Sometimes I Think We’re Alone, and Sometimes I Think We’re Not. In Either Case, the Idea Is Quite Staggering

Arthur C. Clarke? Stanley Kubrick? Christiane Kubrick? Jeremy Bernstein? Porky Pine? Walt Kelly? Frank Interlandi? Carl Sagan? Jerome Agel? Buckminster Fuller? David Shepley? Lee Alvin DuBridge? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator: Astronomers have been searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence for more than a century. Is humankind alone in the universe, or is humankind sharing the cosmos with undiscovered alien civilizations?

A scientist or a science fiction (SF) writer once replied to this question by saying something like: Either answer is mindboggling. Would you please explore this topic?

Dear Quote Investigator: This notion has been expressed in many different ways. Here is a sampling in chronological order:

1966 November: Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.

1966 December: You either believe there are other forms of intelligent life in the universe, or that there aren’t. Either way, it’s a pretty staggering thought.

1974: Sometimes I think we’re alone in the Universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the prospect is very frightening.

1977: Either mankind is alone in the galaxy — or he is not; either alternative is mind-boggling.

1989: Sometimes I think we are alone in the universe and sometimes I think we aren’t; in both cases the idea makes me dizzy.

1990: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Either way, the thought is frightening.

1996: Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

2000: Either there is life out there or we are the only living things in the universe, and either alternative is equally astonishing.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared within an article by physicist Jeremy Bernstein about movie director Stanley Kubrick published in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1966. Kubrick was working together with British SF author Arthur C. Clarke who wrote a short story titled “The Sentinel”. The pair spent two years expanding the story into a novel and a script for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” which included an interplanetary voyage to Jupiter. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Extraterrestrial life may seem an odd subject for a motion picture, but at this stage in his career Kubrick is convinced that any idea he is really interested in, however unlikely it may sound, can be transferred to film. “One of the English science-fiction writers once said, ‘Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering,’” Kubrick once told me. “I must say I agree with him.”

Kubrick did not precisely identify the author of the quotation. Clarke was mentioned extensively in the article; however, QI believes that Kubrick and Bernstein would have credited Clarke if he had crafted the statement. Kubrick spoke to other British SF writers such as J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock during the long difficult parturition of “2001”. 2

Oddly, a couple years later in 1968 Kubrick tentatively attributed the remark to a “prominent astronomer”. See the 1968 citation further below. Kubrick did speak to U.S. astronomer Carl Sagan during the creation of the “2001”. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1951 Clarke penned a thematically related statement in his non-fiction book on “The Exploration of Space”: 4

In the long run, the prospect of meeting other forms of intelligence is perhaps the most exciting of all the possibilities revealed by astronautics. Whether or not Man is alone in the Universe is one of the supreme questions of philosophy. It is difficult to imagine that anyone could fail to be interested in knowing the answer—and only through space-travel can we be sure of obtaining it

In 1952 a book reviewer in a Minneapolis, Minnesota newspaper found Clarke’s comment memorable enough to reprint: 5

There will, of course, be the ever-present possibility of meeting other forms of intelligence, which Clarke terms “the most exciting of all the possibilities.

“Whether or not man is alone in the universe is one of the supreme questions of philosophy,” he says.

Another intriguing precursor appeared in Walt Kelly’s popular comic strip “Pogo” in 1959. The strip discussed the presence or absence of advanced intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. The character Porky Pine speculated about beings on other planets while employing a distinctive non-standard grammar: 6

Porky Pine: I BEEN READIN’ ‘BOUT HOW MAYBE THEY IS PLANETS PEOPLED BY FOLKS WITH AD-VANCED BRAINS.

Pogo: UM

Porky Pine: ON THE OTHER HAND, MAYBE WE GOT THE MOST BRAINS…MAYBE OUR INTELLECTS IS THE UNIVERSE’S MOST AD-VANCED.

Porky Pine: EITHER WAY, IT’S A MIGHTY SOBERIN’ THOUGHT.

