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Tom Lehrer At 90

April 10, 2018

It makes a fellow proud to be a nerd

Tasmanian Archive source

Tom Lehrer is Emeritus Lecturer in Mathematics at Cowell College of the University of Santa Cruz. He is listed not in the Mathematics Department but in Humanities, for which he also lectured on musical theater. He was my first witness that effective input to the social conversation could start from conversancy in mathematics.

Yesterday was his 90th birthday and we hope he had a great one.

We already covered one of his published mathematical papers on statistical modes here. Accordingly it is reasonable for us to divagate into his other output. This consists of some number of satirical songs. A retrospective on Lehrer’s “life of scientific satire” last week in Nature put the number at “some 50 songs (or 37 by his own ruthless reckoning)” and the 37 figure was also cited here. Thirty-seven is also the average, median, and mode of plays credited to William Shakespeare, though that number too is trending upward.

Maybe it gets up to 74 songs counting revisions—and frankly repeats—on the tracks of the threeCD set, “The Remains of Tom Lehrer.” That still seems to miss a few of what he termed “some of the old/new math songs” in his remarks before a 13-minute performance at the 80th birthday celebration for Irving Kaplansky, from whom he’d taken two courses. Under ‘new/revised,’ he had added a verse celebrating Andrew Wiles’s proof of Fermat’s Last Theorem (in 1993 as it stood) to a discarded draft song “That’s Mathematics” for a children’s education show that had been dropped:

Andrew Wiles gently smiles
Does his thing, and voilá!
Q.E.D., we agree
And we all shout hurrah!
As he confirms what Fermat
Jotted down in that margin
Which could’ve used some enlargin’.

From Science and Math

I knew Lehrer’s songs even before singing “Pollution” in my elementary school’s 5th and 6th grade chorus. My parents played his three main albums all the time. I guess hearing “The Masochism Tango” did not scar me for life. I recognized the political issues. What complemented my captivation was my knowing he came from the world of mathematics.

Indeed, when I memorized and started to perform “The Elements” (a capella), I changed the last couplet from

These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hah-vuhd;
There may be many others but they haven’t been discah-vuhd.


These were the only ones of which the news had come to Princeton;
And I know that several others have been discovered since then.

This was long before I applied to colleges. The point is how I associated the math/physics legacy. This supplemented the books of Lillian and Hugh Lieber connecting SAM (Science and Mathematics) to society.

Lehrer at Other Times

Many of Lehrer’s songs were tied to specific events in the 1950s and 1960s, especially those he wrote for the US edition of the BBC satirical TV show That Was The Week That Was. His experiences in the US Army (“It Makes a Fellow Proud to Be a Soldier,” 1959) before the Vietnam War fed into his anti-war songs and commentary. This page picks ten favorites and gives YouTube video links.

Several of them transfer to today. For instance, the brilliant “New Math” has been adopted by critics of the “Common Core” movement. The inward-looking criticism of “The Folk Song Army” relates to our current national conversations:

Oh we are the Folk Song Army.
Every one of us _cares_.
We all hate poverty, war, and injustice,
Unlike the rest of you squares.

Most of the new retrospectives (not an oxymoron) are asking a question that’s been asked since my childhood: why did he stop writing? He gave a partial answer in a magazine interview for People:

“But things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.”

That was in 1982. The quotation is often misdated to 2002. I could rant about our hubris of demanding a better-documented past when we can’t even straighten our information-rich present,

but I digress.” — T. Lehrer

Instead I’ll pose two questions: who came closest to being Lehrer at other times, and what could have been capable of bringing him back?


Nostalgia is often represented by the line, “where are the snows of yesteryear?” Experiencing the fourth of four nor’easters in three weeks, back in my childhood home near New York City last month, sure answered that one.

The ballad with that line dates to 1461 and is by François Villon. This MathsJam item on the philosopher Jean Buridan quotes it an the end. Here is my irregular translation of the quoted second stanza plus the envoi—compare other renditions here:

Where is the great wise Heloise
For whom Pierre Abelard was gelded,
Then with Saint-Denis’s monks was melded?
‘Twas love that brought him to his knees.
In like terms, where would now appear
The queen whose power o’er Buridan
Cast him in the Seine with but a bag on?
Where are the snows of yesteryear?

My friend, don’t press your enquiries here,
Not for ten years, of where they’ve gone;
Till all your questions leave but one:
Where are the snows of yesteryear?

Can we juxtapose this with Lehrer’s ballad on Alma Mahler Gropius Werfel? There are parallels and differences. Villon entered college young and earned a Master’s, but teaching gave way to an eight-year criminal record. He was no nerd; his rakish lines were backed by experience. He used parody and puns to skewer the proud and high but held to the norms of courtly love. Bitterness and nastiness factored in to create a “mixed tone of tragic sincerity [that] stands in contrast to other poets of the time.”

If our idols say the past was awful more than bright, can we call that “nastalgia”? When the great London impresario Cameron Mackintosh mounted a stage revue of most of Lehrer’s songs, Lehrer’s advice included:

“The nastier the sentiment, the wider the smile.”

What Could Bring Him Back?

The most sage article I’ve found on Lehrer and the limitations of satire is an interview with the Sydney Morning Herald in 2003. It includes Lehrer’s quip from 1973—

“Political satire became obsolete when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.”

—but moves on to a key difference between laughing at jokes and applauding them. The latter may be only tribal. “Irreverence is easy, but what is hard is wit.” He could not continue performing more-of-the-same, and for all the greater intensity we say we feel today, more-of-the-same could not bring him back.

So what could? I nominate something that returns to nerd roots in information technology. Here is an example snip from the BuzzFeed story mentioned above—exactly as it appeared on my office machine while I was researching yesterday:

source, but YMMV

You might note the “nastier” quotation and how the paragraph below the ad continues this section’s meditation on satire and humor. But they’re not the point. For that I tell one more story.

IT and the Macaroon Army

Dick continues to recover apace from his heart surgery. Anticipating a visit three weeks ago, I bought a pack of the blandest nice cookies I could find: French vanilla kosher macaroons. Not chocolate-dipped, not coconut, nothing to stir the blood. For sundry reasons the visit did not happen (for one, see under ‘Snows: not yesteryear’). So when I got back to Buffalo, I looked online to have a box delivered.

First, good old-fashioned macaroons have been eclipsed in Google searches by macarons—as above—an oversweet millennial predilection. I fought for traction until I found a 2014 article, “Where to Buy the Best Macaroons in New York City”—which I still find gets skipped if I put -macaron in searches. Further vicissitudes included its being too soon before Passover and online selection limitations. I switched to one place’s vanilla-almond crescent cookies but actual human contact by phone threw up another wall. Finally I chose the ones the article called best—coconut—but Le Pain Quotidien said they could not deliver unless I went through GrubHub to order. I couldn’t find how to teach GrubHub the inequality (person ordering) {\neq} (person eating) and my welcome-home message was merged with delivery instructions. But they got there.

My point is, that was three weeks ago. The online mandarins tracked my days of macaroonacy. I am still being pelted by ads for them. Lehrer’s song “Hanukkah in Santa Monica” strangely leaves out Passover, but for me this plague will not pass over.

Surely with our basic milieu conspiring so, that needs a skewer. And someone to rhyme those with “spew” and “endu-re.”

Open Problems

Martin Gilbert, the biographer of Winston Churchill whom I knew as a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, is quoted as naming Lehrer “one of the 10 great figures of the previous 100 years … Many of the causes of which Lehrer sang became, three decades later, part of the main creative impulse of mankind.” Who might rise to match him? Where are the shows of yesteryear?

[a couple word tweaks]

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