Russell’s teapot

My nephew, who clearly has too much time on his hands, asked me recently if the protagonist of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and other works classified as fiction got her name from Bertrand Russell, specifically Russell’s teapot hypothesis:

Russell’s teapot, sometimes called the Celestial Teapot, was an analogy first coined by the philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), intended to refute the idea that the burden of proof lies upon the sceptic to disprove unfalsifiable claims of religions. In an article entitled “Is There a God?”, commissioned (but never published) by Illustrated magazine in 1952, Russell wrote:

If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is an intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

My main disappointment here is the date of the unpublished article. If it were 1924 rather than 1952, imagine the discussion Holmes and Russell (Mary, of course, not Bertrand) could have over it. THE LANGUAGE OF BEES is the lesser for the lack.

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  1. Jessara on December 13, 2007 at 10:48 am

    Bertrand R. apparently discovered Russell’s Paradox in 1901; He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1908. Would that not have provided sufficient material for Holmes to have begun a correspondence with him, in which the Teapot was postulated? For the first time I see the seduction of fanfic!

  2. LaideeMarjorie on December 13, 2007 at 1:12 pm

    …Or another possiblity would be to read “Essays in Freethinking” by Chapman Cohen which was originally published in London by Pioneer Press in 1923. You can find some of his writing on the internet and a short bio on Wikipedia (including his Jewish heritage which might be an interesting link for Mary Russell). He might not be Bertrand Russell, but I would think that his “new” book might inspire some interesting discussions.


  3. nkk1969 on December 13, 2007 at 1:49 pm

    Or, an alternate scenario from the other end of the spectrum. Mary’s father is a distant cousin of Charles Taze Russell (possibly even named after him, who knows). The relatives now lament their name being connected with the late prominent businessman/radical heretic from PA. Russ and Holmes discuss this in the privacy of their train car on the way to New York from California. [evil grin] You think something like that would escape Holmes’ wicked sense of humor? Not likely. [wanders off, imagining the possibilities]

  4. tangential1 on December 14, 2007 at 11:35 am

    *grins” The Flying Spaghetti Monster!

    Russell’s logic totally reminded me of FSM, which popped up a few years ago, but I couldn’t remember the details so I did a quick search. Lo and behold, one of the first things said on wikipedia is that FSM is a modern version of Russell’s Teacup.=)

    The dates are rather unfortunate; it would have been awesome to read a Russell/Holmes discussion on this theory!

  5. kitmarlowescot2 on December 14, 2007 at 11:42 am

    Won’t Holmes just lament the waste of the good tea, floating around forever in space ?
    That’s just my strange thought.

  6. annie on December 14, 2007 at 3:39 pm

    I rather think that Mary would have got on with Dora Russell who was a feminist and especially an ardent campaigner for family planning clinics (some wits said, so there weren’t too many Bertrands running about!)
    However, by some accounts she did put up with a lot from him, and I imagine the 2 dear ladies bemoaning marriage to geniuses (surely not genii?)

  7. Rachel on December 15, 2007 at 9:47 am

    What is this “LANGUAGE OF BEES” you mentioned at the end? Could you please elaborate?

  8. admin on December 15, 2007 at 10:07 am

    Sorry, Rachel–last week’s post gives that information, it’s the title of the new Russell I’m writing.


  9. Carlina on December 15, 2007 at 6:49 pm


    I’ve had all these ideas about what it would be like returning home for them…especially now that Russell knows about her past. Plus, they haven’t been to the cottage and so very long. Yep…Russ has dibs on the bathtub indeed…

    I think I’m inclined to agree about Holmes lamenting the loss of perfectly fine tea.

  10. Rebecca C. on December 19, 2007 at 3:25 pm

    I am very glad to hear that Russell and Holmes will be back with us soon! I am a very avid reader and never picked up these books, thinking (with Jeremy Brett lovingly in mind) that no young woman could have a place in the Sherlockian realm. I found myself drawn, however, to The Beekeeper’s Apprentice this past year and could not put it down. I could easily see the relationship develop (and I still picture Jeremy Brett as Holmes) and the characters and plot were just wonderful and fulfilling. I quickly ripped through the rest of the series. The Beekeeper’s Apprentice is still my favorite, followed by O Jerusalem and The Game. I look forward to a great new adventure full of danger, mystery, humor and wit!

  11. annie on December 20, 2007 at 2:12 am

    ITA about Jeremy Brett – I am old enought to have seen many Sherlocks, and his performance is head & shoulders above any others.
    Just have to say that I saw him, early in his career, playing Hotspur, in repertory: a theatre full of swooning teenage girls!

  12. Roxanne on December 20, 2007 at 10:08 am

    “ITA?” Oh–“I Totally Agree.” (I looked it up on Well, ITA, too. For me, Jeremy Brett *is* Sherlock Holmes. Annie, I am totally envious that you got to see Jeremy Brett on stage.

    Tomorrow is my last day of work until after the New Year. So I wanted to take this opportunity to wish everyone a safe, healthy and happy Holiday Season.

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