In 1966 astronomer Carl Sagan co-authored with Iosif S. Shklovskii the book “Intelligent Life In the Universe”. Sagan wrote the preface which he dated May 15, 1966. The “Pogo” strip about intelligent beings was reprinted adjacent to the table of contents at the beginning of the book. 7 It was possible that Sagan relayed a version of the statement in the “Pogo” strip to Stanley Kubrick and his wife Christiane Kubrick.

In November 1966 the lengthy profile of Kubrick containing the quotation appeared in “The New Yorker” as mentioned previously.

In December 1966 artist Frank Interlandi of the “Los Angeles Times” employed the saying as the caption of a syndicated one-panel cartoon depicting a women looking at the stars in the night sky while talking to a companion. No attribution was given for the quotation: 8

“Sometimes I think we’re alone in the universe, and sometimes I think we’re not—in either case, the idea is quite staggering!”

Also, in December 1966 “The Independent” of Pasadena, California published a filler item crediting a version of the saying to “painter Christiana Kubrick”. QI believes that “Christiana” should have been spelled “Christiane”. She was the wife of Stanley Kubrick from 1958 until his death in 1999. This instance mentioned “intelligent life” which connected it to Walt Kelly’s statement: 9

“You either believe there are other forms of intelligent life in the universe, or that there aren’t. Either way, it’s a pretty staggering thought.”
—painter Christiana Kubrick.

In 1967 the remark was further propagated when “The New Yorker” article about Kubrick was reprinted in Bernstein’s collection “A Comprehensible World: On Modern Science and Its Origins”. 10

In September 1968 “Playboy” magazine published an interview with Kubrick during which he ascribed the saying to an unnamed “prominent astronomer”: 11

But at a time when astronauts are preparing to set foot on the moon, I think it’s necessary to open up our earth-bound minds to such speculation. No one knows what’s waiting for us in the universe. I think it was a prominent astronomer who wrote recently, “Sometimes I think we are alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”

In 1970 publicist and editor Jerome Agel published a collection titled “The Making of Kubrick’s 2001”. He reprinted “The New Yorker” profile and the “Playboy” interview with Kubrick. Thus, the saying continued to circulate. 12

Also in 1970, futurist Buckminster Fuller published “I Seem To Be a Verb” together with collaborators ‎Jerome Agel and ‎Quentin Fiore. The work consisted of a collage of quotations. The typography was mixed, and one-half of the material was upside down. The quotation was included with an ascription to an unnamed “British astronomer”, and QI conjectures Agel was responsible: 13

“Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”
–BRITISH ASTRONOMER.

In 1971 a columnist in “The Age” newspaper of Melbourne, Australia attributed the saying to an astrophysicist circa 1966: 14

“Sometimes,” wrote astrophysicist David Shepley, “I think that man is alone in the firmament. Sometimes I think he is not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.”

Shepley’s statement (circa 1966) was a straw in the scientific wind. The notion that we might have intelligent company in the cosmos was only then becoming respectable.

In 1974 an unnamed scientist received credit for a variant statement with the word “frightening” instead of “staggering” in the pages of “The Jewish Advocate” of Boston, Massachusetts: 15

“Sometimes I think we’re alone in the Universe, and sometimes I think we’re not,” a scientist was quoted as saying. “In either case, the prospect is very frightening.” Stanley Kubrick, in his Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Production, “2001: A Space Odyssey,” returning to the Beacon Hill Theatre, cosmically answers some questions and raises many more in his sweeping view of mankind’s first contact with extraterrestrials.

