Tortoises All the Way Down

Hester Lynch Piozzi? William James? Bertrand Russell? Mark Twain? Henry David Thoreau? Carl Sagan? Terry Pratchett? Samuel Purchas? John Locke? George B. Cheever? Joseph F. Berg? George Chainey? John Phoenix? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: According to legend a prominent scientist once presented a lecture on cosmology which discussed the solar system and galaxies. Afterwards, a critical audience member approached and stated that the information given was completely wrong.

Instead, the world was supported by four great elephants, and the elephants stood on the back of an enormous turtle. The scientist inquired what the turtle stood upon. Another more massive turtle was the reply. The scientist asked about the support of the last turtle and elicited this response:

“Oh, it’s turtles all the way down.”

Some versions of this anecdote use tortoises instead of turtles. A variety of individuals have been linked to this tale including writer Hester Lynch Piozzi, psychologist William James, logician Bertrand Russell, humorist Mark Twain, transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau, astronomer Carl Sagan, and fantasy author Terry Pratchett. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: This anecdote evolved over time. It began with European interpretations of Hindu cosmography. Early instances featuring tortoises and elephants did not mention an infinite iteration; instead, the lowest creature was sitting upon something unknown or on nothing. In 1838 a humorous version employed the punchline “there’s rocks all the way down!” In 1854 a debater used the phrase “there are tortoises all the way down.” By 1886 another punchline was circulating: “it is turtle all the way down!” Here is an overview sampling showing pertinent statements with dates:

1626: the Elephants feete stood on Tortoises, and they were borne by they know not what.
1690: what gave support to the broad-back’d Tortoise, replied, something, he knew not what.
1804: And on what does the tortoise stand? I cannot tell.
1826: tortoise rests on mud, the mud on water, and the water on air!
1836: what does the tortoise rest on? Nothing!
1838: there’s rocks all the way down!
1842: extremely anxious to know what it is that the tortoise stands upon.
1844: after the tortoise is chaotic mud.
1852: had nothing to put under the tortoise.
1854: there are tortoises all the way down.
1867: elephants . . . their legs “reach all the way down.”
1882: the snake reaching all the way down.
1886: it is turtle all the way down!
1904: a big turtle whose legs reach all the way down!
1917: there are turtles all the way down
1927: he was tired of metaphysics and wanted to change the subject.
1967: It’s no use, Mr. James — it’s turtles all the way down.

Below are selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Tortoises All the Way Down

Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence

Carl Sagan? Martin Rees? William Wright? William Housman? W. J. Sollas? Dugald Bell? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The existence or non-existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life is a highly contentious subject. Some thinkers who are open to the possibility of interstellar aliens also believe that the current evidence is inadequate; hence, they advocate using radio telescope dishes as listening devices to collect more data. They also point to the following maxim to discourage premature judgments:

Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

This saying has been attributed to cosmologist Martin Rees and astronomer Carl Sagan; however, I think it was circulating before these gentlemen were born. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: Tracing this statement is difficult because it has evolved over time. A partial match for six of the eight words occurred in a scholarly paper read during a meeting of the “Victoria Institute” held in London in 1887. The Reverend William Wright’s paper titled “The Empire of the Hittites” argued that data about the movements of the Hittite people was incomplete; therefore, this paucity of evidence should not result in firm conclusions. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

It is urged that the Hittites could not have been settled in Southern Palestine because there are few direct references to their southern settlements in the inscriptions. To this I reply, that the absence of evidence is not evidence. The Egyptians marched up the coast of Syria, and turned inland to Megiddo and Kadesh, where they met the Hittites. The inscriptions are full of the doings of the Hittites at Megiddo and Kadesh, because the Egyptians went thither. They have nothing to say of the Hittites of Hebron, because the Egyptians did not go thither. The inscriptions are records of what happened during campaigns in which Egypt must have made great sacrifices.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Absence of Evidence Is Not Evidence of Absence


  1. 1888, Journal of the Transactions of The Victoria Institute, or Philosophical Society of Great Britain, Volume 21, Ordinary Meeting on January 3, 1887, (Paper read at the meeting by the author), The Empire of the Hittites by the Rev. William Wright, Start Page 55, Quote Page 59, Published by The Victoria Institute, London. (HathiTrust Full View) link

That Which Can Be Destroyed By the Truth Should Be

Carl Sagan? P. C. Hodgell? Kirien? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There exists a family of sayings that is popular in the community of skeptics. Here are four examples:

1) That which can be destroyed by the truth should be.
2) Anything that can be destroyed by the truth should be.
3) Anything that can be destroyed by the truth, most certainly should be.
4) If it can be destroyed by the truth, it deserves to be destroyed by the truth.

This expression has been attributed to the astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan, but it has also been credited to the award-winning fantasy author P. C. Hodgell. Would you please help to dispel the confusion?

Quote Investigator: QI has located no substantive evidence that Carl Sagan said or wrote this expression. He died in 1996, and an instance was attributed to him many years later in 2012.

