Albert Einstein? Samuel Johnson? Sophonisba Breckinridge? John Brunner? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: The depth and breadth of information available on the internet is wondrous. Here are three examples from a family of pertinent sayings I came across recently:
1) I don’t need to know everything; I just need to know where to find it, when I need it.
2) Never keep anything in your mind that you can look up.
3) Never memorize what you can look up in books.
These sayings express a fundamental insight into this age of vast knowledge bases and high-speed networks. The words were credited to Albert Einstein, but I cannot find any precise reference. There so much junk and misinformation about quotations. The prevalence of inaccurate data makes it harder to find correct information. Can you trace this general saying?
Quote Investigator: These quotations were not listed in the key reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1 Also, QI has not located any evidence of an exact match in the words written by the illustrious scientist.
Einstein did make a remark in 1921 that was conceptually related to the quotation. While visiting Boston he was asked whether he knew the value of the speed of sound, and he demurred. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 2
He was asked through his secretary, “What is the speed of sound?” He could not say off-hand, he replied. He did not carry such information in his mind but it was readily available in text books.
Einstein’s remark was about a single fact; hence, it differed from the statement under investigation. Nevertheless, it was possible to generalize and reformulate his comment to apply to the wider set of knowledge available in books. Indeed, another version of Einstein’s response that was published in 1947 was closer to the sayings being examined. (Details are given further below.) Hence, the modern expressions may have evolved from Einstein’s comment in 1921.
The idea presented in the quotation does have a long history before the computer age. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A thematically related statement was made by the famous lexicographer Samuel Johnson in 1775 as recorded by his biographer James Boswell. When Johnson was visiting the house of a new acquaintance he eagerly began to examine the books in the library. The homeowner asked Johnson about his motivations: 3
“But it seems odd that one should have such a desire to look at the backs of books.” Johnson, ever ready for contest, instantly started from his reverie, wheeled about, and answered, “Sir, the reason is very plain. Knowledge is of two kinds. We know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it. When we inquire into any subject, the first thing we have to do is to know what books have treated of it.
In 1914 a periodical called “The Expositor and Current Anecdotes” printed an advertisement directed at clergymen concerning a book that could be used to organize clippings and references. The ad included a germane statement: 4
Educated people are not those who know everything, but rather those who know where to find, at a moment’s notice, the information they desire.
Another example from that time period in 1917 was located by the researcher Victor Steinbok in “The Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor”: 5
Someone has said that the cleverest people are not those who know everything, but those who know where to look for and find any information that is at the moment required. Which is only another way of saying that they have methodical minds and habits and know how and where to store their knowledge.
A longer description of the 1921 episode with Einstein was presented in the biography “Einstein: His Life and Times” by Philipp Frank: 6
While Einstein was in Boston, staying at the Hotel Copley Plaza, he was given a copy of Edison’s questionnaire to see whether he could answer the questions. As soon as he read the question: “What is the speed of sound?” he said: “I don’t know. I don’t burden my memory with such facts that I can easily find in any textbook.”
Nor did he agree with Edison’s opinion on the uselessness of college education. He remarked: “It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.”
Also in 1947 a reviewer in “The New York Times” discussed the book above and reprinted the speed-of-sound remark: 7
Albert Einstein was once asked: “What is the speed of sound?” Without batting an eye he answered cheerfully: “I don’t know. I don’t burden my memory with such facts that I can easily find in any textbook.” Well, what is good enough as a reply for the greatest living scientist is good enough for us.
The educator and social reformer Sophonisba Breckinridge expressed the idea to a group of her students as recorded in 1958: 8
When I was studying at the University of Chicago, Sophonisba P. Breckinridge, that great social welfare leader who was one of my teachers, once told the class of public welfare administration, “You don’t have to know everything, but you should learn how and where to find the things you need and want to know.”
In 1968 the award-winning science fiction author John Brunner extrapolated several trends into the future in his influential work “Stand on Zanzibar”. In this novel a character named Donald described an ambitious program of self-study to another character who reacted skeptically: 9
“Stop. You’ve defined an area of knowledge greater than an individual can cover in a lifetime.”
Donald explained that he was not planning to memorize large amounts of material:
“You don’t memorise log and sine tables; you buy a slide-rule or learn to punch a public computer!” A helpless gesture. “You don’t have to know everything. You simply need to know where to find it when necessary.”
In 1970 Harold B. Finger, an electronics engineer working in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, presented a variant of the expression: 10
“Of course, you can’t have facts for everything. The same thing is true here: you don’t have to know everything; you just have to know enough to work out solutions or methods of attack.”
In 1975 the SF author John Brunner published “The Shockwave Rider” which included prescient descriptions of computer hacking and a computer “worm”. Brunner reprised the idea noted earlier in “Stand on Zanzibar” in this dystopian novel of the seventies. 11
“Ah, you don’t have to know everything. You just have to know where to find it.”
