We have all done it, haven’t we? Each and every one of us has, at some point, appropriated (or misappropriated) a quotation from a great thinker or writer to lend a spurious profundity to our own footling little thoughts.
While it may be well-nigh irresistible to wrap ourselves in the borrowed robes of literary or scientific genius, the temptation is fraught with dangers. To spare both our own blushes and those of our unsuspecting audience, it’s a good idea to check whether the Great Person actually said what they are reputed to have said.
For one reason and another, the life, career and reputation of Albert Einstein makes him an especially tempting target for spurious attributions.
This is my eclectic list of five things that Einstein did NOT say, and yet seem to be quoted and requoted again and again, especially in an educational context.
It is a melancholy truth that these particular memes will most likely be circulating on the internet until the last router rusts away to nothingness. However, on the principle that it better to light a candle than complain about the dark, I present this list (although, given their preternatural persistence, a flamethrower might be more appropriate).
Watch out, any one of them may well be coming to a CPD near you sometime soon…
Nein-stein No. 1
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.
This, according to Quote Investigator [QI 1], was first attributed to Einstein as recently as 2004. The original allegory about animals attending a school and being judged against inflexible criteria, can be traced back to physicist Amos E. Dolbear who published it under a pseudonym in 1898.
Nein-stein No. 2
Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.
Philosophy this gem certainly isn’t. Sadly, it bears no relation to any recognisable form of Physics either. (“Pass the bag labeled ‘New Age Quantum Claptrap’ please, Alice.”)
The original form of this quotation was penned by special effects artist Darryl Anka in 1998 — forty years after Einstein had shuffled off this mortal coil (or, at least, had become significantly less ordered).
Incidentally, Anka never attempted to attribute this thought to Einstein. In fact, he claimed that it had been obtained via “trans-dimensional channelling” from an extraterrestrial entity named “Bashar”. [QI 2]
Nein-stein No. 3
Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within.
A beautiful quote, but Einstein? Naaaah. From Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (1788), actually. Highbrow enough for ya? [Ref 1]
Nein-stein No. 4
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.
Not Einstein. Not Benjamin Franklin. Not Rita Mae Brown either. The earliest instance tracked down by Wikiquote was from a Narcotics Anonymous publication from 1981.
Nein-stein No. 5
Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. Actually, I’m not sure about the universe.
Einstein may or may not have said this, but the only evidence we have is from the works of therapist Frederick S. Perls, who credited the quote to a “great astronomer” in a book published in 1947. In later works, Perls specifically named Einstein as the originator of the quote which was said during a personal meeting with Perls. However, Perls did present different versions of the statement over the years. [QI 3]