Humor as a Guide to Research

Over at the optimizer's blog, quantum computing's younger clown discusses some pointers for giving funny talks. I can still vividly remember the joke I told in my very first scientific talk. I spent the summer of 1995 in Boston at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (photo of us interns) working on disproving a theory about the diffuse interstellar absorption bands by calculating various two photon cross sections in H2 and H2+ (which was rather challenging considering I'd only taken one quarter of intro to quantum mechanics at the time!) At the end of the summer all the interns gave talks about their work. I was last to go. In my talk, I drew (transparencies, you know) a cartoon of "photon man" (wavy line stick figure) who explained the difference between two photon absorption and absorbing two photons. No one reacted to these cartoons during the talk. But at the end of the talk, one of the other interns, trying to be cute asked me "So, what does photon man think about all of this?" I paused. Thought for a second. And replied "He was very enlightened by the whole thing!" The simultaneous groan emitted by the audience (who had sat through 8 straight talks) was, I must say, awesome. I have a vivid memory of my adviser in the back of the room giving a hearty actual laugh! And I have been hooked on trying to insert at least one bad joke in every talk I have given ever since.

Since I enjoy humor in talks, lately I've been wondering if there isn't an easier way to make funnier talks. The optimizers list is a good start, but I'm lazy. Which led me to the idea: maybe I can make funnier talks by simply basing my research on things that are inherently funny? I mean, you try taking How a Clebsch-Gordan Transform Helps to Solve the Heisenberg Hidden Subgroup Problem and making a funny talk! On the other hand it is, without a question, nearly impossible to give a talk about Time Travel without (purposefully or not) uttering really awesome (and well timed) jokes.

Actually I have a history for thinking that humor might be a decent indicator of good research or at least good problem solving (and not just a source of funny talks.) While a graduate student at Berkeley I participated in a San Francisco version of The Game (Fobik: there is a clue on these pages.) Basically this was a multihour (read: all night) puzzle hunt spread around the San Francisco bay area. The basic idea was that at each location there was a puzzle of some sort that you had to solve which would tell you the next location in the game. Imagine hundreds of geeks (including a world puzzle champion who was in my class at Caltech, #yeahrightlikeweweregoingtowin) piled into vans and cars racing from location to location, piling out of the car only to then sit around trying to solve a hard puzzle of some sort. Good stuff.

What does this have to do with humor and research? Well during this game I noticed something kind of interesting. Inevitably we would initially start working on the puzzle and someone would say something completely ridiculous. Like "I bet this puzzle is using flag semaphore!" Invariably, we would all laugh...yeah, right, like they would use semaphore in a puzzle involving chess. Then we would work for a while on the puzzle until someone had the audacity to think, "hey maybe it really does use semaphore." And lo and behold, yeah that was the key to cracking the puzzle. This didn't just happen once during "the game" but happened repeatedly (and not surprisingly as we got more tired, things got funnier, and we began to realize that the crazy funny idea we had right off the bat wasn't something to laugh at, but was something to actually try!) Every time I'm trying to solve a problem these days, I often think, "what would be a funny solution?"

But I wonder if this solution method ("solution by LOL?" "SoLOLution?") can't be extended to a method for theory research. Think about a subject area and then think of the funniest result you could derive in this area. "Wouldn't it be funny if..." And then instead of just laughing at the conjecture, maybe you should actually check and see if your humor is actually well tuned to the universe. I mean, if god is a comedian (see Voltaire), then wouldn't he have a special spot in his heart for funny research? The optimizer, in a previous blog post, has discussed sidesplitting proofs. So at least we know that in computer science the universe appears to favor humor. But what about in other fields? Economics (okay, maybe the whole thing is a joke?), physics (maybe the universe really is made up of spherical cows), mathematics (there is nothing funny about starting a paper with "Let x be..."), or biology (I mean molecular biologists already overuse the word "assay." Face it, that's a funny word to a ten year old boy.) Maybe the reason scientists are so dull is that they we have gotten away from the ultimate hilarity of the world (okay the conjecture that the universe is ultimately simply a joke isn't very funny, especially if you are Rosencrantz (but not, strangely, if you are Guildenstern.))

