Annals of Academic Putdowns

by Kieran Healy on April 20, 2005

“An article about new books on Robert Oppenheimer”: quotes the following zinger:

bq. “American Prometheus” does capture the world in which Oppenheimer established his credentials: thick with future Nobelists, bristling with innovation, cattily competitive. (As one of his fellow scholars remarked about another: “So young and already so unknown.”)

That one’s up there with “This book fills a needed gap in the literature.”



Cryptic Ned 04.20.05 at 11:17 pm


Well, I guess it’s progress that the adjective “catty” is now used to refer to men as well as women.


John Quiggin 04.21.05 at 12:18 am

My favorite, is “This aricle has problems, but none that couldn’t be fixed by a change of approach, topic and author”


Ian Whitchurch 04.21.05 at 1:03 am

I always loved Joan Robinson’s comment about mathematical economists running off to hide in thickets of algebra.

PS Whats capital, and how do you measure it ?


Joel Turnipseed 04.21.05 at 1:29 am

Yeah, I remember laughing at the Oppenheimer quote when I was reviewing that book–wish I could have fit it in. The Bird/Sherwin is good (I haven’t read the other one mentioned in the Times), but it would have been a lot better if they had read fewer FBI files and more science–a small quibble about an overall fantastic biography.

As for the Kac quote, I always heard it as much-needed… My other favorite is Rutherford’s: “There is physics and there is stamp collecting.”


Joel Turnipseed 04.21.05 at 1:37 am

correction: it’s not Oppenheimer who makes the remark–it was Wolfgang Pauli, who also said of another physicist, “He’s not even wrong.”


yabonn 04.21.05 at 2:27 am

One from de gaulle, going meteorologic about the sometimes obscure Malraux, his minister of culture : “brumeux, avec de belles éclaircies” (“misty, with some bright intervals”).

And another, not really academic, just funny : author Guitry quarelling with his wife Yvonne Printemps.

G : My dear, if you pass before me, i’ll have carved on you tombstone : “Cold at last”.
YP : My love, if you pass before me, i’ll have carved on you tombstone : “Hard at last”


Joel Turnipseed 04.21.05 at 2:36 am

Malraux quip reminds me of (Russell’s?) remark on H.G. Wells: “His mind is like a rice paddy: miles and miles of shimmering water–one inch deep.”


bad Jim 04.21.05 at 3:24 am

Like a rotten mackerel by moonlight, he shines and stinks.

This is not a book to be tossed aside lightly. It should be thrown with great force!

I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your article before me. Soon it will be behind me.


P ONeill 04.21.05 at 9:32 am

An old line from finance, the spirit of which is probably used in other fields as well:

“it is generally agreed that, ceteris paribus, the fertility of a field is roughly proportional to the quantity of manure that has been dumped upon it in the recent past. By this standard, the term structure of interest rates has become an extraordinarily fertile field indeed.” (Edward Kane in the Journal of Finance, 1970)


tad brennan 04.21.05 at 9:45 am

And there’s always the review that notes that the book contains many good and original points, though the good points are not original, and the original points are not good.

That may well have been an attributable quote once upon a time, but I have it at umptillionth hand. If anyone knows the source, I’d be happy to put a name on it.


Steve LaBonne 04.21.05 at 10:20 am

I always thought Samuel Johnson was the source of that one. But I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it was already a golden oldie in his time.


Robert 04.21.05 at 11:46 am

My favorite comes from Mathematical Reviews:

“This paper arrives at incorrect results using trivial procedures. The basic error, however, is not new.”


r. clayton 04.21.05 at 12:43 pm

These days, I often recall Crick’s comment:

When pygmies cast such long shadows, it must be very late in the day indeed.


todd. 04.21.05 at 12:56 pm

The internets have this to say about the “good and original” quote not being found in Johnson.


Steve LaBonne 04.21.05 at 1:04 pm

How about that- thanks Todd. Score another one for that inexhaustible fount of wit, Anon. ;)


Quentin Crain 04.21.05 at 2:22 pm

Good to see the feuilleton has yet to die.


Jake 04.21.05 at 2:45 pm

I heard of a professor writing on a grad student’s paper: You have reinvented the sled.

