The best thing I could find on the internet was this apparently forgotten article from 2004:

  • $\begingroup$ According to Wikipedia-"...The instrumentalist view is carried by the famous quote of David Mermin, "Shut up and calculate", often misattributed to Richard Feynman..." $\endgroup$
    – Soham
    Apr 5, 2018 at 17:31

4 Answers 4


Mermin has a thorough analysis1 and traces the phrase to himself in a 1989 Physics Today column2 & makes a case that the numerous attributions to Feynman may or may not be mistaken.

  1. Mermin, Could Feynman have said this?, Physics Today 57 (5), 2004.

  2. Mermin, What's wrong with this pillow?, Physics Today 42 (4), 1989.

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    $\begingroup$ btw, the original use of the term by Mermin was close to a parody of the Copenhagen interpretation. Mermin is has written at length/ favorably about Bells challenge to the orthodoxy. $\endgroup$
    – vzn
    Oct 3, 2018 at 20:05

Some centuries before Mermin, Leibniz in the 17th century was seeking a solution to some of the denominational quarrels that were plaguing his generation by envisioning a calculus ratiocinator that would make it possible for the quarreling parties to "sit down and calculate". A hypothetical science he envisioned was called Mathesis Universalis and included his infinitesimal calculus as a first stage. See also Characteristica Universalis.

  • $\begingroup$ Honestly, i like more that one: "sit down and calculate". Why should somebody shut up while calculating? Didn't Mermin realize that you can talk to yourself while doing calculations? 😂 $\endgroup$
    – nephewtom
    Nov 29, 2023 at 11:49

As noted, Mermin was probably the first to utter the exact words “Shut up and calculate”. However, the equivalent rallying cry of “Get the numbers out” has its origins some decades earlier.

According to the Nature article History: Shut up and calculate , referring to the role of leading physicist in the war effort (WWII) and how their attitude to their art became largely pragmatic as a result:

This war-forged pragmatism produced enormously impressive research and influenced a generation of leading scientists. Their approach to basic research — and the institutions in which they pursued it — assumed an aura of inevitability. But the approach came with some trade-offs, largely unnoticed at the time. Important questions that resisted the powerful, phenomenological methods tended to get eclipsed. Anything that smacked of 'interpretation', or worse, 'philosophy', began to carry a taint for many scientists who had come through the wartime projects. Conceptual scrutiny of foundations struck many as a luxury. The wartime style was reinforced in the United States by exponentially rising university enrolments after the war. The new classroom realities left little space for informal discussion of philosophy or foundations. The Rad Lab rallying cry of “Get the numbers out” shaded into “Shut up and calculate!”

Here, “Rad Lab” refers to the Radiation Laboratory set up by the American government in 1940 to perform military research.


I was chatting with a friend last night and I was reminded of a story I had heard, most likely apocryphal, which perfectly exemplifies this attitude amongst physicists. The story was told by Sean Carroll during an interview in one of the many popular physics videos available on YouTube, and which I am unfortunately unable to relocate.

The story goes that Murray Gell-Mann used to carry a note in his breast pocket which he claimed was a doctor's note. If anyone raised a philosophical issue, then Gell-Mann would produce this note and say "I'm sorry, I cannot talk about philosophy. My doctor said that it's bad for my blood pressure."

  • $\begingroup$ that was an interesting read! Thank you for sharing $\endgroup$
    – ocramz
    Jun 25, 2023 at 8:06
  • $\begingroup$ Now you have to find us a source for that Gell-Mann anecdote $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Oct 19, 2023 at 23:18
  • $\begingroup$ @Mauricio Doubtful. I did try a bit of googling before I made the edit, but I drew a blank. Carroll stated that he was told the story by another well-know physicist, but I don't recall their name. Whatever the case, it does illustrate the point well. $\endgroup$
    – nwr
    Oct 20, 2023 at 4:02
  • $\begingroup$ Sure the answer is fine. I was just intrigued. I was asking this because I have another claim by Carroll that I cannot confirm. I think he uses to provide anecdotes without double confirmation. Any additional hint of where/when he might have said the Gell-man anecdote is welcome. $\endgroup$
    – Mauricio
    Oct 20, 2023 at 8:37

N. David Mermin (born March 30, 1935, in New Haven, Connecticut, USA) is Horace White Professor of Physics Emeritus at Cornell University

his quote was like this

If I were forced to sum up in one sentence what the Copenhagen interpretation says to me, it would be 'Shut up and calculate!'

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    $\begingroup$ Some years later he also expressed horror that he'd written so dismissively about the subject of interpretations, which I find to be very interesting: scitation.aip.org/content/aip/magazine/physicstoday/article/57/… . $\endgroup$ Apr 4, 2016 at 19:29
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    $\begingroup$ actually Mermins original article expressed his qualms about the copenhagen interpretation using the "red flag" phrase. in other words, the starkness or irony of the phrase was intentional. $\endgroup$
    – vzn
    Apr 4, 2016 at 20:28
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ There is no clear evidence that Mermin wrote this phrase BEFORE Feynman used it, only Mermin's vague recollections. As of 2022, I don't believe we have enough evidence as to who used this phrase first. We do know that many implied this, but not in these words, about quantum mechanics before either Feynman or Mermin, and that this idea was around in other contexts long before quantum mechanics was discovered. $\endgroup$ Dec 25, 2022 at 13:18

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