Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Science

April 25, 2007

Albert Einstein, Ecologist?

Gelf gets to the bottom of a dubious quote about bees attributed to the great physicist.

Vincent Valk

Albert Einstein was probably the greatest physicist of the 20th century. He was not, however, an alien visitor, nor a professional basketball player, nor president of the United States. Nor a biologist. Nor an entomologist. Nor an ecologist. Nor a beekeeper. So Gelf thought it was strange when the following quotation—attributed to Einstein—appeared widely in recent media coverage of a mysterious bee-massacring phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder.

"If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man."

Courtesy Hetemeel.com
"Einstein had no particular expertise or even interest in ecology, entomology, or bees."—Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives

Courtesy Hetemeel.com

Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this oft-quoted line is that Einstein probably never said it. Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, tells Gelf, "There is no proof of Einstein ever having said or written it." While Grosz notes that it is extremely difficult to disprove a quote, he "could not remember even one reference to bees in Einstein's writings."

Allowing for the possibility that a friend of the great physicist overheard him say the line in a bar one night, and then decided to preserve it for posterity, Gelf is still pretty sure that this quotation has been passed from one article to another like a bad game of Telephone. (None of the many writers who used the quote and were contacted by Gelf responded to our inquiries.)

Fortunately, the internet has collected a trove of information about the quote. Starting with a link on a Boing Boing post, we found a thread on the hoax-outing site Snopes, where we discovered evidence that the remark goes back at least as far as a January 1994 Associated Press article by Paul Ames on a beekeepers' protest of a meeting of EU agricultural ministers.

Ames traces the quote to a pamphlet distributed by the National Union for French Apiculture (UNAF) at said protest. Coverage of the same event in the Scotsman and the Guardian mentions the same pamphlet. We contacted the UNAF in an attempt to locate the phantom pamphlet, but the group did not respond to the English or French versions of our email. We poked around internet databases and a local library in search of mentions of Einstein in relation to bees, but were unable to discover any instance of the quotation's appearance in the media prior to January 1994.

Since 1994, Einstein's quote has found its way into a plethora of newspapers, including the Washington Post, Der Speigel Spiegel, the Independent, and the International Herald Tribune.

While some of this coverage dates from before the current mystery over bee deaths, the line has grown in prominence as Colony Collapse Disorder has received more media attention. Most recently, newspapers have printed over-the-top pieces worrying about whether cellphone signals are killing off bees. The International Herald Tribune article largely rebukes this idea, but it does not call the Einstein remark into question.

Even if the quotation's origins go back no further than 1994 and the wishful thinking of an over-eager French pamphleteer, the idea that the disappearance of the bee would lead to the destruction of man in short order may not be as preposterous as it sounds. While nobody knows for sure what would happen, and the four-year time frame suggested by "Einstein" seems arbitrary and probably exaggerated, it is certain that if every bee were to die tomorrow, it would be an unmitigated disaster for human agriculture.

Einstein or not, "no more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man," is a contention backed by at least some evidence. "The world would be a very different place without the pollination services of bees," says Maureen Maxwell, of BeesOnline, a New Zealand-based beekeeping and honey-producing outfit. "They are directly responsible for many of our food and floral crops. Without them, there would be a [greater] reliance on artificial fertilizers, which would increase toxic runoff into our waterways and gradually pollute our food sources and living environment."

"Since 1994, Einstein's quote has found its way into the Washington Post, Der Spiegel, the Independent and the International Herald Tribune."
According to a recent article on Colony Collapse Disorder in the New York Times (that mercifully does not mention Einstein), last October the National Academy of Sciences indicated that American agriculture may be too reliant upon the honeybee as a pollinator. A Reuters article claims that agricultural production dependent on bees amounts to $15 billion annually and close to one-third of the American diet. The extinction of bees would lead to some very undesirable scenarios, though they fall somewhat short of apocalypse.

Yet Einstein's quote persists. It recently was made into the centerpiece of a bit on Real Time with Bill Maher. It continually pops up in news items and (an admittedly unscientific) Google search on "Einstein" and "bees" returns more than 780,000 hits. Maxwell tells Gelf that she is asked about it regularly when she gives educational tours of her facilities. So why, precisely, do reporters, commentators, and people in the bee industry, continue to attach the insect—and its admittedly serious current dilemma—to a man who, according to Dr. Grosz, "had no particular expertise or even interest in ecology, entomology, or bees"?

