Thursday, May 31, 2007

Bertrand Russell is Awesome

I've heard this joke a few times. But my colleague Adam re-told it to me recently, and he has the best delivery I've heard yet.
Bertrand Russell once taught a class in logic. He was trying to teach his students why inconsistency was important: because you can prove that anything is true if you start from false assumptions.

One of his students interpreted that as a challenge. "Given that one equals two, prove that you're the pope," he shouted.

Russell immediately replied, "Nothing could be simpler. The pope and I are two, and two equals one, so the pope and I are one. Therefore, I am the pope."

Sunday, May 13, 2007

The End of Pi

There's a winery in Napa Valley that boasts its own art museum. The owner bankrolls a handful of artists, then dedicates a gallery in the winery to their works. One artist uses his gallery space to pay homage to pi, with a 6-foot high LED display that shows the first 500 digits of pi, one at a time, over and over again.

Next to the display, there's a plaque with an explanation of the significance of pi, for those who are not mathematically inclined. This plaque informed me that mathematicians had been studying pi for a long time, that they believed this number had no end, and this bit of trivia:
Governments and universities around the world run computers to calculate the digits of pi, in the hope that they will someday find an end to this number.
My fellow wine-taster Bay saw this, pointed at it, and yelled: "Yeah...if they're STUPID!"

I don't mind so much when people completely fail to grasp irrational numbers. But if you're going to build a modern-art sculpture in pi's image, you probably should do 5 minutes of worth of research on it.

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

How Abraham Deals With His Computer

from Garrison Keillor's 8th annual joke show:
Abraham is installing Windows Vista on his computer, when his son Cain enters the room and says to his father, "Dad, you can't install Windows Vista. Your computer doesn't have enough memory!"

Abraham answers, "Don't worry, son. God will provide the RAM."

Monday, May 7, 2007

Gender Equality in Math Jokes

There are great mathematical pick-up lines for females too. We came up with this one the other night:
I wish I were ex, so that you could take my derivative all night long!
...OK, I'll stop.

Thursday, May 3, 2007

A Refined Mathematical Pick-Up Line

I'm not sure whether this is an improvement or not:
I wish I was a Taylor approximation, so that I could lie tangent to your curves, then diverge a bit on the weekends.
Speaking of innuendo, the condom posters that they're posting around NYC are hilarious. Take a look:

The Mathematician and The Plumber

The Aristocrats is a brilliant movie. On the one hand, it's about the nature and art of a good joke, and on the other hand, it's depraved.

Roger Ebert's review is also brilliant, in that eloquently Ebert way where you can agree with his analysis but disagree with his opinion. He breaks it down like this—there are two kinds of jokes: short jokes and long jokes. A short joke is like a good pick-up line. Because it has to end before your audience realizes that it's a joke, it packs everything in the punchline and whirls to that punch in a sentence or two.

But for a long joke, the punchline doesn't matter. It's just an artifact of the form of the joke, like some plastic-wrap packaging to be thrown away when you're done. The real joke is in the telling, in the construction, in the precariously tall tower of cards that you have to build up to get there. A good long joke makes sense during the telling, yet completely contradicts itself when you look at it from any other direction, like a Kurt Vonnegut novel.

The geometer Peter Doyle once told me one such long joke. I've condensed it here for easier reading:
Once upon a time there was a mathematician. His toilet was clogged. So he called the plumber. The plumber arrived later that evening, unclogged the toilet in 15 minutes, and handed the mathematician the bill. The mathematician looked at the bill and shouted: "Great scott! What a bill! You plumbers must make a fortune charging people this much. Do you mind if I ask how much you make?"

The plumber doesn't mind. He grins and names his salary.

The Mathematician: "That's more than I make. And it looks a lot easier than theoretical mathematics."

The Plumber: "Well, friend, you sound eager, so I'll give you a tip. The plumbing business is swell. And my foreman needs more men for the job. Tell him I sent you, and you can see for yourself what the work is like. One thing though: don't tell him you're a mathematician. He hates elitists, and he won't hire anyone with higher than an 8th grade education."

Well the mathematician was as serious as he claimed. The next day he did indeed go to see the plumber's foreman. By pretending to be a middle-school drop-out, he got the job easily. And lo! It was better than he had hoped. He found himself with better pay, fewer hours, and more respect than he ever had as a theoretical mathematician.

The mathematician worked many years as a happy plumber. The plumbing industry flourished, and one day the foreman decided that his plumbers really had to be at a 9th-grade level in order to remain competitive in this rapidly-growing field. He hired several private tutors, and required his plumbers to attend night classes.

On the first day of class, the math teacher was trying to gauge what his students knew. He singled out one plumber and asked, "Do you know the formula for the area of the circle?" Of course, the tutor had picked our mathematician, and like any good mathematician, he responded, "No. But I know how to derive it." "Derive it for me then," challenged the teacher.

So the mathematician went to the blackboard and began to compute the area of the circle as any good mathematician would. He wrote out the double integral with respect to x and y, computed the Jacobian with respect to r and theta so that he could perform a change of basis in terms of polar coordinates, then evaluated the double integral. And came to the solution -π*r2.

"Wait!" said the mathematician right before he announced his answer. "That can't be right!" He began to check his work, looking for where the negative got introduced. But he couldn't find his mistake. At last he threw up his hands, erased his computation, and started over again. He quickly set up the double integral, did the change of basis to polar coordinates, and simplified. And again he arrived at -π*r2 !

By now the mathematician was frantic. How could he have gotten such a ridiculous answer twice? Had his math skills really gotten so bad? He wildly looked to the teacher, but the teacher knew nothing of multi-variable calculus, and had no idea what was going on. Then he looked to the class...and noticed something quite odd.

The eyes of every plumber were fixed upon him! The class was anxiously, quietly trying to get his attention without alerting the teacher. Each one had his hands cupped around his mouth, and they were all whispering the same words over and over again in unison. Slowly, he leaned in to hear better. And this is what he heard:

"You forgot to take the absolute value of the Jacobian!"

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

A Mathematical Pick-Up Line

I wish I was a derivative, so that I could lie tangent to your curves.
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