Sometimes I Think We’re Alone, and Sometimes I Think We’re Not. In Either Case, the Idea Is Quite Staggering

Arthur C. Clarke? Stanley Kubrick? Christiane Kubrick? Jeremy Bernstein? Porky Pine? Walt Kelly? Frank Interlandi? Carl Sagan? Jerome Agel? Buckminster Fuller? David Shepley? Lee Alvin DuBridge? Anonymous?

Quote Investigator: Astronomers have been searching for evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence for more than a century. Is humankind alone in the universe, or is humankind sharing the cosmos with undiscovered alien civilizations?

A scientist or a science fiction (SF) writer once replied to this question by saying something like: Either answer is mindboggling. Would you please explore this topic?

Dear Quote Investigator: This notion has been expressed in many different ways. Here is a sampling in chronological order:

1966 November: Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering.

1966 December: You either believe there are other forms of intelligent life in the universe, or that there aren’t. Either way, it’s a pretty staggering thought.

1974: Sometimes I think we’re alone in the Universe, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the prospect is very frightening.

1977: Either mankind is alone in the galaxy — or he is not; either alternative is mind-boggling.

1989: Sometimes I think we are alone in the universe and sometimes I think we aren’t; in both cases the idea makes me dizzy.

1990: Either we are alone in the universe, or we are not. Either way, the thought is frightening.

1996: Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.

2000: Either there is life out there or we are the only living things in the universe, and either alternative is equally astonishing.

The earliest close match located by QI appeared within an article by physicist Jeremy Bernstein about movie director Stanley Kubrick published in “The New Yorker” magazine in 1966. Kubrick was working together with British SF author Arthur C. Clarke who wrote a short story titled “The Sentinel”. The pair spent two years expanding the story into a novel and a script for the film “2001: A Space Odyssey” which included an interplanetary voyage to Jupiter. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

Extraterrestrial life may seem an odd subject for a motion picture, but at this stage in his career Kubrick is convinced that any idea he is really interested in, however unlikely it may sound, can be transferred to film. “One of the English science-fiction writers once said, ‘Sometimes I think we’re alone, and sometimes I think we’re not. In either case, the idea is quite staggering,’” Kubrick once told me. “I must say I agree with him.”

Kubrick did not precisely identify the author of the quotation. Clarke was mentioned extensively in the article; however, QI believes that Kubrick and Bernstein would have credited Clarke if he had crafted the statement. Kubrick spoke to other British SF writers such as J. G. Ballard and Michael Moorcock during the long difficult parturition of “2001”. 2

Oddly, a couple years later in 1968 Kubrick tentatively attributed the remark to a “prominent astronomer”. See the 1968 citation further below. Kubrick did speak to U.S. astronomer Carl Sagan during the creation of the “2001”. 3

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading Sometimes I Think We’re Alone, and Sometimes I Think We’re Not. In Either Case, the Idea Is Quite Staggering

Notes:

  1. 1966 November 12, The New Yorker, Profiles: How About a Little Game? by Jeremy Bernstein, (Profile of Stanley Kubrick), The New Yorker Magazine, Inc., New York. (Online New Yorker archive at newyorker.com; accessed October 10, 2020) link
  2. 2016 January 5, New Statesman, Books: “Close to tears, he left at the intermission”: how Stanley Kubrick upset Arthur C Clarke by Michael Moorcock, (Article posted on website on January 8, 2017), (Accessed newstatesman.com on October 21, 2020) link
  3. Website: CNet, Article title: Kubrick, Clarke and 2001: How Space Odyssey came together, Article author: Nicholas Tufnell, Date on website: April 3, 2018, Website description: Technology news. (Accessed cnet.com on October 27, 2020) link

The Universe Is Not Only Queerer Than We Suppose, But Queerer Than We Can Suppose

Arthur Eddington? J. B. S. Haldane? Werner Heisenberg? Arthur C. Clarke? Stanley Kubrick? J. B. Priestly

Dear Quote Investigator: The physics of quantum mechanics, relativity theory, and string theory are mind-bending. Scientists have made remarkable strides in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries; yet, some believe that the progress will stop before the completion of an all-inclusive physical theory. The following adage suggests that the universe is beyond human comprehension. Here are five versions:

  1. Reality is not only stranger than we suppose, but stranger than we can suppose.
  2. Nature is not only odder than we think, but odder than we can think.
  3. The universe is not only stranger than we imagine; it is stranger than we can imagine.
  4. Not only is the universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think.
  5. The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.

Statements in this family have been credited to English astrophysicist Arthur Eddington, English biologist J. B. S. Haldane, and German theoretical physicist Werner Heisenberg. Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: The earliest match in this family of expressions known to QI was written by J. B. S. Haldane in an essay titled “Possible Worlds” published within a 1927 collection. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose. I have read and heard many attempts at a systematic account of it, from materialism and theosophy to the Christian system or that of Kant, and I have always felt that they were much too simple. I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy.

During the ensuing decades the phrasing and vocabulary of the statement have been altered to yield many variants. In addition, the attribution has shifted. Based on current evidence the ascriptions to Arthur Eddington and Werner Heisenberg are unsupported.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading The Universe Is Not Only Queerer Than We Suppose, But Queerer Than We Can Suppose

Notes:

  1. 1928 (First edition in 1927), Possible Worlds and Other Papers by J. B. S. Haldane, Essay 34: Possible Worlds, Start Page 272, Quote Page 298 and 299, Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York. (Verified with scans)