Some Spirit is Manifest in the Laws of the Universe, One that is Vastly Superior to that of Man

Albert Einstein? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: Did Albert Einstein say the following?

Everyone who is seriously interested in the pursuit of science becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the universe – a spirit vastly superior to man, and one in the face of which our modest powers must seem humble.

When I search online for this sentence I get screen after screen of citations from people grinding religious axes, but never a source. I suspect Einstein really did say it, but I should love to be certain and to know the context.

Quote Investigator: In 1936 Albert Einstein sent a letter to a sixth-grade student named Phyllis Wright. The letter was written in Einstein’s native language of German and not in English. His note was complex, multi-layered, and difficult to translate into English. The missive did contain a section that expressed an opinion similar to the one in the text presented by the questioner. Further below QI will present three distinct translations of an excerpt from the letter corresponding to the passage above.

Einstein was replying to a query which was based on a topic of classroom discussion in a Sunday school course. Here is an excerpt from the note of Phyllis [PSAE]:

We will feel greatly honored if you will answer our question: Do scientists pray, and what do they pray for?

Einstein’s note was dated January 24, 1936 and reflected his multifaceted beliefs in the spiritual domain. Here is additional information together with a citation.

Continue reading Some Spirit is Manifest in the Laws of the Universe, One that is Vastly Superior to that of Man

Compound Interest Is Man’s Greatest Invention

Albert Einstein? Advertising copywriter? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Some people think that Albert Einstein’s name is magical. If they want to convince you of something or sell you something they invoke his revered name to prove that a genius agrees with whatever proposition they are peddling. Here is a collection of statements that the brilliant physicist supposedly said:

Compound interest is man’s greatest invention.

Compound interest is the greatest mathematical discovery of all time.

Compound interest is the eighth wonder of the world.

Compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Compound interest is more complicated than relativity theory.

Did Einstein make any of these ridiculous remarks? Sometimes the wording of the quotations is different. For example, some sayings replace “compound interest” with “compounding interest”, “compounded interest”, or “compounding”. Are they all bogus?

Quote Investigator: Since this is a large topic involving multiple quotations this post will concentrate only on remarks claiming that compound interest is the greatest invention. QI has not located any significant evidence that Einstein made this comment.

The earliest instance QI has located in which compound interest was called “the greatest invention the world has ever produced” was dated 1916. The words appeared in an advertisement for the “Security Investment Co.” The speaker was a fictional character created by an advertising copywriter [GICI]:

The Greatest Invention

Three friends were having a discussion as to what was the greatest invention. One claimed the steam engine, another the telegraph.

The third friend sharpened his pencil and started to figure on a large piece of paper.

Finally he said: “Gentlemen, if the man who invented compound interest had of secured a patent on his idea he would have had without any doubt the greatest invention the world has ever produced.”

If Columbus had of placed one single dollar out at 6% interest compounded annually with instructions to pay the proceeds to you today, you would have over Ten Billion Dollars coming to you.

In 1976 the Wall Street Journal published an opinion article that ascribed to Einstein the belief that “compound interest” was “man’s greatest invention”. Einstein died in 1955, and this is the earliest instance located by QI of an attribution of this sentiment to him though the phrasing used in the newspaper is tentative [HKAE]:

All I can do is remind them of the truth of Albert Einstein’s alleged response when he was asked, “What do you, Mr. Einstein, consider to be man’s greatest invention?” He didn’t reply the wheel or the lever. He is reported to have said, “Compound interest.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Compound Interest Is Man’s Greatest Invention

Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler

Albert Einstein? Louis Zukofsky? Roger Sessions? William of Ockham? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The credibility of a quotation is increased substantially if it can be ascribed to a widely-recognized genius such as Albert Einstein. Hence a large number of spurious quotes are attributed to him. I would like to know if the following is a real Einstein quote or if it is apocryphal:

Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler.

I like this saying because it compactly articulates the principle of Occam’s razor.