So today, instead of finishing the paper I should be working on, maybe I'll go browse the web for really bad jokes, apply them to quantum computing, and see what happens. Jokes involving superposition, entanglement and cats don't seem to get many laughs. But maybe I can find something funny about the Hidden Subpoop Problem?


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Do you have any examples? Results that are funny and also important. Closed timelike curves are funny, but not very important. Is factoring funny?

188198812920607963838697239461650439807163563379417382700763356422988859715234665485319060606504743045317388011303396716199692321205734031879550656996221305168759307650257059 LOL!

Cartoons can illustrate concepts and be funny at the same time.
Here's one take on the, uh, logical issues about the future of sex!:
It's cute, but also gets people thinking about the paradoxes of set theory!

PS: I wonder if anyone can make a cartoon illustrating how "decoherence" somehow prevents macroscopic superpositions from persisting - that might or might not make up for the essential fallacy IMHO of comparing descriptions of ensembles (e.g., with varying phases between different instances within a run) to the status of superpositions in a given instance. If someone can illustrate that, maybe I'd be more sympathetic!


"humor might be a decent indicator of good research or at least good problem solving". As far as correlations go, OK, there are some good creative Scientists out there who are good at humor, who are the life and soul of the party, but consider the person who has none of the instant creativity that's needed for humor, or for whatever reason doesn't run well with the crowd, but who is willing to plod along for a few decades of hard work. Zero social credit. Doesn't get a tenure track job because their job talk wasn't as amusing as the one after, or because they didn't get to the job talk stage. How many of the instant fun people are also capable of the twenty year slog without getting distracted? Answer might be 80%, I have no data, but it's the nature of false negatives and false positives on the tails that missing one Einstein is sometimes extremely costly. Having an outright joker who gives superficially interesting talks as a point person for Science can also be a problem!!!!!!!!

Sorry the above isn't funny, although on a generous view I may have applied rule #5, and I belatedly stuck in rule #10 gratuitously. Applying rule #1, it might be a little harsh not to mention that you and Scott seem to me to be bloggers of substance. By the way, rule #4, I haven't got a PhD, so nothing I write here makes any sense (rule #16, probably).

Rule #11!!!!! and #10!!!!!!

Okay I didn't know the number would run off the side of the page. That really is funny. Anyone want to try to factor it? There is an easy method for doing this, I guarantee!

Peter: I guess what I'm interested in here is less the social aspect of humor and more about whether one can use humor as a personal guide to interesting new research. In other words, humor strikes me as a part of my and other psyche that we don't acknowledge as influencing our science. But might this cause us to miss important ideas?

There is, in fact, a serious point to be made about how funny the universe seems. And I do admit that it very often seems quite funny to me. Remember that "funny" had to evolve in humans. Perhaps "funny" is the reward system that our brain evolved for learning some new unexpected and useful insight about the natural world and our human counterparts.

Dan Dennett gives a great (and quite funny) explanation:

The complacency of academic assumptions, perhaps? It's funny how long it takes for assumptions that seem natural from within a field to be picked apart from within, when almost everyone outside the field can see almost in a few moments that it's somehow narrow-minded, but can't take the ten or twenty years needed lovingly to understand the problem enough to find a creative and constructive way forward from where the field has come to. Sometimes a field produces fine fruit for a few decades, then atrophies, sadly. The action moves elsewhere, with many not quite knowing how it happened, nor why there's bitterness in the aftermath. Physicists don't like to think about the SSC.

Humor is often irony or satire, but it's painful when one is the target, as Science as of now often seems to be, especially when it's without quite understanding the joke. There is, as well, a hint of tragedy in self-regard, with possibilities for endings that are not so happy.

But you wanted to laugh at a few jokes. I saw a few weeks ago (or is it months?) that you have entered existential waters, which is a place where light relief is very welcome, and a wild critique may best be thought laughable.

The link offered by Geoffrey (which for me didn't work, but did -- I thought it rather good, with thanks) offers a cute summary (I offer something different from Geoffrey's summary) for my thesis: funny is to ensure that we find "debugging" (Dennett's word) a joyful task, something worth doing because it gets our pleasure centers to encourage us to do something that may intrinsically be rather painful. It's to encourage us to cross valleys, to adopt Lee Smolin's vocabulary. If the universe is funny, it's perhaps not just us, but it's not funny to be on a mountaintop with nowhere to go but down.