RE: Seeking Mathematician Minutiae (was Re: HTML email)

From: Lisa Dusseault (
Date: Thu Feb 08 2001 - 12:02:40 PST

I hung out in the math department a lot during university, and dated a
mathie. Waterloo has a stand-alone math department, so I believe it
collects the mathiest of the mathiest throughout Canada - those
canadians that study for and/or win the Descartes contest. That contest
is pretty insane since they don't expect regular A-grade math students
to get _any_ answers correct. Then you take all these already-nerdy
students and hole them up in a very ugly building for 5 years with crazy
mathie profs and grad students... some of them never seem to leave the
math building, after all you can eat in the C&D and sleep on the sofa in
the comfy lounge!

BTW, don't confuse mathies with programmers. They're roughly the same
personality type I suppose, but with different interests. You're
probably already clear about which your characters are. A programmer is
very likely to use a construct like s/foo/bar/ in an email. A mathie
isn't, unless they also happen to be a programmer or at least very
exposed to programming. A mathie, is, however, liable to use equations
in regular language (so are programmers, though less complicated ones).

So, I've found that mathies have a very strange sense of humour not
appreciated or shared to the same extent by the bulk of humanity. Some
of the characteristics I identified were:
 - paradoxes
 - jokes about/involving recursion
 - jokes about/involving the null set
 - jokes about the nature of humour (a kind of recursion, I guess, but
this one shows that they even analyse humour)
 - puns
I just relocated and re-posted an old web page I started on this topic:

I've seen other pages on math humour, but often they're different:
they're jokes targetted at the mainstream of humanity, either about how
wacky mathematicians are, or about how hard math is. LIke much at, particularly the cartoons.

The ProfQuotes (and best of ProfQuotes) section of is often very revealing, both about
the way mathies think (what they said) and what mathies find funny
(because these particular quotes were deemed to be funny and memorable
enough to submit to ProfQuotes). "Let's say you have your favourite
m-vector sitting in your pocket and you want to extend its basis..."
Many of the profs don't teach math, so look for the ones that do. Other
sections of mathNEWS may be elucidating as well, e.g. the early "This
Week's Theorem" section, where they would prove something false
( Ha-ha-ha!
Those funny mathies :)

Note that frequently they anthropomorphise the strangest things: "The
Legendre symbol is our friend."


Another trait I've noticed is a tendency to find some odd clothing
combo, and wear it constantly. *shrug*

Hofstadter is a great source for recursion jokes and self-referential
jokes. "This sentence has cabbage six words."

Never met a mathie that didn't like Escher, Dr. Seuss, or the Annals of
Improbable Research.

A math professor of a friend of mine was also a jazz musician. One day
after a late session, he arrived at class and said "I am very tired
today, so we will not prove any theorems. We will only prove lemmas."

Stream-of-consciousness question: the net has had a long tradition of
passing around parody songs; well-known songs with lyrics altered, still
recognizably the same song but on a different topic. My personal fave
was "The Mudder's Rhapsody", based of course on Bohemian Rhapsody,
Queen. Is that broad geek humour?


> -----Original Message-----
> From: Matt Jensen []
> Sent: Tuesday, February 06, 2001 6:20 PM
> To: FoRK
> Subject: Seeking Mathematician Minutiae (was Re: HTML email)
> On 3 Feb 2001, Karl Anderson wrote:
> > SOP at college when talking math over email was to use \LaTeX in our
> > sentences; we'd end up with about $1 \over 10$ math in an ascii
> > message, but we'd only render in our heads (well, at least I never
> > admitted to compiling it once in a while, gotta rep to maintain).
> This sounds like a good time to make my request. I'm trying
> to write a
> story that includes a few characters who are mathematicians.
> Can anyone
> relate other idiosyncrasies, anecdotes, or traits of
> mathematicians (pure
> or applied), to help me with character development?
> I know most of the classic stories about famous
> mathematicians, I think,
> but I'm particularly looking for items like Karl's, above.
> Things on a
> personal scale, that you've done or people you know have
> done, or said.
> Not goofball things, like wearing tinfoil on one's head, but
> more subtle
> things that reveal a little piece of them.
> I'm quite happy to credit you, as the story will have footnotes for
> everything that I know has a source. If FoRK isn't interested in this
> topic, you can mail me directly. Thanks!
> -Matt Jensen
> Seattle

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