Category Archives: Humour

It’s Not All Relative: Five Things That Einstein Never Said

We have all done it, haven’t we? Each and every one of us has, at some point, appropriated (or misappropriated) a quotation from a great thinker or writer to lend a spurious profundity to our own footling little thoughts.

While it may be well-nigh irresistible to wrap ourselves in the borrowed robes of literary or scientific genius, the temptation is fraught with dangers. To spare both our own blushes and those of our unsuspecting audience, it’s a good idea to check whether the Great Person actually said what they are reputed to have said.

For one reason and another, the life, career and reputation of Albert Einstein makes him an especially tempting target for spurious attributions.

This is my eclectic list of five things that Einstein did NOT say, and yet seem to be quoted and requoted again and again, especially in an educational context.

It is a melancholy truth that these particular memes will most likely be circulating on the internet until the last router rusts away to nothingness. However, on the principle that it better to light a candle than complain about the dark, I present this list (although, given their preternatural persistence, a flamethrower might be more appropriate).

Watch out, any one of them may well be coming to a CPD near you sometime soon…

Nein-stein No. 1

Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.

This, according to Quote Investigator [QI 1], was first attributed to Einstein as recently as 2004. The original allegory about animals attending a school and being judged against inflexible criteria, can be traced back to physicist Amos E. Dolbear who published it under a pseudonym in 1898.

Nein-stein No. 2

Everything is energy and that’s all there is to it. Match the frequency of the reality you want and you cannot help but get that reality. It can be no other way. This is not philosophy. This is physics.

Philosophy this gem certainly isn’t. Sadly, it bears no relation to any recognisable form of Physics either. (“Pass the bag labeled ‘New Age Quantum Claptrap’ please, Alice.”)

The original form of this quotation was penned by special effects artist Darryl Anka in 1998 — forty years after Einstein had shuffled off this mortal coil (or, at least, had become significantly less ordered).

Incidentally, Anka never attempted to attribute this thought to Einstein. In fact, he claimed that it had been obtained via “trans-dimensional channelling” from an extraterrestrial entity named “Bashar”. [QI 2]

Nein-stein No. 3

Two things inspire me to awe: the starry heavens and the moral universe within.

A beautiful quote, but Einstein? Naaaah. From Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason (1788), actually. Highbrow enough for ya? [Ref 1]

Nein-stein No. 4

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

Not Einstein. Not Benjamin Franklin. Not Rita Mae Brown either. The earliest instance tracked down by Wikiquote was from a Narcotics Anonymous publication from 1981.

Nein-stein No. 5

Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity. Actually, I’m not sure about the universe.

Einstein may or may not have said this, but the only evidence we have is from the works of therapist Frederick S. Perls, who credited the quote to a “great astronomer” in a book published in 1947. In later works, Perls specifically named Einstein as the originator of the quote which was said during a personal meeting with Perls. However, Perls did present different versions of the statement over the years. [QI 3]


Filed under Humour, Physics, Science

The F.B.I. and Gang Signs for Physicists

Those notions which are to be collected by reason . . . will seldom stand forward in the mind, but lie treasured in the remoter repositories of memory, to be found only when they are sought.

— Samuel Johnson, The Rambler, 7 April 1759

Sir John Ambrose Fleming (1849-1945) was the inventor of the thermionic valve, devices that formed the glowing (literally!) and pulsing heart of most electronic circuits until the invention of the transistor in the 1960s and the dawn of the Age of Semiconductors.

His part in most GCSE and A-level courses is small in extent but of significant and perhaps under acknowledged importance: he is the original framer of Fleming’s Left Hand Rule and Fleming’s Right Hand Rule. These respectively predict the direction of the force produced on a current-carrying conductor in a magnetic field (left hand) and the direction of induced current flow when a conductor cuts magnetic field lines (right hand). In short, they summarise the physics of everything from the humble electric motor to the Large Hadron Collider via the rail gun; not to mention the giant spinning generators that produce the humming electrical essence that powers our civilisation.

To use the rules, hold your thumb and first two fingers at right angles to each other. I tell my students that the left hand rule and right hand rule are physicists’ gang sign — it’s not too great a stretch of the imagination, at that. If you have ever invigilated a Physics exam, you can tell the point when the students have reached the Fleming’s Left/Right Hand Rule question . . . just look at their hands!

