The Universe Is Not Only Queerer Than We Suppose, But Queerer Than We Can Suppose

Arthur Eddington? J. B. S. Haldane? Werner Heisenberg? Arthur C. Clarke? Stanley Kubrick? J. B. Priestly

Dear Quote Investigator: The physics of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and string theory are mind-bending. Scientists have made remarkable strides in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; yet, some believe that the progress will stop before the completion of an all-inclusive physical theory. The following adage suggests that the universe is beyond human comprehension. Here are five versions:

  1. Reality is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.
  2. Nature is not only odder than we think, but odder than we can think.
  3. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.
  4. Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.
  5. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Statements in this family have been credited to English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, English biologist J. B. S. Haldane, and German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match in this family of expressions known to QI was written by J. B. S. Haldane in an essay titled “Possible Worlds” published within a 1927 collection. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1928 (First edition in 1927), Possible Worlds and Other Papers by J. B. S. Haldane, Essay 34: Possible Worlds, Start Page 272, Quote Page 298 and 299, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.

During the ensuing decades the phrasing and vocabulary of the statement have been altered to yield many variants. In addition, the attribution has shifted. Based on current evidence the ascriptions to Arthur Eddington and Werner Heisenberg are unsupported.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1875 Sir George Biddell Airy who was the Astronomer Royal received an award from the Lord Mayor of London who described the remarkable advances that Airy and other scientists had accomplished in expanding human knowledge of the universe. The new information was “stranger than the strangest fiction”, but it was still comprehensible:[ref] 1875 November 5, The Times, The Corporation of London and The Astronomer Royal, Quote Page 8, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Not only have the planetary bodies known to exist in our system increased in number more than twentyfold, but beyond its area astonishing discoveries have been made, which extend almost without limit our acquaintance with the physical universe; while, stranger than the strangest fiction, the heavenly bodies have had to yield up the secrets not only of their chymical composition, but also of the gases which compose their atmospheres.

Haldane published the expression in an essay available in 1927 as mentioned previously. In January 1928 “The Observer” newspaper of London printed an instance credited to Haldane:[ref] 1928 January 1, The Observer, Physics and Philosophy in 1927 by J. W. N. Sullivan, Quote Page 5, Column 3, London, England. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

As Mr. J. B. S. Haldane hints, it may be that “the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

In May 1928 Haldane’s collection “Possible Worlds and Other Papers” was reviewed in the “St. Louis Post-Dispatch” of St. Louis, Missouri and a six-sentence excerpt containing the expression was reprinted.[ref] 1928 May 1, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Of Making Many Books by John G. Neihardt (Book Review of “Possible Worlds” by J.B.S. Haldane), Quote Page 21, Column 2, St. Louis, Missouri. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In 1962 the famous science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke published the speculative work “Profiles of the Future”. Clarke credited Haldane with an instance using the work “imagine” instead of “suppose”. Also, the phrasing was slightly altered:[ref] 1967 (First publication 1962), Profiles of the Future by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 11: About Time, Quote Page 139, Bantam Books, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Professor J. B. S. Haldane once shrewdly remarked: “The Universe is not only queerer than we imagine—it is queerer than we can imagine.” Even the theory of relativity may only hint at the ultimate queerness of time.

In 1963 Clarke’s book was reviewed by a U.S. news service, and the variant expression was further distributed:[ref] 1963 February 24, Salina Journal Sunday, You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet by Maurice Dolbier (Herald Tribune News Service), (Book Review of “Profiles of the Future” by Arthur C. Clarke), Quote Page 4, Column 4, Salina, Kansas. (NewspaperArchive)[/ref]

Mr. Clarke has twentieth-century reservations about such matters as a world brain, the ability to distort time and space, and man-made immortality. But he believes, with Professor Haldane, that “the Universe is not only queerer than we imagine — it is queerer than we can imagine,” and not even these seeming impossibilities are omitted from his enthralling, witty, and exciting commentary!

In the 1960s prominent film director Stanley Kubrick worked with Arthur C. Clarke on a space opus called “Journey Beyond the Stars”. When the movie and companion book were finally released to theaters and book stores in 1968 the title was changed to “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Kubrick discussed the project in March 1965, and he employed an instance of the expression attributed to Haldane using “stranger” and “imagine” instead of “queerer” and “suppose”:[ref] 1965 March 5, St. Cloud Daily Times, Cinerama Film to Explore Outer Space, Quote Page 7A, Column 3, Saint Cloud, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)[/ref]

The great biologist J.B.S. Haldane said: ‘The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.’ When you consider that in our galaxy there are a hundred billion stars, of which our sun is a perfectly average specimen, and that present estimates put the number of galaxies in the visible Universe at a hundred million, Haldane’s statement seems rather conservative.

