Albert Einstein? Victor Salva? Sean Patrick Flanery? Jeff Goldblum? Anonymous?
Dear Quote Investigator: There’s a quote attributed to Albert Einstein which I like a lot, but I’m not sure if it’s really his:
It has become appallingly obvious that our technology has exceeded our humanity.
Can you please tell me if it was said or written by him?
Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. It does not appear in the comprehensive collection of quotations “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1
The earliest evidence of a closely matching quotation known to QI was in a 1995 movie called “Powder” which was written and directed by Victor Salva and starred Sean Patrick Flanery as the main character whose strong paranormal powers drove the plot. Flanery played Jeremy Reed who had an albino-like appearance and was given the nickname Powder. Near the end of the film there was a dialog between Reed and a character named Donald Ripley, a physics teacher played by Jeff Goldblum. The quotation was delivered by Ripley and then Reed immediately ascribed it to Einstein: 2
Donald Ripley: It’s become appallingly clear that our technology has surpassed our humanity.
Jeremy Reed: Albert Einstein.
Donald Ripley: I look at you, and I, I think that someday our humanity might actually surpass our technology.
The statement in this dialog is not identical to the one given by the questioner. For example, Ripley’s remark used the words “clear” and “surpassed” while the questioner’s instance used the words “obvious” and “exceeded”. But semantically they are quite close.
This article concludes after the presentation of one more citation.
Albert Einstein did make a famous statement in 1946 that was thematically consonant with the movie expression. He cautioned mankind about the dangers of the new nuclear age. The New York Times reported on May 25, 1946 that Einstein “issued a personal appeal yesterday by telegram to several hundred prominent Americans”. Here is an excerpt: 3
Our world faces a crisis as yet unperceived by those possessing power to make great decisions for good or evil. The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our modes of thinking and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.
In conclusion, there is no evidence that Einstein created or used the quotation under investigation. It was probably derived from words written by Victor Salva who authored the screenplay of Powder. Movies are a significant source of apocryphal quotations. Yet, it is true that Einstein was deeply concerned about the challenges facing the world because of nuclear weapons.
(Thanks to Álvaro Hernández whose inquiry inspired QI to perform this exploration. Also, thanks to the volunteer editors of WikiQuote, especially Hypnosifl, for skillfully tracing Einstein quotations.)
- 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper) ↩
- YouTube video, Video excerpt from Powder (1995), [Powder: Production Company: Caravan Pictures], YouTube Title: “Powder (11/11)”, [Quote spoken at 5:13 of 10:00 minutes], Uploaded by Magazine30 on September 13, 2009. (Accessed youtube.com on October 24, 2012) link ↩
- 1946 May 25, New York Times, Atomic Education Urged by Einstein, Page 13, Column 6, New York. (ProQuest) ↩