Monday, September 16, 2013

A Cluttered Desk

A Cluttered Desk

“If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what, then, is an empty desk a sign?” —NOT an Einstein Quote!

This quote is actually one of Lawrence Peter’s, author of The Peter Principle. For the uninitiated, the Peter Principle states that “In a hierarchy every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence”. The cluttered desk quote can be found on page 339 of the book Peter’s Quotations, yet if one does a Google search on the quote there is no mention of Lawrence Peter for several pages.

This column is just as much about what Einstein didn’t say as it is about what he did say. Einstein has said enough brilliant things that it is not necessary to manufacture quotes. Maybe you have seen a quote attributed to Einstein and would like to know if it's really his. If so, just e-mail me at and I'll feature it in a future column.

Science and Art

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in esthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are artists as well.” —Albert Einstein

A remark made by Einstein in 1923 and recalled by Archibald Henderson. Henderson was a mathematician from the University of North Carolina who in 1920 became interested in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Within two years he was writing articles about it. He spent 1923-24 on sabbatical, studying at Cambridge and the University of Berlin where he came to know Einstein personally. Henderson published The Triumph of Relativity and other books on relativity. His defense of relativity in debates was so skilled that Einstein himself commented that it left little room for refutation.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Einstein's Credo

Translated and published in The Forum magazine, October 1930, the following essay is a rich source of quotes in part commonly known as Einstein's Credo. Here it is in its entirety.

What I Believe
by Albert Einstein

Strange is our situation here upon Earth. Each of us comes for a short visit, not knowing why, yet sometimes seeming to divine a purpose.

From the standpoint of daily life, however, there is one thing we do know: that man is here for the sake of other men — above all for those upon whose smile and well-being our own happiness depends, and also for the countless unknown souls with whose fate we are connected by a bond of sympathy. Many times a day I realize how much my own outer and inner life is built upon the labors of my fellow men, both living and dead, and how earnestly I must exert myself in order to give in return as much as I have received. My peace of mind is often troubled by the depressing sense that I have borrowed too heavily from the work of other men.

I do not believe we can have any freedom at all in the philosophical sense, for we act not only under external compulsion but also by inner necessity. Schopenhauer’s saying — “A man can surely do what he wills to do, but he cannot determine what he wills” — impressed itself upon me in youth and has always consoled me when I have witnessed or suffered life’s hardships. This conviction is a perpetual breeder of tolerance, for it does not allow us to take ourselves or others too seriously; it makes rather for a sense of humor.

To ponder interminably over the reason for one’s own existence or the meaning of life in general seems to me, from an objective point of view, to be sheer folly. And yet everyone holds certain ideals by which he guides his aspiration and his judgment. The ideals which have always shone before me and filled me with the joy of living are goodness, beauty, and truth. To make a goal of comfort or happiness has never appealed to me; a system of ethics built on this basis would be sufficient only for a herd of cattle.

Without the sense of collaborating with like-minded beings in the pursuit of the ever unattainable in art and scientific research, my life would have been empty. Ever since childhood I have scorned the commonplace limits so often set upon human ambition. Possessions, outward success, publicity, luxury — to me these have always been contemptible. I believe that a simple and unassuming manner of life is best for everyone, best both for the body and the mind.

My passionate interest in social justice and social responsibility has always stood in curious contrast to a marked lack of desire for direct association with men and women. I am a horse for single harness, not cut out for tandem or team work. I have never belonged wholeheartedly to country or state, to my circle of friends, or even to my own family. These ties have always been accompanied by a vague aloofness, and the wish to withdraw into myself increases with the years.

Such isolation is sometimes bitter, but I do not regret being cut off from the understanding and sympathy of other men. I lose something by it, to be sure, but I am compensated for it in being rendered independent of the customs, opinions, and prejudices of others, and am not tempted to rest my peace of mind upon such shifting foundations.

