Quip Origin: If You’re Not Part of the Solution You’re Part of the Precipitate

David Foster Wallace? Richard Feynman? Sally Grant? Herb Caen? Wes Craven? Garrison Keillor? Henry J. Tillman? Graffito? Anonymous?

Picture of chemistry equipment from Pixabay

Question for Quote Investigator: Chemists have taken the popular saying (A) and converted it into the comical remark (B).

(A) If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem.
(B) If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the precipitate.

This joke has been attributed to the prominent U.S. novelist David Foster Wallace, the famous U.S. physicist Richard Feynman, and others. Would you please explore the provenance of this statement?

Reply from Quote Investigator: The earliest match known to QI appeared in 1969 within “The Gateway”, the student newspaper of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. The quip was split between the leftmost and rightmost columns within the header of the front page. No attribution was specified. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:1

if you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the precipitate

The originator of this quip remains anonymous. David Foster Wallace included it in a short story in 1988. Horror moviemaker Wes Craven included it in a novel in 1999. Interestingly, Craven credited Richard Feynman, but QI believes this attribution was invented. Raconteur Garrison Keillor included the remark in a joke book in 2009.

A separate QI article located here examines the adage “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1973 a variant appeared in the student newspaper of the Case Institute of Technology of Cleveland, Ohio. The term “Chem E” referred to “Chemical Engineering”:2

You know you’ve been going out with a Chem E too long when you become part of the precipitate, rather than the solution.

In 1974 the joke appeared within the popular column of Herb Caen whose home paper was the “San Francisco Chronicle” of California:3

Graffito grabbed by Sally Grant off the UC-Santa Cruz science library: “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the precipitate” . . .

In 1979 the “Los Angeles Times” published an article about graffiti, and the joke was included:4

Harvard may have pioneered this field too, with such arcane epigrams as “Free Prometheus” and “Nietzsche is pietzsche.” There is even more esoterica from the sciences, such as “Planck is inconstant,” “Niels is bohring” and “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

In 1980 “The Star-Ledger” newspaper of New Jersey wrote about the science fiction convention “Lunacon” which was held in Hasbrouck Heights. The joke appeared on a button available at the convention:5

There are “T” shirts (“Jupiter — the Great Red Spot”), and multitudes of buttons: “I walk in eternity, but I take time out,” “Space Cadet,” “If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.”

In 1988 “The Paris Review” published the story “Little Expressionless Animals” by David Foster Wallace which included the following passage:6

“Remember, ladies,” Merv’s man says from the window. You’re either part of the solution, or you’re part of the precipitate.” He guffaws. Griffin slaps his knee.

In 1999 horror movie director Wes Craven published “Fountain Society: A Novel”. The following passage set in a military facility in White Sands, New Mexico included two apocryphal attributions:7

The bunker, whose dank air had all the homely assurance of a mausoleum, had been used for the Manhattan Project in 1945. Its flaking concrete was layered with graffiti, most of it written by young physicists who were now household names. If you’re not part of the solution, Feynman had written in the 1960s, you’re part of the precipitate. And a favorite of Peter’s, from Einstein himself, written by some unknown hand, Relatively speaking, when does Munich stop at this train?

In 2000 a message posted to the Usenet newsgroup alt.arts.poetry.comments mentioned another attribution:8

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate. — Henry J. Tillman

In 2009 the fifth edition of “A Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Joke Book” appeared with an introduction by Garrison Keillor. The following three items were included:9

I’ve got two wonderful children. Two out of five isn’t bad.

If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the precipitate.

If God had meant us to use the metric system, there would have been ten Apostles.

In summary, this joke appeared in a student newspaper in 1969 without attribution. The quip later appeared as an anonymous graffito in 1974. David Foster Wallace, Wes Craven, and many others have employed the joke during subsequent decades.

Image Notes: Illustration of chemistry equipment from PublicDomainPictures at Pixabay. The image has been cropped.

Acknowledgements: Great thanks to Craig Good, Nancy Friedman, and Steve Robinson who each told QI about this saying which inspired this exploration. Many thanks to Bill Mullins who located the important 1969 citation. Special thanks to Simon Koppel who located the valuable 1973 citation.

Update History: On June 15, 2023 the citations dated December 12, 1969 and April 25, 1973 were added to the article. On May 3, 2024 the format of the bibliographical notes was updated. Also, the full article was placed on this website.

  1. 1969 December 12, The Gateway, Volume 60, Number 45, (Quotation visible in leftmost and rightmost columns of header), Quote Page 1, Published by Students’ Union of the University of Alberta, Alberta, Edmonton, Canada. (Verified with scans via archive.org) link ↩︎
  2. 1973 April 25, Case Tech, Volume 68, Number 24, Student Newspaper of Case Institute of Technology, (Untitled filler item), Quote Page 8, Column 1, Cleveland, Ohio. (Case Western Reserve University, Kelvin Smith Library, Student Newspaper Archive at newspapers.case.edu; accessed June 15, 2023) link ↩︎
  3. 1974 July 16, San Francisco Chronicle, 3-Dot Journalism’s Last Stand by Herb Caen, Quote Page 19, Column 1, San Francisco Chronicle. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  4. 1979 April 15, Los Angeles Times, Section 9: Orange County, The Writing On the Walls by Patt Morrison (Times Staff Writer), (Continuation title: Graffiti: Persistent Art), Start Page 1, Quote Page 9, Column 1, Los Angeles, California. (Newspapers_com) ↩︎
  5. 1980 March 17, The Star-Ledger, Reporter at Large: Sci fi meeting blasts off with the ultimate con by Mark Finston, Quote Page 15, Column 2 and 3, Newark, New Jersey. (GenealogyBank) ↩︎
  6. 2003, The Paris Review Book of Heartbreak, Madness, Sex, Love, Betrayal by The Editors of The Paris Review, Issue 106, Date: Spring 1988, Little Expressionless Animals by David Foster Wallace, Start Page 137, Quote Page 155, Picador, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  7. 1999, Fountain Society: A Novel by Wes Craven, Chapter 2, Location: White Sands, Delta Range, Quote Page 36, Simon & Schuster, New York. (Verified with scans) ↩︎
  8. Usenet discussion message, Timestamp: Jan 19, 2000, 3:00:00 AM, Newsgroup: alt.arts.poetry.comments, From: JAS Carter, Subject: Another Poem by Ogden Nash — The Common Cold. (Google Groups Search; Accessed Jun 14, 2023) link ↩︎
  9. 2009, A Prairie Home Companion Pretty Good Joke Book, New 5th Edition, Introduction by Garrison Keillor, Section: One-Liners, Quote Page 12, HighBridge Company, Minneapolis, Minnesota. (Verified with scans) ↩︎