Niels Bohr? Albert Einstein? Carl Alfred Meier? Apocryphal?
Dear Quote Investigator: There is popular anecdote about a journalist or friend who visited the home of a prominent physicist. The visitor was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway of the scientist’s abode. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe acts as a talisman of luck when placed over a door.
The visitor asked the physicist about the purpose of the horseshoe while expressing incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied:
Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.
This slyly comical remark has been attributed to both Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. I love this entertaining tale, but I am skeptical. Any insights?
Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in “Svenska Dagbladet” (“The Swedish Daily News”) in January 1956. The scientist was identified as Niels Bohr. Boldface added to excepts by QI: 1
att den frejdade atomforskaren Niels Bohr nyligen fick besök av en nyfiken amerikan.
— Professorn har en hästsko ovanför dörren, sa han, Tror professorn på skrock?
— Naturligtvis inte. Men jag har hört sägas att en hästsko kan bringa tur även ät folk som inte är vidskepliga . . .
Here is one possible translation into English:
It is alleged
that the celebrated nuclear scientist Niels Bohr was recently visited by a curious American.
— “The professor has a horseshoe above the door,” he said. “Does the professor believe in superstition?”
— “Of course not. But I have heard it said that a horseshoe can bring good luck even to people who are not superstitious” . . .
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
In September 1956 the anecdote appeared in a Sunday newspaper supplement called “The American Weekly” within a column called “The Wit Parade” by E. E. Kenyon: 2
A friend was visiting in the home of Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, the famous atom scientist.
As they were talking, the friend kept glancing at a horseshoe hanging over the door. Finally, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he demanded:
“Niels, it can’t possibly be that you, a brilliant scientist, believe that foolish horseshoe superstition! ? !”
“Of course not,” replied the scientist. “But I understand it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not.”
Also in 1956 “The Speaker’s Handbook of Humor” by Maxwell Droke included a version of the story which was presented using similar vocabulary choices: 3
A visitor at the home of Niels Bohr, famous atom scientist and Nobel Prize winner, was surprised to see a horseshoe hanging over the door.
“Do you, a sober man dedicated to science, believe in that superstition?”
“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I’ve been told that it’s supposed to be lucky, whether you believe in it or not.”
The conduits of popular culture continued to carry the account during the ensuing years. In February 1957 a closely matching instance was printed in the syndicated newspaper column “Office Cat” by Junius: 4
A visitor commented to Niels Bohr, the famous atom scientist and Nobel prize winner:
Visitor—I’m surprised to see that you have a horseshoe hanging over your door. Do you, a sober man dedicated to science, believe in that superstition?
Bohr—Of course not, but I’ve been told it’s supposed to be lucky whether you believe in it or not.
In 1959 Carl Alfred Meier delivered an influential series of lectures at the Andover Newton Theological School in Massachusetts. Meier was a prominent Swiss psychiatrist who became the first president of the C. G. Jung Institute in Zürich. During one lecture Meier recounted a tale that matched the anecdote. Meier stated that he was visiting a “world-famous scientist”, but he did not name the individual: 5
I should like to report here an experience I had during my last trip to this country, when I visited a world-famous scientist whom I had known from Europe. He received me on the porch of his house which was adorned with a horse shoe. I tried to make a funny remark by saying, “but Professor, you don’t believe in that sort of thing, do you really?”; whereupon he answered quite naively, “of course not, but you know I have been told that it works even when you don’t believe in it.”
It is possible that Carl Alfred Meier was the source of this anecdote. A biography on the website of the International Association for Analytical Psychology states that Meier traveled to New York in 1956, and it is conceivable that he visited a prominent scientist at that time, but QI does not have any specific evidence. Nor does QI know if Bohr was in the U.S. at that time. 6
In 1973 an anthology of material related to science and scientists called “A Random Walk in Science” was published. A version of the horseshoe story was included, but the provenance described was very different. According to the book Niels Bohr was told about the story, and he liked it. However, he was not a participant in the tale. Also, the horseshoe was hung over the door of a laboratory instead of a home. No dates were given: 7
A physicist had a horseshoe hanging on the door of his laboratory. His colleagues were surprised and asked whether he believed that it would bring luck to his experiments. He answered: ‘No, I don’t believe in superstitions. But I have been told that it works even if you don’t believe in it.’
[Told by I B Cohen, the Harvard historian of physics, to S A Goudsmit who told it to Bohr, whose favourite story it became.]
