Mathematician’s Answer

The Mathematician’s Answer is a meta-joke about how mathematicians usually behave in jokes. From tvtropes:

If you ask someone a question, and he gives you an entirely accurate answer that is of no practical use whatsoever, he has just given you a Mathematician’s Answer.

It goes further on to say: “A common form of giving a Mathematician’s Answer is to fully evaluate the logic of the question and give a logically correct answer. Such a response may prove confusing for someone who interpreted what they said colloquially.”

Perhaps the most famous example is the hot-air balloon joke, where a man in a hot-air balloon asks someone where he is, to which the response is, “You’re in a hot-air balloon!” The rider concludes that the responder must be a mathematician, because the answer given was absolutely correct but utterly useless.

The tvtropes site contains a bunch of examples of Mathematician’s Answer in dialog. But this kind of joke also sometimes pokes fun at actions as well as words. My favorite is the hotel joke (this version from the Cherkaev “Math Jokes” collection):

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician are staying in a hotel.

The engineer wakes up and smells smoke. He goes out into the hallway and sees a fire, so he fills a trash can from his room with water and douses the fire. He goes back to bed.

Later, the physicist wakes up and smells smoke. He opens his door and sees a fire in the hallway. He walks down the hall to a fire hose and after calculating the flame velocity, distance, water pressure, trajectory, etc. extinguishes the fire with the minimum amount of water and energy needed.

Later, the mathematician wakes up and smells smoke. He goes to the hall, sees the fire and then the fire hose. He thinks for a moment and then exclaims, “Ah, a solution exists!” and then goes back to bed.

In line with the engineer/physicist/mathematician trio, another great one is the Scottish sheep joke:

A mathematician, a physicist, and an engineer were traveling through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train.

“Aha,” says the engineer, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.”

“Hmm,” says the physicist, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.”

“No,” says the mathematician, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black!”

And then, we have the infamous examples where it was the students ironically who used the Mathematician’s Answer on their math teachers:



Now, aside from the meta-joke status of the Mathematician’s Answer, is there any truth to it? Do math-minded people really say, “You’re in a hot air balloon,” in real life?

From all the math classes I’ve taken at college, I have never witnessed a professor respond unwittingly with a Mathematician’s Answer. Every time it was used, it was clear that it was meant as a joke. Sure, some live up to mathematician archetype, but they’re all normal people, not John Nashes.

In high school, my favorite form of humor was the pun. Starting junior or senior year of college, however, I had somehow transitioned to the Mathematician’s Answer as my go-to response when I can’t think of anything to say. It is extremely easy to use, as almost every situation can lead to this kind of joke. It’s really fun to use and really versatile.

It doesn’t even need to be used in response to a question. Just yesterday, someone remarked that it was March 1st already. Immediately, I added, “Oh yeah, that’s exactly one month away from April 1st.” The same person later asked how far 10 yards was, and, like a true mathematician, I answered by saying it was like 5 yards but double that.

Our campus Internet has one network called “RedRover” and another called “RedRover-Secure.” Someone asked what the difference between these was, and I quickly responded, “Well, they’re the same, except one of them is secure.”

I think it interests me because I’m generally fond of logical and tautological humor. The only downside of the Mathematician’s Answer is that it doesn’t really work in anything that is related to mathematics. The language of math is designed to minimize ambiguity, and even when situations do arise where there are two interpretations, it’s much harder to distinguish between a literal and a figurative meaning. One of the few mathematical ambiguities I know if is if someone writes

1 \leq x, y \leq 10,

do we choose x and y such that x is at least 1 and y is at most 10, or is it that both x and y are between 1 and 10? On the other hand, Mathematician’s Answer works really well in areas as far removed from mathematics as possible. Anyway, here is one last example:

An engineer, a physicist and a mathematician find themselves in an anecdote, indeed an anecdote quite similar to many that you have no doubt already heard. After some observations and rough calculations the engineer realizes the situation and starts laughing. A few minutes later the physicist understands too and chuckles to himself happily as he now has enough experimental evidence to publish a paper.

This leaves the mathematician somewhat perplexed, as he had observed right away that he was the subject of an anecdote, and deduced quite rapidly the presence of humor from similar anecdotes, but considers this anecdote to be too trivial a corollary to be significant, let alone funny.


