I give. "Turtles all the way down". Dilbert just used it. Where's it from?

Right, I’ve heard this bit about turtles here in the past and just sort of went with it. God knows we pop up memes every now and again.

But now Dilbert has used it.

Far be it from me to suggest that he didn’t get it from here somehow but…I doubt he got it from here.

So someone plug a non-savvy guy in? Where’d this thing start and what’s the context?

Note: the above URL will go bad when today’s comic expires. It’s the one for February 7, 2011.


It’s from Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. The relevant excerpt:

Stephen Hawking.

ETA: Huh. It’s Stephen Hawking quotes all the way down.

A famous physicist is giving a public talk on some astronomical topic, and at the end during the Q&A session, an old lady in the audience tells him that he’s all wrong, that the world actually sits on the back of a giant turtle. The famous thinker asks her what the turtle sits on, and she says “You’re a clever boy. But it’s turtles all the way down”.

I first read it in the introduction to A Brief History of Time, but I think it predates that book.

There’s something to be said for brevity.

Brevity is … wit.

Personally, I knew it as a joke before I encountered SDMB:

One variation:
A westerner visits a oriental sage and asks about the cosmos. The sage explains that the world is supported on the back of a giant turtle.

The western inquires, “But what is the turtle standing on?”

The sage answers: It stands upon the back of another turtle.

“Ahh, but what is that turtle standing on?”

The sage narrows his eyes. “You ask a profound question, but sorry, it’s turtles all the way down.”

That’s also something the physics community was “worried” about for awhile.

You had atoms. Then the atoms were found to be made of electrons, protons, and neutrons. Then these were found to made of quarks. Also, over a hundred? other particles besides electrons, protons, and neutrons were found.

For awhile there, it kinda looked like maybe it was “turtles all the way down” and that all basic components would be found to be made of “lower” other basic components. And on and on and downward and downward…

Note, I am not a particle physics guru, but thats my 2 cent impression of the times…

I came across that story way back in the late 70s, so yes, it does predate the book.

I heard it from Robert Anton Wilson in the late 1970s or thereabouts, as a story that had happened to him. Or so memory now has it…

Indeed, here is a cite from 1905.

And don’t forget about Yertle.

But Yertle was the turtle at the top of the stack. we’re interested in the turtle at the bottom.

Good find, thats almost the exact same story (albeit with a preacher rather then a scientist). And it predates not only Hawkings, but was pretty early in Bertrand Russell’s career, making it unlikely that he was the source either. And I think its earlier then any source cited in the wikipedia link.

Oh, you mean Mack?

Actually, the sources are all fairly clustered. The author of Fear Itself’s quote was Oliver Sabine, a Chrisitan Scientist bishop living in Boston. Wikipedia has a few sources claiming they heard it attributed to Harvard Psychologist William James who lived near Boston around the same period and wrote about the Christian Scientists and was friends with the third person commonly associated with the story, Bertrand Russel.

So I’m guessing Sabine or James originated the story around the turn of the century and then James passed the story on to Russel, who then either passed it on as his own.

I think I first encountered the ‘Turtles all the way down’ when I was a kid. It was in a novel I was reading (and this would have been in the late 60’s or early 70’s’, so it definitely pre-dates either the 'Dope or Hawking. I wish I could remember the book (I think it was a Sci-Fi book, but just can’t remember).


Another Clue:
Sabin’s speech (Nov. 22, 1905) attributes the story to a “Richmond negro preacher.” This Atlantic Monthly article from 1946, “Henry James as a Landlord”, reprints his correspondence with a female tenant, and a letter dated 2/2 1905 is posted from:
Jefferson Hotel
Richmond Virginia.

The letter mentions spending time at the Lenox (Boston Hotel). The following post is from Rye, Sussex (Nov. 2, 1905).

It seems possible that James heard the story in Richmond (about 600 miles from Boston) and related it around Boston. Or he could have composed it and someone – James, Sabin, or a third party – decided the story was more interesting if attributed to a negro preacher.

Of course it originates from here. Not the quote, but the idea:

From here.