April, May, June, July, and August Fool!

The title of today’s blog is borrowed from Holly, the central computer of the mining ship Red Dwarf. Holly said this when he had just pulled off a wonderful prank, which I will avoid spoiling for those of you that have not yet viewed the series. Holly describes himself as having an IQ of 6000, which he says makes him as smart as 6000 PE teachers. Holly was often bored and frequently pulled pranks on the crew, lending spice to the show.

Occupy Math loves April Fools’ Day. Last time it occurred on a day when Occupy Math was teaching, he walked into class and said: “I just got a note from the university telling me a first-year class must have at least three midterms, so we will have two additional midterms next week, as it is the last week of the semester.” The angry yelling started immediately and only the first few rows could hear the bellow of “April Fool”. Some persistence was required to calm the class. Sometimes Occupy Math’s April Fools jokes are too subtle. He once taught the theory of integration, based on the limits of rectangular sums, without mentioning the shortcuts, used in applied problems, to the class. Several people decided to drop the course, changing their mind only when presented not only with “April Fool”, but also with assurances that the shorter, easier methods would be used in most test problems.

Over the years Occupy Math has learned that April Fools jokes are best if they resolve within a few minutes. Otherwise you might have to talk to confused, angry parents.

In honor of accidentally having April Fools Day as the release date for the current blog, Occupy Math will indulge not in a low prank, but a discussion of some humorous mathematical content.

The comic above gets funnier the more math you know. The joke is that the new discoveries that will displace the multiplication table don’t exist. This touches on the nature of math – something we already discussed in Occupy Math last October. While the notation used and choice of what we study originate with humanity, math itself is a creature of the eternal realm. Once we get a piece of math right it can be safely chiseled in stone, its correctness utterly self-evident to those that have studied its background. Occupy Math works with biological data quite a bit and, in biology, a paper that is as much as three years old has probably been shown to be wrong or incomplete in an important way. Biology is in many ways on the other end of the spectrum from math.

The thought-provoking (and sometimes inappropriate) comic XKCD summarizes the situation brilliantly in the above offering.

Much of the humor in math arises from the fact that math guys talk funny.

Examine the two problems below. The humor in these arises from lack of a common language between instructor and student.


The problem on the top should probably have the directions multiply out and collect terms and in an earlier post of Occupy Math on the connections between math and information, it has already been noted that find the value of x would have been much better as instructions for the problem on the bottom. In both these cases the humor arises from the fact that instructions quite clear to someone who was paying attention in earlier math courses are incomprehensible to someone who was not paying attention.

Many of us are aware of the formula for the area of a circle: it is the universal constant π multiplied by the square of the radius of the circle. That leads to the following sequence.

“What did you learn in school son?”
“Well, pa, I learned that pie are squared.”
“That’s ridiculous son. Pie are round. Cornbread are squared.”

Other words that show up in math with completely different meanings
are group, ring, field, edge, image and many others. At one point a grant in Canada was proposed to study Lie Groups (pronounced Lee Groups – named after Sophus Lie, whose name is pronounced thus in his native Norwegian, and who first wrote about them). A member of the Canadian Parliament, who was reviewing grant titles and abstracts, asked with outrage why a mathematician wanted to study groups that lied. *Sigh* The lack of trust that researchers are not a bunch of scam artists is painful and Lie Groups are both interesting and useful. They are closed collections of symmetries that are also geometrical spaces. Sort of.

Why do mathematicians talk funny? Part of it is that any profession evolves jargon, but another part is that, while any mathematical fact can be stated in plain English (or French, or German, etc.) it can get very very long. For example

translates to English as:

The limit as the variable x approaches the constant value c of a function f of the variable x has the limiting value L if and only if it is also the case that for each value of epsilon greater than zero there exists a value of delta greater than zero so that for all values of x in the domain in which the function f is defined, when the absolute value of the difference of x and c is strictly between zero and delta then we have that the absolute value of the difference of the value of f at x and the limit L is strictly less than epsilon.

Ick? Don’t worry – math is useful without the Gobbledegook.

The English that results from translating symbolic math into English is horrible, and presenting the translation is perhaps an April Fools prank that Occupy Math could not resist playing on his readers. You really can get quite a lot of benefit from mathematics without needing to speak Gobbledegook.

Do you have a favorite math joke? Do you have some math that makes little or no sense? Comment or tweet – or e-mail Occupy Math at danwell42@gmail.com and Occupy Math will try to help out – or spread the joke – in a future post.

I hope to see you here again,
Daniel Ashlock,
University of Guelph,
Department of Mathematics and Statistics

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