An Alleged Scientific Discovery Has No Merit Unless It Can Be Explained To a Barmaid

Albert Einstein? Ernest Rutherford? Cyril Hinshelwood? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It should be possible to explain a valid scientific theory to anybody, e.g., a nine-year-old, a grandmother, or the man in the street. This dubious assertion is challenged by the fact that few humans are able to comprehend the notion of a four-dimensional space-time manifold which is central to the breakthrough theory of special relativity in physics.

Would you please explore another debatable claim of this type? Here are three versions:

  • A good scientific theory should be explicable to a barmaid
  • It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.
  • No physical theory is worth much if it cannot be explained to a barmaid.

This remark has been attributed to both Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford, two Nobel Prize winning scientists.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the journal “Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society” within a 1955 article about Albert Einstein who had died earlier in the year. The piece noted that some fellow scientists were initially reluctant to accept Einstein’s research results because of their complex abstract nature. While discussing this resistance the article mentioned the saying together with an ascription to Ernest Rutherford. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Some of it may have been due to the popular principle attributed to Rutherford, that an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.

Over time Einstein’s colleagues embraced his work and performed experiments that supported his theories.

Ernest Rutherford died in 1937, so the attribution above is posthumous and rather late. Also, the phrasing has been highly variable. Over all, the supporting evidence is not strong. On the other hand, Rutherford is the leading candidate because other ascriptions only emerged in the 1970s.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1965 “The Questioners: Physicists and the Quantum Theory” by Barbara Lovett Cline attributed a version of the saying to Rutherford: 2

Rutherford liked things to be simple. He said once that if a theory were any good it ought to be possible to explain it to a barmaid.

Also, in 1965 English physical chemist Sir Cyril Hinshelwood delivered the Presidential Address to the British Association for the Advancement of Science. His words were broadcast via radio, and he credited Rutherford with an instance of the saying: 3

One mild murmur of amusement was allowed the audience, during the sixty minutes, when he quoted Rutherford’s saying that “no physical theory is worth much if it cannot be explained to a barmaid,” but had already died away before Sir Cyril loyally added, “a class of lady who still existed in Rutherford’s day.”

In 1967 the British Broadcasting Corporation published the book “Einstein: The Man and His Achievement” based on a three-hour-long documentary from the organization. Mathematician Gerald James Whitrow of the Imperial College, London attributed the saying to Rutherford: 4

By introducing sophisticated mathematical concepts like this into physics, Einstein not only abandoned the popular principle attributed to Rutherford that ‘an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid’, but he even outraged many professional scientists.

Also, in 1967 the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists” printed an essay based on the 1965 speech by Cyril Hinshelwood. Thus, the attribution to Rutherford continued to be disseminated: 5

Like Newton and like Wren, Rutherford had as a boy a taste for mechanical construction—though he was also no mean scholar—and he also believed in keeping mathematics in its place. One of his reported obiter dicta is to the effect that no physical theory is worth much if it cannot be explained to a barmaid—a class of lady who still existed in Rutherford’s day.

In 1979 “The Book of Quotes” compiled by Barbara Rowes ascribed the saying to Albert Einstein. This was the first linkage to Einstein seen by QI: 6

It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.
—Albert Einstein

Also, in 1979 the attribution to Rutherford continued to circulate. For example, prominent physicist Steven Weinberg published an essay in the “Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences” containing the following: 7

The great Lord Rutherford, the discoverer of the nucleus of the atom, said, on trying to come to grips with general relativity, that he was skeptical about it because he never believed anything in physics that you could not explain to a barmaid. I suspect that this initial resistance to relativity theory derives at least in part from the fact that of all the aspects of experience it is space and time that afford the greatest confidence that we can come to grips with them by means of the unaided intellect.

In 1996 “Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit” credited Einstein: 8

It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.
—Albert Einstein

In conclusion, Ernest Rutherford who died in 1937 first received credit for this remark in 1955. The long delay reduces the trustworthiness of this attribution. Yet, the only other significant candidate, Einstein, first received credit in 1979. QI believes the Einstein linkage is spurious. Future researchers may antedate these citations and provide additional clarity.

Image Notes: oil painting titled “A Bar at the Folies-Bergère” by Édouard Manet created circa 1882; accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Thanks to Nigel Rees who noted in “The ‘Quote…Unquote’ Newsletter” of October 2019 that this saying was credited to Rutherford by 1965. Also, thanks to the volunteer Wikiquote editors who presented a 1973 citation with an ascription to Rutherford.)

Notes:

  1. 1955 November, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Volume 1, Albert Einstein 1879-1955 by Edmund Whittaker, Start Page 37, Quote Page 54, Published by Royal Society, United Kingdom. (JSTOR) link
  2. 1965, The Questioners: Physicists and the Quantum Theory by Barbara Lovett Cline, Chapter 6: Niels Bohr: Early Quantum Theory of the Atom, Quote Page 105, Thomas Y. Crowell Company, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1965 September 4, The Guardian, The Week on Radio Anne Duchene, Quote Page 6, Column 2, London, Greater London, England. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1967, Einstein, The Man and His Achievement: A Series of Broadcast Talks Under the General Editorship of G. J. Whitrow, Part 2: The Years of Fame: 1906-1932, Quote Page 42, British Broadcasting Corporation, London. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1967 June, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: A Journal of Science and Public Affairs, Volume 23, Number 6, Science and Scientists by Cyril Hinshelwood, Start Page 30, Quote Page 33, Educational Foundation for Nuclear Scientists, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View)
  6. 1979, The Book of Quotes, Compiled by Barbara Rowes, Chapter 27: Gurus, Quote Page 249, A Sunrise Book: E. P. Dutton, New York. (Verified on paper)
  7. 1979, Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Volume 33, Number 2, Einstein and Spacetime: Then and Now by Steven Weinberg, Start Page 35, Quote Page 39 and 40, Published by American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (JSTOR) link
  8. 1996 (1994 Copyright), Leo Rosten’s Carnival of Wit From Aristotle to Woody Allen, Compiled by Leo Rosten, Topic: Education, Quote Page 165, Plume: Penguin Books, New York. (Verified with scans)