notes in Einstein’s own hand or typewritten texts and letters signed by him, warrant the highest level of authenticity. Books and articles published during his lifetime under his name in German or in English, can be trusted as well – with some exceptions like for instance the German texts that were retranslated from an English translation, and during this process lost the specifics of the original sound.Quite uneven is the level of authenticity one can ascribe to statements recalled by Einstein’s friends and colleagues, or those spread by journalists and others who referred to personal conversations with Einstein. Some of the closer friends of the Einstein family embellished their reports in such a way that fact and fiction cannot be distinguished any more. Other friends quote statements which sound perfectly ‚Einsteinish’. In many cases, these records represent the only available source.So, again and again, the archivist is confronted with the same question: Is is likely that Einstein made such a statement? Can we consider it plausible? More often, though, the problem is a different one: If Einstein really said so – under which circumstances, when and to whom might he have said it? Where do we look for its first and correct citation? This question is raised by all those quotes which are reproduced without a source on the loose in the internet, in calendars and newspapers.Over the years, I compiled not only a stock of authenticated quotes including the necessary references, I developed as well a flair for where to trace a so far unidentified text. Moreover, I have gotten a keen sense of which texts definitely do not sound authentic and therefore make a thorough research about them unnecessary.Yet, on and off, an unanswerable question may float in my head for months until, by sheer chance, I stumble upon its genuine source, be it an original text by Einstein, be it a paraphrase, or something a third person wrote.And, day-to-day, I discover something new.Barbara WolffSpecial appreciation goes to Hananya Goodman for his challenging questions, his inspirational ideas, and for the translation.The author worked at the Albert Einstei9n Archives in Jerusalem for more than a decade, and is still making research on Einstein-related issues.I like quoting Einstein. Know why? Because nobody dares contradict you.Studs Terkel, Guardian interview (March 2002)