Did Einstein Consider Geography More Difficult Than Physics?

Status: Hoax
The following quotation is widely attributed to Albert Einstein:
"As a young man, my fondest dream was to become a geographer. However, while working in the Customs Office, I thought deeply about the matter and concluded that it was far too difficult a subject. With some reluctance, I then turned to physics as an alternative."
Did he ever say it? No. Nor did he ever work in the Customs Office. (He worked in the Patent Office.) In an article in the Toronto Star, Sharon Burnside traces how the quotation became attributed to Einstein in the first place. Apparently it was actually written by Duane Marble, a faculty member at New York State University, who, a few decades ago, posted the quotation on his office door as a joke directed at the Physics faculty who worked in the same building with him. From there it spread until it became an official Einstein quote. It was finally debunked in 1997 in a series of columns in GIS World written by Jerry Dobson.

I found the Toronto Star article via Craig Silverman's Regret The Error. Craig says that he's thinking of creating a master list of erroneous attributions. If so, he should definitely add to his list the famous P.T. Barnum quotation "There's a sucker born every minute." Barnum always swore he never said it. No one is sure exactly who did say it, but a leading theory is that it was said by the owners of the Cardiff Giant who were annoyed that Barnum's fake Cardiff Giant was getting more attention than their 'real' one.

Another erroneous quotation is "It's not who votes that counts; it's who counts the votes." Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, although there's no evidence he ever said it. It's not known who did say it.

Literature/Language Urban Legends

Posted on Mon Jul 24, 2006


I've read two or three biographies of Barnum and I seem to recall that at least one of them claimed that the "sucker born every minute" quote was from a newspaper writer who said that Barnum acted as if he believed that. I COULD be misremembering this, but I think I've got the gist of it correct.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  02:16 AM
"It's not who votes that counts; it's who counts the votes." Often attributed to Joseph Stalin, although there's no evidence he ever said it.

Given that "to count" and "to count for" (i.e. to matter) are entirely different words in Russian, I think it extremely unlikely Stalin said it.
Posted by David B.  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  06:38 AM
A.H. Saxon, in his biography of Barnum, P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man, gives the most complete analysis of the history of the Sucker phrase that I'm aware of. He relates a theory that the phrase was first used by a con-man in the 1880s called Joseph Bessimer (aka 'Paper Collar Joe'). The original phrase, as said by Bessimer, was "There is a sucker born every minute, but none of them ever die."

The source of this theory about the phrase's origin is Captain Alexander Williams, a New York City policeman in the late 19th century, who told it to Joseph McCaddon (Bailey's brother-in-law), who then included it in a manuscript history of the Barnum & Bailey circus.
Posted by The Curator  in  San Diego  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  10:04 AM
Does anyone know if that thing that Brundle-Fly said about Einstein is true? The thing about Einstein had like 7 sets of identical outfits, so it looked like he wore the same thing everyday. Something about not wasting brain enrgy on picking out clothes in the morning.
Posted by Grain  in  Bay Area, CA  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  03:17 PM
It's really hard to establish whether any historical figure really said a particular line or not.

I've read articles claiming that the following people never said the following things:
Marie Antoinette: "Let them eat cake."
Lord Wellington: "The Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton ..."
General Sherman: "War is Hell."
Abraham Lincoln: Almost anything he's reported to have said.
Jesus, Saint Paul, Buddha: Ditto.
And so on.

Of course, the debunkings could be wrong just as easily as the quotations. Either kind of claim (that somebody said something or didn't) should be backed up by pretty solid evidence before we put very much trust in it.
Posted by Big Gary  on  Tue Jul 25, 2006  at  05:37 PM
well, geography is always changing... while the laws of physics are pretty reliable though the history of human existance, yes?
Posted by katey  on  Wed Jul 26, 2006  at  06:50 AM
Barnum has also been credited with one of Lincoln's most famous alleged quotes: "You can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time but you can't fool all of the people all of the time." The earliest source in print attributing this to Lincoln appeared in 1904 and he is thought to have said it in several different places before the Civil War. I haven't found a Barnum claimant who gave a time and source. I would note, however, that Lincoln was not above stealing another's wit. He admitted his jest to people complaining of Grant's whiskey drinking--"What brand does he drink? I'd like to send some to my other generals.--was based on a quote William Pitt made when it was said General James Wolfe was mad: "Mad. I hope he bites some of my other generals."
Posted by Phred22  on  Wed Jul 26, 2006  at  12:50 PM
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