Quote Origin: The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s Funny’

Isaac Asimov? Gordon Rattray Taylor? Alexander Fleming? Archimedes? Anonymous?

Question for Quote Investigator: The famous phrase uttered by an inventor or scientist when making a major discovery is “Eureka!” That was the cry of the ancient Greek sage Archimedes. Yet, a clever contrarian has asserted that the remark preceding a breakthrough reflects surprise and uncertainty such as:

“That’s odd.”
“That’s funny.”
“Hey, wait a minute.”

Scientific advances occur when anomalous observations are further scrutinized. This observation has been credited to the prominent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov, but I have never seen a solid citation; hence, I have become skeptical of this ascription. Would you please explore this topic?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest strong match 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” which was part of the installation of the popular UNIX operating system. The program “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. Boldface added to excepts by QI: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 citation.

Researchers have been unable to find this statement in the writings of Asimov. For example, Steven Cooper published a comprehensive bibliography of Asimov in 2023 which includes the following commentary:2

It is also worth noting that there are several frequently appearing quotes whose attribution to Asimov is doubtful if not actually spurious. One in particular – The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny…” – was encountered over and over again during the research for this bibliography. However, not one of its many dozens of appearances gives any indication of an original source, and no trace of it has been found in the large proportion of Asimov’s writing that I have been able to examine.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A thematically related passage appeared in 1965 within the London periodical “Science Journal”. An article by British journalist Gordon Rattray Taylor discussed the process of scientific discovery:3

The popular picture of the scientist is of a man who is visited by a flash of insight and cries, in effect, “Eureka!” Or, more modestly, as a man who notices something others have ignored and mutters “That’s odd.”

To be realistic, however, the successful scientist often seizes on a new tool or a new technique and applies it sooner than anyone else.

The accompanying surreal cartoon depicted a scientist in front of a bowl which was mixing chemicals. A hand emerging from the bowl was pulling the tie of the scientist who was saying “That’s odd”.

In 1971 Isaac Asimov published a piece titled “The Eureka Phenomenon” in “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction”. Asimov presented a conventional version of the Archimedes tale. The article did not contain the phrase “That’s odd” or anything comparable:4

And as he ran, Archimedes shouted over and over, “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” Of course, knowing no English, he was compelled to shout it in Greek, so it came out, “Eureka! Eureka!” . . .

How often does this “Eureka phenomenon” happen? How often is there this flash of deep insight during a moment of relaxation, this triumphant cry of “I’ve got it! I’ve got it!” which must surely be a moment of the purest ecstasy this sorry world can afford?

Asimov’s article also discussed organic chemist August Kekulé’s discovery of the structure of the benzene molecule via a vision during a dream:5

To himself, he must surely have shouted “Eureka,” for indeed he had it.

In 1976 the book “Introduction to the History of Mycology” by G. C. Ainsworth contained a relevant tale about the momentous discovery of the antibiotic penicillin by Alexander Fleming. This tale precisely fit the saying under examination. When Fleming saw a petri dish that revealed the presence of a powerful new antibacterial agent he did not shout “Eureka”:6

. . . Fleming while explaining the staphylococcal work to Pryce, to demonstrate a point, picked up one of the top layer of the discarded plates when he noticed the lysis of the staphylococci (his cry of Eureka was ‘That’s funny!’) and then and there made a subculture of the mould.

In 1987 Isaac Asimov published the novel “Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain”. The phrase “that’s odd” was employed to signal that an ominous discovery had been made. This usage displayed some points of similarity with the quotation:7

For a moment, Konev and Morrison stared at each other hostilely and then Dezhnev said in a voice that seemed drained of some of its life, “My poor old father used to say: ‘The most frightening phrase in the Russian language is “That’s odd.”’”

Konev turned angrily and said, “Shut up, Arkady.”

Dezhnev replied, “I mentioned that only because it is now time for me to say it: That’s odd.”

In June 1987 the source code of the “fortune” program was distributed via the Usenet network. The quotation attributed to Asimov appeared within the “fortune” program database as noted previously:

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

In 1997 a book titled “Comet Hale-Bopp: Find and Enjoy the Great Comet” was released, and the author credited Asimov with a variant of the quotation:8

As Isaac Asimov said, the classic phrase of discovery in science isn’t “Eureka!” It’s more like “Hey, wait a minute….”

In 2000 “The Washington Post” printed an article about a novelty gift called “Big Mouth Billy Bass” that consisted of a motorized plastic replica of a fish that was able to move and sing in synchrony with an audio recording. One fishy pronouncement was credited to Asimov:9

. . . Billy Bass does genuflect to a famous saying by science fiction writer Isaac Asimov: “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not, ‘Eureka! I’ve found it,’ but, ‘That’s funny!’ “

In conclusion, the ascription to Isaac Asimov remains uncertain. He received credit in 1987 while he was still alive. The attribution appeared in the “fortune” program of the UNIX operating system. The quotation has not yet been found in the writings, interviews, or speeches of Asimov. An interesting precursor occurred in an article by Gordon Rattray Taylor in 1965.

Image Notes: Depiction of creativity as a lightbulb and a rising sun. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Matthew Johnson and Laura Jones whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Ben Zimmer who identified the 1987 Usenet citation. Further thanks to Peter Morris who identified the 1965 citation. Also, thanks to Bill Mullins who pointed to the remark in the 2023 bibliography. Additional thanks to the discussants in the Usenet newsgroups and the Snopes forum.

Update History: On September 29, 2023 the article was rewritten. The citations dated April 1965, June 1971, and 2023 were added to the article.

[1] Usenet discussion message,  Date: 1987 June 3, 1987, 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)

[2] Website of Steven Cooper at stevenac.net, An Annotated Asimov Bibliography, Compiled by Steven Cooper, Revised Edition, Version 2.0 (Released September 2023), Part I: Catalogue of Asimov’s Fiction, Note: Document in PDF format, (Remark about quotation is in Footnote 1), Quote Page 8. (Website stevenac.net/asimov/ accessed on September 26, 2023) link

[3] 1965 April, Science Journal, Volume 1, Number 2, Focus by Gordon Rattray Taylor, Start Page 31, Quote Page 32, Column 1, Associated Iliffe, London, England. (Verified with scans)

[4] 1971 June, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Eureka Phenomenon by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 107, Quote Page 110 and 111, Mercury Press Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

[5] 1971 June, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, The Eureka Phenomenon by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 107, Quote Page 115, Mercury Press Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)

[6] 1976, Introduction to the History of Mycology by G. C. Ainsworth, Quote Page 219, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Google Books Preview)

[7] 1987, Fantastic Voyage II: Destination Brain by Isaac Asimov, Quote Page 276 and 277, Doubleday, New York. (Verified with scans)

[8] 1997, Comet Hale-Bopp: Find and Enjoy the Great Comet by Robert Burnham, Quote Page 53, Published by Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, England. (Verified with scans)

[9] 2000 July 30, Washington Post, Betting On a Bass That Belts Them Out; Singing Fish Becomes Season’s Unlikely Hit by Darragh Johnson, Quote Page C1, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)