And thus follows my official list of percents:

  • Chance that you will read through this entire post: 22%
  • Chance a fair coin will land on a particular side (but for the sake of political correctness, I cannot specify which one): 50%
  • Chance that a random percent between 0% and 100% is less than 67.284%: 67.284%
  • Percent that corresponds to “100%” as used in everyday speech: 70%
  • Percent that corresponds to “110%” as used in everyday speech: 60%
  • Percent that corresponds to “100%” as used by computer scientists when estimating the chance that their program will work correctly on the first try: 3%
  • The percentage of lies that are statistics: 94%
  • The chance that this particular percent is correct: 64%
  • The percentage of total views of this blog that came from a single post: 57.2%
  • Chance of drawing a royal flush: 0.000154%
  • Suppose 2 individuals were each told to pick an arbitrary grain of sand in any beach on Earth. Chance that the two picked the exact same grain of sand: ~0.00000000000000001%
  • Chance that a randomly chosen number on the number line is rational: 0%
  • Percent mass of the solar system that is taken up by the Sun: 99.86%
  • Chance that a long-count cycle of the Mayan calendar ends on 12/21/12: 99%
  • Chance the world will end on 12/21/12: 0.00000001%
  • Chance that there will be a mass panic on 12/21/12: 2%
  • Difference between .999999999999… and 1: 0%
  • Chance that we are actually living in a simulated reality, according to this paper: ~100%
  • Percent of people who are in the top 10%: 10%
  • Percent of posts I write that contain self-reference, such as this one: 32%
  • Chance that some percentage is repeated in this list: 100%
  • Percent of your brain that you use, according to a popular but nonetheless made-up fact on the Internet: 10%
  • Percent of your brain that you actually use: ~100%
  • Chance that a randomly chosen word contains the letter “e”: 13%
  • Chance that this entire list is useless: 99.59%
  • Percent of the percent-sign (%) that I can draw in 0.2 seconds: 33%
  • The percent of KNOWLEDGE that human beings currently understand, assuming knowledge is infinite: 0%
  • How much I care about politics: 0.1%
  • 1 + 1: 200%
  • Chance that 42 is your favorite number: 42%
  • Chance that something which works in theory will work in practice: 1%
  • Chance that something which works in practice will work in theory: 1%
  • Chance that there will be a spam comment, which will be caught immediately by WordPress’s magical anti-spam system: 97%
  • Chance that there is something ironic in this post: 97%
  • Difference between a “slim chance” and a “fat chance”: 0%
  • Chance that a randomly chosen integer in the neighborhood of 1 trillion is a prime number: ~3.62%
  • Chance that the previous result invoked the prime number theorem: 100%
  • Percent of readers who actually clicked the link in the previous bullet: 17%
  • Percent of readers who originally didn’t click that link, but then did after reading the bullet after that link: 35%
  • Inflation rate of the United States in March 2012: 2.7%
  • Inflation rate of the United States in January 1922: -11.1%
  • Inflation rate of Hungary in July 1946: 41,900,000,000,000,000%
  • Inflation of volume of the Universe, according to the conventional Big Bang Model, in an extremely tiny fraction of a second: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000%
  • Percent of people who scrolled through this article, but then stopped for a while to look at what the above commotion of 80 zeros in a row meant: 88%
  • Freshness rating of The Titanic (1997): 87.7%
  • Size of the model of the ship used for the film, compared to the size of the actual RMS Titanic (comparing length): 87.5%
  • Chance that some boredom has caused me to compose this list of percentages: 93%
  • Percent of people who want this list to end soon: 95%
  • Top speed of a cheetah compared to the top speed of the fastest human: 321%
  • Speed of sound in standard atmospheric conditions compared to the top speed of a cheetah: 1000%
  • Speed of light in a vacuum compared to the speed of sound in standard atmospheric conditions: 87,350,000%
  • Strength of the electromagnetic force compared to the strength of the gravitational force: 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000%
  • Percent of people who are puzzled by the number above: 100%
  • Percent of physics that can be explained by assuming all particles are made of tiny spherical monkeys, who are of course typing furiously on tiny typewriters: 100%
  • Chance that we will find the Higgs boson by the end of the year: 33%
  • Chance that we will find evidence of extraterrestrial life, by the end of the 21st century: 50%
  • The width of a dollar bill to its length: 42.6%
  • A percentage of great important to statistics: 95%
  • The amount of sense that the next 3 bullets make, when looked at together: 30%
  • Nitrogen composition of Venus’s atmosphere: 3.5%
  • Nitrogen composition of Earth’s atmosphere: 78%
  • Amount of nitrogen in Venus’s atmosphere compared to the amount of nitrogen in Earth’s atmosphere: 404%
  • Percent of people who instantly realized what is going on above: 10%
  • Chance that a random fact on the Internet is correct: 13%
  • Chance that someone is, at this moment, wrong on the Internet: 100%
  • 1/0: ∞%
  • -1/0: -∞%
  • The ability to destroy a planet, next to the power of the Force: 0.0000000000000000000000000000000000000000000001%
  • The power level of a certain character: over 900,000%
  • The number of people reading this article who will post a comment: 0.1%
  • The absolute temperature (Kelvin) of Hell compared to the absolute temperature of Heaven, according to the Applied Optics journal: at most 89.975% (yes, this means Hell is cooler than Heaven, and thus Heaven is hotter than Hell)
  • Percent of Americans who aren’t entitled to their own opinion: 38%
  • Percent of Americans that believe the above statement: 87%
  • Percent of all money that is wasted: 93.2%
  • Percent of facts in this list that were made up: 32.5%
  • Chance that the writer has to attend some completely useless meeting in the next half-hour, and therefore must end the list: 110%

