My students frequently ask me if I know any mathematical jokes. Of course, I do know some. I don’t quite know why they so enjoy hearing me tell them. Perhaps it’s just that it’s fun to see the professor making a fool of himself. Or maybe it’s the geeky in-group feeling that we get by being able to laugh at things that the proverbial person in the street would not understand:
Do you know any anagrams of Banach-Tarski?
G. Patrick Venebush must be very self-confident. In his introduction to this collection of mathematical jokes, he says that “all of the jokes in this book are funny,” though their appropriate context may vary. Some, he says, “will be funnier to elementary school students than to adults,” while others “should only be told at the pub.”
Well, some of the jokes in this book are funny. Some are very familiar, and so don’t generate more than a smile of recognition. Some are not jokes at all:
What is the difference between an argument and a proof?
An argument will convince a reasonable man, but a proof is needed to convince an unreasonable one.
Whether that's true or not, I don't see why it even comes close to being funny. And some, alas, have been garbled:
How can you tell that Harvard was planned by a mathematician?
The divinity school is next to the grad school.
No, no, no, it’s the div school that’s next to the grad school. And I really hope there is no curl school at Harvard.
What do you get if you cross an elephant with a mountain climber?
You can’t, because a mountain climber is a scaler.
Of course, that should be a mosquito, not an elephant, because the mosquito is a vector.
In general, the shorter jokes (question and answer, like the ones above, one-liners, light bulb jokes) are better than the longer jokes, though I suppose the latter could be made funny if told well.
A few famous jokes are not here, such as the one that ends with “Consider a spherical cow…” (Gene Wolfe once said that the cow’s name was probably Rotunda.) Several jokes appear slightly differently from the way I’ve heard them, which is par for the course: jokes are folk literature, and they change as they move from one person to the next.
Should you buy the book? I don’t know. After all, a great many of these jokes can be found online. (In fact, the author asks his readers to send him any jokes he has missed, and promises to post those online.) But if you like mathematical jokes, you might enjoy having a copy.
My favorite? I don’t know. Sometimes I go for nonsense:
How many topologists does it take to change a lightbulb?
Just one. But what will you do with the doughnut?
Fernando Q. Gouvêa is Carter Professor of Mathematics at Colby College in Waterville, ME.