Asked to clarify, the prof said: It’s much like reinventing the wheel, but less useful.


novalis 04.21.05 at 2:50 pm

See the reviews of Atlanta Nights for many more. Examples:
“ATLANTA NIGHTS is sure to please the reader who enjoys this sort of thing.” — Raymond E. Feist

“Maybe once in a lifetime, there comes a book with such extraordinary characters, thrilling plot twists, and uncanny insight, that it comes to embody its time. ATLANTA NIGHTS is a book.” — Adam-Troy Castro


Cryptic Ned 04.21.05 at 4:59 pm

Your majesty is like a stream of bat’s p!ss.


Jake 04.21.05 at 5:15 pm

Taking a page from novalis, I remember seeing a blurb by A.A. Attanasio on the back of _The Chosen_, a fantasy novel by Ricardo Pinto:

“Ricardo Pinto’s The Chosen strikes the reader with great force.”


blueshoe 04.21.05 at 11:38 pm

Larkin, I think, of another poet: “He’s so good I daren’t read him.”


Nabakov 04.22.05 at 2:05 am

“Thank for your latest book. I shall waste no time in reading it.”


eb 04.22.05 at 3:11 am

“”Part of his unahappiness rises from ignorance; the rest, from error.”


Jonathan Dresner 04.22.05 at 5:33 am

Mark Twain on Wagner: “His music is better than it sounds.”


Steve LaBonne 04.22.05 at 7:30 am

Also Rossini on Wagner: “Il y a de jolis moments, mais de mauvais quarts d’heures!”


bob 04.22.05 at 9:29 am

Robert: The famous Math Reviews quotation is by Clifford Truesdell, who wrote (in a review of a 1950 paper titled ‘Equations of finite vibratory motions in isotropic elastic media’)
“This paper, whose intent is stated in its title, gives wrong solutions to trivial problems. The basic error, however, is not new: if the reviewer has correctly understood the author’s undefined notations and misprints, the stress-strain relations used are those once proposed by St.-Venant [J. Math. Pures Appl. (2) 8, 257–295, 353–430 (1863); see $§$2], whose incorrect confusion of coordinates in the deformed and undeformed states of the body was pointed out by Brill and Boussinesq [cf. St. Venant, ibid. (2) 16, 275–307 (1871), see $§$7]. The falsity of the author’s results is obvious, since for the speed of propagation of finite waves in isotropic bodies he obtains expressions which are not scalars unless the displacement gradients are infinitesimal.”


Ayjay 04.22.05 at 11:16 am

All — repeat: ALL — of the best academic putdowns are by A. E. Housman. As when he said of a particular textual critic that he was like a donkey poised equidistant between two bales of hay who believed that if one of the bales were removed he would cease to be a donkey.

Or his denunciation of “an Englishman demonstrating the unity of Homer by sneers at ‘Teutonic professors,’ who are supposed by his audience to have goggle eyes behind large spectacles, and ragged moustaches saturated in lager beer, and consequently to be incapable of forming literary judgments.”

Or this: “I have in my mind a paper by a well-known scholar on a certain Latin writer, half of which was concerned with grammar and half with criticism. The grammatical part was excellent; it showed wide reading and accurate observation, and contributed matter which was both new and valuable. In the textual part the author was like nothing so much as an ill-bred child interrupting the conversation of grown men. If it was possible to mistake the question at issue, he mistook it. If an opponent’s arguments were contained in some book which was not at hand, he did not try to find the book, but he tried to guess the arguments; and he never succeeded. If the book was at hand, and he had read the arguments, he did not understand them; and represented his opponents as saying the opposite of what they had said.”

These all from published academic articles or lectures.


Karl Barbir 04.22.05 at 12:05 pm

One more contribution:

Definition of faculty: a herd of independent minds!


John 04.22.05 at 12:55 pm

From the “Don’t List” (as in don’t bother to read these) in a book on forecasting:

“I could not understand this paper. Fortunately, this journal is hard to locate.”


bad Jim 04.23.05 at 1:39 am

How was your weekend in the country?

Well, if the soup had been as warm as the wine, and the wine had been as old as the chicken, and if the chicken had been as tender as the maid, and if the maid had been as willing as the duchess, it would have been perfect.


Aaron Berg 04.23.05 at 4:51 pm

Decades ago, a furious fellow history student showed me an essay he’d just received back from his professor. On it the professor had written: “This is the worst essay I have ever marked!”. That was not all, however. The comment was followed by another apparently added later: “I apologise. I have just read one worse!”.

Comments on this entry are closed.