Desmond MacHale. THE HUMOUR OF SCIENCE.
The many links between Science and Art are both well known and well exposed. C.P. Snow talked of the two cultures, which of course to the ancient Greek philosophers were just two aspects of the same culture. We have only to look, for example, at the precise scientific markings on a plucked string and our ability to produce harmonious and beautiful music to see the close connection between Science and Art.
There are of course many other connections – we may mention Science Fiction; the use of X-rays to see the guidelines underneath a Leonardo Da Vinci masterpiece; and who can look at a satellite picture of Saturn or Jupiter, a crystal of amethyst, of a living cell under the microscope, and not be utterly overwhelmed by the utter artistic beauty of science?
Closer to my own subject of mathematics, I find equations such as eπi + 1 = 0 and E = mc2 so beautiful in their depth and simplicity and I despair of ever being able to convey my feelings about them to others.
The Science-Art axis however, despite its excitement, is still a one-dimensional structure. There exists a more extensive two-dimensional structure which includes it – a triangle with a third vertex which sadly receives very little academic attention for reasons that are very hard to understand.
I refer of course to the topic of humour. Perhaps the reason for the neglect of humour is that we all feel we understand it perfectly and take it so much for granted. And there’s another funny thing about humour – everyone you meet is an expert on the subject and is not ashamed to admit it. Now, personally, I wouldn’t dare correct a Professor of Physics on Quantum Mechanics or a Professor of Medicine on Cardiology, but the fact that I have been studying humour and jokes for over forty years counts for absolutely nothing. My children scoff at my analysis of jokes and really believe that their analysis is more valid than mine. And have you ever heard of anyone admitting to having no sense of humour? People will admit to almost anything – murder, theft, liking jazz, but they will always add
Yet we all know individuals who don’t.
Let us examine the Science, Art, Humour Triangle in more detail. It has been described in various ways including the following: for Art there is the sensual AAH of pleasure; for Science there is the Eureka moment when one shouts AHA! – one of the ultimate pleasures denied to humanity at except in minor versions such as crossword puzzles and detective stories. Finally humour has the explosive and almost universally experienced HA-HA of laughter, now sadly like many foodstuffs canned in the USA and cheapened and trivialised by overuse.
All are different kinds of pleasure and, without going into neurobiology, probably all experienced in different parts of the mind (humour is the chuckle-musclele according to Ken Dodd). But even this two-dimensional scenario will not satisfy one for long – a three-dimensional pyramid with spirituality at the top is an even more exciting prospect, but that is a discussion for another day.
The Art - Humour axis has of course been well-explored. We may mention:
✓ the cartoon linking humour and drawing;
and who has ever listened to the great Spike Jones and has band mutilate the William Tell overture and ever felt the same again about classical music. Gerard Hoffnung, Victor Borge and Peter Ustinov and Tom Lehrer and others have also exploited the comic potential of music to a wonderful degree.
All of which brings us at long last to our main theme – Science and Humour. Why is this the weakest and least understood and studied link in the chain! First of all, there are two areas we must not confuse – the Humour of Science and the Science of Humour. As far as many scientists are concerned there is no humour in science and as far as many humorists are concerned there is no science in humour, but the reality is somewhat different.
It has been said that in theory there is no difference between theory and practice but that in practice there is. In theory, humour has no role in science, but in practice it has – every scientific discipline has its own distinctive humorous subculture; however, this does not appear in the textbooks except perhaps in the form of footnotes. Perhaps the reason is that,
Science is perceived as completely serious and humour is perceived as completely flippant
and never the twain shall meet. Yet I remember well from school:
✓ Johnny finding life a bore, swallowed H2SO4;
✓ Johnny’s father, an MD, gave him CaCO3;
✓ Nowe he’s neutralised ‘tis true, but he’s full of CO2.
This, all will agree is more attractive, and indeed more memorable, than,
H2SO4 + CaCO3 = CaSO4 + H2 + CO2.
Which is the standard chemical way of presenting such information.
The Howler, or gross (student) mistake plays a big part in the humour of science. For example.
This substance is so dangerous it cannot be touched by human beings at all – only chemistry teachers.
E = mc2 = m(a2 + b2).
Or the most recent theory in Astronomy – that the rings of Satturn are composed of lost airline luggage.
Or the Biology professor and his research student walking together in the woods. The student stops, picks up a mushroom, and nibbles on it. The pair walk in silence for half an hour through the woods and finally the professor says
Or the world’s biggest and fastest computer that has just been built. Its memory is colossal – enough to hold all the books on theology and philosophy ever written, as well as all the works of science and technology. The first question that scientists asked it to answer was
It whirred and flashed lights for a few minutes and then printed out
Or the Engineer, Physicist and Mathematician travelling by train together in a foreign country. They see what appears to be a black sheep.
The Engineer says:
The Physicist corrects him saying:
The Mathematician says:
And what is the difference between an introvert mathematician and an extravert mathematician?
When an introvert mathematician is talking to you he looks at his shoes; when an extravert mathematician is talking to you he looks at your shoes.
And you know there are three kinds of mathematician – those who can count and those who can’t.