In 1977 an article epigraph in the “Berkeley Barb” of Berkeley, California ascribed a variant statement with the word “mind-boggling” to a former president of the California Institute of Technology: 16

“Either mankind is alone in the galaxy — or he is not; either alternative is mind-boggling.” — Lee DuBridge, former President of Cal Tech

In April 1980 “OMNI” magazine attributed the saying to Buckminster Fuller. QI hypothesizes that this attribution was based on a misreading of Fuller’s coauthored 1970 book 17

“Sometimes I think we’re alone. Sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the thought is quite staggering”
— R. Buckminster Fuller

In 1981 “Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations” edited by Deborah Davis Eisel and Jill Swanson Reddig credited Buckminster Fuller while citing the April 1980 “OMNI” magazine mentioned immediately above. 18

In 1989 “The Pastor As Teacher” included a chapter which attributed a version of the saying with the word “dizzy” to Arthur C. Clarke. The accompanying footnote pointed to a 1983 biography of Kubrick by Michel Ciment: 19

In speaking of his film 2001: A Space Odyssey, director Stanley Kubrick says he agrees with Arthur C. Clarke, the author of the original story on which the film is based, when he wrote, “Sometimes I think we are alone in the universe and sometimes I think we aren’t; in both cases the idea makes me dizzy.”

In 1990 a Vancouver, Canada newspaper published a piece about birthdays which included a version of the saying with the word “frightening” attributed to Clarke: 20

Arthur C. Clarke, 73 today, is best known as the author of 2001. He once said: “Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Either way, the thought is frightening.”

In 1996 a piece about the paranormal by a “Newsweek’ journalist included a version of the saying with the word “terrifying” attributed to Clarke: 21

Arthur C Clarke author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and noted millennialist, once observed: “Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.”

In 2000 “The Guardian” newspaper of London published yet another version of the saying attributed to Clarke with the word “astonishing”: 22

Rob Grant, who admits he came up with the initial concept for The Strangerers while “having a pee”, claims he “used to be an alien atheist, until I read Arthur C. Clarke saying, ‘either there is life out there or we are the only living things in the universe, and either alternative is equally astonishing'”.

In conclusion, Stanley Kubrick began to popularize this expression by 1966, but he disclaimed credit. He attributed the words to an unnamed English SF writer in 1966 and a unnamed prominent astronomer in 1968. It was possible that Kubrick heard a version of the saying from Carl Sagan who encountered a closely related saying in Walt Kelly’s “Pogo” comic strip.

Frank Interlandi used the saying as a cartoon caption in December 1966, but it was already in circulation. Many variants have proliferated during the ensuing decades, and the attribution has shifted. Arthur C. Clarke made a similar point in his 1951 book “The Exploration of Space”, but his phrasing was not as vivid and dramatic.

Image Notes: Public domain image created by NASA based on X-ray data from NASA’s Chandra X-ray Observatory. Image has been cropped and resized.

(In 2005 Gary Westfahl published “Science Fiction Quotations: From the Inner Mind to the Outer Limits”. Westfahl had difficulty finding solid citations for some quotations, and afterwards he posted an article to his website “World of Westfahl” listing this quotation and others that were difficult to trace. Great thanks to quotation expert Fred Shapiro who mentioned Gary Westfahl’s list. Many thanks to Andy Bach who pointed to the germane “Pogo” comic strip. Further thanks to discussants Dennis Lien and Andy Stewart. Special thanks to Bill Mullins who located two important 1966 citations for Carl Sagan and Christiane Kubrick. Mullins suggested that Sagan may have relayed the saying to Kubrick.)

Update History: The December 28, 1966 citation for Christiane Kubrick was added October 28, 2020. The 1966 citation for Carl Sagan’s “Intelligent Life In the Universe” was added October 30, 2020.

Notes:

