The Two Most Common Elements in the Universe Are Hydrogen and Stupidity

Harlan Ellison? Frank Zappa? Anonymous?

zappa02Dear Quote Investigator: There is a popular quotation that expresses the following idea:

Hydrogen and stupidity are the two most abundant materials in the universe

This notion can be expressed in many different ways. One version has been credited to the SF writer Harlan Ellison, and another version has been ascribed to the musician Frank Zappa. Would you please examine the provenance of this statement?

Quote Investigator: This saying is highly mutable and difficult to trace. The earliest evidence located by QI appeared in the 1985 volume “An Edge in My Voice” by Harlan Ellison which primarily consisted of a set of columns written between 1980 and 1984. Ellison also updated the content by adding introductory remarks for each column under the section title “Interim Memo”. The following passage was from one of these supplementary introductions. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

At a lecture I gave in Grand Forks, North Dakota in March of this year, someone asked me how do we finally knock the fools and obscurantists and believers in craziness out of the box once and for all. I told the woman that we can’t. Apart from hydrogen, the most common thing in the universe is stupidity.

In July 1986 a syndicated puzzle feature called “Celebrity Cipher” was printed in multiple newspapers. The solution to the cipher was a statement labeled “Zappa’s Canon”, i.e., it was a saying credited to Frank Zappa: 2 3

PREVIOUS SOLUTION: “There are two things on earth that are universal: hydrogen and stupidity.” — Zappa’s Canon.

In February 1987 a column about books in “Omni” magazine printed a quotation credited to Ellison: 4

Harlan Ellison: These would-be censors are monsters. And they will always be with us because the two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In March 1987 the newspaper columnist L. M. Boyd printed a version of the remark attributed to Ellison: 5

“The two most common things in the universe,” according to writer Harlan Ellison, “are hydrogen and stupidity.”

In April 1987 a letter to the editor of the “Milwaukee Journal” in Wisconsin mentioned the saying and acknowledged “Omni” magazine: 6

Harlan Ellison, science fiction master who has taken a great deal of heat from fundamentalists wanting to censor his works, recently wrote in Omni magazine, “…the two most common things in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”

In 1989 the “Real Frank Zappa Book” was released and it included a prolix instance of the expression written by Zappa himself: 7

Some scientists claim that hydrogen, because it is so plentiful, is the basic building block of the universe. I dispute that. I say there is more stupidity than hydrogen, and that is the basic building block of the universe.

This is not a matter of ‘pessimism’ vs. ‘optimism’—it’s a matter of accurate assessment.

In 1990 the quotation collection “Friendly Advice” compiled by Jon Winokur presented an instance of the saying. This version used the word “elements” instead of “things”: 8

I live by Louis Pasteur’s advice that “Chance favors the prepared mind,” and my own, “The two most common elements in the known universe are hydrogen and stupidity.”
HARLAN ELLISON

In 1991 “The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection” by Arthur Bloch was published and it included a version ascribed to Zappa: 9

ZAPPA’S LAW:
There are two things on earth that are universal: hydrogen and stupidity.

In 1993 the third edition of “The Harper Book of Quotations” was released, and a newspaper in Santa Ana, California reprinted some of its entries: 10

Here are a few gems from contemporary figures: . . .
Frank Zappa: “There is more stupidity around than hydrogen and it has a longer shelf life.”

In 2001 Harlan Ellison wrote the introduction to a book about futuristic toys from past decades. Ellison discussed two sayings that he was proud of creating. The first was: “No one gets out of childhood alive” and the second was a version of the saying under investigation. Ellison emphasized that the word “elements” should be used instead of “things”. Oddly, the 1985 and 1987 versions by Ellison used “thing” and “things”: 11

The other is the one entrepreneurs have misappropriated to emboss on buttons and bumper stickers: The two most common elements in the universe are hydrogen and stupidity.

I don’t so much mind that they pirated it, but what does honk me off is that they never get it right. They render it dull and imbecile by phrasing it thus: “The two most common things in the universe are…”

Not things, you insensate gobbets of ambulatory giraffe dung, elements! Elements is funny, things is imprecise and semi-guttural.

QI has also examined another saying that was thematically similar to this saying; however, it did not mention hydrogen. The following expression was in circulation by the 1940s and was later ascribed to Albert Einstein:

Two things are infinite, as far as we know – the universe and human stupidity.

In conclusion, the above citations only represent a snapshot of what QI has learned. Based on current evidence Harlan Ellison used a version of the expression first. Frank Zappa was credited with a similar remark shortly afterward. The sayings may have been constructed independently.

(Thanks to “Funky Flashman” for reminding QI to mention the saying that begins “Two things are infinite”. Thanks also to Bruce Miller‎ for mentioning the variant statement containing the phrase “longer shelf life” which has also been attributed to Zappa. )

Image Notes: Harlan Ellison at the L.A. Press Club. Photo by Pip R. Lagenta from flickr. Cropped. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic. See details at link. Frank Zappa, Ekeberghallen, Oslo, Norway by Helge Øverås from Wikipedia. Cropped. Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic. See details at link. Hydrogen by Nemo at Pixabay.

Update History: On January 18, 2016 the 1993 Zappa citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 1985, An Edge in My Voice by Harlan Ellison, (Collection of columns that originally appeared in Future Life, the L.A. Weekly and The Comics Journal), Installment 8: Interim Memo, (Introduction written for the book to a column that appeared in April 1981), Published by The Donning Company, Norfolk, Virginia. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1986 July 15, Cumberland Evening Times, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 19, Column 2, Cumberland, Maryland. (NewspaperArchive)
  3. 1986 July 15, The Journal-Register, Celebrity Cipher by Connie Wiener, Quote Page 8, Column 1, Medina, New York. (Old Fulton)
  4. 1987 February, Omni magazine, Books: The Real Fahrenheit 451 by Marion Long, Quote Page 22, Omni Publications International, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1987 March 28, Victoria Advocate, Saudis Cool To Politicking by L. M. Boyd, Quote Page 9C, Column 3, Victoria, Texas. (Google News Archive)
  6. 1987 April 14, Milwaukee Journal, Respect for Vatican Statement Called For, (Letter to the editor from William Duane), Quote Page 10A, Column 4, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Google News Archive)
  7. (1989 Copyright), 1999, Real Frank Zappa Book by Frank Zappa with Peter Occhiogrosso, Section: All About Schmucks, Quote Page 239, Touchstone, New York. (Google Books Preview; Verified with page images of 1999 Touchstone edition)
  8. 1990, Friendly Advice, Compiled and edited by Jon Winokur, Section: Words to Live By, Quote Page 271, Dutton, New York. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1991, The Complete Murphy’s Law: A Definitive Collection by Arthur Bloch, (Revised Edition), Section: Sociomurphology, Quote Page 179, Price Stern Sloan, Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1993 July 18, The Orange County Register, Article: Famous figures have their say in ‘Book of Quotations’, Author/Byline: Valerie Takahama, Quote Page H23, Santa Ana, California. (Access World News)
  11. 2001, Blast Off!: Rockets, Robots, Ray Guns and Rarities from the Golden Age of Space Toys by S. Mark Young, Steve Duin, and Mike Richardson, Introduction by Harlan Ellison, Start Page 6, Quote Page 6, Published by Dark Horse Comics, Milwaukie, Oregon. (Leading parentheses have been removed from the passage) (Great thanks to the Verman Kimbrough Memorial Library of the Ringling College of Art & Design; a librarian visually verified the text of the quotation)