List of Banned Words Constitutes a “Fail”

Apparently, the Lake Superior State University takes pride in its 2011 List of Banished Words, which “refudiates” the top 2010 Shakespearean gems like “viral,” “epic,” and “fail.” Here at Cornell, and doubtless many other places, we share a different opinion on the addition of new words to the English language. Such words are the backbone of current Internet culture. Perhaps the pure linguists at LSSU who condemn such modern innovations should “man up” and face the real world as it is; of course, that suggestion “I’m just sayin’.” My own take is that we, “the American people,” should ignore these superficial laws, and adhere instead to our founding fathers’ vision of life, liberty, and the pursuit of “living life to the fullest.”

Not only these, but other core American values such as freedom are contradicted by foolishly restricting the way we use words. Why should we be not allowed to use words in new ways? English, after all, is well known to be a language that grows over time. Why is Shakespeare allowed to add dozens of words to the dictionary, but the entire constituency of the Internet, consisting of millions of highly literate users, not even allowed to add a few definitions to words that are pre-existing? Below are the words in the banlist, and the reasons why each one is perfectly valid in its modern definition:


Meaning in modern culture: adj., the state of having reached a massive Internet audience.

Example: The “2011 List of Banished Words” went viral as it was facebooked 13K times.

Why pure linguists hate it: The new usage corrupts the original definition of the word, which is of or relating to a virus. Something that is viral, according to them, should have to do with biological viruses.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: An analogy is often the best way to explain an idea. When a virus spreads, the number of people affected goes up. The same happens when certain stories are shared on the Internet. Viral seems to be the most accurate word to describe such a phenomenon.


Meaning in modern culture: adj., very awesome; very amazing

Example: At first I didn’t understand anything about language; then I had that aha moment, and it was like, epic!

Why pure linguists hate it: Epic has become so overused that the standards for something considered epic have been degraded to virtually nothing.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: What do they want instead? A hierarchy of epicness? Besides, from the way the Internet has used it, “epic” now has a broadened definition. Today, it refers not only to things that are majestic in scope, but also things that are funny, clever, flawless, and generally anything that is well thought-out and well made. There seems to be nothing epic at all about banning words. Well, except…


Meaning in modern culture: adj. or noun, pretty much anything that doesn’t work as planned, or a plan that is extremely flawed.

Example: A: “Did you hear about that politician who said ‘refudiate’ instead of ‘repudiate’?” B: “Yeah, that was an epic fail!”

Why pure linguists hate it: Fail is supposed to be a verb: not a noun, not an adjective.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: To refuse to use a word is to fail oneself; to force others to refuse it is a fail for mankind. It has become so common a word that it is difficult to see what would happen if it were banned.


Meaning in modern culture: noun, the component of a product that makes it shine.

Example: His latest novel once again has well-developed characters and a meaningful plot, but the wow factor that made it go viral was that the book invented 17 new words, all of which had become commonplace just one year after its publication.

Why pure linguists hate it: Overused; cliché.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Again, if it’s used by so many people, there’s gotta be something appealing about it. It’s because wow factor is the most precise and forcible way to describe what it describes. If you substitute it with other phrases such as “what stands out” or “the distinguishing aspect,” you run into other clichés or end up with a wordier phrase.