And what is the greatest unsolved problem in Physics? How one can sit on a damp towel for half an hour and realise that fact only when one stands up.
What is the biggest advantage of owning a computer? There is no law against giving it a good thumping or even a good kicking if it fouls up or won’t do what you tell it.
Many comedians, or scientists who fancy themselves as comedians, such as
✓ Dave Barry,
and even Albert Einstein have all either joked about scientific topics or given commentaries about science from a human point of view.
Richard Feynhan (In answer to a student’s question as to will there ever by an anti-gravity machine):
He also described a device for looking through walls. It’s called a window.
There are only two things that are infinite – the universe and human ignorance, but I’m not sure about the Universe.
In this vein we also have the following anonymous cracks:
✓ There is a new device for getting dog drippings and chewing gum off the pavement. It’s called a shoe.
✓ To combat midges and mosquitoes cover your entire body in a sugar solution. It doesn’t stop them biting but it rots their teeth.
And finally a quip from the legendary Samuel Goldwyn:
Where does all of this material come from and why? One cannot always tell, but its function is patently obvious. The aim is to humanise science, to make it more palatable, more doable, more attractive, and easier to understand and remember. And yet the serious scientist will still frown – while humour may have a humanising role in scientific education and in its communication to non-scientists, it still has no place in science itself and in particular in scientific research.
Such an attitude could not be more wrong!
Any great scientist or mathematician I have met (and I have had the pleasure of meeting quite a few) and every really bright student I have taught (and I have been very lucky in this respect) has had a keenly developed sense of humour and moreover, did not suppress this part of their makeup when doing scientific work. I would go so far as to say that there is a strong correlation between scientific genius and a sense of humour – there is a well-established link between intelligence and sense of humour.
Some scientific theories started their careers almost as jokes. A prime example is the theory of Continental Drift, Seafloor Spreading and Tectonic Plates in Geology. When proposed in the early 20th century it was regarded as simplistic, or almost laughably naïve; not it is central to all modern geology.
Chemists struggled to turn base metals into gold – more like magicians, wizards or bizarre comedians. The irony is that modern nuclear physics shows they were on the right track and that it can be done, but at a cost greater than the value of the gold.
Who would have thought that the dreaded Black Death – the Bubonic Plague was spread by fleas living on rats – that sounds like a rather sick joke. And Darwin’s Theory of Evolution - that humans are descended from monkeys? Actually, I’m still laughing at that joke. Dr. Jenner’s theory that people should be inoculated with cowpox or dead smallpox and then they will survive real smallpox. That must have appeared as a bit of a joke until it was seen to work in practice.
Desmond "Des" MacHale (born 1950) is an associate professor of Mathematics at University College Cork, Ireland.
Charles Percy Snow, Baron Snow (1905 – 1980), was an English physical chemist and novelist who also served in several important positions in the British Civil Service and briefly in the UK government.
X-radiation (composed of X-rays) is a form of electromagnetic radiation.
Леонардо ди сер Пьеро да Винчи (1452 – 1519), итальянский художник (живописец, скульптор, архитектор) и учёный (анатом, естествоиспытатель), изобретатель, писатель, один из крупнейших представителей искусства Высокого Возрождения, яркий пример «универсального человека».
Сатурн, шестая планета от Солнца и вторая по размерам планета в Солнечной системе после Юпитера.
Юпитер, пятая планета от Солнца, крупнейшая в Солнечной системе.
Kenneth Arthur "Ken" Dodd (born 1927) is a form of electromagnetic radiation.
Лимерик форма короткого стихотворения, появившегося в Великобритании, основанного на обыгрывании бессмыслицы.
A clerihew is a whimsical, four-line biographical poem invented by Edmund Clerihew Bentley.
Lindley Armstrong "Spike" Jones (1911 - 1965), was an American musician and bandleader specializing in performing satirical arrangements of popular songs.
Вильгельм Телль, легендарный народный герой Швейцарии, уроженец кантона Ури, живший в конце XIII - начале XIV веков, искусный лучник, борец за независимость своей страны от Австрии и Священной Римской империи.
Gerard Hoffnung (1925 - 1959) was an artist and musician, best known for his humorous works.
Виктор Борге Розенбаум (1909 - 2000), датский пианист, дирижёр и комик.
Томас Эндрю Лерер (р. 1928), американский композитор и певец, сатирик и математик.
Howlers, examples exist of mathematically correct results derived by incorrect lines of reasoning.
Steven Alexander Wright (born 1955) is an Academy Award winning American comedian, actor and writer.
Дэйв Барри (р. 1947), американский публицист.
Ричард Филлипс Фейнман (1918 - 1988), выдающийся американский учёный.
Теория дрейфа материков была предложена немецким географом Альфредом Вегенером на основе накопившихся научных данных.
Спрединг, геодинамический процесс растяжения, выражающийся в импульсивном и многократном раздвигании блоков литосферы океанической коры и в заполнении высвобождающегося пространства магмой, генерируемой в мантии, а также твердыми протрузиями мантийных перидотитов.
Эдвард Энтони Дженнер (1749 - 1823), английский врач, разработал первую в мире вакцину - против натуральной оспы, прививая неопасный для человека вирус коровьей оспы.