Sunday, November 07, 2010

Did Wiener say these words?

Karin Silvia, a friend of mine on Facebook, posted the following quote on her Facebook page:
The modern physicist is a quantum theorist on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and a student of gravitational relativity theory on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday. On Sunday he* is neither, but is praying to his God that someone, preferably himself, will find the reconciliation between the two views." — Norbert Wiener [* In stead of the word "he", the original passage I have found uses "the physicist".]
On reading this, I wondered if these words were actually said or written by Wiener; and asked Karin Silvia about the source of the words. She replied that three Web sites showed this quote as credited to Wiener but that the source was not given. My reason for wondering was this: The words well describe the current state of theoretical physics, but Wiener died in 1964.

Therefore, I made a search at the Web sites of Google books and amazon.com; and found that the source of the above quote was the following: Norbert Wiener, "I am a mathematician: the later life of a prodigy; an autobiographical account of the mature years and career of Norbert Wiener and a continuation of the account of his childhood in Ex-prodigy" (Gollancz, 1956) p. 109.

The page I saw by the "Look inside!" function at amazon.com showed that the quote given above came after the introductory words as follows:
Physics is at present a mass of partial theories which no man has yet been able to render truly and clearly consistent. It has been well said that the modern physicist is . . .
This indicates that the quote Karin Silvia used is what had been said among physicists in the days when Wiener wrote the book.

Thus, I confirmed that the quote was not Wiener's own words. However, the reason I supposed was totally wrong. When I informed her of this finding, Karin Silvia thanked me for information and wrote also this: She thought that the quote was Wiener's own words because one of the Web page she saw it was "Mathematical Quotes" at the site of the Department of Mathematics, University of Pittsburgh. Doubting is often useful for learning, even if with wrong reasoning.

I thank Karin Silvia Franzoni Fornazier for her permission to use our written conversation in this essay.

2 comments:

Arjen Dijksman said...

Interesting!

This made me wonder who was at the origin of this quote. Googling a bit around I found William Bragg's 1921 lecture on electrons and ether waves, where he said: On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays we use the wave theory; on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays we think in streams of flying energy quanta or corpuscles. (I updated wikiquote.) A witty statement that other physicists probably have adapted for similar dualities: quantum/relativity, classical/quantum... But I have no idea who first added the religious end about Sundays. Einstein maybe?

Ted said...

Thanks a lot for your kind and informative comment. I was also told about the William Bragg quote by Sarah Kavassalis at my "wall" of Facebook site and by Neil Gunther (@DrQz) on Twitter.