In 1978 an article in Science Digest printed a variant of the saying that suggested using human-mediated assistance: 12
“She didn’t know the answers to a lot of questions, but she knew what she knew, and she never would hesitate to ask someone else for help. That’s what she taught us young doctors: you don’t have to know everything, because you can always ask someone who does know.”
In 2011 a YouTube video about “Avoiding Mistakes in Clothing Retail Business” offered the following advice: 13
But I read recently, you don’t have to know everything, you just have to know the person who knows everything. So be smart enough to hire the right person.
The GoodReads website has a page listing a version of this saying and crediting it to the famous physicist Einstein: 14
I don’t need to know everything, I just need to know where to find it, when I need it
The webcomic xkcd published a two-panel illustration titled “Extended Mind” that did not contain a quotation similar to the one under investigation. But it did depict the dangers of relying on just-in-time knowledge. 15
In conclusion, Albert Einstein did make a comment in 1921 that was conceptually related to the sayings presented by the questioner. But Einstein’s words did not closely match the modern expressions. Over the years a variety of statements have been employed to express the underlying notion, e.g., remarks by Sophonisba Breckinridge and John Brunner.
Image Notes: Sophonisba Breckinridge photo from Library of Congress – Bain News Service collection via Wikimedia Commons. Question-Answer image from geralt on Pixabay.
(The query above was written by QI. Many thanks to Ioan Tenner Geneva who sent the question that initiated the exploration of this topic. Great thanks to Ben Zimmer who asked about several similar quotations ascribed to Einstein. Also, thanks to John L Spouge for pointing to the Samuel Johnson quotation. Also, thanks to Lance for mentioning the remark made by Einstein in 1921. Special thanks to Victor Steinbok for the 1917 citation.)
Update History: On June 2, 2015 three citations were added: the Samuel Johnson remark, the 1921 Einstein remark, and the 1947 version of the Einstein remark. The bibliographic format was changed to use numeric identifiers. Also, parts of the article were rewritten. On April 8, 2018 the Philipp Frank book citation was added.
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1921 May 18, New York Times, Einstein Sees Boston; Fails on Edison Test: Asked to Tell Speed of Sound He Refers Questioner to Text Books (Special to The New York Times), Quote Page 15, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1791, The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D.: Comprehending an Account of His Studies and Numerous Works, in Chronological Order by James Boswell, Volume 1 of 2, Time period specified: 1775, Quote Page 487, Printed by Henry Baldwin for Charles Dilly, London. (Google Books Full View) link ↩
- 1914-1915, The Expositor and Current Anecdotes, Volume 16, Indexing and Filing, [Advertisement for Wilson Index Company of Lynn, Massachusetts] Page XX, Column 2, F. M. Barton, Publishing, Cleveland, Ohio. (Google Books downloadable book; Quotation appears two pages after page 744 on a page labeled XX) link ↩
- 1917 October 20, The Post Magazine and Insurance Monitor, Insurance Institute of London: President’s Address, Start Page 688, Quote Page 690, Column 3, Buckley Press, London, England. (HathiTrust) link link ↩
- 1947, Einstein: His Life and Times by Philipp Frank, Translated from German by George Rosen, Edited and Revised by Shuichi Kusaka, Quote Page 185, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1947 February 20, New York Times, Books of the Times by Charles Poore, (Book review of Philipp Frank’s “Einstein: His Life and Times”), Quote Page 23, Column 2, New York. (ProQuest) ↩
- 1958 June, United Nations Review, Dona Alicia de UNICEF by Alice Shaffer, Start Page 15, Quote Page 18, Column 2, Volume 4, Number 12, Published by United Nations Department of Public Information, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1968 [2011 reprint], Stand on Zanzibar by John Brunner, Page 43, Orb Book, Tom Doherty Associates, New York. (Verified in Google Preview of 2011 reprint) link ↩
- 1970 March, The Electronic Engineer, “Is There an Operation Breakthrough for Electronic Engineers?” by John McNichol, Start Page 46, Quote Page 48-49, Volume 29, Number 3, Chilton, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Verified on microfilm) ↩
- 1975, The Shockwave Rider by John Brunner, Page 75, A Del Rey Book, Ballantine Books, New York. (First Ballantine edition 1976; Verified on paper in Third Printing 1978) ↩
- 1978 July, Science Digest, Volume 84, The House Call: A Chance To Know the Whole Patient, Start Page 42, Quote Page 43, Science Digest, Des Moines, Iowa. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 2011 June 15, YouTube video, Title:”Avoiding Mistakes in Clothing Retail Business – as part of the expert series by GeoBeats.” (Accessed at youtube.com on April 2, 2012) link ↩
- GoodReads website, Albert Einstein: Quotable Quote. (Accessed at goodreads.com on April 2, 2012) link ↩
- xkcd webcomic by Randall Munroe, date unknown, Title: Extended Mind. (Accessed at xkcd.com on April 2, 2012) link ↩