But I digress. I began this post because I was taught the following mnemonic for FLHR:

And to be honest, I have passed it on without thinking too hard about it. However, a student recently introduced me to the F.B.I. Mnemonic. Start with your thumb and say “F for force”, first finger and say “B for B-field” and then second finger and say “I for current”.

The great advantage of this is that F, B and I are the standard physical symbols for the quantities they represent, unlike the multistage hoop-jumping demanded by the traditional mnemonic.

I don’t know about you, but I think I will be using the FBI mnemonic from now on (which, incidentally, was developed by Robert Van De Graaff (1901-1967), of Van De Graaff generator fame).


Filed under Humour, Physics

Safe Space

[Being a satire partly inspired by university campus “safe space” policies and this.]

The Roman Inquisition recently posted this message on their Facebook page:

The Roman Inquisition Society stands in solidarity with the Geocentric Society. We support them in condemning the actions of the Astronomy Society in extending an invitation to Professor Galileo Galilei to speak on campus, and agree that hosting known geocentrophobes at our university creates a climate of hatred.


Galileo Facing The Roman Inquisition by Cristiano Banti

A spokesman for the Roman Inquisition Society told us that the publication of Galileo Galilei’s new book Dialogue On The Two Chief World Systems showed that Professor Galilei, was “nothing but a reactionary Heliocentrist of the worst stripe”.


Frontispiece of Dialogue On The Two Chief World Systems

The spokesman went on to say that an event where Professor Galilei would be able to speak “uninterrupted and unopposed, possibly for several whole minutes, on the supposed ‘reality’ of the Earth’s motion around the Sun” would be in direct contravention of stated Student Union policy which does not grant a platform for speech which could be interpreted as being “disruptive to social and community harmony”.

He closed by saying that: “Whilst we in the geocentrist community have always welcomed debate and challenge, it must be within the context of a positive conceptual framework, such as that put forward by that nice Professor Harry Stottle. After all, freedom of speech is all well and good, but don’t we geocentrists deserve our safe space too?”

Members of the Astronomy Society said that they had invited both the Roman Inquisition Society and the Geocentric Society to observe the moons of Jupiter through a telescope, but representatives of both societies had declined by sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting “La-la-la! Not listening! La-la-la!”

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Filed under Humour, Politics, Religion, Society

Weasel Words In Education Part 6: Growth Mindset

It’s taken me a while to realise this, but “Growth Mindset” is essentially the repackaging of that perennial teacher favourite: “Must Try Harder”.

Suppose that the difference in “people who talk up innate ability” and “people who talk up hard work” maps onto a bigger distinction. Some people really want to succeed at a task; other people just care about about clocking in, going through the motions, and saying “I did what I could”.

Put the first group in front of an authoritative-looking scientist, tell them to solve a problem, and make sure they can’t. They’re going to view this as a major humiliation – they were supposed to get a result, and couldn’t. They’ll get very anxious, and of course anxiety impedes performance.

Put the second group in front of an authoritative-looking scientist, and they’ll notice that if they write some stuff that looks vaguely relevant for a few minutes until the scientist calls time, then whatever, they can say they tried and no one can bother them about it. They do exactly this, then demand an ‘A’ for effort. At no point do they experience any anxiety, so their performance isn’t impeded.

Put both groups on their own in private, and neither feels any humiliation, and they both do about equally well.

Now put them in real life. The success-oriented group will investigate how to study most effectively; the busywork-oriented group will try to figure out how many hours of studying they have to put in before other people won’t blame them if they fail, then put in exactly that amount. You’ll find the success-oriented group doing a bit better in school, even though they fail miserably in Dweck-style experiments.
[ . . . ]
So basically, you take the most vulnerable people, set them tasks you know they’ll fail at, then lecture them about how they only failed because of insufficient effort.

Imagine a boot stamping on a human face forever, saying “YOUR PROBLEM IS THAT YOU’RE JUST NOT TRYING NOT TO BE STAMPED ON HARD ENOUGH”.

— Scott Alexander, Slate Star Codex, 8/4/15 [emphasis added]

Recent research shows that children do better in classes where teachers ensure that the region around their cubital ginglymus has a organic epidermal integument attached. Watch this space for more on the Organic Epidermal Integument Elbow Set, next week.


