If I Could Remember the Names of These Particles, I Would Have Been a Botanist

Albert Einstein? Enrico Fermi? Leon M. Lederman? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: During the twentieth century the field of physics advanced astonishingly quickly. Researchers discovered a large number of elementary particles. A prominent physicist quipped:

If I could remember the names of all those particles, I’d be a botanist.

Did Albert Einstein, Enrico Fermi, or somebody else say this?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein made this statement. The remark appeared in a section called “Probably Not By Einstein” within the comprehensive reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press.

The earliest instance located by QI occurred in a 1963 lecture by the experimental physicist Leon M. Lederman delivered at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in New York. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

In introducing the elementary particles to a wide audience like this one, I always remember the statement of the great Enrico Fermi who said, “If I could remember the names of these particles, I would have been a botanist.” I will therefore restrict myself to a small fraction of the particles in order to keep the discussion simple. Probably the proton, the neutron, and the electron are familiar to all of you — you may even own some.

Fermi died almost a decade earlier in 1954, but he is the leading candidate. The phrasing of the expression is variable.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.




In 1979 the “Pittsburgh Post-Gazette” published an article about the continuing progress in particle physics: 2

Fifty years ago the universe seemed simple — everything could be made out of just three kinds of particles — electrons, protons and neutrons. But now studies of cosmic rays and work with huge atomic accelerators have confronted physicists with a bewildering jumble of dozens of heavy, apparently elementary particles, most of them short-lived. One eminent physicist, Enrico Fermi, once complained; “If I could remember the names of all these particles, I would have been a botanist.”

In 1982 the anthology “More Random Walks in Science” placed the saying ascribed to Fermi adjacent to another quotation: 3

We really try to have only one new particle per paper.
PATRICK BLACKETT

If I could remember the names of all these particles I’d be a botanist.
ENRICO FERMI

In 1987 “The Arizona Republic” published a piece titled “$4.4 Billion Cyclotron would Re-create Seeds of Existence” by Carle Hodge that included the saying: 4

Enrico Fermi was an Italian immigrant who pried many of the particles out of their atoms and was part of the Manhattan Project that built the first atomic bomb.

But he finally found the huge number of particles as bewildering as the complexity of the plant kingdom.

“If I could remember the names of all these particles,” he once said, “I’d be a botanist.”

In 1997 the “Los Angeles Times” science writer K. C. Cole mentioned physicist’s preference for elegance and simplicity: 5

They like simple schemes for classifying everything in the universe, and simple recipes for cooking it up. So it’s no wonder that physicists tend to freak out when the cosmos gets unfathomably complicated. Take the 1950s, for example, when new “fundamental” particles were proliferating like rabbits, produced by the power of newly developed “atom smashers.”

Physicist Enrico Fermi sniffed: “If I could remember the names of all these particles, I would have been a botanist.”

The 2010 reference “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” indicated that there was no substantive support for ascribing the remark to Einstein: 6

PROBABLY NOT BY EINSTEIN

If I could remember the names of all those particles, I’d be a botanist.
Said to be from “Science, Philosophy and Religion,” but I could not find it in the reprinted speech in Ideas and Opinions.

In conclusion, Enrico Fermi died in 1954. Fellow physicist Leon M. Lederman credited him with the remark in 1963. During the ensuing decades Fermi received credit many times almost exclusively. The linkage to Einstein is unsupported.

Image Notes: Standard Model of Elementary Particles subset. Original image from author MissMJ licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported. Image has been cropped, retouched, and resized by QI. Portrait of Enrico Fermi available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

Notes:

  1. 1963 January 9, Brookhaven Lecture Series on Unity of Science, BNL 787, Number 23, Neutrino Physics by Leon M. Lederman (Physics Departments, of Columbia University and Brookhaven National Laboratory), Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Published by Office of Technical Services, Department of Commerce, Washington D.C. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  2. 1979 March 12, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Section: Daily Magazine, An Infinite Horizon In Pursuit of Physics by Clarke Thomas (Post-Gazette Associate Editor), Quote Page 15, Column 1 and 2, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1982, More Random Walks in Science: An anthology compiled by Robert L. Weber, Quote Page 80, Taylor & Francis, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  4. 1987 September 6, The Arizona Republic, $4.4 billion cyclotron would re-create seeds of existence by Carle Hodge (Arizona Republic Science Writer),Start Page A1, Quote Page A14, Column 4,Phoenix, Arizona. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1997 December 25, Los Angeles Times, Scientists Take Subatomic Route to Supercomputers by K. C. Cole (Times Science Writer), Quote Page B2, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Section: Probably Not by Einstein, Quote Page 478, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Verified on paper)