Quote Investigator: The reference work “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” published in 2010 is the most comprehensive source for reliable information about the sayings of Albert Einstein, and it states [UQUE]:

This quotation prompts the most queries; it appeared in Reader’s Digest in July 1977, with no documentation.

The earliest known appearance of the aphorism was located by poet and scholar Mark Scroggins and later independently by top-flight quotation researcher Ken Hirsch. The New York Times published an article by the composer Roger Sessions on January 8, 1950 titled “How a ‘Difficult’ Composer Gets That Way”, and it included a version of the saying attributed to Einstein [AERS]:

I also remember a remark of Albert Einstein, which certainly applies to music. He said, in effect, that everything should be as simple as it can be but not simpler!

Since Sessions used the locution “in effect” he was signaling the possibility that he was paraphrasing Einstein and not presenting his exact words. Indeed, Einstein did express a similar idea using different words as shown by the 1933 citation given further below.

In June of 1950 the maxim appeared in the journal Poetry in a book review written by the prominent modernist poet Louis Zukofsky. The saying was credited to Einstein and placed inside quotation marks by Zukofsky [EPLZ].

There is also the other side of the coin minted by Einstein: “Everything should be as simple as it can be, but not simpler” – a scientist’s defense of art and knowledge – of lightness, completeness and accuracy.

The wording used by Sessions and Zukofsky is the same, and it differs somewhat from the most common modern version of the quote. Professor Mark Scroggins who has specialist knowledge of Zukofsky believes that the poet probably acquired the aphorism by reading the article by Sessions. Zukofsky also incorporated the saying in section A-12 of his massive poem titled “A”.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order starting in 1933.

Continue reading Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler

Taxes: This is a Question Too Difficult for a Mathematician

Albert Einstein? Associated Press? Time magazine? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: You recently discussed one quotation by Albert Einstein about taxes, but my question is about another remark attributed to the genius. The Canadian newspaper “Globe and Mail” published the following earlier this year [GME]:

Albert Einstein said of his tax return, “This is too difficult for a mathematician. It takes a philosopher.”

Is this information accurate?

Quote Investigator: There is evidence that Einstein spoke this; however, the precise wording in the original differs. The following text appeared in an Associated Press article in the New York Times titled “Tax Form Baffles Even Prof. Einstein” dated March 11, 1944 [NTE]:

Asked what his reaction was to the maze of income tax questions, Professor Einstein, whose theory of relativity is supposedly understood by only seven persons in the world, replied:

“This is a question too difficult for a mathematician. It should be asked of a philosopher.”

The byline stated the location was Princeton, New Jersey, and Einstein did work at the Institute for Advanced Study of Princeton University in 1944. The AP wire story was widely distributed; for example, on the same day the quotation was printed in the Los Angeles Times [LAE] and the Christian Science Monitor [CME].

Continue reading Taxes: This is a Question Too Difficult for a Mathematician

The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

Albert Einstein? Leo Mattersdorf? Fictional?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been struggling trying to figure out how much I owe to the Internal Revenue Service this year. The quote I would like you to explore does not sound very extraordinary. What makes it funny and outrageous is the identity of the person who supposedly said it:

The hardest thing in the world to understand is the income tax.

Did Albert Einstein really say this? I have seen this statement in many places, and the quote is even listed on the official website with an attribution to Einstein [EIS]. However, I am skeptical because no one seems to have a good reference, and the humor is too perfect.

Quote Investigator: This is a timely and entertaining query, and QI may have found the origin of this quotation. In 1963 a letter written by Leo Mattersdorf appeared in Time magazine with the following assertion: “From the time Professor Einstein came to this country until his death, I prepared his income tax returns and advised him on his tax problems.” Mattersdorf told the following anecdote about Einstein [TLM]:

One year while I was at his Princeton home preparing his return, Mrs. Einstein, who was then still living, asked me to stay for lunch. During the course of the meal, the professor turned to me and with his inimitable chuckle said: “The hardest thing in the world to understand is income taxes.” I replied: “There is one thing more difficult, and that is your theory of relativity.” “Oh, no,” he replied, ”that is easy.” To which Mrs. Einstein commented, “Yes, for you.”