Cubital Ginglymus Organic Epidermal Integument

h/t The Learning Spy, Why The ‘False Growth Mindset’ Reveals So Much


Filed under Education, Humour

Academisation, Academisation, Academisation

Bogstannard Comprehensive School

Bogstannard Comprehensive School: “Not everybody fails”

MAN IN GLASSES (for it is he): Good evening, viewers. Tonight, we are going to examine the impact of the government’s controversial new education policies ‘on the ground’, so to speak, at one of the first schools in the country to undergo forced academisation in the latest tranche of institutions deemed to be ‘failing’ or ‘coasting’ by Government ministers.


WOMAN: Well, of course, the first we knew about the forced academisation was when the new management team from the SKARO Academy Chain arrived in their shiny new suits.

The new senior leadership team from the SKARO Academy chain arrive…

M.I.G.: And would you say that they’ve succeeded in driving up standards?

WOMAN: A little. The kids are a lot less scruffy since the Headteacher started exterminating anyone who had their top button undone. Or who didn’t know their target grades. Or didn’t make the expected level of progress. Or looked at SLT a bit funny. Mind you, they treated the staff in exactly the same way.

M.I.G: What? You mean that they held staff to the same exceptionally high standards as the children?

WOMAN: No, they exterminated them. Some of the older staff just couldn’t adjust to pushed around on castors with a sink plunger and an egg-whisk under their armpits whilst shouting “YOU WILL MAKE PROGRESS! OR! YOU! WILL! BE! EXTERMINATED!” in a loud, grating voice. But that’s part of the academy chain’s “corporate style” and one of the “non-negotiables”, as the Headteacher likes to call them. But the younger staff seem to be adapting well to new regime, especially those who entered on the SKARO Direct and EXTERMINATE First! routes. Actually, some of them seem to enjoy it . . .


M.I.G.: Have the new leadership team exterminated many of the students?

WOMAN: A fair few. But as Mr Davros, the CEO of SKARO Academy, said in the newsletter, that we shouldn’t think of it as a form of ruthless mass murder, but rather as a “proactive measure to help ease the national pressure on school places”.

M.I.G.:  I understand there was some unpleasantness involving a surprise Ofsted inspection?

WOMAN: Not really. I mean, the lead inspector was a bit suspicious when he found that the majority of the SLT were descended from an extraterrestrial race of humanoids know as the ‘Kaleds’. He said that sounded, well, a bit ‘un-British’ if you catch my drift.

M.I.G.: And what the leadership team do?

WOMAN: Well, two little doors opened up in the dome on top of Mr Davros’ head and two little union jack flags popped out and he started chanting “BRITSH VALUES! BRITSH VALUES! YOU MUST HAVE BRITISH VALUES!” before leading everyone in a rousing rendition of ‘Land of Hope and Glory’.

British values

British values! British values! You must have British values!

M.I.G.: And what happened then?

WOMAN: Oh, they exterminated the Ofsted Lead Inspector.

M.I.G.: Really?

WOMAN: Yeah. He undid his top button while they were singing.

M.I.G.: And how did the staff react to this?

WOMAN:To the Lead Inspector being reduced to a small pile of smoking ashes by an extraterrestrial death ray? Stunned, I think. Followed by some quiet smiles and handshakes and someone saying “I didn’t know we could do that…” Mind you, some of the inspection team didn’t look too displeased either…


Filed under Education, Humour, Politics

Weasel Words in Education Part 5: Rigour

A crack team of DfE boffins test the proposed new system for the management and oversight of the United Kingdom’s increasingly fissiparous school system.

Rigour, n.

1. The quality of being extremely thorough and careful.

2. severity or strictness.

3. (when pluralized) harsh and demanding conditions

In education (as in other walks of life) the word rigour is usually meant in sense (1) when applied to one’s own thinking or the thinking of one’s friends or allies: “I am being rigorous. However, you, sir, are merely pedantic.”

These days, sense (2) seems to require the insertion of a prefix, as in “The moderation of our controlled assessments was over-rigorous.”

Rigour is therefore a good thing, right?

However, in my opinion it seems to be used more and more as a talisman rather than as a genuine description.

Mr Gove told the Commons: “The new specifications are more challenging, more ambitious and more rigorous. That means more extended writing in subjects like English and history, more testing of advanced problem-solving skills in mathematics and science.”

