What Does This Word Mean, And Where Does It Come From?

by Aephraim M. Steinberg (Aephraim M. Steinberg)
written 19 Apr 1994

This article is classified "Fictional"

This word comes from the Middle Icelandic, where part of one volume of
"Fizikshritt" has miraculously survived the ages.  Since paper had not
yet been introduced in Iceland, and all the great minds were too busy
arguing about the interpretation of Littlbitzuvstuffmekanik to invent
printing, their journals were published in snow and were completely
unknown (except in an unreliable Aramaic translation) until an *extremely*
lost Bedouin fell into a snow cave in the mid-1950s and looted what he
thought were cave drawings.

He stupidly tried to peel the snow pages apart, and later merchants
used Scotch tape to repair them, so most of the surviving manuscript
is in small pieces containing at most a fragment of a word.  This makes
a complete understanding of Middle Icelandic physics extremely difficult.

For example, the best reconstruction of one of the surviving abstracts
reads (roughly translated) "It [will] be sh[own] that ... universe splits
into different fjords which do [not] communicate with ... whale blubber
for dinner pick up cheese for breakfast and go to cleaners on Tuesday."
It is hard to believe that the down-to-Earth Icelanders really believed in
the Many-Fjords Theory, but we have no independent sources with which to
compare these reconstructions.

Many of the articles also contain references to a "Wise One" whose "number
is 93."  Some workers identify this leader with Ludwig Plutonium, and
conclude that the beliefs of his cult have existed for much longer than
originally suspected.  In Icelandic, there is no separate word for "fun"
and "wise," however, so another theory is that this was simply an early
piece of graffiti and "93" was someone's phone number.  (Phone numbers
were only two digits, because phones were still luxury items in Iceland
during the era of Littlbitzuvstuffmekanik; since as alluded to before, the
scientists dealt only with abstract issues instead of transistors, consumer
electronics relied on the switching capabilities of very expensive ice

The upshot is that the origin of "gedankenexperiment" remains obscure.

There are several suggested etymologies.  The most commonly accepted is
that it is a contracted form of "Gott damm en experiment," which Icelandic
fizikists used to shout when trying to perform experiments which were too
difficult to do in practice, especially when "massless" pulleys fell on
their toes and hurt them.

Another widespread belief is that quantum optics experiments had to be
done during the dark and cold Icelandic winters to avoid background counts
from the sunlight, so most physicists had perpetual sneezes.  When you say
"gesundheit" to a sneezing Icelander, he replies "gedanken yu," and quantum
opticians hence came to be known as the "gedankenfizikists" and their
experiments as "gedankenexperiments."

By an odd coincidence, the word also looks exactly like the German for
"thought experiment," i.e. an experiment which may not be feasible in
practice but by imagining which one can (hopefully) come to some
interesting conclusions.  The root for this word is "denken," to think, and
most modern workers incorrectly assume that this is the correct etymology.
This is probably because the term was popularized by Einstein, who relied
heavily on gedankenexperiments both in his derivation of relativity and in
his arguments with Bohr about quantum mechanics.

See also:
  • Quantum Mechanics Of Sandwiches In Lunchboxes
  • RSA Broken By The Russians?
  • Schroedinger's Cat

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