Skeptics Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for scientific skepticism. Join them; it only takes a minute:

Sign up
Here's how it works:
  1. Anybody can ask a question
  2. Anybody can answer
  3. The best answers are voted up and rise to the top

A very popular quote attributed to Albert Einstein but did he really say it? If so, what is the original document containing the original explanation of it?

share|improve this question
I thought it was Richard Feynman, but maybe not: – Andrew Grimm Apr 3 '12 at 6:14
@AndrewGrimm He apparently says the contrary as this quote seems to be atributed to him: "If I could explain it to the average person, I wouldn't have been worth the Nobel Prize." – Renan Apr 3 '12 at 20:04
@Renan: He said both, in different contexts. He was asked for a brief quote of what he won the Nobel for, and he said if it could be summarized in a sentence, it wouldn't be worth the prize. But when asked to explain the spin-statistics theorem in an undergraduate lecture in the 1960s-1970s (don't know when) he said he couldn't reduce it to the undergraduate level, so we don't understand it well enough. This seems to have motivated his 1986 Dirac lecture on the spin-statistics theorem. – Ron Maimon Apr 6 '12 at 2:47
It would be quite amazing if Einstein said anything at all in the 60's being that he died in the 50's! You seem to be refering to Feynman, however I do believe it is an Einstein quote. – user9112 Nov 4 '12 at 6:04
seems somewhat inconsistent with another quote attributed to Einstein, that "everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler", which perhaps implies that not everything should be expected to be simple. – Dikran Marsupial Sep 18 '13 at 17:57

The quote "An alleged scientific discovery has no merit unless it can be explained to a barmaid." is popularly attributed to Lord Rutherford of Nelson in as stated in Einstein, the Man and His Achievement By G. J. Whitrow, Dover Press 1973. Einstein is unlikely to have said it since his theory of relativity was very abstract and based on sophisticated mathematics.

share|improve this answer
Unrelated, but reminds me of the joke about the mathematicians who were trying to play a joke on their colleague in a bar and coached the "barmaid" to reply "one third x cubed" when they offhand asked her what the integral of x^2 was. when the colleague comes back and they try to play the prank she responds as they prompted her, and then non-chalantly adds, "plus a constant". – Michael Jan 2 at 0:25

The short answer is: probably no he didn't say this quote. There is no citation supporting this claim.

Another unsourced variants:

You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother.

If you can't explain something to a six-year-old, you really don't understand it yourself.

But if you open page 418 of Einstein: His Life and Times (1972) by Ronald W. Clark, it says that Louis de Broglie did attribute a similar statement to Einstein:

To de Broglie, Einstein revealed an instinctive reason for his inability to accept the purely statistical interpretation of wave mechanics. It was a reason which linked him with Rutherford, who used to state that "it should be possible to explain the laws of physics to a barmaid." Einstein, having a final discussion with de Broglie on the platform of the Gare du Nord in Paris, whence they had traveled from Brussels to attend the Fresnel centenary celebrations, said "that all physical theories, their mathematical expressions apart ought to lend themselves to so simple a description 'that even a child could understand them.' "

See all misattributed Einstein quotes here:

share|improve this answer
So... isn't the answer "Yes" then? – Pacerier Jun 10 '15 at 9:43

I do not know if Einstein ever said anything like that. (As Einstein himself once said, "73% of Einstein quotes are misattributed.")

But following @AndrewGrimm's comment, the closest I could find is this second-hand quote by Richard Feynman

Feynman was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin 1/2 particles obey Fermi-Dirac statistics. He gauged his audience perfectly and said, "I’ll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he returned and said, "You know, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don’t understand it."

Source: The Feynman Lectures on Physics, Special Preface written by David L. Goodstein and Gerry Neugebauer, dated April 1989 (i.e. after Feynman died). (Google Books link to a 2011 book that contains this Special Preface.)

P.S. The above quote, coming from two of his Caltech colleagues, is probably more credible than the following unsourced 1985 People magazine quote:

Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn't have been worth the Nobel prize.

Nonetheless, even if Feynman did issue both of the above two quotes, they are not inconsistent. One could argue that Feynman believes (a) that "we really don't understand" his Nobel prize-winning work; or (b) that the Caltech freshman is more intelligent than the average person.

share|improve this answer

protected by Community Nov 4 '12 at 14:24

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.