The Independent, July 2013

I am not sure if Michael Gove* is using the word in sense (1) or sense (2) here. If he meant it in sense (2) then it is a rhetorical flourish to emphasise the idea that GCSEs will be more challenging. If he meant it in sense (1) then the promise of “extended writing [and] more testing” doesn’t tell me how the new exams will be more thorough and careful. This is not saying that the examination system does not need to be more thorough and careful, merely that “extended writing [and] more testing” won’t necessarily make it so.

Let me emphasise that I am not opposed to rigour. I like rigour and being rigorous, at least in sense (1). I would perhaps favour the words consistent and fair rather than use rigour in sense (2) in an educational context, but that’s a personal preference.

In short, I wish people would be more rigorous in their use of the word rigorous. You shouldn’t just use it because you think it sounds good. A is rigorous while B is not should mean more than I like A and dislike B.

And as a final thought, I strongly suspect that many of the people who are most keen to bemoan the lack of rigour in education would have to step out of the kitchen when push came to shove, as in this little vignette:

[I listened] to magazine columnist Fred Barnes . . . whine on and on about the sorry state of American education, blaming the teachers and their evil union for why students are doing so poorly. “These kids don’t even know what The Iliad and The Odyssey are!” he bellowed, as the other panellists nodded in admiration at Fred’s noble lament.

The next morning I called Fred Barnes at his Washington office. “Fred,” I said, “tell me what The Iliad and The Odyssey are.”

He started hemming and hawing. “Well, they’re … uh … you know … uh … okay, fine, you got me—I don’t know what they’re about. Happy now?”

No, not really. You’re one of the top TV pundits in America, seen every week on your own show and plenty of others. You gladly hawk your “wisdom” to hundreds of thousands of unsuspecting citizens, gleefully scorning others for their ignorance.

— Michael Moore, Stupid White Men (2001), p.58


* His successor Nicky Morgan look set to continue Gove’s use of the term.

Postscript: For the those (including myself) who are classically undereducated: The Iliad is an ancient Greek epic poem by Homer about the Trojan War. The Odyssey is another epic poem by Homer recounting the ten-year journey home from the Trojan War made by Odysseus, the king of Ithaca.

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Filed under Assessment, Education, Humour, Politics, Society

Weasel Words in Education Part 4: Robust

There are robust systems in place for the safe recruitment of staff, which assess their suitability to work with young people.

–OFSTED report (selected randomly), Oct 2013. p.6


In [a number of the] schools visited where science achievement had recently improved [there had been a] robust review by senior leaders, leading to a reduction in weaker teaching

OFSTED, Maintaining Curiosity in Science, November 2013. p.26 [emphasis added]

“Robust” is an increasingly common word in educational circles these days.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words. As a physicist, I would argue that a nice graph is worth at least five thousand.


It certainly seems that the setting up of Ofsted has significantly increased the usage of the word “robust”. In fact, the phrase “to infinity and beyond!” springs to mind when we view the precipitous increase after 1984. Now, it might be argued that this is merely conincidental: after all, correlation is not proof of causation.

This is true. But just for the record, an advanced Google search for the word “robust” on just the Ofsted website alone gets 87300 hits. (A similar search of the Ofgem website returns just 5790 results). When Google release a more up-to-date dataset, it will be interesting to see if the usage of “robust” will have increased or decreased during Sir Michael Wilshaw’s tenure. I know what possibility I’ll be putting my money on.

Robust adj.
When used in an educational context:
1. [of systems or processes] able to withstand or overcome adverse conditions
2. [of SLT or other interventions] uncompromising and forceful

What it actually means in practice:

    Robust adj.

  1. A system or process that is explained at tedious length in the staff handbook and that has least one desultory paper trail so that we can pretend that this thing happens as a matter of course: (A custom more honoured in speech than in observance, you might say.)
  2. A meeting during which SLT got (a) shouty; or (b) offered “support” that turned out to be profoundly unsupportive; or (c) both


As a final thought, UK education seems to be in the hands of people who like to use the word “robust” a lot. H’mmm, I feel a song coming on . . .

# If there’s something weird
# and it don’t look good
# Who ya gonna call?
# ROBUSTers!!!



Filed under Education, Humour, Ofsted