My political ideal is democracy. Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized. It is an irony of fate that I should have been showered with so much uncalled for and unmerited admiration and esteem. Perhaps this adulation springs from the unfulfilled wish of the multitude to comprehend the few ideas which I, with my weak powers, have advanced.

Full well do I know that in order to attain any definite goal it is imperative that one person should do the thinking and commanding and carry most of the responsibility. But those who are led should not be driven, and they should be allowed to choose their leader. It seems to me that the distinctions separating the social classes are false; in the last analysis they rest on force. I am convinced that degeneracy follows every autocratic system of violence, for violence inevitably attracts moral inferiors. Time has proved that illustrious tyrants are succeeded by scoundrels.

For this reason I have always been passionately opposed to such regimes as exist in Russia and Italy today. The thing which has discredited the European forms of democracy is not the basic theory of democracy itself, which some say is at fault, but the instability of our political leadership, as well as the impersonal character of party alignments.

I believe that you in the United States have hit upon the right idea. You choose a President for a reasonable length of time and give him enough power to acquit himself properly of his responsibilities. In the German Government, on the other hand, I like the state’s more extensive care of the individual when he is ill or unemployed. What is truly valuable in our bustle of life is not the nation, I should say, but the creative and impressionable individuality, the personality — he who produces the noble and sublime while the common herd remains dull in thought and insensible in feeling.

This subject brings me to that vilest offspring of the herd mind — the odious militia. The man who enjoys marching in line and file to the strains of music falls below my contempt; he received his great brain by mistake — the spinal cord would have been amply sufficient. This heroism at command, this senseless violence, this accursed bombast of patriotism — how intensely I despise them! War is low and despicable, and I had rather be smitten to shreds than participate in such doings.

Such a stain on humanity should be erased without delay. I think well enough of human nature to believe that it would have been wiped out long ago had not the common sense of nations been systematically corrupted through school and press for business and political reasons.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed. This insight into the mystery of life, coupled though it be with fear, has also given rise to religion. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their most primitive forms — this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of true religiousness. In this sense, and in this sense only, I belong in the ranks of devoutly religious men.

I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own — a God, in short, who is but a reflection of human frailty. Neither can I believe that the individual survives the death of his body, although feeble souls harbor such thoughts through fear or ridiculous egotism. It is enough for me to contemplate the mystery of conscious life perpetuating itself through all eternity, to reflect upon the marvelous structure of the universe which we can dimly perceive, and to try humbly to comprehend even an infinitesimal part of the intelligence manifested in nature.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Future

Einstein and his wife Elsa onboard the ship
Belgenland, December 1930.

“I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.” —Albert Einstein

This aphorism came from an interview onboard the ship Belgenland in December 1930. The Evening Post reported that the welcoming party for Dr. Einstein was “a spectacle unequaled in the history of New York, or, perhaps, the well-known universe.” Einstein jokingly said of the reporters, “These men are like wolves. Every one of them wants to have a bite at me.”

David Senter, a reporter for the International News Service, asked Einstein “Can you explain your theory simply for the masses of America?”

“No, it would take me three days to do it.” was Einstein's reply.

Professor Einstein spoke almost entirely in German, and the barrage of questions and answers were translated for the benefit of the distinguished visitor and reporters by a number of interpreters. When asked whether he had anticipated that the interview would be such a trying ordeal, he quipped “I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.”

Einstein's future would change dramatically a few years later. In 1933, Einstein was again aboard the Belgenland heading for Berlin when they received word that Adolph Hitler had become chancellor of Germany and that Einstein himself had become a target of assassination by the Nazis. Einstein left the ship in Belgium, vowing never to return to Germany. After emigrating to the United States, Albert Einstein became a U.S. citizen in October 1940.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Truth in the Middle East

“In matters concerning truth and justice there can be no difference between big problems and small; for the general principles which determine the conduct of men are indivisible. Whoever is careless with the truth in small matters cannot be trusted in important affairs.” —Albert Einstein

Einstein wrote this shortly before his death in April 1955, as part of an unfinished speech he intended to deliver on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Monday, August 19, 2013


“My pacifism is an instinctive feeling, a feeling that possesses me because the murder of people is disgusting. My attitude is not derived from any intellectual theory but is based on my deepest antipathy to every kind of cruelty and hatred.” —Albert Einstein

From a published interview in Christian Century, August 1928.