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in the 1994 novel “Seeker’s Mask” by P. C. Hodgell (Patricia C. Hodgell). In the following scene two characters named Jame and Kirien were conversing, and the adage was spoken by Kirien. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Jame winced, remembering the awful revelation of her own soul-image. “Perhaps,” she said, “we can’t endure to know ourselves too well. Perhaps, the truth can sometimes destroy.”

“That which can be destroyed by the truth should be,” said that implacable voice. Could any Arrin-ken have spoken with more authority? “Of what would you choose to remain in ignorance?”

It is important to recognize that a quotation from a novel sometimes represents the opinion of a character and not the belief of an author. Indeed, the fictional person expressing the thought may grow and change dramatically during a story arc; hence, even that person may disown the quotation.

The fantasy backdrop in the novel was complex. The prefatory section of the work provided the following one-line descriptions for the dialog participants:

Kirien — the Jaran Lordan or Heir, a scrollswoman
Jame — Jamethiel Priest’s-Bane, Torisen’s twin sister

Hodgell does not recall hearing the adage before she penned it for “Seeker’s Mask”. She kindly provided QI with the following gloss for the scene: 2

Jame is speaking to Kirien, a young scholar (she of the “implacable voice”). Anxiety has pulled the latter into the academic equivalent of a berserker fit — a ruthless drive to lay bare the truth, regardless of the cost. She is about to force Jame to face some facts about herself at the worst possible time, in the middle of a crisis.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading That Which Can Be Destroyed By the Truth Should Be


  1. 1994, Seeker’s Mask by P. C. Hodgell, Part VIII: Section 1, Quote Page 406, Published by Hypatia Press, Eugene, Oregon; distributed by Blue Moon Books, Woodinville, Washington. (Verified on paper)
  2. Personal Communication via email between Garson O’Toole and P. C. Hodgell, Time period: March 8 and 9, 2016.

Do Not Be So Open-Minded That Your Brains Fall Out

Carl Sagan? Arthur Hays Sulzberger? Marianne Moore? E. E Cummings? William Allan Neilson? Walter Kotschnig? Samuel Butler? G. K. Chesterton? Max Radin? James Oberg? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: There is a desirable balance between exploring novel ideas with an open mind and maintaining a healthy skepticism. The following humorous cautionary statement exemplifies the tension:

Do not be so open-minded that your brains fall out.

I have heard this expression attributed to New York Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger, Smith College President William Allan Neilson, and astronomer Carl Sagan. Do you know who should be credited?

Quote Investigator: The earliest published close match located by QI appeared in a newspaper report in January 1940 about a speech by Walter Kotschnig given at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. Kotschnig worked with refugee organizations early in his career and subsequently joined the United States State Department. Boldface has been added: 1 2

Prof. Walter Kotschnig told Holyoke College students to keep their minds open—“but not so open that your brains fall out.”

He condemned the purpose of students who go to college merely to learn skill and urged his listeners to find the “real aim of education, to acquire a philosophy of life, intellectual honesty, and a constant search for truth.”

QI has also located an article published in February 1940 describing a speech delivered by Kotschnig in November 1939. This citation had the second earliest publication date for a close match; however, the date of the speech was the earliest. Details are given further below.

The same metaphor was used in 1937; however, the phrasing was condemnatory instead of cautionary. Details for this citation are given further below. The comical notion that an open mind might lead to a mind with “nothing in it at all” was suggested much earlier in 1886.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Do Not Be So Open-Minded That Your Brains Fall Out


  1. 1940 January 27, Blytheville Courier News, Professor Tells Students to Open Minds to Truth, Quote Page 2, Column 2 and 3, Blytheville, Arkansas. (NewspaperArchive)
  2. 1940 February 1, The Canton Repository (Repository), “Open Mind to Truth, Holyoke Class Told” Quote Page 12, Column 8, Canton, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)

We Are Made of Star-Stuff

Carl Sagan? Albert Durrant Watson? Doris Lessing? Harlow Shapley? Vincent Cronin? Ancient Serbian Proverb? William E. Barton? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The chemical elements of life such as carbon, magnesium, and calcium were originally created in the interior furnaces of stars and then released by stellar explosions. This fact can be expressed with a beautiful poetic resonance. Here are three examples:

We are made of star-stuff.
Our bodies are made of star-stuff.
There are pieces of star within us all.

I think the well-known astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan said this. Would you please trace this expression? Was Sagan the first person to say this?

Quote Investigator: In 1973 Carl Sagan published “The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective” which included the following passage. Boldface has been added here and below: 1

Our Sun is a second- or third-generation star. All of the rocky and metallic material we stand on, the iron in our blood, the calcium in our teeth, the carbon in our genes were produced billions of years ago in the interior of a red giant star. We are made of star-stuff.

