Being a Professional Mathematician

"Mathematician" jokes - transcripts and commentaries

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The mathematician, the doctor and the lawyer

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A doctor, a lawyer and a mathematician are asked whether it is better to have a wife or a mistress. The doctor replies that it is better to have a wife because having a mistress is too stressful - it’s bad for the heart. The lawyer says that it’s much better to have a mistress because a wife has too many legal rights to a share of your property and so on.

The mathematician thinks for a long time and then says "I really can’t do without both - I need a wife AND a mistress. That way my wife will think I’m with my mistress and my mistress will think I’m with my wife, and I can spend my time doing maths."

As the joke unfolds, one is slightly surprised to find that the mathematician seesm to have such an interest in sex that he needs both a wife and a mistress. But it turns out that that isn't the case at all.

Does this joke present a positive image of a mathematician?
Would it encourage a teenager to aspire to being a mathematician?
Is it surprising that all the porfessionals in this joke are male? Does that reflect attitudes at the time this ancient joke originated?
Would the joke work if "mathematician" were replaced by other occupations? How would you feel if economists appropriated it? Is there a sense that this joke "belongs" to our mathematical community?

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The mathematician, the engineer and the computer scientist

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A mathematician, an engineer and a computer scientist are in a car when it gets a puncture. The engineer says "Oh dear. Now we’ll have to buy a new car." The mathematician replies, "No, that’s not necessary: we can change the wheel and fit the spare in the boot."

The computer scientist says "First we should drive round the block and see if it fixes itself."

This joke makes fun of computer scientists and presents the mathematician as hero, compared with the impractical engineer and the clueless computer scientist. It's probably more a joke about computing than about maths.

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The racehorse study

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A rich racehorse owner pays a biologist, an engineer and a mathematician to work out what kind of racehorse is fastest.After a year they report back the results of their studies.

The biologist reports "My statistical analysis shows that brown racehorses are fastest." The engineer says "My calculations show that racehorses with strong thick legs generate the most thrust and so they are fastest."

The mathematician says "It’s too early to have definite results but I’m making excellent progress in the case of the spherical racehorse."

The point of this joke is that mathematicians work by abstracting and simplifying. If a problem is hard, we start with a simpler version. But in this case, the mathematician over-simpifies and spends all their time addressing a problem which isn't going to help at all with the question they have been asked to tackle. It exaggerates for comic purpose a characteristic that mathematicians value.

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Putting out a fire

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A mathematician and a physicist are cooking dinner in their kitchen. There is a bucket outside the door and a tap in the kitchen. A piece of coal falls out of the stove and sets fire to the carpet.The mathematician goes outside, gets the bucket, brings it in, fills it with water and puts out the fire,

The next night they are cooking dinner again. This time the physicist has filled the bucket with water and it is beside the stove. Again a burning coal falls out of the fire. The physicist says, "Quick, pour the bucket of water onto the fire."

But the mathematician picks up the bucket, carries it outside, pours the water away, leaves the bucket outside, comes back in and shuts the door, thus reducing the problem to the one previously solved.

This joke is similar to the Racehorse Study joke. Mathematicians are proud of their efficiency and consider a problem solved when it is reduced to one with a known solution. That wokrs in pure mathematics but is not necessarily the right way to address a real-world problem. Again the joke exaggerates for comic purpose a characteristic that mathematicians value.

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This project was supported by the MSOR Network, the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications and the Universities of Greenwich and Birmingham as part of the National HE STEM Programme and was completed in May 2012. 

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