Einstein died in 1955, so this story appeared after his death. Nevertheless, there is solid evidence that Mattersdorf was a friend of Einstein’s, and he performed tax accounting work for him. Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Hardest Thing in the World to Understand is Income Taxes

The Futuristic Weapons of WW3 Are Unknown, But WW4 Will Be Fought With Stones and Spears

Omar Bradley? Albert Einstein? Young Army Lieutenant? Walter Winchell? Joe Laitin? James W. Fulbright?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a great quotation about the type of weapons that will be used in World War IV. The words are both funny and chilling, and every time I have seen the saying it has been attributed to Albert Einstein. But while I was researching five-star generals I found a newspaper story from 1949 that gives credit to a famous World War II general [OMB]:

Army Chief of Staff Gen. Omar Bradley recently got involved in a discussion with the big shots of a midwestern city where he was making a speech. The group was arguing about future wars and how they would be fought.

One of the men said: “General, the newspapers tell us that World War III will be fought with atomic bombs, supersonic planes and a lot of new weapons. These are great strides, but how about World War IV? Is it possible to get any newer and fancier weapons than these?” “I can give you the exact answer to that question,” said General Bradley, “If we have World War III, then World War IV will be fought with bows and arrows.”

Do you think that Bradley is responsible for this sobering insight instead of Einstein?

Quote Investigator: A quotation on this theme is attributed to Albert Einstein in 1948 and 1949, and his words are listed further below. However, it is unlikely that Bradley or Einstein originated this compelling motif concerning World War 4 weapons. The evidence that QI has collected points to a Bikini origin.

Continue reading The Futuristic Weapons of WW3 Are Unknown, But WW4 Will Be Fought With Stones and Spears

Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted

Albert Einstein? William Bruce Cameron? Hilliard Jason? Stephen Ross? Lord Platt? George Pickering?

Dear Quote Investigator: Recently I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained a few quotations that are often attributed to Albert Einstein. I think the following saying is very insightful:

Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.

If I use this quotation should I credit it to Einstein?

Quote Investigator: QI suggests crediting William Bruce Cameron instead of Albert Einstein. Cameron’s 1963 text “Informal Sociology: A Casual Introduction to Sociological Thinking” contained the following passage. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

It would be nice if all of the data which sociologists require could be enumerated because then we could run them through IBM machines and draw charts as the economists do. However, not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.

There are several books that attribute the quote to Cameron and cite this 1963 book. QI was unable to find earlier instances of the saying. Researcher John Baker identified this citation.

This maxim consists of two parallel and contrasting phrases:

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.

The position of the two key terms “counted” and “counts” is reversed in the two different phrases. This rhetorical technique is referred to as chiasmus or antimetabole. QI hypothesizes that the two phrases were crafted separately and then at a later time combined by Cameron to yield the witty and memorable maxim.

When was the connection with Albert Einstein established? The earliest relevant cite that QI could find was dated 1986, however, this is more than thirty years after the death of Einstein in 1955. Thus, the evidence is weak, and the link to Einstein is not solidly supported. The details for this citation are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Not Everything That Counts Can Be Counted


  1. 1963, Informal Sociology, a casual introduction to sociological thinking by William Bruce Cameron, Page 13, Random House, New York. (Google Books snippet view) (Checked on paper: Fifth printing, January 1967; Copyright 1963) link

Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity

Albert Einstein? Frederick S. Perls? Anonymous? A Great Astronomer?

Dear Quote Investigator: I saw a comic strip titled “Baby Einstein” that contained three quotations that are usually attributed to Einstein. Are these quotes accurate? I am particularly interested in the second quotation:

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about th’universe!

Did Einstein really say that?

Quote Investigator: Probably not, but there is some evidence, and QI can tell you why the quote is attributed to Einstein. The story begins in the 1940s when the influential Gestalt therapist Frederick S. Perls wrote a book titled “Ego, Hunger, and Aggression: a Revision of Freud’s Theory and Method.”

Continue reading Two Things Are Infinite: the Universe and Human Stupidity