Gelf can only speculate, but hitching your story, argument, or life's work to a cultural eminence such as Einstein has an undeniable appeal. Dr. Grosz tells Gelf that "there are numerous fake, twisted, and distortedly translated quotes out there attributed to Einstein. Unfortunately, the internet allows wrong information to proliferate at lightning speed without any control." (We'd like to add that the internet also makes it easier to correct such misinformation.) Still, we suspect that the likes of Einstein and other, similarly revered figures, will continue to be attached to supposed profundities that have little or nothing to do with them. In that vein, this reporter would like to add the following bit of wishful thinking:

"If the Attorney General does not tell the truth to the Judiciary Committee, then the President and Vice-President shall be removed within six months."—Mahatma Gandhi

Go ahead media swarm, have at it!

(Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake and Mark Turner for their help researching the origins of the Einstein quote, and to Jennifer Sterling for French translation work. If anyone has any more clues about the quote, please email me.)

Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.







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Comments

- Science
- posted on Apr 26, 07
Sid Johnson

It should be noted that in no way would the death of all bees ever lead to man's death. In fact, other than bees, Wasps, Beetles, Ants, Caterpillars, Moths and Hummingbirds also pollinate flowers. Additionally, all Corn is pollinated by the wind, not by bees or any other insect.
Of course, we can also pollinated via artificial means.
Our 'Bee' in America was in fact brought here from European explorers, and our native 'feral' bee certainly was able to pollinate things without the honey bee.

- Science
- posted on May 04, 07
Chris Schultz

thank you, thank you, thank you for going after that alleged quote by Albert Einstein. When I first heard it, I couldn't believe it. Then I started reading it everywhere. Einstein said many things both profound and not so profound. I doubt he ever addressed the issue of bees. As for CCD, a Canadian beekeeper, inspired by the Einstein quote, said he knows what's causing the problem. The bees are making crop circles and its working them to death.

- Science
- posted on May 17, 07
Amy Valens

Your article and Sid Johnson's comments are much appreciated. Environmentalists have many important things to warn us about, but they must not exaggerate or their real claims won't be taken seriously. Most grasses are wind pollinated--that means wheat (the staff of life) and rye among other foodstuffs. Besides the numerous pollinators that Mr. Johnson mentions, remember that there are many many kinds of native bees who are not being jeopardized by the maladies that strike honeybees. While I can't quote any studies, I know that scientists at UC Berkeley have been studying their pollination habits. During my 20 years of amateur beekeeping, I saw more and more diseases and parasites attacking honeybees. Like canaries in mines, we should not dismiss the importance of the wake up call this disappearance is giving us to the state of nature's "immune system". But nor should we imagine that all our food sources would go unpollinated if the role of honeybees diminishes.

- Science
- posted on Oct 16, 07
Maurice Kuyckx

Only this: Read "Der Spiegel" and not "Der Speigel"
Greetings from Belgium
Maurice

- Science
- posted on Dec 05, 07
Brother Chuck

I am a beekeeper, and it really does not make any difference whither Brother Albert said it or not. The writing is on the wall. Even though the Honeybee is disapearing, keep in mind all pollinators are under stress now..even the butterflies which contribute to some pollination along with humming birds and sweat bees.

There is a difinite change coming, famine is on the horizon, and the end of this world as mankind knows it is coming to an end.

Why, are we so alarmed when Christ told us that these things would come. What has been predestinely ordained of God is the order inwhich things will come, no one can stop it , nor slow it down.

As Chirst said, If GOd does not cut short these days for the sake of the elect mankind will destroy himself.

God has even given to us confirmation after confirmation of what is coming upon the entire face of the earth. And the honeybee is one of God's gifts and God's tool of pollination inwhich God feeds us all. The honeybee tasted the fruit of Eden long before Adam and Eve did. And the Mayan Calendar is one of those things also that mankind should take heed now and prepare his self spiritually to meet his Maker.....

The countdown has begun...and Praise God..this is what many generations of believers have hoped for..And this is the blessed generation to see it come to pass..

The majority will believe and will scoff at the mention of the name Jesus Christ...But, I tell you as God's word says...

Every Knee will bowdown before God..

I am waiting for the first report of a Polar Bear appearing in Down town New York.. wonder what they will say then...

- Science
- posted on Jan 28, 08
RIDWAN RUFAI

Reason not clealy explained.Add more if you have any please!.

- Science
- posted on Feb 27, 08
elizabeth

i think that this blog was helpful i am doing research on this quote albert made i hope i discover the truth

- Science
- posted on May 10, 08
Eric

Hmmmmmmmmmm

- Science
- posted on May 19, 08
sicence kid

How did you get your information? It looks kinda fishy. You should make sure ever thing is spelled right and is the right word in meaning.

