Tag Archives: Alexander Fleming

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.

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  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)