It’s Not What You See That Is Suspect, But How You Interpret What You See

Isaac Asimov? John A. Keel? Apocryphal?

asimov10Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I read a book called “The Mothman Prophecies” which discussed mysterious sightings of a human-sized moth-like creature in West Virginia in the 1960s. There are many ways to attempt to interpret bizarre and enigmatic visions. The book included an intriguing quotation attributed to the well-known science and science fiction writer Isaac Asimov:

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see.

Did Asimov really say this? Would you please trace this quotation?

Quote Investigator: In 1966 Isaac Asimov published an article titled “UFO’s—What I Think” in “Science Digest” magazine. He stated that UFOs (Unidentified Flying Objects) certainly did exist. But he noted that a creaking sound heard late at night in your house might be labeled a UHO (Unidentified Heard Object), and an entity on the ground seen briefly in the corner of your eye might be called a UCO (Unidentified Creeping Object). These object types probably did not require a supernatural or interstellar explanation.

Asimov suggested that UFOs probably were not the spaceships of extraterrestrial beings. The following excerpt included the quotation: 1

I am told, though, that so many people have seen objects that looked like spaceships that “there must be something to it.” Maybe there is, but think of all the people in the history of the world who have seen ghosts and spirits and angels.

It’s not what you see that is suspect, but how you interpret what you see. After all, you can see with your own eyes that the Earth is flat and that the Sun goes around the Earth; you see that even though you have been taught that what you see is consistent with the interpretation that the Earth is a sphere and goes around the Sun.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading It’s Not What You See That Is Suspect, But How You Interpret What You See

Notes:

  1. 1966 June, Science Digest: The Science News Monthly, Volume 59, Number 6, UFO’s–What I Think by Isaac Asimov, Start Page 44, Quote Page 46, Column 2, Published by The Hearst Corporation, New York. (Verified with scans; special thanks to the Sadie Hartzler Library of Eastern Mennonite University; the Dick Smith Library of Tarleton State University)

The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s funny …’

Isaac Asimov? Alexander Fleming? Archimedes? Anonymous?

Dear Quote Investigator: The classic phrase that is supposed to be uttered by a scientist when he makes a major discovery is “Eureka!” That was the famous cry of the ancient Greek sage Archimedes. But the prominent science fiction writer Isaac Asimov insightfully noted that the actual remark preceding a breakthrough probably reflected surprise and uncertainty such as:

“That’s odd.”
“That’s funny.”
“Hey, wait a minute.”

The scientific advance occurred when the anomalous observation was further scrutinized. Would you please explore this topic to find out when Asimov made this statement?

Quote Investigator: The earliest evidence known to QI appeared in a message posted to the Usenet discussion system in 1987. The message was part of a source code listing of a computer program called “fortune”. This program was part of the installation of the popular UNIX operating system, and “fortune” was inspired by the notion of a fortune cookie.

When the program was run it displayed one item from a large collection of sayings and quotations that was kept in a simple database file. The quotation below appeared in a version of the program that was distributed on June 3, 1987: 1

The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not “Eureka!” (I found it!) but “That’s funny …”
— Isaac Asimov

Asimov died in 1992, so the words were ascribed to him while he was alive; however, the data in the “fortune” program did not provide a precise citation.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Most Exciting Phrase in Science Is Not ‘Eureka!’ But ‘That’s funny …’

Notes:

  1. Date: 1987 June 3, Usenet Newsgroup: comp.sources.games, Subject: v01i040: fortune – quote for the day, Part14/16, From: games-request at tekred.UUCP, Description: Source code listing for fortune computer program distributed via Usenet. (Google Usenet groups archive; Accessed February 28, 2015)