I have a customer who has space in our storage facility for what he calls his Einstein collection – autographs, first editions, rare original copy photographs, letters, lecture notes with handwritten corrections on them – I am sure you know the sort of thing.
As I am not much of a physicist I have not really had the nerve to delve into conversation with my client, but recently over a coffee we finally got to talking, as one does, and I discovered that within the collection is a set of notes on things that Einstein did not say.
“You see the problem is,” my client reported, “that what with Einstein being dead, and much of his work (not to say his handwriting) being impenetrable to the average reader, there is a great temptation for people who want to promote a crazy idea to call upon Einstein’s name as the source.
“One of the early statements attributed to the great man was, ‘If the bee disappeared off the face of the Earth, man would have only four years left to live.’ It seems an unlikely statement since the man was not a biologist or an ecologist and besides no one can cite where or when he said or wrote it. And that’s apart from it not being true.
“Another highly prevalent saying is, ‘The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.’ Again with Einstein not being a psychiatrist it seems a strange field for him to drift into, and likewise no evidence exists that he ever said this.
“Indeed it turns out that even on his own territory, it seems Einstein didn’t say much of what has since been attributed to him. Even one of his most famous supposed sayings isn’t him either: “God does not play dice with the universe” (a put down of the theory of quantum mechanics). No one is quite sure who said it first, but it wasn’t Einstein.
“Like many a genius Einstein wasn’t much involved in politics either, and so didn’t say, “International law exists only in textbooks on international law,” a phrase much seized upon by politicians tending away from what the United Nations says.
“In fact when it comes down to it Einstein didn’t even write (or say) E=mc². He actually concluded that m=L/V².”
Thus, I learned, Einstein seems to have suffered from being one of those men whom everyone wants to have said something that boosts their cause. I asked for more examples and was given a few.
“’Evil is the result of what happens when man does not have God’s love present in his heart’,” I was told with a shake of the head. “Or, ‘It’s like the cold that comes when there is no heat or the darkness that comes when there is no light.’ Definitely not Einstein, it seems.
I also learned that some quotes given to Einstein come from sources that one might not at first imagine. “Information is not knowledge” turns up in all sorts of places, with Einstein endlessly quoted, but in this case the source is well known. It was Frank Zappa, the progressive rock musician much beloved by people who thought that it was possible for popular music to have more (or fewer) than four beats in a bar.
Here’s another that arose in our conversation, “Drinking a decent bottle of red wine will help everybody to understand general relativity.” I actually wish that could be Einstein, my client said, adding quickly, “not that I over indulge, of course.”
“But some of them,” my customer went on, “are actually rather encouraging, especially for people who will never understand Einstein in a million years. Take for example, “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” That can make people feel good.
“And then there is ‘Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within’.”
“So what did he say?” I finally asked in desperation.
“That’s the great irony,” I was told, “because what he said was generally far more inspiring that the sort of things people make up.
“Give me a few,” I urged, anxious to take something positive out of the conversation.
“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school,” my client said. “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”
“Did he really say that?” I asked.
“Sort of,” came the reply which was, I must admit, a little less convincing a comment than I had hoped for.
As my customer rose to take his leave I asked, “what do you call your collection of things that Einstein didn’t say?”
“General errortivity,” I was told, and I guess you can’t go further than that.