Meaning in modern culture: noun, the moment when you understand some fact that was previously unclear.

Example: For some reason I had thought for the longest time that Shakespeare was a French epic author; when I finally realized he was English, I had an aha moment in which my linguistics homework made a lot more sense.

Why pure linguists hate it: There’s no real reason people hate it, other than that it isn’t defined in the dictionary.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: On the original site, someone said: “All this means is a point at which you understand something or something becomes clearer. Why can’t you just say that?” We can, why can’t we just say aha moment?


I have actually never heard this term used before, so I can’t really comment on it. From my research, it seems to just be a portmanteau of background and history. It is still two words though.

7. BFF

Meaning in modern culture: nounBest Friend Forever.

Example: Would you like to meet my new BFF? She has an epic back story.

Why pure linguists hate it: The “forever” part is never true. You can have a BFF for 10 minutes, and then have a different BFF. Which means that person never was a BFF in the first place.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Just kidding, I actually agree with the linguists on this one.


Meaning in modern culture: verb, to show stereotypically masculine traits.

Example: After Jim retreated from fighting the grizzly bear with his bare hands, his pals made fun of him, saying “fail,” and told him to man up.

Why pure linguists hate it: It is “bullying and sexist.” (quote from the link)

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Again, I agree with the linguists. I assure you that the term was used in the introduction only for attention-grabbing.


Meaning in modern culture: verb, to repudiate.

Example: One soldier refudiated the order to man up during a hopeless assault, choosing instead to strategically retreat. She was the only survivor, the only one to live life to the fullest.

Why pure linguists hate it: The word is repudiate, not refudiate. Refudiate is just a slip of the tongue made by Sarah Palin.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: When you say refudiate, everyone will understand it. The difference is so small that it’s almost like a regional accent. Plus, /p/ and /f/ aren’t TOO different as far as consonants go.


I’ve never even remotely heard of this term, but apparently it has a political back story, so I’ll skip it.


Meaning in modern culture: noun, the American people.

Example: In November 2008, the American people wanted change, not fail.

Why pure linguists hate it: Again, because it’s so overused by politicians.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: There’s nothing wrong with the phrase. I seriously don’t understand why any person, especially an American, would be against this. The only valid complaint I could find is that the phrase “the American people” lumps all Americans into the same group, implying we all want and do the same thing. This however is a purely semantic issue. Anyone with any intelligence in any field should know that “the American people” is a generalization and not an absolute.


Meaning in modern culture: interjection, what I just said is my honest opinion, but I wish that it not be associated with me in any way. OR, what I just said had nothing to do with what we were saying before, but just pretend that it was related somehow.

Example: A: “I like things viral.” B: “What?” A: “I’m just sayin’.”

Why pure linguists hate it: When formally used, it is a redundancy: of course you just said it!

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: A lot of the time, we engage in casual conversation instead of formal conversation. (And according to sociologists, casual conversation is often more important than formal conversation. I’m just sayin’.) In informal conversation, some phrases are there just for the sake of conversation. If pure linguists want people to stop saying “I’m just sayin’,” they’ll have to get people to stop saying a lot of other things too.


Meaning in modern culture: verbs, to use Facebook/to use Google for something.

Example: I didn’t understand the article she facebooked, so I googled it. Then I had an aha moment.

Why pure linguistics hate it: They hate it in general when people use nouns as verbs. It impacts them so greatly.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: Actually, according to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary), google is a perfectly valid verb meaning to search for information on Google. As for facebook, I’m not quite sure. I still use Facebook only as a noun, but that might soon change. There’s nothing wrong with its being used as a verb.


Meaning in modern culture: verb, to have what you consider an enjoyable and meaningful life.

Example: I first thought of becoming a lawyer, but then I decided that stealing from the American people would be immoral, and that rather, I would live life to the fullest.

Why pure linguists hate it: The phrase is overused, redundant, and senseless.

Why it’s perfectly acceptable: It’s an idiom—it doesn’t need to make literal or logical sense. And of course, “live life” is a redundancy, but it’s eloquent. The verb “live” is more powerful than the noun “life,” but if you just said “live to the fullest,” it would be utterly forgettable. To live life to the fullest is also to live the most memorable one.

