[Ads-l] Fermi's Question

Mon Jul 17 16:13:46 UTC 2017

A classic and obvious problem in tracking down quotations is that many, perhaps most, quotable remarks are in fact remarks, and unless uttered in a context where a transcript is provided, such as a court hearing or a congressional debate, there is usually no  reliable account, or even a way to be certain that the remark was actually uttered.  Occasionally, however,  there is a later investigation of a remark that, though perhaps not greatly noted at the time, subsequently turns out to be memorable.

Such an investigation was made of Enrico Fermi's question as to the absence of evidence of extraterrestrial life, usually given as "where is everybody?"  Although not included in YBK (hint, hint, Fred, since you're working on the next edition), this is probably Fermi's most famous quotation.  Since it was asked in conversation, there is no contemporaneous written record of it.

It turns out, however, that the matter was investigated in the mid-1980s, and each witness to the remark (other than Fermi himself, who died in 1954) gave a contextualized account of the question.  Fermi asked the question at a lunch in 1950 or so with Emil Konopinski, Edward Teller, and Herbert York.  They gave various accounts of his exact wording:  "but where is everybody?" (Konopinski), "don't you ever wonder where everybody is?" (York), and the iconic "where is everybody?" (Teller).  The investigation is memorialized in a working paper, Eric M. Jones, "Where Is Everybody?" An Account of Fermi's Question (1985), https://www.osti.gov/accomplishments/documents/fullText/ACC0055.pdf.  

John Baker

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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