The Universe Is Not Only Queerer Than We Suppose, But Queerer Than We Can Suppose

Arthur Eddington? J. B. S. Haldane? Werner Heisenberg? Arthur C. Clarke? Stanley Kubrick? J. B. Priestly

Dear Quote Investigator: The physics of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and string theory are mind-bending. Scientists have made remarkable strides in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; yet, some believe that the progress will stop before the completion of an all-inclusive physical theory. The following adage suggests that the universe is beyond human comprehension. Here are five versions:

  1. Reality is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.
  2. Nature is not only odder than we think, but odder than we can think.
  3. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.
  4. Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.
  5. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Statements in this family have been credited to English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, English biologist J. B. S. Haldane, and German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match in this family of expressions known to QI was written by J. B. S. Haldane in an essay titled “Possible Worlds” published within a 1927 collection. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.

During the ensuing decades the phrasing and vocabulary of the statement have been altered to yield many variants. In addition, the attribution has shifted. Based on current evidence the ascriptions to Arthur Eddington and Werner Heisenberg are unsupported.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Universe Is Not Only Queerer Than We Suppose, But Queerer Than We Can Suppose


  1. 1928 (First edition in 1927), Possible Worlds and Other Papers by J. B. S. Haldane, Essay 34: Possible Worlds, Start Page 272, Quote Page 298 and 299, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)

I Suppose the Process of Acceptance Will Pass through the Usual Four Stages

J. B. S. Haldane? Louis Agassiz? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The British geneticist J. B. S. Haldane stated that interesting new truths were resisted, and acceptance required traversal through a series of four stages. During the first stage the new fact or theory was rejected as nonsense. Are you familiar with Haldane’s quotation on this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1963 J. B. S. Haldane reviewed a book filled with tables of statistics describing human longevity. The tables revealed that humans were living much longer than insurance companies were commonly calculating. Haldane thought that there was a financial incentive for companies selling life insurance to overestimate the probability of death when setting prices. He also thought that the new data would initially be rejected. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

This will create a resistance. I suppose the process of acceptance will pass through the usual four stages:

1. This is worthless nonsense,
2. This is an interesting, but perverse, point of view,
3. This is true, but quite unimportant,
4. I always said so.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order. Continue reading I Suppose the Process of Acceptance Will Pass through the Usual Four Stages


  1. 1963 December, Journal of Genetics, Volume 58, Number 3, Section: Book Reviews, The Truth About Death by J.B.S. Haldane, (Book Review of “The Chester Beatty Research Institute Serially Abridged Life Tables, England and Wales, 1841-1960”), Start Page 463, Quote Page 464, Revived in 1985 and now published by Indian Academy of Sciences, Bangalore, India. (Indian Academy of Sciences Archive at; accessed February 27, 2014) link

He Was Prepared To Lay Down His Life for Eight Cousins or Two Brothers

J. B. S. Haldane? John Maynard Smith? W. D. Hamilton? Apocryphal?

jbshaldane10Dear Quote Investigator: Kin selection is an important and sometimes controversial idea in genetics. The prominent biologist J. B. S. Haldane reportedly said:

I would gladly give up my life for two brothers or eight cousins.

I have been unable to find a citation for this remark. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: In August 1975 the influential evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith published a book review in the periodical “New Scientist”. Within the review Maynard Smith described encountering his mentor J. B. S. Haldane at a public house called the Orange Tree. The time was not specified in the article, but Haldane died in 1964. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

I first heard the idea in the now-demolished Orange Tree off the Euston Road; J. B. S. Haldane who had been calculating on the back of an envelope for some minutes, announced that he was prepared to lay down his life for eight cousins or two brothers. This remark contained the essence of an idea which W. D. Hamilton, a lecturer in zoology at Imperial College, London, was later to generalise. Unfortunately, Haldane, although he referred to the idea in an article in Penguin New Biology, did not follow it up, and may not have appreciated its importance.

QI believes that the quotation under examination was based on Maynard Smith’s testimony. The common version in circulation has been grammatically altered so that it fits the form of a direct statement by Haldane.

Maynard Smith referred to a 1955 article by Haldane in the journal “New Biology” titled “Population Genetics”. The kernel of the idea of kin selection was presented by Haldane at this early date, but the quotation was quite different: 2 3

What is more interesting, it is only in such small populations that natural selection would favour the spread of genes making for certain kinds of altruistic behaviour. Let us suppose that you carry a rare gene which affects your behaviour so that you jump into a river and save a child, but you have one chance in ten of being drowned, while I do not possess the gene, and stand on the bank and watch the child drown.

If the child is your own child or your brother or sister, there is an even chance that the child will also have the gene, so five such genes will be saved in children for one lost in an adult. If you save a grandchild or nephew the advantage is only two and a half to one. If you only save a first cousin, the effect is very slight. If you try to save your first cousin once removed the population is more likely to lose this valuable gene than to gain it. But on the two occasions when I have pulled possibly drowning people out of the water (at an infinitesimal risk to myself) I had no time to make such calculations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading He Was Prepared To Lay Down His Life for Eight Cousins or Two Brothers


  1. 1975 August 28, New Scientist, Survival through suicide by John Maynard Smith, (Book Review of Edward O. Wilson’s “Sociobiology—The New Synthesis”), Quote Page 496, Column 2, Published by New Science Publications, London; Now Published by Reed Business Information, UK. (Google Books Full View) link
  2. 1955 April, New Biology, Volume 18, Edited by: M. L. Johnson, Michael Abercrombie, and G. E. Fogg, Population Genetics by J. B. S. Haldane, Start Page 34, Quote Page 44, Penguin Books, London and New York. (This citation has not yet been verified by QI; it is based on the webpage of a lab in the Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle)
  3. Website: Joe Felsenstein / Kuhner Lab, Location of Lab: Department of Genome Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Webpage title: Haldane on kin selection, 1955, Description of webpage: Excerpt from article titled “Population Genetics” by J.B.S. Haldane published in the journal “New Biology” in 1955, Date on website: Undated. (Accessed on May 5, 2016) link

The Creator Has an Inordinate Fondness for Beetles

Charles Darwin? J.B.S. Haldane? Stephen Gould? Apocryphal? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: I have been studying rain forests and came across the following passage in a New York Times article: 1

Charles Darwin surmised that the Creator must be inordinately fond of beetles: the earth is home to some 30 million different species of them.

The phrase “inordinately fond of beetles” makes me chuckle, and I can imagine the creator carefully designing each beetle. But I have read The Voyage of the Beagle and this phrase does not sound like something that Darwin would say. Could you investigate this phrase?

Quote Investigator: Your suspicions of the Darwin attribution are justified. The most likely originator of the saying was another biologist named J.B.S. Haldane. But the words “possibly apocryphal” appear even in the earliest citation.

Continue reading The Creator Has an Inordinate Fondness for Beetles


  1. 1989 November 25, New York Times, The Editorial Notebook: Burning the Book of Nature by Nicholas Wade, New York. (Online New York Times archive) link