So the next time you hear someone complaining against the growth of the English language, you should tell them to live life to the fullest, enjoy a few fails, and have some epic experiences. Maybe you’ll give that person an aha moment. At worst, if the person starts arguing vehemently with you, you could simply reply, “I’m just sayin’.”

Kevin and the Bear

Today’s topic, “Kevin and the Bear,” was chosen by Aaron H at Westwood High School.

“Kevin and the Bear” is a short story composed by Aaron. It goes like this:

There once was a boy named Kevin. He was walking in the woods. He got eaten by a bear.

That’s the whole story. I am not sure how much there is to say about this. Then again, I am supposed to write something about this, so I’d have to write in the spirit of this:

Postmodernism in “Kevin and the Bear”

There is no dearth of meaning in “Kevin and the Bear.” The most vital factor is a touch of the postmodern movement in the third and final sentence. A line-by-line analysis is key to understanding the reference.

“There once was a boy named Kevin.”

Of all the memorable first lines that have appeared in centuries of literature, this is not one of them. But this already foreshadows the break of expectation, and the moments later in the story that convey the postmodern idea of unpredictability. Furthermore, the phrasing gives this a fairy-tale-esque tone, which is juxtaposed with a totally disparate thought.

“He was walking in the woods.”

The woods, where Goodman Brown entered only to lose Faith, where Thoreau entered to find peace, and where Kevin entered, as we shall see, to become eaten. The setting of the woods portrays once again the power of nature’s unpredictability over humanity’s attempt at control.

“He was eaten by a bear.”

The key here is the little article, “a.” The passive tense is also important to consider, as rather than portraying the bear as an active, individual force that would be associated with the phrasing “A bear ate him,” the author chooses instead to focus on the thing being eaten, emphasizing the passive aspects of human existence. This is a tenet of postmodern belief, that humans are not necessarily the great actors in this world. Indeed, by referring to the beast as simply “a bear,” the author refers to the grand scheme that nature holds, that the bear in the story is only one of many in a larger system.


No postmodernists were harmed in the making of this post.

A Bar Joke

Today’s topic was chosen by Andrew K, who attends Texas A&M.

I should have written this earlier; however, I did a horrible, horrible thing. I started playing WoW again. (And there are just 5 hours left before Cataclysm.) Yeah…. Anyways, back to blogging.

When Andrew chose the topic, it was actually the history of bar jokes, but unfortunately, during my research I was unable to find very much information on it. At least, there was not enough information to create a full post on it. (Its wiki article spans two sentences on history.)

In lieu of writing an unsubstantial—and likely uninteresting—post on the history of bar jokes, I am deciding to actually write one. To have at least some relation to the original topic, I have included a historian in the mix.

A historian, a mathematician, and a philosopher walk into a bar. The bartender asks, “Whad’ya want?”

The three academics gaze around the room but do not answer.

“I said, whad’ya want?” the bartender repeats.

The historian looks at the bartender gravely. “What I want,” he says, “is Napoleon’s left boot.”

The bartender reaches under the counter and pulls out a very old left boot. “Napoleon was my great great great great great great grandfather,” he explains.

The historian takes the boot, looking very puzzled.

“What I want,” says the mathematician, “is a proof of the Goldbach Conjecture.”

The bartender once again reaches under the counter and removes from it a stack of papers with scribbles all over them. “Gauss solved it two centuries ago,” he said. “It’s a shame he never published the proof.”

The mathematician takes the papers, dumbfounded.

They wait for the philosopher’s request. “What I want,” the philosopher finally says, “is a bar joke.”

The bartender pulls out a roll of paper and lays it on the counter. The three academics start reading. It begins: “A historian, a mathematician, and a philosopher walk into a bar…”

WARNING: Do Not Yawn

The eerie part: my roommate is in this video. As is another person in my hall. The scene occurred in their business computing class HA 1174 (in the School of Hotel Administration) one month ago, but it went viral within the last week, suddenly reaching epic proportions today.

The class is normally filmed so that students can later review the lectures online on Blackboard, an academic portal site. Somebody who is enrolled in that class (read: with access to the video) had the knowledge apparently of how to rip the video off of Blackboard and upload it to Youtube. Yeah, it is not impossible to do, but it requires at least some level of computer-savviness. Which means that person definitely needed a refresher on the definition of a kilobyte.

For the record, I am in the College of Arts and Sciences as opposed to the School of Hotel Administration, and I do not know Professor Talbert at all.