Sagan was an important locus for the dissemination of this expression; however, it has a long history. An interesting precursor appeared in a North Carolina newspaper in 1913. A columnist pointed out that the Sun and Earth were made of star-stuff. This implied that humans were also made of star-stuff, but this was not directly stated: 2

The spectroscope analyzes the light if you please, and shows what it is made of. What was the surprise of the tireless searchers when they found common earth metals burning in the mighty sun!

There was once a little girl who cried out with joy when she realized for one little moment that the earth is truly a heavenly body, and that no matter what is happening to us we are really living right up among the stars. The sun is made of “star stuff, and the earth is made of the same material, put together with a difference.

In 1918 the President of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada delivered a speech with the phrase “our bodies are made of star-stuff”, and he seemed to be reaching for a quasi-spiritual interpretation for this fact: 3

It is true that a first thoughtful glimpse of the immeasurable universe is liable rather to discourage us with a sense of our own insignificance. But astronomy is wholesome even in this, and helps to clear the way to a realization that as our bodies are an integral part of the great physical universe, so through them are manifested laws and forces that take rank with the highest manifestation of Cosmic Being.

Thus we come to see that if our bodies are made of star-stuff,—and there is nothing else, says the spectroscope, to make them of—the loftier qualities of our being are just as necessarily constituents of that universal substance out of which are made

“Whatever gods there be.”

We are made of universal and divine ingredients, and the study of the stars will not let us escape a wholesome and final knowledge of the fact.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading We Are Made of Star-Stuff


  1. 1973, The Cosmic Connection: An Extraterrestrial Perspective by Carl Sagan, Produced by Jerome Agel, Quote Page 189 and 190, Anchor Press/Doubleday, Garden City, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1913 June 15, Greensboro Daily News, Star Land by Ellen Frizell Wyckoff, Quote Page 8, Column 5, Greensboro, North Carolina. (GenealogyBank) (“analizes” was replaced with “analyzes” in the passage above)
  3. 1918 March, The Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Volume 12, Number 3, Astronomy: A Cultural Avocation by Albert Durrant Watson, (Retiring President’s Address, Annual Meeting, January 29, 1918), Start Page 81, Quote Page 89, Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Printed for the Society in Toronto, Canada. (HathiTrust) link

Somewhere, Something Incredible Is Waiting To Be Known

Carl Sagan? Newsweek Reporters? Sharon Begley? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Today on the website of a software developer I saw an inspiring quotation that was credited to the famous astronomer and science communicator Carl Sagan:

Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

I would like to use this quotation also, but I have not located it in the books by Sagan that are on my shelves. Could you tell me when he wrote or said this?

Quote Investigator: QI has not found any substantive evidence that Carl Sagan crafted this quotation. The ascription was based on a misreading of text printed in Newsweek magazine. On August 15, 1977 the magazine published a cover story with an extended profile of Sagan titled “Seeking Other Worlds”. Four reporters participated in the creation of the report: David Gelman with Sharon Begley in New York, Dewey Gram in Los Angeles and Evert Clark in Washington.

The article began by noting that the young Sagan had been entranced by the adventure tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs which were set on a fantastical version of the planet Mars referred to as Barsoom. Canals and fifteen-foot-tall green warriors with four arms were present in this romanticized setting.

The end of the profile discussed the topic of hypothetical life forms on other planets. Sagan was in favor of funding serious efforts to search for evidence of extraterrestrial life by scanning the skies for electromagnetic signals. He contended that obtaining positive or negative results in a comprehensive search would be interesting and valuable. The ellipses in the following passage are present in the original printed text: 1

“A serious search with negative results says something of profound importance,” Sagan argues. “We discover there’s something almost forbidden about life … if it turns out we really are alone.” But clearly, Sagan is looking for a happier result. There may be no galumphing green Barsoomian giants to satisfy the fantasies of a romantic Brooklyn boy. But no doubt, there are even stranger discoveries to be made . . . some totally new phenomenon perhaps . . . Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.

The final sentence was not placed between quotation marks. If Sagan had spoken the final compelling phrase it would have been placed within such marks. Instead the final statements were written using a reportorial voice.

On January 13, 2015, QI was contacted by Sharon Begley who worked on the team that created the Newsweek article. When she contacted QI, Begley was the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters. She stated that the words in the final sentence of the article were her words and not Sagan’s. She also told QI about a stylistic guideline that was adhered to by the writers at the magazine: 2

A nearly ironclad rule at Newsweek back then was that it was lazy and unacceptable to end a story with a quote. Writers/reporters were paid to come up with an original, thought-provoking kicker, and that’s what we did, or tried to. The words were not Sagan’s.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Somewhere, Something Incredible Is Waiting To Be Known


  1. 1977 August 15, Newsweek, Volume 90, Seeking Other Worlds (Profile of Carl Sagan), Start Page 46, Quote Page 53, Newsweek, Inc., New York. (Verified on microfilm)
  2. Personal Communication via email between Sharon Begley and Garson O’Toole, Message sent from Begley to O’Toole on January 13, 2015.