Obviously, it depends on the type of philosopher:

Empiricist: We can’t know how to change a lightbulb, but we can make lists of how big it is, the wattage, the thickness of the glass, the composition of the filiment…

Skeptic: We can’t know if we’re changing the lightbulb. We can’t know if changing the lightbulb is an improvement. In fact, we can’t really know if it’s dark. Especially with the lights out.


  1. #1 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 21, 2007

    Q: How many Deconstructionists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?

    A: Your very question presupposes erroneous simulacra of labor, sexuality, and enlightenment.

    I dreamed this one up while waiting on line, with wife and son, to see “The 300″ at an IMAX theatre:

    Q: How many Spartans does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: 301. You need 300 to hold off the Persian army of 1,000,000 soldiers, while 1 unscrews the old bulb and screws in the new one.

    I found myself saying this one when I was in Management at EarthLink:

    Q: How many Software Engineers does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: I don’t know. That’s a hardware problem.

  2. #2 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 21, 2007

    By email, Prof. Geoffrey Landis replies to the last of the 3 Q&A that I gave:

    Q: OK, so how many hardware engineers does it take?

    A: I’m sorry, we don’t support that model any more– you need to upgrade. The newer models are a lot faster anyway.

  3. #3 Torbjörn Larsson
    March 21, 2007

    Obviously, it may also depend on the type of physicist:

    Observer: Some lightbulbs will eventually stop shining. But the phenomenologists have been slow with coming up with an adequate description of what is involved.

    Phenomenologist: Lightbulbs are radiating and will eventually be broken. But the theorists have been slow with coming up with a theory of how to fix that.

    Theorist: I have this theory of how to change faulty lightbulbs, involving ladders and rotations. But the observers have been slow to come up with examples where we can test it.

    [With a hat tip to Rob Knop, posting on progress (or not) of science, and reminding me of general distinctions instead of specific types.]

  4. #4 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 21, 2007

    Q: How many mathematicians does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: I’m not sure. The mathematicians haven’t finished solving the problem yet. First, you’ve got to take the new bulb out of the box it came in. Hence:
    Lemma 1: The answer to the question “which fits better, a round peg in a square hole, or a square peg in a round hole?” can be interpreted as asking which is larger, the ratio of the area of a circle to its circumscribed square, or the area of the square to its circumscribed circle? In two dimensions, the ratios are pi/4 and 2/pi, respectively. Therefore, a round peg fits better into a square hole than a square peg fits into a round hole.
    Lemma 2: generalizing to n dimensions, we note that the formulas for the content V(n) of the unit n-ball, the content V_c(n) of its circumscribed hypercube, and the content V_i(n) of its inscribed hypercube are given by a formula involving the gamma function.
    Lemma 3: Setting the two hypervolumes equal, and solving for dimension, we find a round peg fits better into a square hole than a square peg fits into a round hole only for integer dimensions n<9.
    Lemma 4: the real number ratio crosses 1 in (pi^n)(n^(n/2))/(2^2n)(Gamma(1+n/2))^2. n such that (pi^n)(n^(n/2)) = (2^2n)(Gamma(1+n/2))^2. Numerical solution to this transcendental equation gives us the dimensionality:
    n = 8.1379410460913723765...
    However, we can't find any lightbulbs of that dimensionality.
    See also
    We are now working on two approaches to solving the general lightbulb problem:
    (1) fractal lightbulbs;
    (2) lightbulbs in elliptical and hyperbolic spaces. I mean, why assume Euclidean space?
    (3) The most interesting results so far involve lightbulb operators in Hilbert space…

    Q: How many science fiction authors does it take to change a lightbulb?
    A: As you know, Chad, incandescent lamps were developed from early experiments in which electrical current was passed through filaments of noble metals such as platinum. The problem of the filament burning out after a few minutes, and the low resistance and high current draw made incandescent lamps a failure in practical terms until the developments by Edison and Swan in the 1870s. In 1809 Sir Humphry Davy created the first arc lamp by making a small but blinding electrical connection between two charcoal rods connected to a battery. Demonstrated to the Royal Institution of Great Britain in 1810, the invention came to be known as the Arc lamp. Then, in 1835, James Bowman Lindsay demonstrated a constant electric light at a public meeting in Dundee, Scotland. He stated that he could “read a book at a distance of one and a half feet”. However, having perfected the device to his own satisfaction, he turned to the problem of wireless telegraphy and did not develop the electric light any further. His claims are not well documented. However, I have recently uncovered a hitherto lost diary of James Bowman Lindsay, proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that he lived to an astonishing age, changed his name to David, and authored the novel “A Voyage to Arcturus”, in 1920. Two newer editions are:

    Ballantine Books Adult Fantasy 1968
    287 pages

    University of Nebraska Press 2002
    Commemorative Edition
    268 pages (left)

    After a strange interstellar journey, Maskull, a man from Earth, awakens alone in a desert on the planet Tormance, seared by the suns of the binary star Arcturus. As he journeys northward, guided by a drumbeat, he encounters a world and its inhabitants like no other, where gender is a victory won at dear cost; where landscape and emotion are drawn into an accursed dance; where heroes are killed, reborn, and renamed; and where the cosmological lures of Shaping, who may be God, torment Maskull in his astonishing pilgrimage. At the end of his arduous and increasingly mystical quest waits a dark secret and an unforgettable revelation. We note his obsessive attention to the binary star, which we may liken to two cosmic lightbulbs, and to the weird colors in the illumination of the two suns…

  5. #5 Scott Simmons
    March 21, 2007

    My favorite:
    How many theoretical quantum physicists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    One. One to hold the ladder, one to turn the bulb, and one to renormalize the wavefunction.

    (Can you imagine how hard it is to find an audience for that joke? :-) )

  6. #6 milkshake
    March 21, 2007

    Let me have a second take

    Q: How many Deconstructionists does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
    A: The move from a structuralist account in which light is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which electric power and current are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Maxwell theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of electric and magnetic fields.

  7. #7 Jonathan Vos Post
    March 22, 2007

    My wife, a Physics professor, contributes this one:

    Q: How many physicists does it take to change a lightbulb?

    A: Just 1. But 100 applied for the job.