Sunday, 2 January 2011

What mathematicians find funny

As I mentioned in my second Dan Brown article there are special mathematicians’ and physicists’ jokes but they are not good. Here is a particularly hideous example:

All the real functions are having a party, when suddenly someone shouts: “A differential operator is coming! Run for your lifes, he will kill or distort us all!”

The all scatter and run away except one who stays behind. When the differential operator arrives he confronts the remaining function: why it is not afraid like the others?

The functions answers: “I am exp(x), you cannot harm me.”

But the differential operator laughs: “But I am ∂/∂y, ha ha ha!”

This is a typical example. If you have forgotten your calculus you may not understand it, but if you do it’s still not funny. Do mathematicians laugh at that kind of joke? No. In fact, the only kind of enjoyment to be gotten from jokes like these is in the knowledge that you understand them. Some people have tried to collect mathematical jokes and all they could scrape together was a sad little pile which made no-one laugh.

There are some jokes with which mathematicians make fun of physicists and vice versa. They feed off an ancient rivalry and some of them are rather good.

The following one is a variant of the popular “how to catch a lion” jokes. I have read a lot of them, which go: “How does a [insert profession] catch a lion?” followed by a more or less funny answer. Other than the “How many […] does it take to change a light bulb?” jokes catching-lion jokes seem to focus on scientific professions and their various sub-categories—e.g. general physicists, newtonian physicists, relativity physicists, string theorists, theoretical physicists etc. Or different kinds of mathematicians. Or programmers of different programming languages. Many are stupid and shallow, but most require you to know the basic characteristics of the respective fields, languages etc. The one I’m going to show you may very well be the original one. It is a thing a physicist might tell to make fun of mathematicians.

How does a mathematician catch a lion?

He puts up a cage, steps inside, closes the door and declares “Let this be the outside!”

So much for mathematical jokes, but what about the actual sense of humour of mathematicians, or of scientists in general? What do we find funny?

Generally scientists (or at least those that I have met) are a sarcastic lot. Then again, most people seem to be these days, so it may be nothing of note.

The best way I can think of to describe the sense of humour of scientist is to talk about the cartoons that are pinned to walls at the university institutes. In the foreword to The Far Side Gallery, Pt.3, renowned biologist Stephen Jay Gould stated that, judging by the walls of his institute, the favorite cartoonist of his collegues was Gary Larson. I found this to be true at our university too.

Why Larson? Firstly, if you have never seen any of his work, do so today! It’s really great! The Far Side Gallery, parts 2 and 3 show him at his best, I think. Some years ago it was practically impossible to find any Larson on the internet: Gary Larson had put out a letter to the world (by way of his lawyer) asking people not to infringe his copyright that way. It was not the most friendly thing to do, but of course he was perfectly entitled to it. Amazingly people complied, at least for the time being. It seems Larson has given up on this endeavor since, as by now the Cartoons have returned to the web in droves. So, have fun with the search engine of your choice!

By the way: There seems to be only a single small black-and-white photograph availabe of Gary Larson the man. There’s a guy who values his privacy. Almost like Pynchon.

So why exactly do scientist like Larson so much? He drew a lot of cartoons featuring all kinds of scientist (always wearing white lab coats, don’t cha know) and these, small wonder, are the favorites. Now other cartoonists have drawn scientists in lab coats too, what makes Larson’s special? I think his basic shtick in these cartoons is to show that scientists are childish and silly just like everybody else. It ran counter to the public perception of us so we loved it.

But in the last few years clearly Larson has been superseded by a new artist. Despite the fact that Larson got a lot right about scientists from a psychological point of view, he badly blundered when it came to the nuts and bolts. As I mentioned his scientists wear lab coats at all times, and they write on chalkboards and what they write is utter gibberish. There were jokes about scientists but never jokes about science, because Larson did not have the kind of knowledge it took to do them.

Since then a new cartoonist has entered the scene who is an actual scientist (a rocket scientist, to be exact), and he gets everything right. His name is Randall Munroe and he draws the XKCD webcomic.

I suspect it may boring stuff for biologists but physicists, mathematicians and other computer creatures find it delightful. These days institute corridors are filled with prints of Munroes little stick people (male and female) and at the last mathematicians’ party I came across more than one XKCD T-shirt.

I don’t think anyone will get every one of Randall Munroe’s comic strips (I know I don’t), unless you know a thing about relativity, string theory, iPods, MMORP games, mathematics, chess, Unix, programming and 10.000 other things. It feels good if you know what some of the more obscure ones are about. Like a huge in-joke. I think this accounts for much of the strip’s appeal.

Also the people in it are geeks drawn by a geek behaving in an authentic geeky way (let me stress the word “authentic”) and so we real-life geeks can relate to it.

Randall Munroe must be credited for helping the female scientist (or the nerd girl, to put it bluntly) to get her rights. In XKCD’s world, science is an equal-gender business and there is a lot of love and romance between the little stick people. It is a long way from the all-male labcoat wearers. It’s not completely the way reality looks like today but it is what I (and many others) hope we will achieve one day, and I think we’re heading in the right direction.

Speaking of science and romance, these have always been held to be mutually exclusive by popular culture. Lab coat wearers are basically asexual. In mainstream movies the professor is never the one who gets the girl in the end (except if they never were much of a professor anyway, like Indiana Jones). Of course that is not true, scientists have the same feelings as other people. Still we are full of nerdy quirks. XKCD shows how it works out.

There a small downsides to Randall Munroes cartoons too, of course. He does indulge in a certain amount of soapbox preaching on the greatness of science, for example (“because it works, bitches!”, as he puts it), which I personally find a little menacing. Also he writes from his own point of view, which is physics, so for example biologists will feel severely underrepresented, not to mention linguists, sociologists, or musicologists. Still it is the best thing of the last years.

No comments:

Post a Comment