Scientists are not generally recognised for their sense of humour, but those disparagingly referred to as “geeks” by the more intellectually challenged of us have responded in their thousands to a question posed on the reddit.com website: “What’s the most intellectual joke you know?”
The huge number of gags – and yes, many of them are funny – cover all disciplines from physics to philosophy. They range from the accessible, such as: “A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says: ‘Five beers, please’,” to those that require a working knowledge of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to understand. The joke about Benoit B Mandelbrot, (see right), for example, relies on a knowledge of the scientist’s work on fractals.
For all their highbrow intellectualism, however, the jokes follow traditional forms. They include puns: “Did you hear about the man who got cooled to absolute zero? He’s OK now” – as well as someone-walks-into-a-bar jokes and light-bulb-changing jokes (“How many Marxists does it take to screw in a lightbulb? None: the lightbulb contains the seeds of its own revolution”).
There are also plenty of jokes of the Englishman, Irishman and Scotsman format, where the usual protagonists are replaced by physicists, engineers and economists.
It is rather unfair to assume that there is anything improbable about science overlapping with humour. Popular TV and radio shows such as The Big Bang Theory, Infinite Monkey Cage, Museum of Curiosity and Dara O’Briain’s School Of Hard Sums happily marry science with jokes. And, as Brian Cox, the scientist and presenter of Wonders of the Universe, points out, comedians such as O’Briain and Ben Miller are physics graduates.
“There is a strange nexus between physics and comedy that I seem to be a part of,” Cox told the Daily Telegraph. “It’s a powerful if strange alliance. Dara O’Briain did mathematics and physics, and is passionate about it. Ben Miller did a PhD in physics. Robin Ince [his co-presenter on Infinite Monkey Cage] is a very good friend of mine.”
Too clever by half: 25 highbrow jokes
1. A photon checks into a hotel and the porter asks him if he has any luggage. The photon replies: “No, I’m travelling light.”
2. “Is it solipsistic in here, or is it just me?”
3. What does a dyslexic, agnostic, insomniac spend most of his time doing? Staying up all night wondering if there really is a dog.
4. A TCP packet walks into a bar, and says to the barman: “Hello, I’d like a beer.” The barman replies: “Hello, you’d like a beer?” “Yes,” replies the TCP packet, “I’d like a beer.”
5. An electron is driving down a motorway, and a policeman pulls him over. The policeman says: “Sir, do you realise you were travelling at 130km per hour?” The electron goes: “Oh great, now I’m lost.”
6. Pavlov is enjoying a pint in the pub. The phone rings. He jumps up and shouts: “Hell, I forgot to feed the dog!”
7. How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? A fish.
8. There are 10 types of people in this world. Those that know binary, and those that don’t.
9. When I heard that oxygen and magnesium hooked up I was like OMg.
10. The barman says: “We don’t serve faster-than-light particles here.” A tachyon enters a bar.
11. A Buddhist monk approaches a hotdog stand and says: “Make me one with everything”.
12. What do you call two crows on a branch? Attempted murder.
13. An Englishman, a Frenchman, a Spaniard and a German are walking down the street together. A juggler is performing on the street but there are so many people that the four men can’t see the juggler. So the juggler goes on top of a platform and asks: “Can you see me now?” The four men answer: “Yes.” “Oui.” “Si.” “Ja.”
14. Never trust an atom. They make up everything.
15. How many programmers does it take to change a light bulb? None, it’s a hardware problem.
16. A student travelling on a train looks up and sees Einstein sitting next to him. Excited, he asks: “Excuse me, professor. Does Boston stop at this train?”
17. Did you hear about the jurisprudence fetishist? He got off on a technicality.
18. Werner Heisenberg, Kurt Gödel, and Noam Chomsky walk into a bar. Heisenberg turns to the other two and says: “Clearly this is a joke, but how can we figure out if it’s funny or not?” Gödel replies: “We can’t know that because we’re inside the joke.” Chomsky says: “Of course it’s funny. You’re just telling it wrong.”
19. A Roman walks into a bar, holds up two fingers, and says: “Five beers, please.”
20. Did you hear about the man who got cooled to absolute zero? He’s 0K now.
21. An infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar. The bartender says: “What’ll it be, boys?” The first mathematician: “I’ll have one half of a beer.” The second mathematician: “I’ll have one quarter of a beer.” The third mathematician: “I’ll have one eight of a beer.” The fourth mathematician: “I’ll have one sixteenth of a…” The bartender interrupts: “Know your limits, boys” as he pours out a single beer.
22. What does the “B” in Benoit B Mandelbrot stand for? Answer: Benoit B Mandelbrot.
23. Jean-Paul Sartre is sitting at a French café, revising his draft of Being and Nothingness. He says to the waitress: “I’d like a cup of coffee, please, with no cream.” The waitress replies: “I’m sorry, Monsieur, but we’re out of cream. How about with no milk?”
24. A classics professor goes to a tailor to get his trousers mended. The tailor asks: “Euripides?” The professor replies: “Yes. Eumenides?”
25. A programmer’s wife tells him: “Run to the store and pick up a loaf of bread. If they have eggs, get a dozen.” The programmer comes home with 12 loaves of bread.