Arthur C. Clarke? Stanley Kubrick? Jeremy Bernstein? Porky Pine? Walt Kelly? Frank Interlandi? Jerome Agel? Buckminster Fuller? David Shepley? Lee Alvin DuBridge? Anonymous?
Quote Investigator: Astronomers have been searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence for more than a century. Is humankind alone in the universe, or is humankind sharing the cosmos with undiscovered alien civilizations?
A scientist or a science fiction (SF) writer once replied to this question by saying something like: Either answer is mindboggling. Would you please explore this topic?
Dear Quote Investigator: This notion has been expressed in many different ways. Here is a sampling in chronological order:
1966: Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.
1974: Sometimes I think we’re alone in the Universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the prospect is very frightening.
1977: Either mankind is alone in the galaxy — or he is not; either alternative is mind-boggling.
1989: Sometimes I think we are alone in the universe and sometimes I think we aren’t; in both cases the idea makes me dizzy.
1990: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Either way, the thought is frightening.
1996: Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.
2000: Either there is life out there or we are the only living things in the universe, and either alternative is equally astonishing.
The earliest close match located by QI appeared within an article by physicist Jeremy Bernstein about movie director Stanley Kubrick published in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1966. Kubrick was working together with British SF author Arthur C. Clarke who wrote a short story titled “The Sentinel”. The pair spent two years expanding the story into a novel and a script for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” which included an interplanetary voyage to Jupiter. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1
Extraterrestrial life may seem an odd subject for a motion picture, but at this stage in his career Kubrick is convinced that any idea he is really interested in, however unlikely it may sound, can be transferred to film. “One of the English science-fiction writers once said, ‘Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering,’” Kubrick once told me. “I must say I agree with him.”
Kubrick did not precisely identify the author of the quotation. Clarke was mentioned extensively in the article; however, QI believes that Kubrick and Bernstein would have credited Clarke if he had crafted the statement. Kubrick spoke to other British SF writers such as J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock during the long difficult parturition of “2001”. 2 Oddly, a couple years later in 1968 Kubrick tentatively attributed the remark to a “prominent astronomer”. See the citation further below.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
- 1966 November 12, The New Yorker, Profiles: How About a Little Game? by Jeremy Bernstein, (Profile of Stanley Kubrick), The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive at newyorker.com; accessed October 10, 2020) link ↩
- 2016 January 5, New Statesman, Books: “Close to tears, he left at the intermission”: how Stanley Kubrick upset Arthur C Clarke by Michael Moorcock, (Article posted on website on January 8, 2017), (Accessed newstatesman.com on October 21, 2020) link ↩