In 1974 the educator David Hawkins told the tale in the preface to an essay. This version affixed the horseshoe to “Bohr’s country cabin”: 8
When a friend saw a horseshoe over the door of Bohr’s country cabin, he said in mock astonishment, “Surely you don’t believe in that old superstition!” “No,” said Bohr, “but they say it works even if you don’t believe in it.”
In 1986 the ombudsman of The Washington Post printed an instance which featured Albert Einstein as the principal figure. However, the journalist carefully warned readers that the story might be apocryphal: 9
I am reminded of a story—perhaps apocryphal, perhaps not—about a scientist who once called on Dr. Albert Einstein in Princeton. After ringing the doorbell, he noticed a horseshoe nailed above the front door and remarked on this to the eminent physicist: “You know, Dr. Einstein, in this country, a horseshoe above the front door is considered an omen that brings good luck to the household.”
“Yes, I know,” replied the distinguished physicist.
The astonished visitor said: “But surely, Dr. Einstein, you do not believe in this superstition.”
“Of course not,” replied Dr. Einstein, “but they tell me it works for you whether you believe in it or not.”
In conclusion, this humorous yarn was in circulation by 1956, and the earliest instances all named Niels Bohr. Yet, QI has not located any direct evidence in the writings of Niels Bohr. The testimony of Carl Alfred Meier is intriguing, but he does not name the person with the horseshoe. Perhaps future evidence will clarify the origin and veracity of the narrative.
(Many thanks to Peter Olausson @faktoids who located the earliest citation in “Svenska Dagbladet”.)
Update History: On January 20, 2021 the “Svenska Dagbladet” citation was added to the article.
Addendum: QI has located in the Google Books and HathiTrust databases another interesting match. The following data has not been verified on paper; hence it may be inaccurate.
Periodical: Shipbuilding & Shipping Record
Subtitle: A Journal of Shipbuilding, Marine Engineering, Dock, Harbours & Shipping
Month: Between January and June 1956, inclusive
Page: 422 (according to HathiTrust and GB)
The Professor’s view
Above Professor Niels Bohr’s door hangs a horseshoe. The world-famous atomic expert was recently asked if he really believed that it brought him luck. “No,” said Bohr, “of course I don’t believe it—but I’ve sometimes noticed that it works even when you don’t believe in it!”
The acknowledgement suggests that the story was circulating in Denmark.
- 1956 January 4, Svenska Dagbladet (The Swedish Daily News), Det påstås, Quote Page 8, Column 6, Stockholm, Sweden. (Verified with scans) ↩
- 1956 September 30, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: The American Weekly, The Wit Parade by E. E. Kenyon, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank) ↩
- 1956, The Speaker’s Handbook of Humor by Maxwell Droke, Anecdote Number: 1172, Anecdote Title: Not Superstitious, Quote Page 373, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper) ↩
- 1957 February 28, Kingston Daily Freeman, Office Cat by Junius, Quote Page 28, Column 4, (In the text above the misprint “coure” that was present in the digital image has been replaced by “course”), Kingston, New York. (Old Fulton) ↩
- 1977, Jung’s Analytical Psychology and Religion by Carl Alfred Meier, Series: Arcturus paperbacks, Quote Page 34 and 35, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois. (Reprint of the 1959 ed. published by Dept. of Psychology, Andover Newton Theological School, Newton Centre, Mass., under title: Jung and Analytical Psychology, in series: Cutting lectures)(Verified with scans) ↩
- Website: International Association for Analytical Psychology, Article title: “Professor C.A. Meier: Scientist and Healer of Souls”, Article Description: “The following biography of C.A. Meier by Thomas Lavin, Ph.D., was published in 1989, well before Professor C.A. Meier’s death (1905-1995). This text was published in Italian in the book, Psicologia Analitica Contemporanea”, Website description: IAAP (International Association for Analytical Psychology). Analytical Psychology originated in the work of the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung (1875-1961). (Accessed www.iaap.org on October 9, 2013) link ↩
- 2001, A Random Walk in Science: An Anthology, Compiled by Robert L. Weber, Edited by Eric Mendoza, (Freestanding short anecdote), Quote Page 14,Institute of Physics Publishing, Bristol, England and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, (Originally published in 1973 by The Institute of Physics, London)(Amazon Look Inside Preview) ↩
- 1974, The Informed Vision: Essays on Learning and Human Nature by David Hawkins, Preface to the essay “I, Thou, and It”, Quote Page 49, Agathon Press, New York. (Questia) ↩
- 1986 June 26, Washington Post, A Rare Media Leak by Joseph Laitin, Quote Page A24, Column 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest) ↩