Published in The Guardian / The Observer on December 29, 2013: Science is a very serious business, so what tickles a rational mind?
In a not very scientific experiment, here are samples of great minds about their favourite jokes:
■ An electron and a positron go into a bar.
Positron: “You’re round.”
Electron: “Are you sure?”
Positron: “I’m positive.”
I think I heard this on Radio 4 after the publication of a record (small) measurement of the electron electric dipole moment – often explained as the roundness of the electron – by Jony Hudson et al in Nature 2011.
Joanna Haigh, professor of atmospheric physics, Imperial College, London
■ What is a physicist’s favourite food?
Callum Roberts, professor in marine conservation, University of York
■ Why did Erwin Schrödinger, Paul Dirac and Wolfgang Pauli work in very small garages?
Because they were quantum mechanics.
Lloyd Peck, professor, British Antarctic Survey
■ What does DNA stand for? National Dyslexia Association.
I first read this joke when I was an undergraduate as a mature student in 1990. I’d just come to terms with my own severe reading difficulties and neurophysiology was full of acronyms, which I always got mixed up. For example, the first time I heard about Adenosine Triphosphate it was abbreviated by the lecturer to ATP, which I heard as 80p. I had no clue what she was talking about every time she mentioned 80p. And another thing, how does Adenosine Triphosphate reduce to ATP? Where’s the P?
Peter Lovatt, lecturer in psychology of dance, University of Hertfordshire
■ A blowfly goes into a bar and asks: “Is that stool taken?”
No idea where I got this from!
Amoret Whitaker, entomologist, Natural History Museum
■ They have just found the gene for shyness. They would have found it earlier, but it was hiding behind two other genes.
Stuart Peirson, senior research scientist, Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology
■ Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip? To get to the other… eh? Hang on…
The most recent time I saw this joke was in Simon Singh’s lovely book on maths in The Simpsons. I’ve heard it before though. I guess its origins are lost in the mists of time.
David Colquhoun, professor of pharmacology, University College London
■ The floods had subsided, and Noah had safely landed his ark on Mount Sinai. “Go forth and multiply!” he told the animals, and so off they went two by two, and within a few weeks Noah heard the chatter of tiny monkeys, the snarl of tiny tigers and the stomp of baby elephants. Then he heard something he didn’t recognise… a loud, revving buzz coming from the woods.
He went in to find out what strange animal’s offspring was making this noise, and discovered a pair of snakes wielding a chainsaw.
“What on earth are you doing?” he cried. “You’re destroying the trees!”
“Well Noah,” the snakes replied, “we tried to multiply as you bade us, but we’re adders… so we have to use logs.”
Alan Turnbull, National Physical Laboratory
■ A statistician gave birth to twins, but only had one of them baptised. She kept the other as a control.
David Spiegelhalter, professor of statistics, University of Cambridge
■ A chemistry teacher is recruited as a radio operator in the first world war. He soon becomes familiar with the military habit of abbreviating everything. As his unit comes under sustained attack, he is asked to urgently inform his HQ.
“NaCl over NaOH! NaCl over NaOH!” he says.
“NaCl over NaOH?” shouts his officer.
“What do you mean?” “The base is under a salt!” came the reply.
I think I heard this when I was a student in the early 1980s.
Hugh Montgomery, professor of intensive care medicine, University College London
■ A weed scientist goes into a shop. He asks: “Hey, you got any of that inhibitor of 3-phosphoshikimate-carboxyvinyl transferase?
Shopkeeper: “You mean Roundup?” Scientist: “Yeah, that’s it. I can never remember that dang name.”
Made up by and first told by me.
John A Pickett, scientific leader of chemical ecology, Rothamsted Research
■ A psychoanalyst shows a patient an inkblot, and asks him what he sees. The patient says: “A man and woman making love.”
The psychoanalyst shows him a second inkblot, and the patient says: “That’s also a man and woman making love.”
The psychoanalyst says: “You are obsessed with sex.”
The patient says: “What do you mean I am obsessed? You are the one with all the dirty pictures.”
I have no idea where I first heard this joke. I suspect when I was an undergraduate and was first taught about Freudian psychology.
Richard Wiseman, professor of public understanding of psychology, University of Hertfordshire
■ Psychiatrist to patient: “Don’t worry. You’re not deluded. You only think you are.”
I heard this joke from my husband, my source of all good jokes. It is a variation of the type of joke I particularly like: a paradoxical twist of meaning. Here the surprising paradox is that you can at once be deluded and not deluded. This links to an aspect of my work that goes under the label “mentalising” and involves attributing thoughts to oneself and others. It’s a mechanism that works beautifully, but the joke reveals how it can go wrong.
Uta Frith, professor in cognitive neuroscience, University College London
■ An interviewer approaches a variety of scientists, and asks them: “Is it true that all odd numbers are prime?”
The mathematician rejects the conjecture. “One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, but nine is not. The conjecture is false.”
The physicist is less certain. “One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, but nine is not. Then again 11 is and so is 13. Up to the limits of measurement error, the conjecture appears to be true.”
The psychologist says: “One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, nine is not. Eleven is and so is 13. The result is statistically significant.”
The artist says: “One is prime, three is prime, five is prime, seven is prime, nine is prime. It’s true, all odd numbers are prime!”
Gary Marcus, professor of psychology, New York University
■ What do scientists say when they go to the bar?
Climate change scientists say: “Where’s the ice?”
Seismologists might ask for their drinks to be “shaken and not stirred”.
Microbiologists request just a small one.
Neuroscientists ask for their drinks “to be spiked”.
Scientists studying the defective gubernaculum say: “Put mine in a highball”, and finally,
social scientists say: “I’d like something soft.”
When paying at the bar, geneticists say: “I think I have some change in my jeans.”
And at the end of the evening a shy benzene biochemist might say to his companion: “Please give me a ring.”
Professor Ron Douglas of City University and I made these feeble jokes up after pondering the question: “What do scientists say at a cocktail party”. Of course this idea can be developed – and may even stimulate your readers to come up with additional contributions.
Russell Foster, professor of circadian neuroscience, University of Oxford
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