Niels Bohr? Albert Einstein? Carl Alfred Meier? Apocryphal?
Dear 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.
- 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) ↩
- 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) ↩