Monday, July 29, 2013


“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

This famous quote is from an interview with George Viereck that was published in The Saturday Evening Post in October 1929. Here is the relevant passage:

Viereck: “Do you ascribe your own discoveries to intuition or inspiration?”

Einstein: “I believe in intuitions and inspirations. I sometimes feel that I am right. I do not know that I am. When two expeditions of scientists, financed by the Royal Academy, went forth to test my theory of relativity, I was convinced that their conclusions would tally with my hypothesis. I was not surprised when the eclipse of May 29, 1919, confirmed my intuitions. I would have been surprised if I had been wrong.”

Viereck: “Then you trust more to your imagination than to your knowledge?”

Einstein: “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.”

Thursday, July 18, 2013

The Pitfalls of Fame

“With fame I become more and more stupid, which of course is a very common phenomenon.” —Albert Einstein

From a letter to Heinrich Zangger, December 24, 1919. Zangger, a professor of physiology at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), had been instrumental in Einstein’s appointment as professor of theoretical physics at the ETH. Einstein wrote to Zangger regularly, mostly on scientific subjects and as an intermediary with his family in Zurich.

Some background: Two months earlier, Einstein had made headlines around the world. The New York Times proclaimed: “LIGHTS ALL ASKEW IN THE HEAVENS. Men of Science More or Less Agog Over Results of Eclipse Observations.” According to Einstein, gravity resulted from the curvature of space-time and large objects such as stars warp the geometry of space. Einstein challenged astronomers to use an eclipse to test his claim that light passing near the sun would be deflected by its gravitational field. The British astronomer Arthur Eddington took up Einstein’s challenge and on November 6, 1919 announced that starlight was indeed warped by the sun, proving the theory correct. Sir Joseph John Thomson, the president of the Royal Society, said it was “the most important result obtained in connection with the theory of gravitation since Newton’s day”, and “one of the highest achievements of human thought”.

Einstein’s life would never be the same again. Journalists and photographers hounded him, all desperate for a snappy one-liner on relativity. Einstein’s name had become synonymous with genius. However, Einstein would learn that one of the pitfalls of fame is getting too candid with journalists. In one interview, Einstein remarked that American’s were attracted to the Einstein craze by “the magic of non-comprehension”. The New York Times picked up on the story, reporting indignant protests at these remarks. Einstein complained that his words had been distorted and tried to set the record straight, but his efforts fell short of a rebuttal. Lesson learned. At least Einstein was able to keep his wonderfully ironic sense of humor, as this quote shows.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Art of Teaching

“It is the supreme art of the teacher to awaken joy in creative expression and knowledge.” —Albert Einstein

Translated from a small bronze plaque in the Pasadena City College astronomy building. The German inscription reads “Es ist die wichtigste Kunst des  Lehrers, die Freude am Schaffen und am Erkennen zu wecken”. Einstein dedicated the building and its observatory on February 26, 1931 with a short speech, and also contributed aphorism to be inscribed on the dedication plaque inside the building.

Einstein speaking at the dedication of the Pasadena City College astronomy building, February 1931.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Einstein and Michele Besso

Einstein never said "Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one." The reality behind this quote can be traced to Michele Besso, a Swiss/Italian engineer and close friend of Einstein during his years at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic in Zurich, and later at the patent office in Bern. Besso introduced Einstein to the works of physicist and philosopher Ernst Mach, who influenced Einstein greatly. 

