Roger Sessions in the 1950s

“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

This is one of the great quotes in science.  Coming from Einstein, who simplified physics into general relativity, it is a great statement of how to conduct science.  And given its popular cachet (cited over 1 million times on the web according to Google), it is a statement that many people believe holds truth for them. It was attributed to Albert Einstein by Roger Sessions in the New York times[1] in 1950.

Even more interesting is that he apparently never said it, and we have to rely on a composer to translate Einstein’s insight into plain language.

What he demonstrably said, as documented by Alice Calaprice[2] in “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein”, was much more ‘scientific’ [3]:

“It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”

Now, that sounds like something you or I would say to our colleagues, but I am sure it would be lost on almost everyone else. And yet, we can see the critical elements of the simpler statement clearly exposed in the original. What an absolutely marvelous example of the conundrum we face in championing science – the original, highly accurate and carefully framed statement, which fails the impact test.  When rephrased, composer Roger Sessions[4] was able to extract the essence.  Of course, he may have heard Einstein say it that way without other documentation, but it appears to have been Sessions’ summary that caught the attention of the world.

What is the lesson for scientists? Certainly, simplicity in expression makes the message available to the most people. Both Einstein and Sessions have that right, in either form. But what interests me is why it takes a composer to produce one of the most famous quotes about science.  Are we not capable ourselves?  Do we insist on all the accuracy and detail, obscuring the clarity of message?

Our scientific inability to simplify is something we should always accept.  We need to do our best to keep it simple when talking to those outside our immediate field, and certainly to the public – but the lesson from Roger Sessions is perhaps more along the line of accepting help.  Let those who know you speak for you.  Let others help you with simplification, and listen to what they say.  Let the composers of the world help us champion science.

Simplify, then simplify again.

[1] 8 January 1950, cited by
[2] The Ultimate Quotable Einstein
[3] Wikiquotes: “On the Method of Theoretical Physics” The Herbert Spencer Lecture, delivered at Oxford (10 June 1933); also published in Philosophy of Science, Vol. 1, No. 2 (April 1934), pp. 163-169., p. 165. [thanks to Dr. Techie @ and JSTOR]
[4] See the excellent tracing of the quote in the Quote Investigator,