Why are Albert Einstein and Freddie Mercury so quotable and Rosalind Franklin not?

Good Morning and Happy Monday!

"The Einstein Blackboard" on display in Oxford's Museum of the History of Science. The equations shown were written on the board by Albert Einstein during a lecture given on 16th May 1931; the board was never wiped clean and has been securely stored ever since.

Text explaining "The Einstein Blackboard" on display in Oxford's Museum of the History of Science. Built in 1683, the small but fascinating museum is the world's oldest surviving purpose-built museum, so is something of a museum-piece in itself.

For today's "Quotable", I am just going to post a short quote by one of science's most quotable figures of all: Albert Einstein.

When you trawl through old books, biographies, scientific papers and websites of quotations, some of history's "great minds" seem to stand out more than others. Freddie Mercury, for example, famously gave few interviews and yet his rather flamboyant, sometimes poetic and frequently humourous turn-of-phrase means that he is one of rock's most quoted and quotable figures.  Sometimes what makes someone quotable is not entirely obvious- for example, in art, you tend to find Picasso quoted more than- say- Amedeo Modigliani or John Singer Sargeant, despite Modigiliani being relatively poetic and Singer Sargeant being sometimes witty, if a litle longer winded.  In science, you find a lot of quotes by Albert Einstein and fairly few by -say- Rosalind Franklin, Marie Curie or James Clerk Maxwell. 

Now, in the case, of Roslaind Franklin, I think this partly because her quotes rarely stray far from her scientific preoccupations; at the time of her death, she was relatively unknown outside scientific circles and she was not exactly interviewed or consulted for her wisdom by the wider world. Einstein, by contrast, was. He also had the benefit of a far longer life than Franklin. 
However, Marie Curie also enjoyed a fairly long life and was famous for much of it, so the difference cannot all be down to those factors- there must be something else at play...

In my view, the added factor- what makes Einstein so quotable - is that he frequently brings his attentions to bear on issues of broader concern; Einstein talks about peace and love and nationality/nationalism... and even playing the violin; he discusses great swathes of human experience far beyond the shores of the purely scientific. This makes him both relatable and valuable. A secondary issue is that it also plays very well into the archetype of "the genial genius". It is easy to see Einstein as the benevolent and approachable wise-being and there is always going to be space for someone who can fit in that role. Einstein was one of my heroes growing up -not because I had any detailed understanding of his work- or even the capacity to assess its significance, but because I admired that kindly personna - the way he used his great mind to argue for a better world was inspiring- it is inspiring. Now, on a personal level-in his private life, he may or may not have been fully aligned with that  public personna, but there is value in the personna itself- it inspires people- it inspired me in the 1990s and who knows how many other nerdy would-be-scientists before and since. So, of all Einstein's many quotes, the one I am picking today is perhaps the most beloved one of school children and teenagers everywhere-

“Do not worry about your difficulties in Mathematics. I can assure you mine are still greater.”
-Albert Einstein

It is amusing to discover that there has been quite some debate about what precisely the great man meant by these words; you can find some of the more interesting analyses of it here-

Thanks for reading.
I'll be back on Friday with more images of the natural world.


For more information on Oxford's Museum of the History of Science and opening hours, click [HERE]


  1. One of these days we'll learn that the reason everyone finds math to be hard is because all of our math teachers and all the mathematicians have just been playing an elaborate pracrical joke on us and "math" is just something they made up to sound as complicated as possible :D


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