Last night I was treated to a rare experience: The Mathematics Revue at the University of Copenhagen. My friend Jakob was playing saxophone in the revue band and had invited us to spectate. It was good fun. It reminded me of Biella Coleman’s research on hacker wit and humor, and it seems that this sort of punny, witty humour isn’t just for hackers but are common throughout the hard natural science subjects.
Actually, many of the best punchlines of the night were delivered by the lively audience rather than by the performers themselves. And whenever the lights dimmed for a change of scenery, the merrily drunk mathematicians (and physicists and computer scientists) happily began singing their favourite (mathematics-related drinking songs), beating a rhythm with their coconut shells (one of many Monty Python references).
It was all in Danish, and most of it pretty complicated stuff, punning on mathematical principles in ways I couldn’t make much sense of. But lots of it was pretty easy to follow, and with lots of pythonesque humor. As with all good revues, there were a number of songs – in Danish to wellknown Danish melodies, but here’s an bit that might give you an idea of the humor involved (the song is called “Det gode ved matematik” – which would translate as “What I like about math” – to the tune of “These are a few of my favourite things” from “Sound of Music”:
Diagonale komplekse matricer
Søde lemmata med smukke beviser
Operatorer og lækker logik
Det er det gode ved matematik
which roughly translates as:
diagonal complex matrices
sweet lemmata with beautiful proofs
Operators and luscious logic
That is what I like about math
.. It is self-deprecating irony and at the same time a straight-faced celebration of their subject’s weirdities. The encore was a pastiche on the Beatles’ “Let it be” which became “Få det læst!” (eng.: “Get it read!” or “read it now!”:
Jeg syn’s at matematik er herligt, frem for alle andre fag
Så jeg bør jo kunne få det læst
Men der er andet man kan lave, drikke løs og fyr’ den af
Jeg kan ikke klare det, få det læst!
I like mathematics better than any other subject here
So I should be able to get it read
But there are things to do, getting drunk and naked, yeah
I’m not gonna make it, get it read!
Again, as I said, it was good fun.