Einstein ends his paper on special relativity by saying that he is indebted to Besso for several valuable suggestions. Einstein remarked "I could not have found a better sounding-board in the whole of Europe." In this way Einstein and Besso became inseparable.

Upon Besso's death in 1955, Einstein wrote a letter of condolence to the Besso family—less than a month before his own death—which contained the following quote "Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That signifies nothing. For those of us who believe in physics, the distinction between past, present and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion."

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Einstein on Hitler

This following is from an unpublished manuscript written by Einstein in 1935 while at Princeton. After Einstein’s death it was published in the book Einstein on Peace. It is an unfiltered and raw look into Einstein’s thoughts on how and why Hitler came into power.

“To the everlasting shame of Germany, the spectacle unfolding in the heart of Europe is tragic and grotesque; and it reflects no credit on the community of nations which calls itself civilized!

For centuries the German people have been subject to indoctrination by an unending succession of schoolmasters and drill sergeants. The Germans have been trained in hard work and made to learn many things, but they have also been drilled in slavish submission, military routine and brutality. The postwar democratic Constitution of the Weimar Republic fitted the German people as well as the giant’s clothes fitted Tom Thumb. Then came inflation and depression, with everyone living under fear and tension.

Hitler appeared, a man with limited intellectual abilities and unfit for any useful work, bursting with envy and bitterness against all whom circumstance and nature had favored over him. Sprung from the lower middle class, he had just enough class conceit to hate even the working class which was struggling for greater equality in living standards. But it was the culture and education which had been denied him forever that he hated most of all. In his desperate ambition for power he discovered that his speeches, confused and pervaded with hate as they were, received wild acclaim by those whose situation and orientation resembled his own. He picked up this human flotsam on the streets and in the taverns and organized them around himself. This is the way he launched his political career.

But what really qualified him for leadership was his bitter hatred of everything foreign and, in particular, his loathing of a defenseless minority, the German Jews. Their intellectual sensitivity left him uneasy and he considered it, with some justification, as un-German.

Incessant tirades against these two “enemies” won him the support of the masses to whom he promised glorious triumphs and a golden age. He shrewdly exploited for his own purposes the centuries-old German taste for drill, command, blind obedience and cruelty. Thus he became the Fuehrer.

Money flowed plentifully into his coffers, not least from the propertied classes who saw him as a tool for preventing the social and economic liberation of the people which had its beginning under the Weimar Republic. He played up to the people with the kind of romantic, pseudo-patriotic phrase-mongering to which they had become accustomed in the period before the World War, and with the fraud about the alleged superiority of the “Aryan” or “Nordic” race, a myth invented by the anti-Semites to further their sinister purposes. His disjointed personality makes it impossible to know to what degree he might actually have believed in the nonsense which he kept dispensing. Those, however, who rallied around him or who came to the surface through the Nazi wave were for the most part hardened cynics fully aware of the falsehood of their unscrupulous methods.” —Albert Einstein

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Value of an Education

“The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” —Albert Einstein

From Einsitein's first visit to America in 1921—a two-month extravaganza fit for a rock star. Einstein had recently achieved global stardom when observations performed during a total eclipse confirmed his Theory of General Relativity by showing that the sun’s gravitational field bent light beams as he had predicted (more here).

During the tour, Einstein was asked a question from the Edison test. Edison thought American colleges were too theoretical and was not an Einstein fan. He had devised a test for job applicants that consisted of about 150 questions such as “How is leather tanned?” or “What was Gutenberg’s type made of?” A reporter asked Einstein a question from the test: “What is the speed of sound?” Einstein did not know the answer and responded that “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need college. He can learn them from books.” He then made a larger point, ridiculing Edison’s view on education. “The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”

Friday, June 7, 2013

God Does Not Play Dice

One of Einsteins many pioneering works was a paper he wrote in 1905 proposing that light could travel in the form of particles later called photons. His work led to quantum mechanics, the mathema­tical framework for describing matter and energy on a fundamental level. In his later years, Einstein was unhappy with quantum mechanicsand its description of reality in terms of probabilities as developed by Max Born and Niels Bohr. Einstein preferred the deterministic cause-and-effect of classical physics, writing that “The theory says a lot, but does not really bring us any closer to the secret of the "old one." I, at any rate, am convinced that He does not throw dice.”

