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“The Universe...Is Stranger Than We Can Suppose.” "—Play it again, Sam"?


Friend Grady Harris and I (I won’t, for once, a.k.a. to his many online pseudonyms, of which “Grady Harris” sounds like one and on one level actually is) have long traded comments on how it comes to be that all famous quotations are parceled out erroneously on the internet: Wryly ironic observations are said to be by Mark Twain unless they are by Woody Allen, and people who think that Twain must be the originator of everything vaguely ironic sometimes compel Twain to use slang terms from the 1960s. Slightly gnomic but lyrical lines of verse are almost all said to be by Emily Dickinson but occasionally by a handful of others, although the lines usually contain enough internal clues to warn a diligent websearcher that they were not written by any of the poets cited. Observations about science are typically assigned to Albert Einstein; for a significant exception, see the discussion that follows these longwinded general observations.

There are subcategories of generic aphorisms that end up being ascribed to whatever other authors and thinkers most internet users already know, so that on a more arcane level of discourse, the persons most often cited in introductory college courses in anthropology or sociology become associated with authentic quotes (sometimes by their academic opponents) that express opinions they never held. This shades off into the more common phenomenon of supposed quotations of recent remarks by the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis that neither of them ever uttered but that sound sort of right; the “Play it again, Sam” syndrome, one might call it, and probably someone already does.

The game of quotational distortion and erroneous ascription is, of course, much older than the internet, as the “Play it again, Sam” reference indicates; and longtime readers of this blog who also have long memories will recall my patient tracking down of who first reported on an experience with ether in which the user was granted the revelation that the universe is permeated with a strong smell of turpentine, or was it that an odor of petroleum obtains throughout? Actually, it was neither one, not exactly, although very similar expressions occur in the retellings that now include this one.

What happens, often enough, is that writers remember an anecdote or a quotation pertinent to their argument; the writers, if they are intellectually responsible, don’t want to put a loose paraphrase in quotation marks, and if they trust the reader to be familiar with the quotation in question or omit the name because they themselves are not sure who said it, they will find the quotation ascribed to them as the originator, not always in the exact words they used in paraphrasing.

I bring all this up because recently I saw on Facebook one of those familiar overlays of an edifying quotation on a semi-appropriate photograph, in this case one saying, “The universe is not only stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think. —Werner Heisenberg”. This annoyed me because I was convinced that Heisenberg couldn’t have written that; and that some other well-known physicist had said it; and that the correct quotation was the more elegantly phrased “The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.”

It took a fairly short time to find that the more elegant version is ascribed, wrongly, to Arthur Eddington, who never wrote such a sentence even if he expressed vaguely similar opinions. The preponderant opinion of commenters was that this is a distortion of J. B. S. Haldane’s 1927 aphorism, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.” Since no one gives a page reference to Haldane's Possible Worlds, even when they identify it as the source, I must withhold judgment on what Haldane actually wrote, but he does seem to be the locus classicus for this particular thread of morphing aphorisms.

Subsequently I found that the Heisenberg quote often comes attached to a book title, his 1974 Across the Frontiers, but the page reference hasn’t migrated along with the quotation, and I haven’t searched long enough to find the book online. If the entire passage from which the quotation comes has ever been ever cited by someone, it is buried so deep in the pages of search results that I haven’t had time to locate it.

Citations of the “imagine” instead of “think” version never seemed to get beyond the misascription to “Sir Arthur Eddington,” which bothered me, as I thought I had seen it ascribed otherwise. A more comprehensive websearch found that it is now often ascribed to Richard Feynman. A slightly different set of search terms turned up a mind-numbingly exact citation of Richard Feynman’s The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Volume II, Section 41, page 12, but unfortunately in that passage Feynman is actually quoting J. B. S. Haldane’s original remark, “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, it is queerer than we can suppose.”

At long last, I discovered that a source purporting to impart “the deepteachings of Merlyn” actually transcribes the passage in which Feynman says “Not only is the universe stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine,” and it is in a popularizing lecture on the mysteries of quantum mechanics in which he makes offhanded allusions and, in the transcribed passage at least, doesn’t give oral citation of his sources. The writer cites the URL www.youtube.com/watch?v=0XgmrMZ0h54, but unfortunately this page has been taken down for copyright infringement so the accuracy of the transcription can’t be verified.

I am left with the feeling that Feynman thinks he is quoting somebody else quite accurately, and considers the quotation too well known to require him to cite the name in a lecture in which his rhetoric is on a roll. He imagines a firmly established identity for the author of an aphorism that turns out to be far more fluidly attributed than he supposes.

One webpage of quotes about science wisely ascribes the “imagine” version to that prolific producer, Anonymous. Somebody is the actual author.
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