The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s funny …’

Isaac Asimov? Alexander Fleming? Archimedes? Anonymous?

petri15Dear Quote Investigator: The classic phrase that is supposed to be uttered by a scientist when he makes a major discovery is “Eureka!” That was the famous cry of the ancient Greek sage Archimedes. But the prominent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov insightfully noted that the actual remark preceding a breakthrough probably reflected surprise and uncertainty such as:

“That’s odd.”
“That’s funny.”
“Hey, wait a minute.”

The scientific advance occurred when the anomalous observation was further scrutinized. Would you please explore this topic to find out when Asimov made this statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a message posted to the Usenet discussion system in 1987. The message was part of a source code listing of a computer program called “fortune”. This program was part of the installation of the popular UNIX operating system, and “fortune” was inspired by the notion of a fortune cookie.

When the program was run it displayed one item from a large collection of sayings and quotations that was kept in a simple database file. The quotation below appeared in a version of the program that was distributed on June 3, 1987: 1

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
— Isaac Asimov

Asimov died in 1992, so the words were ascribed to him while he was alive; however, the data in the “fortune” program did not provide a precise citation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

QI conjectures that the quotation was inspired by a tale about the momentous discovery of the antibiotic penicillin by Alexander Fleming. When Fleming saw a petri dish that revealed the presence of a powerful new antibacterial agent he did not shout out “Eureka”; instead, he said “That’s funny” according to the following account in “Introduction to the History of Mycology” published in 1976. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

. . . Fleming while explaining the staphylococcal work to Pryce, to demonstrate a point, picked up one of the top layer of the discarded plates when he noticed the lysis of the staphylococci (his cry of Eureka was ‘That’s funny!’) and then and there made a subculture of the mould.

In 1984 Isaac Asimov released “Asimov’s New Guide to Science” which included a section about the discovery of the chemical structure of benzene by the organic chemist August Kekulé. Asimov used the exclamation “Eureka” in a conventional manner to denote a scientific discovery: 3

In 1865, Kekulé himself came up with the answer. He related some years later that the vision of the benzene molecule came to him while he was riding on a bus and sunk in a reverie, half asleep. In his dream, chains of carbon atoms seemed to come alive and dance before his eyes, and then suddenly one coiled on itself like a snake. Kekulé awoke from his reverie with a start and could have cried “Eureka!” He had the solution: the benzene molecule is a ring.

In 1987 Isaac Asimov published the novel “Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain”. The phrase “that’s odd” was employed to signal that an ominous discovery had been made. This usage displayed some points of similarity with the quotation: 4

For a moment, Konev and Morrison stared at each other hostilely and then Dezhnev said in a voice that seemed drained of some of its life, “My poor old father used to say: ‘The most frightening phrase in the Russian language is “That’s odd.”‘”

Konev turned angrily and said, “Shut up, Arkady.”

Dezhnev replied, “I mentioned that only because it is now time for me to say it: That’s odd.”

In June 1987 the source code of the “fortune” program was distributed via the Usenet network. The quotation attributed to Asimov appeared within the “fortune” program database as noted previously:

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
— Isaac Asimov

In 1997 a book titled “Comet Hale-Bopp: Find and Enjoy the Great Comet” was released, and the author credited Asimov with a variant of the quotation: 5

As Isaac Asimov said, the classic phrase of discovery in science isn’t “Eureka!” It’s more like “Hey, wait a minute….”

In 2000 “The Washington Post” printed an article about a novelty gift called “Big Mouth Billy Bass” that consisted of a motorized plastic replica of a fish that was able to move and sing in synchrony with an audio recording. One ichthyological pronouncement was credited to Asimov: 6

. . . Billy Bass does genuflect to a famous saying by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not, ‘Eureka! I’ve found it,’ but, ‘That’s funny!’ “

In conclusion, based on current evidence QI would credit Isaac Asimov with the 1987 version of the quotation. A more direct citation would help assure the correctness of this ascription. Perhaps researchers in the future will find an instance in an essay written by Asimov.

Image Notes: Picture of antibiotics test plate from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Public Health Image Library. Portrait of Alexander Fleming via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Isaac Asimov from the United States Library of Congress, New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection. Images have been cropped and resized.

(Great thanks to Matthew Johnson and Laura Jones whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who identified the 1987 Usenet citation, and to Ben Zimmer who also found this citation. Additional thanks to the discussants in the Usenet newsgroups and on the Snopes forum.)

Notes:

  1. Date: 1987 June 3, Usenet Newsgroup: comp.sources.games, Subject: v01i040: fortune – quote for the day, Part14/16, From: games-request at tekred.UUCP, Description: Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed February 28, 2015)
  2. 1976, Introduction to the History of Mycology by G. C. Ainsworth, Quote Page 219, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Preview)
  3. 1984, Asimov’s New Guide to Science by Isaac Asimov, Chapter 11: The Molecule, Start Page 507, Quote Page 517 and 518, Basic Books, Inc., New York. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1987, Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain by Isaac Asimov, Quote Page 276 and 277, Doubleday, New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp: Find and Enjoy the Great Comet by Robert Burnham, Quote Page 53, Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with scans)
  6. 2000 July 30, Washington Post, Betting On a Bass That Belts Them Out; Singing Fish Becomes Season’s Unlikely Hit by Darragh Johnson, Quote Page C1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)