There is a quote from a 19-20th century scientist that goes (and I am paraphrasing):

New scientific theories are never accepted until old scientist die.

Who is this cynical quote attributed to, and what is the exact phrasing of the quote?

Based on my memory of the quote I would put the following odds:

  • 90% it was a physicist from the late 19 or early 20th century
  • 70% it was Niels Bohr or Erwin Schrodinger — I did of course google for a list of known quotes but didn’t see the above one anywhere.
  • 20% it was in reference to quantum mechanics.
  • 5
    $\begingroup$ The quote I've heard, attributed to Planck, is: science progresses one funeral at a time! $\endgroup$
    – Steve
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 2:47
  • $\begingroup$ I would like to add that this statement is not only cynical, but also incorrect. It is a huge exaggeration. $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 12:05
  • $\begingroup$ @terdon fair enough. comment removed $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 17:37
  • $\begingroup$ @CarlWitthoft thank you kindly. Mine as well. $\endgroup$
    – terdon
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 17:51
  • $\begingroup$ Also see Belief Perseverance, which is what Planck was observing or commenting. There are lots of example of it, like rejecting heliocentrism for 1800 years or accepting password blanking today (password blanking needs to go away). $\endgroup$
    – jww
    Commented Jun 15, 2019 at 15:06

2 Answers 2


Max Planck, Scientific Autobiography and Other Papers (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1949), pp. 33-34:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.
as quoted in:
• M. López Corredoira and C. Castro Perelman, Against the Tide: A Critical Review by Scientists of How Physics and Astronomy Get Done (Boca Raton, Fla.: Universal Publishers, 2008), p. 12
• Peter Pesic, Music and the Making of Modern Science (MIT Press, 2014), p. 265.

  • $\begingroup$ Wonder if this was first published in German. The '49 edition was translated from German. $\endgroup$
    – MaxW
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 21:07
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @MaxW Yes, in 1948: M. Planck, Wissenschaftliche Selbstbiographie. Leipzig 1948. (PAV, Bd. 3, S. 374–401): « Eine neue wissenschaftliche Wahrheit pflegt sich nicht in der Weise durchzusetzen, dass ihre Gegner überzeugt werden und sich als belehrt erklären, sondern vielmehr dadurch, dass ihre Gegner allmählich aussterben und dass die heranwachsende Generation von vornherein mit der Wahrheit vertraut gemacht ist. » $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 21:24
  • $\begingroup$ @ Geremia, Is this machine translation good (DeepL.com)? "A new scientific truth does not assert itself in such a way that its opponents are persuaded and declare themselves instructed, but rather by the fact that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiar with the truth from the outset." $\endgroup$
    – ACR
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 3:06
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @M.Farooq I'm not that good at German to know, but cf. this question on German StackExchange. $\endgroup$
    – Geremia
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 3:29
  • $\begingroup$ That forum is not for translations. I was explicitly told once because I often ask questions there. That is for language related questions. DeepL is pretty good. I have written one article on the DeepL German translation for chemistry related papers with the help of a German co-author. $\endgroup$
    – ACR
    Commented Jun 6, 2019 at 3:40

90% it was a physicist from the late 19 or early 20th century

Excellent memory! It is actually from Thomas Kuhn who was a physicist, and who later turned into a philosopher. His book The Structure of Scientific Revolution mentions something like this on page 152. This is the third edition 1962 reprinted in 1996.

Edits: On page 151, he also quotes Planck.

Book image

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think it is better to attribute the articulation of this idea to Planck. See en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Planck%27s_principle. $\endgroup$
    – KCd
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 3:44
  • $\begingroup$ It is likely then, but Kuhn did not credit Planck. We should see the original book first because there so many incorrectly attributed quotes to big names. $\endgroup$
    – ACR
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 4:16
  • $\begingroup$ Adding the year of the book (I believe it is 1962) might help decide which answer is most correct. $\endgroup$
    – Bernat
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 8:53
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ Wrong ! See Kuhn, SSR, page 151 : "And Max Planck, surveying his own career in his Scientific Autobiography, sadly remarked that..." $\endgroup$ Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 9:56
  • $\begingroup$ @Mauro I am specifically talking about this quoted paragraph! Those are Kuhn's own words! Yes he quotes Max Planck in previous paragraphs. $\endgroup$
    – ACR
    Commented Jun 5, 2019 at 13:53

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