Have You Heard The One About The Mathematician…

Posted on Categories Discover Magazine

A topologist walks into a cafe:
— Can I have a doughnut of coffee, please?

This is a joke written by the Soviet-American mathematician Tanya Khovanova, who lectures in mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. It is derived from the more familiar bon mot: a topologist is someone who doesn’t know the difference between a coffee cup and a doughnut.

Khovanova has an impressive history as mathematician having won a gold medal at the 1976 International Mathematical Olympiad in Austria, only the second woman to do so, and in the process helped the Soviet Union to victory.

She went on to work as a mathematician in Russia, Israel and the United States. She is the author of the endlessly intriguing Number Gossip website. But she is probably best known for writing “Tanya Khovanova’s Math Blog”, a fascinating collection of problems, anecdotes and jokes that she has been collecting since 2007, many of them from students, friends and family.

She now has over 400 jokes and has selected the best for a snigger-inducing paper now posted to the arXiv. It’s well worth a read.

Here is a selection of my favorites:

A logician rides an elevator.
The door opens and someone asks:
— Are you going up or down?
— Yes.

— Why did the chicken cross the Mӧbius strip?
— To get to the other … er, um …

— What did the student say about the calculus equation she couldn’t solve?
— This is derive-ing me crazy!

Not all math puns are terrible.
Just sum.

There are two kinds of people in this world:
Those that can extrapolate from incomplete data….

Curiously, math jokes may not be entirely frivolous. One idea is that if a joke depends on a specific piece of mathematical knowledge, then the extent to which it spreads is a measure of how widespread that knowledge is in the population.

Which means the spread of math jokes is a measure of the public understanding of mathematics. Anyone one feel a funding proposal coming on?

With that in mind, here is another joke to help kickstart the revolution:

What is the contour integral around western Europe?
Zero, because all the poles are in eastern Europe!

If you have any others, feel free to send them to Tanya using the email address on her blog.

Ref: My Favorite Math Jokes : arxiv.org/abs/2403.01010

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