In April 1965 “The New Yorker” magazine printed a short piece about the Kubrick-Clarke collaboration containing the same version of the statement:[ref] 1965 April 24, The New Yorker, Section: The Talk of the Town, Beyond the Stars by Jeremy Bernstein, Start Page 38, Quote Page 39, Column 3, The New Yorker Magazine Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive of digital scans) [/ref]

We said goodbye shortly afterward, and on our way out a phrase of J. B. S. Haldane’s came back to us: “The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.”

In 1976 educator Arlen R. Zander delivered a speech about UFOs that included an instance using “stranger” and “suppose”:[ref] 1976 March 19, The Abilene Reporter-News, UFOs deserve study, expert says by Joe Dacy II (Staff Writer), Quote Page 6A, Column 5, Abilene, Texas. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

In conclusion the East Texas State University associate professor said that “Our universe is not only stranger than we suppose, it is stranger than we can suppose.”

In 1977 the collection of sayings “Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong!” by Arthur Bloch included an instance using “queerer” and “imagine”:[ref] 1977, Murphy’s Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong! by Arthur Bloch, Chapter: Cole’s Law, Quote Page 92, Price Stern Sloan Publishers Inc., Los Angeles, California. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

The universe is not only queerer than we imagine, it’s queerer than we can imagine.

In 1978 “The Official Rules” by Paul Dickson printed a version with “stranger” and “imagine”:[ref] 1978, The Official Rules by Paul Dickson, Quote Page 79, Delacorte Press, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Haldane’s Law. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine.
(J. B. S. Haldane, British geneticist and Marxist. JW.)

In 1984 “The Philadelphia Inquirer” published a book review containing an instance with “the truth” instead of “the universe” together with other alterations:[ref] 1984 January 29, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Section: Books/Leisure, A thriller that depicts the world of big government’s little people by Bill Kent, (Review of “The Shadow Cabinet” by W. T. Tyler), Quote Page 2, Column 3, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com) [/ref]

Yes, the truth is not only stranger than we believe, it is stranger than we can believe.

In 1986 “Cosmic Banditos” by A. C. Weisbecker credited the adage to physicist Werner Heisenberg:[ref] 1986, Cosmic Banditos: A Contrabandista’s Quest for the Meaning of Life by A. C. Weisbecker, Chapter 1: Exiled, Quote Page 11, Vintage Books: A Division of Random House, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.
—Werner Heisenberg

In 1990 the prominent science fiction author Norman Spinrad ascribed the adage to novelist and commentator J.B. Priestly:[ref] 1990, Science Fiction in the Real World by Norman Spinrad, Essay: Dreams of Space, Start Page 122, Quote Page 135, Southern Illinois University Press, Carbondale and Edwardsville, Illinois. (Google Books Preview) [/ref]

“The universe is not only stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think,” J.B. Priestly once declared.

How wrong he was! The endless diversity of environments we can create in space and the endlessly diverse self-created mutations of humanity we will turn ourselves into when we inhabit them will be stranger and more varied by far than anything in the so-called natural realm.

In 1991 “Popular Science” magazine published an article titled “The Cosmic Connection” by Arthur Fisher containing another variant with “nature” instead of “the universe”:[ref] 1991 April, Popular Science, The Cosmic Connection by Arthur Fisher, Start Page 70, Quote Page 93, Column 3, Times Mirror Magazines, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

Will science ever learn all the answers? In the famous aphorism by the English biologist J.B.S. Haldane, perhaps “nature is not only odder than we think, but odder than we can think.”

In 1993 a message posted to the Usenet distributed discussion system credited astrophysicist Arthur Eddington:[ref] 1993 March 29, Usenet discussion message, Newsgroup: alt.romance, From: John R. Grout, Subject: Re: Soap Opera Feeling ….., (Google Groups Search; Accessed December 26, 2018) link [/ref]

The great physicist Eddington once said (in effect) that the universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we CAN imagine.

In conclusion, J. B. S. Haldane should be credited with the influential adage he published in 1927. Many variant expressions have evolved from his statement. The ascriptions to Werner Heisenberg, Arthur Eddington, and J.B. Priestly occurred after 1927 and appear to be spurious.

Image Notes: Abstract image from Gerd Altmann at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Mark LaPorta whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. LaPorta indicated that a Google search revealed attributions to J. B. S. Haldane, Arthur Eddington, and others.)

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