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 quotationattributed to Einsteinappeared 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."
"Einstein had no particular expertise or even interest in ecology, entomology, or bees."—Roni Grosz, curator of the Albert Einstein Archives
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.
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 insectand its admittedly serious current dilemmato 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.)