Category Archives: Niels Bohr

It’s Difficult to Make Predictions, Especially About the Future

Niels Bohr? Samuel Goldwyn? K. K. Steincke? Robert Storm Petersen? Yogi Berra? Mark Twain? Nostradamus? Anonymous?

predict01Dear Quote Investigator: There is a family of popular humorous sayings about the formidable task of successful prognostication. Here are five examples:

  1. It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future.
  2. Predictions are hazardous, especially about the future.
  3. It is hard to prophecy, particularly about the future.
  4. It’s dangerous to prophesy, particularly about the future.
  5. Never make forecasts, especially about the future.

Of course, a prediction is inherently about the future, and the modifiers “especially” and “particularly” emphasize the comical redundancy of the statement. These expressions have been attributed to a diverse collection of individuals, including Niels Bohr, Sam Goldwyn, Robert Storm Petersen, and Yogi Berra. Would you please tell me who I should credit?

Quote Investigator: The Danish politician Karl Kristian Steincke authored a multi-volume autobiography, and the earliest evidence known to QI appeared in the fourth volume titled “Farvel Og Tak” which was released in 1948. The title in English would be “Goodbye and Thanks”. The pertinent section of the book was called:

Og saa til Slut et Par parlamentariske Sprogblomster

And finally a couple of parliamentary howlers (English translation)

A remark made during the parliamentary year 1937-1938 was presented although no attribution was given. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Det er vanskeligt at spaa, især naar det gælder Fremtiden.

It is difficult to make predictions, especially about the future. (English translation)

This citation was mentioned in the prominent reference “The Yale Book of Quotations”. 2 More information about Danish citations for this saying is presented in the addendum at the end of this article.

The first appearance in English located by QI was printed in a 1956 academic publication called the “Journal of the Royal Statistical Society. Series A”. This early citation 3 and several others remarked on the Danish language origin of the aphoristic joke: 4

Alas, it is always dangerous to prophesy, particularly, as the Danish proverb says, about the future.

In May 1961 “The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science” printed an instance of the saying using the word “hazardous” instead of “dangerous”. Indeed, the phrasing changed over time and was highly variable: 5

“Prediction,” goes an old Danish proverb, “is hazardous, especially about the future.” For the Canadian economy the hazard is especially great.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1948, Farvel Og Tak: Minder Og Meninger by K. K. Steincke, (Farvel Og tak: Ogsaa en Tilvaerelse IV (1935-1939)), Quote Page 227, Forlaget Fremad, København. (Publisher Fremad, Copenhagen, Denmark) (Verified with scans; thanks to a kind librarian at Åbo Akademis bibliotek)
  2. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section Niels Bohr, Quote Page 92, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  3. 2012, The Dictionary of Modern Proverbs, Compiled by Charles Clay Doyle, Wolfgang Mieder, and Fred R. Shapiro, Page 206, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1956, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society: Series A (General), “Proceedings of the Meeting”, [Speaker: Bradford Hill], Page 147, Volume 119, Number 2, Blackwell Publishing for the Royal Statistical Society. (JSTOR) link
  5. 1961 May, The Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science / Revue Canadienne d’Economique et de Science politique, Volume 27, Number 2, “Canada’s Economic Prospects: A Survey of Ten Industries” by Jesse W. Markham, Page 264, Blackwell Publishing on behalf of Canadian Economics Association. (JSTOR) link

I Understand It Brings You Luck, Whether You Believe in It or Not

Niels Bohr? Albert Einstein? Carl Alfred Meier? Apocryphal?

bohr01Dear Quote Investigator: There is popular anecdote about a journalist or friend who visited the home of a prominent physicist. The visitor was surprised to find a horseshoe above the front doorway of the scientist’s abode. Tradition asserts that a horseshoe acts as a talisman of luck when placed over a door.

The visitor asked the physicist about the purpose of the horseshoe while expressing incredulity that a man of science could possibly be swayed by a simple-minded folk belief. The physicist replied:

Of course I don’t believe in it, but I understand it brings you luck, whether you believe in it or not.

This slyly comical remark has been attributed to both Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. I love this entertaining tale, but I am skeptical. Any insights?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence located by QI was printed in a popular Sunday newspaper supplement called “The American Weekly” in September 1956. A column called “The Wit Parade” by E. E. Kenyon printed an instance of the anecdote. The scientist was identified as Niels Bohr, and the visitor was unnamed: 1

A friend was visiting in the home of Nobel Prize winner Niels Bohr, the famous atom scientist.

As they were talking, the friend kept glancing at a horseshoe hanging over the door. Finally, unable to contain his curiosity any longer, he demanded:

“Niels, it can’t possibly be that you, a brilliant scientist, believe that foolish horseshoe superstition! ? !”

“Of course not,” replied the scientist. “But I understand it’s lucky whether you believe in it or not.”

Also in 1956 “The Speaker’s Handbook of Humor” by Maxwell Droke included a version of the story which was presented using similar vocabulary choices: 2

A visitor at the home of Niels Bohr, famous atom scientist and Nobel Prize winner, was surprised to see a horseshoe hanging over the door.

“Do you, a sober man dedicated to science, believe in that superstition?”

“Of course not,” replied Bohr, “but I’ve been told that it’s supposed to be lucky, whether you believe in it or not.”

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

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  1. 1956 September 30, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: The American Weekly, The Wit Parade by E. E. Kenyon, Quote Page 13, Column 1, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1956, The Speaker’s Handbook of Humor by Maxwell Droke, Anecdote Number: 1172, Anecdote Title: Not Superstitious, Quote Page 373, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified on paper)