David Foster Wallace? Richard Feynman? Sally Grant? Herb Caen? Wes Craven? Garrison Keillor? Henry J. Tillman? Graffito? Anonymous?
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: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, … Continue reading
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.
Additional details and citations are available in the article on the Medium platform which is located here.
A separate QI article located here examines the adage “If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem”.
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.