Relativity: A Hot Stove and A Pretty Girl

Albert Einstein? Helen Dukas? Apocryphal?

time10Dear Quote Investigator: Albert Einstein was asked to explain the abstruse theory of relativity so many times that he reportedly created a comical illustration involving a hot stove and a pretty girl. Would you please explore the provenance of this tale?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in “The New York Times” in March 1929. The phrase “nice girl’ was used instead of “pretty girl”: 1

Numerous anecdotes are being circulated concerning Einstein. He once told a girl secretary when she was bothered by inquisitive interviewers, who wanted to know what relativity really meant, to answer:

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

The quotation was not directly from Einstein. Indeed, the reporter simply noted that the tale was being circulated. Yet, the vivid comparison was very popular and many variants evolved in the following years. Einstein was still based in Germany in 1929, so earlier instances of the anecdote may have been published in German.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In July 1929 a newspaper in Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania relayed the same tale in a column called “Odds and Ends” while acknowledging a periodical in London. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Relativity is explained in the following taken from the London Public Opinion:

Professor Einstein’s secretary was so burdened with inquiries as to the meaning of “relativity” that the professor decided to help her out. He told her to answer these inquiries as follows: “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

In September 1929 a simplified instance without the narrative framing device of the secretary was printed in a Circleville, Ohio newspaper. The phrase “pretty girl” replaced “nice girl”, and no attribution was given: 3

One explanation of Einstein’s relativity theory: When you sit with a pretty girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.

In June 1930 a newspaper in Bryan, Texas printed a variant in which the companionship included a tactile dimension, i.e., the woman sat in a lap: 4

Prof. Einstein is said to have hired a secretary to give the following explanation of Relativity to his visitors: “When a pretty girl sits on your lap for an hour, it seems like a minute. When you sit on a hot stove for a minute it seems like an hour.”

Also in June 1930 a reciprocal variant was published in a Madison, Wisconsin weekly paper. An individual sat in “a pretty girl’s lap”: 5

It is said that when Einstein first announced his theory, he was bombarded to such an extent by questions as to just what relativity is, that he hired a girl to answer the people flocking to his domicile and he instructed her, when all other efforts to elucidate the theory failed, to define relativity to wit:

“If you sit on a pretty girl’s lap for an hour, it seems like a minute. If you sit on a hot stove for a minute, it seems like an hour.”

In 1938 the widely-syndicated columnist Walter Winchell contended that relativity was not difficult to understand. He then presented a concise instance of the saying credited to Einstein that used “an hour” instead of “two hours”: 6

His explanation makes it very simple: Sitting with a pretty girl for an hour seems but a minute; sitting on a hot stove for a minute seems an hour.

The day after the great scientist died in 1955 “The Hartford Courant” of Connecticut published an Associated Press article under the title “Dr. Einstein Left Legacy of Quotes” with the following instance: 7

Relativity: “When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute—and it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity.”

When “The New York Times” wrote about Einstein on the day after his death they reprinted the quotation as it appeared in their pages back in 1929 with a minor change in punctuation: 8

“When you sit with a nice girl for two hours you think it’s only a minute. But when you sit on a hot stove for a minute you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”

In 1980 the prominent theater critic Walter Kerr employed an interesting hybrid quotation that contrasted contact with a hot stove and osculation: 9

Ask me when I last went to the circus, for instance, and I’m as likely to say six years as 12, whereas the correct answer – if I go to the humiliating bother of looking it up – is actually three. You see, I’m very Einsteinian in this respect, and all too aware that the time spent pressing your end against a hot stove does truly seem longer than the same amount of time spent kissing a pretty girl. It’s an accordion, time is, and can stretch or compress itself at will.

In 1985 the biographical work “Einstein in America” by Jamie Sayen was released, and a reviewer in “The New York Times” noted that the author had lived next door to Einstein during his years at Princeton. In addition, Sayen developed a friendship with Einstein’s longtime secretary, Helen Dukas, who acted as a shield protecting the scientist from interruptions by an overzealous press and public: 10 11

As Einstein’s intermediary with the public she was expected to answer all manner of questions, including queries about the meaning of his scientific work. Einstein devised the following explanation for her to give when asked to explain relativity: An hour sitting with a pretty girl on a park bench passes like a minute, but a minute sitting on a hot stove seems like an hour.

The 2010 reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press cited the 1985 book “Einstein in America” by Jamie Sayen and included the version of the quotation listed immediately above. 12

In conclusion, QI believes Einstein probably did present a version of this saying to a secretary, and she communicated it to reporters by 1929. By the 1930s Helen Dukas was acting as Einstein’s intermediary, and she probably employed the expression. The oft repeated evidence is indirect.

Image Notes: Time piece from geralt at Pixabay. Two burners from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Thanks to Kat Caverly whose inquiry about another thematically related Einstein attributed quotation led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1929 March 15, New York Times, Einstein Is Found Hiding On Birthday: Busy With Gift Microscope, (Wireless to The New York Times), Quote Page 3, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  2. 1929 July 18, Mount Carmel Item, Odds and Ends, Quote Page 2, Column 2, Mount Carmel, Pennsylvania. (Date beneath masthead on page with quotation is July 17, 1929, but article datelines on same page are July 18, and the newspaper pages before and after are dated July 18, 1929; hence July 17 probably was a misprint) (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1929 September 27, The Circleville Herald, Here You Have It, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Circleville, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1930 June 2, Bryan Daily Eagle (The Eagle), Relativity, Quote Page 4, Column 6, Bryan, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1930 June 6, The Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Scanning the Jewish Horizon by David Schwartz, Quote Page 4, Column 2, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1938 December 8, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 7, Column 3, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1955 April 19, The Hartford Courant, Dr. Einstein Left Legacy Of Quotes (Associated Press), Quote Page 5, Column 6, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  8. 1955 April 19, New York Times, Scientist Explained His Theory With Wit and Homey Parables, Quote Page 26, Column 3, New York, (ProQuest)
  9. 1980 December 12, New York Times, Critic’s Notebook: How Well Does the Playwright Deal with Time? by Walter Kerr, Quote Page C3, Column 1, New York. (ProQuest)
  10. 1985, Einstein in America: The Scientist’s Conscience in the Age of Hitler and Hiroshima by Jamie Sayen, Quote Page 130, Crown Publishers, Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1985 August 25, New York Times, About Books by Shirley Horner, Quote Page NJ16, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest)
  12. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: On Science and Scientists, Mathematics, and Technology, Quote Page 409, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)