Friday, May 4, 2012

If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe

I recently googled this Carl Sagan quote using the search "if you wish to make an apple pie from scratch meaning" and was pretty dismayed that the top result not only misquotes him but comes from a yahoo Q&A site with the following "best" answer:

"Sagan was merely saying all the elements of an apple pie made from scratch [reduced to the lowest common denominator] are elemental to the universe and the universe had to be there before an apple pie could be made from them.

Hardly profound, though it's often quoted."

This result probably says more about the mental acuity of the analyzer then about what is being analyzed.  Unfortunately answers are "closed" so nothing can be done about the yahoo page.  So I shall give it a shot here and if you like my response please link/forward/facebook/google+ this posting so we can collectively knock Yahoo off of the top spot!  So let me start over:


"If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first invent the universe"  Carl Sagan

You can hear a clip of him saying it straight here:, but you'll probably by a lot more entertained by this remix Symphony of Science: A Glorious Dawn

Literal Meaning

Just so we are all on the same page, the simplest level of interpretation is that the baker's fundamental ingredients are not fundamental at all.  Apple trees produced the apples, wheat plants produced the flour in the crust, sugar cane produces the sugar.  And of course this idea must be recursively applied.  What made the chemicals and matter that these plants used?  The big bang and stars made them out of more fundamental particles and energy.  What made the energy the plants used to arrange the matter?

This is essentially as far as the original "answer" goes,  But this is a trivial analysis.

Let's take a Bite out of this Pie

A great way to analyze a quote is to first make your analysis, and then modify the original quote with a different one that matches your analysis.  Then compare the two and see what the original has that's missing from the new one & what the new one has that's missing from the original.  So here's what Sagan might have said if he was as smart as the author of the "best" answer:

1. God made the universe, you just rearrange it.

Here I am clearly differing by introducing "God" into the quote.  Its possible that Sagan's personal beliefs precluded this formulation (I don't know or care).  But the important point is that the omission of "God" in his quote aims it directly at humanity, at us.

So let's leave God out of the quote:

2. You can't make stuff from scratch because you're always using other stuff that's already been made.

This formulation in the negative is limiting -- but is that what Sagan wanted to say?  That you CANT make an apple pie from scratch?  His formulation is in fact enabling; "if you wish to make...".  He believes that someday we will truly make a pie from scratch and is seeking to define what that means.  By formulating the sentence positively, the quote is infused with the hope and promise of humanity's potential.

So let's reformulate in the positive, but tweak the noun:

3. If you wish to make a particle accelerator from scratch you must first invent the universe

Who is the "you" in this quote?  By choosing something as prosaic, as domestic as an apple pie he implies that the makers shall someday be, well, anybody and the making shall be an everyday occurrence.  By choosing "particle accelerator" I pretty clearly point this at a small esoteric subgroup.  He is also saying that the most common of thing are actually made up of complex ideas.

4. (and finally the misquotation) If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch you must first create the universe.

What's the difference between "creation" and "invention"?  Well, a potter can "create" a clay pot (for example) by throwing clay on a wheel.  But how can she "invent" one?  She really cannot; its already been invented.  But she can invent a new kind of pot.  With the term "invent" Sagan is clearly suggesting not the mechanical act of creation but the mental act of invention.  It is not enough for us to create the pie from fundamental particles; to truly make it "from scratch" we must invent (and therefore understand) the entire mathematical/informatic/computational underpinnings of the universe that either must have been before the first particle existed or that was forced to be by that particle's existence.

Actually, I'm still struggling with what he meant by invent.  Since the universe already exists it cannot really be invented again.  Was he suggesting the actual invention and subsequent creation of new universes by humankind?  Or was he implying that inventing the universe would allow the controlled creation of space and matter within our existing framework?   ...quantum mechanics predicts that particles and antiparticles are spontaneously created all the time...

Regardless, in this one sentence Sagan has left us with a large, tasty slice of his hopes and dreams for the future of science and humanity!


  1. I am looking at the word 'first'. On the surface it looks like it just means 'beforehand', but, questioning the use of 'invent' instead of 'create', now it may take on a second meaning: 'to be the first', which is impossible, since some entity (some would say god) or force already did invent the universe. This implies that we never, ever, make anything from scratch, and possibly also hints that we, ourselves having been 'invented', do not fully understand ourselves, let alone the rest of the universe. A very interesting quote, indeed!

  2. just dissected that WAY beyond what's necessary.

    You sound like a snotty grad student who always has something to prove...with an abundance of knowledge that the citizens of this world are just waiting for you to bestow upon us. I imagine you're the type of person who looks at a speck of dust and gets lost in thought for hours about the truth behind the reason of why that particular speck of dust came to land just in front of you.

    I highly doubt that Carl Sagan put any where near that much thought into the apple pie statement.

    Get over yourself.

  3. LOL, clearly you are not a card-holding member of the Carl Sagan appreciation society. I think he put a lot of thought into it but some literary critics would even say that that does not matter. Does a mirror think about what it reflects? No I'm not the sort to contemplate a spec of dust for hours probably to my detriment. This dissection is pretty surface and took just the time it takes to type it up. I'd expect a grad student to do a much more thorough job

    What great anger you need to express to a random stranger! You need to ask yourself why...

  4. They call me Stacey. But's that not my name. Think about that one...

  5. I think the universe can NOT be CREATED ... SO God or some Higher Being is NOT in charge of the entire universe. The universe just IS so "CREATE" would have been a wrong word to use. So invent is logically the next best source I believe. I would have said it the same way.

    This universe in of itself could be Divine by itself and most rightly is.

    1. I think the materialization of an invention is the creation. So "invent" is a more powerful term an generally encapsulates "create". I can create an airplane but only the Wrights or maybe Santos-Dumont invented it.

  6. In order to make an apple pie you have to invent the entire universe inside your mind with your thoughts...none of this is real

  7. LOL @ contemplating a speck of dust. Maybe I just don't get it, but the quote seems fairly mundane to me. "...hopes and dreams for the future of science and humanity"..? Really??

    1. YMMV. People spend entire careers working on physical theories that will not be verifiable until long after they are gone, if ever.