Einstein used variants of this quote as well. For example, in a conversation with William Hermanns for the 1943 book Einstein and the Poet, he said "As I have said so many times, God doesn't play dice with the world."

Einstein’s views on quantum mechanics are often oversimplified. He accepted quantum mechanics for observable phenomena—his main concern was with its incompleteness in describing reality.


The first appearance of this quote was from the 1981 Narcotics Anonymous Basic Text approval form. Here is the quote in context:
"We have a disease: progressive, incurable and fatal. One way or another we went out and bought our destruction on the time plan! All of us, from the junkie snatching purses to the sweet little old lady hitting two or three doctors for legal prescriptions, have one thing in common: we seek our destruction a bag at a time, a few pills at a time, or a bottle at a time until we die. This is at least part of the insanity of addiction. The price may seem higher for the addict who prostitutes for a fix than it is for the addict who merely lies to a doctor, but ultimately both pay with their lives. Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results."
Curiously, this quote has also been misattributed to Benjamin Franklin and Confucius. I 'm actually quite happy that Einstein didn't say it because in quantum mechanics, you actually DO expect different results in certain instances. You can see what Einstein thought of quantum mechanics here.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Finding Joy

“Finding joy in observing and understanding is the greatest gift of nature.” —A. Einstein

Translated from the original German text: "Freude am Schauen und Begreifen ist die schönste Gabe der Natur." This aphorism was one of eight that Einstein wrote to be included in the 1954 book Essays Presented to Leo Baeck on the Occasion of His Eightieth Birthday. 

Leo Baeck was a German scholar and the last leader of the Jewish community under the Nazis. He refused to abandon his community during Nazi persecution, helping other prisoners survive their confinement with his words and wisdom. He survived the Holocaust but many of his family members did not. In 1955, the Leo Baeck Institute was founded and named in his honor, just a month after Einstein himself passed away.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Climbing Fish

This quote first appeared in 2004 by Mattew Kelley in his book The Rhythm of Life: Living Every Day with Passion and Purpose. He attributed it to Einstein, but did not give a source for the quote. It was probably based on an old story by George Reavis called The Animal School, where different animals go to school but have to concentrate on activities that they cannot excel in: an eel must work on his running, climbing and flying, and a rabbit on his swimming, for example. The story was meant to show that children learn best when teachers challenge their strengths and nurture their weaknesses. It's a nice quote, but not Einstein’s.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

A Man of Value

“Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value. He is considered successful in our day who gets more out of life than he puts in. But a man of value will give more than he receives.” —Albert Einstein

From the 1955 Life Magazine article Death of Genius

Enjoying Life

“The devil has put a penalty on all things we enjoy in life. Either we suffer in our health, or we suffer in our soul, or we get fat.” —Albert Einstein

From the book Einstein: The Life and Times by Ronald Clark. Einstein is said to have made this comment when a box of candy was being passed around after dinner. He claimed that his doctor wouldn’t allow him eat it. When a friend asked him why it was the devil and not God who had imposed the penalty, Einstein replied "What’s the difference? One has a plus in front, the other a minus."

Monday, June 3, 2013

Welcome to Quoting Einstein!

This blog is dedicated to Albert Einstein, one of the greatest thinkers of all time and also one of the most quoted. Unfortunately, so much of what is attributed to Einstein is apocryphal, and it's a shame that his name gets attached to stuff he never said or wrote. Some do it out of ignorance, others do it for political reasons. I will strive to set the record straight, and will source any quotes I use. I hope you enjoy!