  1. 1966 November 12, The New Yorker, Profiles: How About a Little Game? by Jeremy Bernstein, (Profile of Stanley Kubrick), The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive at newyorker.com; accessed October 10, 2020) link
  2. 2016 January 5, New Statesman, Books: “Close to tears, he left at the intermission”: how Stanley Kubrick upset Arthur C Clarke by Michael Moorcock, (Article posted on website on January 8, 2017), (Accessed newstatesman.com on October 21, 2020) link
  3. Website: CNet, Article title: Kubrick, Clarke and 2001: How Space Odyssey came together, Article author: Nicholas Tufnell, Date on website: April 3, 2018, Website description: Technology news. (Accessed cnet.com on October 27, 2020) link
  4. 1951, The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 18: Concerning Means and Ends, Quote Page 191, Harper & Brothers Publishers. New York. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1952 July 24, The Minneapolis Star, Conquest of Space Can Change Man’s View of Himself by John Chapman, (Review of Arthur C. Clarke’s “The Exploration of Space”), Quote Page 24, Column 4, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Newspapers_com)
  6. 1959 June 20, The Honolulu Advertiser, Pogo Comic Strip by Walt Kelly, Quote Page B3, Honolulu, Hawaii. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1966, Intelligent Life In the Universe by I. S. Shklovskii and Carl Sagan, (Based on a Russian book by I. S. Shklovskii; translation of Russian book to English by Paula Fern), (Reprint of Pogo Cartoon by Walt Kelly appears on unnumbered page after the table of contents; cartoon originally appeared June 20, 1959; final panel of cartoon depicts character Porky Pine stating “EITHER WAY, IT’S A MIGHTY SOBERIN’ THOUGHT”), Holden-Day Inc., San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1966 December 13, Los Angeles Times, (One-panel cartoon by Frank Interlandi of the Los Angeles Times), Quote Page C5, Column 3, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  9. 1966 December 28, The Independent, Last Words, Quote Page 6, Column 6, Pasadena, California. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1967, A Comprehensible World: On Modern Science and Its Origins by Jeremy Bernstein, How About a Little Game?: Profile of Stanley Kubrick, Start Page 212, Quote Page 230, Random House, New York. (Verified with scans)
  11. 1968 September, Playboy, Volume 15, Number 9, Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick, Start Page 85, Quote Page 96, Column 1, HMH Publishing Company, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  12. 1970, The Making of Kubrick’s 2001, Edited by Jerome Agel, Chapter: Profile: Stanley Kubrick by Jeremy Bernstein, Start Page 58, Quote Page 62, Chapter: Playboy Interview: Stanley Kubrick, Start Page 328, Quote Page 332, Signet: The New American Library, New York. (Verified with scans)
  13. 1970, I Seem To Be a Verb by R. Buckminster Fuller with ‎Jerome Agel and ‎Quentin Fiore, Quote Page 96 (Page number uncertain), (Text is upside down), Bantam Books, New York. (Google Books Snippet Match; this citation has not yet been verified with hardcopy; quotation visible in snippet)
  14. 1971 April 10, The Age, Preparing to parley with company in the cosmos by Column Pinkney Place, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia. (Newspapers_com)
  15. 1974 August 22, The Jewish Advocate, In Space Again, Quote Page 17, Column 3, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest)
  16. 1977 March 4 to 10, Berkeley Barb, Volume 25, Issue 8 (603), Quote Page 5, NASA Seeks Cosmic Contact by Isaac Bonewits, (Article epigraph), Start Page 5, Quote Page 5, Column 1, Berkeley, California. (JSTOR) link
  17. 1980 April, OMNI, Section: Continuum, Space Oddities, Quote Page 39, Column 3, OMNI Publications, New York. (Verified with scans)
  18. 1981, Dictionary of Contemporary Quotations, Edited by Deborah Davis Eisel and Jill Swanson Reddig, Entry: R. Buckminster Fuller, Quote Page 47, Column 1, John Gordon Burke Publisher, Evanston, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  19. 1989, The Pastor As Teacher, Edited by Earl E. Shelp and Ronald H. Sunderland, Chapter 6: Religious Teaching in Secular Form by James M. Wall, Quote Page 133, The Pilgrim Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  20. 1990 December 16, The Sunday Province, Good Morning: Birthdays, Quote Page 2, Column 3, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. (Newspapers_com)
  21. 1996 July 1, The Santa Fe New Mexican, Paranormal mania reaches new heights, attracts new followers by Rick Marin (Newsweek), Start Page A1, Quote Page A4, Column 6, Santa Fe, New Mexico. (Newspapers_com)
  22. 2000 February 15, The Guardian, Strange days by Lucy Barrick, Section G2, Quote Page 17, Column 1, London, England. (Newspapers_com)