An Alleged Scientific Discovery Has No Merit Unless It Can Be Explained To a Barmaid

Albert Einstein? Ernest Rutherford? Cyril Hinshelwood? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: It should be possible to explain a valid scientific theory to anybody, e.g., a nine-year-old, a grandmother, or the man in the street. This dubious assertion is challenged by the fact that few humans are able to comprehend the notion of a four-dimensional space-time manifold which is central to the breakthrough theory of special relativity in physics.

Would you please explore another debatable claim of this type? Here are three versions:

  • A good scientific theory should be explicable to a barmaid
  • It should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid.
  • No physical theory is worth much if it cannot be explained to a barmaid.

This remark has been attributed to both Albert Einstein and Ernest Rutherford, two Nobel Prize winning scientists.

Quote Investigator: The earliest match located by QI appeared in the journal “Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society” within a 1955 article about Albert Einstein who had died earlier in the year. The piece noted that some fellow scientists were initially reluctant to accept Einstein’s research results because of their complex abstract nature. While discussing this resistance the article mentioned the saying together with an ascription to Ernest Rutherford. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Some of it may have been due to the popular principle attributed to Rutherford, that an alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid.

Over time Einstein’s colleagues embraced his work and performed experiments that supported his theories.

Ernest Rutherford died in 1937, so the attribution above is posthumous and rather late. Also, the phrasing has been highly variable. Over all, the supporting evidence is not strong. On the other hand, Rutherford is the leading candidate because other ascriptions only emerged in the 1970s.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading An Alleged Scientific Discovery Has No Merit Unless It Can Be Explained To a Barmaid

Notes:

  1. 1955 November, Biographical Memoirs of Fellows of the Royal Society, Volume 1, Albert Einstein 1879-1955 by Edmund Whittaker, Start Page 37, Quote Page 54, Published by Royal Society, United Kingdom. (JSTOR) link