There Was a Young Lady Named Bright Whose Speed Was Far Faster Than Light

Bishop of Chelmsford? A. H. Reginald Buller? Albert Einstein? Anonymous?

einstein03Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular comical limerick about a young woman named White or Bright that highlights the counterintuitive nature of time measurements in Einstein’s theory of relativity. Do you know this poem? Do you know who composed it?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in an issue of the London humor magazine “Punch” in 1923. Initially, the limerick “Relativity” was published without attribution: 1

Relativity.

There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

In 1937 a Professor of Botany named A. H. Reginald Buller wrote a letter to “The Observer” newspaper in London and claimed authorship of the limerick. Top quotation references such as “The Yale Book of Quotations” 2 and “Cassell’s Humorous Quotations” 3 support the ascription to Buller. Details for this 1937 citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

The editors of “Punch” enjoyed the limerick and referenced it in later issues. Here is an example in 1924 when part of the limerick was used in a barb aimed at another periodical: 4

“The hardier roses continue to bloom, and the later chrysanthemums and a few precocious perennials help to contrive a belated gaiety.”—Daily Paper.

This must be the garden of the young lady who—
“Went out one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.”

Many variations of the limerick entered circulation during the ensuing decades. In February 1925 a newspaper in Poughkeepsie, New York printed the following version in which the second and third lines were different: 5

Speaking of the theory of Relativity, Jonathan Cape the English publisher, prints in his little booklet a prize “silliness” based on the famous Mr. Einstein’s scientific theory:

There was a young lady named Bright
Whose speed was much faster than light.
She went off one day
In a relative way,
And returned on the previous night.

In September 1926 another version of the rhyming lines were published in the “Cortland Standard” of New York and the “Los Angeles Times” of California. The words were attributed to a prelate: 6 7

This limerick on the Einstein theory was composed by the Bishop of Chelmsford:

There was a young lady named Bright,
Who would travel much faster than light,
She started one day
In a relative way
And came back the previous night.

In October 1926 a book reviewer in “Punch” magazine referenced the poem, but used the phrase “young lady of Light” instead of “young lady named Bright”: 8

…a man with a properly developed sense of the past may step across into another period in time, as into another country in space—not altogether unlike the young lady of Light who went out one day in a relative way and returned on the previous night.

A. H. Reginald Buller was a Professor of Botany at the University of Manitoba which is located in Winnipeg, Manitoba. In April 1927 the “Manitoba Free Press” which is also based in Winnipeg printed a version of the limerick, and this time Buller was credited: 9

When everybody was talking about Einstein and Relativity, Professor Buller gave me a clever Limerick which he had just perpetrated, as deft as the very cleverest of Chesterton’s, and as spontaneous:

“There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She set out one day
In a relative way
And returned home the previous night.”

—THE BOOKMAN.

In September 1927 the limerick was printed in another Canadian periodical. This instance referred to a lady called White instead of Bright: 10

There was a young lady called White
Whose velocity was greater than light;
She went off one day
In a relative way
And returned on the previous night.

In 1937 Buller wrote a letter to “The Observer” in London after seeing a version of the limerick published in the paper. Buller asserted that he created the verse, and he discussed the circumstances of its composition: 11

As the author of the Relativity limerick perhaps I may be allowed to say that the limerick was made by me about fifteen years ago whilst sitting in the garden of my friend and former colleague, Dr. G. A, Shakespear, Lecturer on Physics at the University of Birmingham.

After conversing together on Einstein’s theory, I suggested that we should each try to make a relativity limerick. At the end of about five minutes the limericks were ready and were exchanged, but with nothing more than a trace of mutual admiration.

Buller stated that two years later he attended a scientific meeting, and he recited the limerick to fellow scientists who laughed and applauded. Shortly afterward a reporter for the “Winnipeg Free Press” told him that the work should be submitted to “Punch”:

On arriving at the university I wrote out the limerick and at once sent it off to Punch. Six weeks later I received from the editor a copy of “Punch” with my limerick in it, and an honorarium of a few shillings. The date of publication was December 19, 1923.

Buller’s letter included a version of the poem which he stated was the original. Interestingly, the fourth line differed from the version printed in “Punch”. Buller also noted that other ascriptions were being disseminated:

There was a young lady named Bright,
Whose speed was far faster than light;
She set out one day,
In a relative way,
And returned home the previous night.

Since the relativity limerick was published I have noted that at various times it has been attributed to three bishops and to a well-known American authoress!—Yours etc.,
A. H. Reginald Buller,
Emeritus Professor of Botany, University of Manitoba.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

In conclusion, QI believes that Buller was the most likely composer of this limerick. The words were attributed to him by 1927, and his 1937 letter was credible. Also, QI has found no substantive counter-claims.

Image notes: Timepiece from geralt on Pixabay. Albert Einstein in 1921 from Wikipedia.

(Special thanks to Dan J. Bye for accessing the 1937 citation in The Observer.)

Notes:

  1. 1923 December 19, “Punch, or The London Charivari”, Volume 165, Relativity (Limerick), Quote Page 591, Column 1, London. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Arthur Buller, Page 113, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2001, Cassell’s Humorous Quotations, Compiled by Nigel Rees, Section: Limericks, Quote Page 256, [Cassell, London], Sterling Pub. Co., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1924 December 3, “Punch, or The London Charivari”, Volume 167, (Untitled short item), Quote Page 625, Column 3, London. (Verified on paper)
  5. 1925 February 25, Poughkeepsie Eagle-News (Poughkeepsie Daily Eagle), Zoë Beckley’s Corner, Quote Page 4, Column 3, Poughkeepsie, New York. (The original text contained the misspelling “Johnathan Cape”) (Old Fulton)
  6. 1926 September 15, Cortland Standard, (Freestanding short filler item titled “A Clerical Humorist”), Quote Page 3, Column 4, Cortland, New York. (Old Fulton)
  7. 1926 September 19, Los Angeles Times, Chest Enlists Army of Aides: Recruiting of 15,000 Force to Start Tomorrow, (Freestanding short filler item titled “A Clerical Humorist”), Start Page B1, Quote Page B2, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  8. 1926 October 13, “Punch, or The London Charivari”, At The Play, Quote Page 414, Column 1, London. (Verified on paper)
  9. 1927 April 13, Manitoba Free Press (Winnipeg Free Press), A Reader’s Notes, Quote Page 15, Column 6, Winnipeg, Manitoba. (NewspaperArchive)
  10. 1927 September 16, Canadian Jewish Chronicle: The National Jewish Weekly, Our Literary Page, According To Einstein, Quote Page 9, Column 2, Montreal, Canada. (Google News Archive)
  11. 1937 November 14, The Observer, Letters to the Editor, (Letter from A. H. Reginald Buller titled “Relativity Limerick’), Quote Page 12, London, United Kingdom. (ProQuest)