- Science
- posted on Jun 15, 08
christina g

It is true that we will die off without bees because they DO pollinate our food. it doesn't matter who said it but it does matter what we do about this problem. I am only 14 but i know that we can be in deep trouble with out our bees. up to 1/3 of our food comes from pollinating bugs. 85% of that 1/3 comes from honey bees the other 15% comes from hornets and bumble bees. they DO NOT even make enough for all of us. of course not all of us will die off but the vast majority of us will and life will be really hard. so people wake up and look at the bees cause they might not bee here tomorrow.

- Science
- posted on Jun 15, 08
christina g

oh and all of you who don't believe in the death of bees well think about this CCD mites pesticides oh and i don't know they put stuff on corn now a days that when bees go to pollinate, oh yes bees pollinate corn too, it they cant find their way back to the hive and starve to death. people stop all of this the native Americans didn't do this when they stopped being nomadic they just let it grow with a little help here and there we should do as they did and stop all of the pesticides
please listen to me we need to help the bees.

- Science
- posted on Jun 16, 08
tracibeth

M. Night Shalyman just used the quote in his new movie, the happening. It opens with the question of what is happening to the bees. I'm not marketing, although now it likely looks that way... but that guy does a lot of research himself, and likely would have several additional pieces for you, since you asked. i was a reporter once (military) and from journalist to writer, i'm sure he'd actually even share with you what he's got -- especially since the movie is hitting mixed reviews... M. Night Shalyman just used the quote in his new movie, the happening. It opens with the question of what is happening to the bees. I'm not marketing, although now it likely looks that way... but that guy does a lot of research himself, and likely would have several additional pieces for you, since you asked. i was a reporter once (military) and from journalist to writer, i'm sure he'd actually even share with you what he's got -- especially since the movie is hitting mixed reviews... Valk, thanks for this, i've been curious for a bit, since reading "Secret Life of Bees" and the idea they bring piece among disorder, or hard times. [This case, 60's equal rights era]. Good selection of blog posts as well... you forget for a minute how to weigh in with all of this.

Personally, i think it has something to do with the pollen itself. If it turns toxic, could it dehydrate you enough to evaporate? turning the bee into pollen and the pollen into poison killing even more around it.... that even begins to make the crop circle sound like it makes more sense.... and in the true scientific element of the article... likely none of us will actually get to the answer. I would really like to see that chart next species around; where were we in the red line when we realized, with the bees, we were going extinct?

if i had known the rumor about cell phone signals... well, all of it, i guess... i would have seen through the movie sooner, surely. thanks again. tracibeth hope thanks for this, i've been curious for a bit!

if i had known the rumor about cell phone signals... well, all of it, i guess... i would have seen through the movie sooner, surely. thanks again. tracibeth hope

- Science
- posted on Jun 16, 08

And of course, the signals of the internet which change the spellings and duplicate an entire paragraph... Peace among Disorder... and all of its implications. To think, the flowers like the sound of our buzzing into our cell phones even less than than that of a honeybee!

I can see that. ;) Keep your gossip out of public parks! Thanks, M. Knight!

- Science
- posted on Jul 10, 08
Latrice N.

How About Leave the rsin forest alone stop chopping down the trees to make things we really can live without do you people really care about Bees.The earth is yous mine and ours

- Science
- posted on Jul 20, 08
DR. M

What a bunch of garbage!! Einstein, more than likely, never said this!! Even if he did, we could discard it as easily as if a bored internet blogger had conjured this statement. EINSTEIN WAS A PHYSICIST!!

- Science
- posted on Nov 05, 08
lolo

i belive the world will end december 12 2012 so live life to the fullest vincent and all:(

- Science
- posted on Feb 03, 09
anoymous

I think the world will end in 2012. I'M REALLY SCARED ABOUT IT!!!!!!!!!! Is there any way we can protect ourselves? Or will we all perish? Does Nibiru exist?

- Science
- posted on Jul 21, 10
D Lynn Kisken

Thank for the the discernment that is lacking in the minds of many.

- Science
- posted on Oct 29, 10
vijay

sir, I heard about bee pollen is used by Lord jesus chirst for health purpose. In which bible I can read it.where can I get that information. pls do the needful in this matter.

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Article by Vincent Valk

Vincent Valk is online editor for Chemical Week magazine.

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