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.

The Use of Rhetoric to Obscure a Lack of Meaningful Content

The case under inspection, which, to a dramatically marked extent, has been thoroughly investigated by the most qualified experts in this obscure field, is now shown, by empirical, rational means, to be false.

First, the case lacks clarity. Even when the case was presented before the most intelligent, capable judge, who had solved many problems liked this one before, it confounded the judge upon first impression. So arcane was its topic that, even if the judge had the power of hindsight, which would normally solve problems in cases as convoluted as this one, the case would have appeared just as enigmatic, just as obscure, just as meaningless. Perhaps, to ground our own investigation of this case, we may start by asking ourselves the question, What are the origins of this case?

In this case, the origins are exceedingly difficult to find. They may lie anywhere, from the Arctic to the Antarctic, from the deserts to the rainforests, from Cambridge to Oxford. Was it, perhaps, discovered by a mountaineer? Or uncovered by an archeologist? Or simply invented by a time-traveler? Where did the elegantly transcribed manuscripts of this case come from? There is, at the moment, no way of finding the location of the case’s birth.

But what about the time? Certainly, if we do not know the spacial origins of the case, we may attempt to ascertain to a degree, if you will, its temporal signature. After a painstaking, technological method that took process over two days, analyzing the concentrations of various particles found within the lofty confines of the case, three experts gathered that this case was made some time in the last two-thousand years, with a percentage error of about give or take thirty-two-point-three-three, repeating of course, percent. As broad as this conclusion may sound, it does eliminate a vast group of historical figures from consideration, including Homer, if we assume the conservative side of the time estimate. Perhaps the most well-known, and perhaps the most likely, of all the figures remaining to choose from is Oscar Wilde. This man once passed customs at an international boundary saying, “I have nothing to declare but my genius.” If, on the other hand, he had some manuscript of non-genius quality, he must, of course, have left it the customs office. This could promptly explain why the case was found where it was, in a highly obscure place, and why its quality level was remarkably non-genius.

Now, the purpose of the case is, at the moment, still indeterminate. Regarding the topic of the main manuscript found inside, did the author intend to make an argument, clarify a previous stance, describe an ironic situation? It would not seem easy for one to find the purposes without first knowing its origins. However, as for another entirely separate point, the impreciseness of the written manuscript marks its source as possibly an immature writer, an amateur writer lacking in the wit and style of English grammar. Thus, the list of possible authors may be narrowed down dramatically by the elimination of all graduates from Harvard University, for in that idealized society, there is one required course quite concisely named Expository Writing, and it is most clearly evident that the writer of the manuscript had not taken, or at least had not had passed, such a course.

What does this expose about the purpose of the manuscript? Simply, the only revelation is that the manuscript was not meant for submission in the Harvard Review of Rhetoric, for if it was, then it must have been the most cursed, abominable, loathsome, bloody treatise ever submitted to any any somewhat reputable institution whose age exceeds three-hundred years but falls short of four-hundred.

A final point of investigation is that the values and limitations in this case are to be taken into consideration.  After carefully examination of the manuscript, I have deemed it of no value, especially if considered as a piece of dejectable rhetoric to whoever would suppose of it that way. However, it really has no limitations. It is, the magnificently crafted work, a true masterpiece of visual art, for there is nothing degrading, lacking, nauseating, deteriorating, harming, sickening, outrageous, lowering, humbling, offending, breaking, or otherwise false in it. Thus, while the manuscript is certainly regarded with a questionable value, it possesses, for sure, as demonstrated by its pure genius of composition, no limitations.

So, as the reader may ask, The case is incomprehensible, but so what? There are a number of ways of rendering this question an irrelevant one, but due to laziness, I will not, and will instead make an honest effort to answer it. You see, the case itself is quite irrelevant. Would it matter whether the manuscript was written by Oscar Wilde, or Ernest Hemingway, or Albert Einstein, or worse yet, someone who had gone to Harvard University and passed Expository Writing? Well, that does, I suppose, cause one importance in the otherwise insignificance of the case. Suppose Ernest Hemingway did compose this wonderful manuscript. Then he would have demonstrated, as Oscar Wilde put it, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” But, in the somewhat more likely case that the writer was not Earnest, then the case would be rendered quite irrelevant.

Even better yet, would the meaningful content, if ever uncovered despite in the perceived lack thereof, have any impact, however profound? Probably not, for it seems to have already made its sharpest contact with the world when it caused the minds of many experts to muddle around in its winding sentences, and thus it had already exerted more influence on a human scale that it ever likely will again. That said, if the content, if any, is suddenly realized, as if by eventual epiphany, and it has a sufficiently shocking message, then it is at least probable that some persuasion will be made.

Finally, any knowledge of the true purpose of the manuscript seems equally as unintelligible a quality. In the case of this manuscript, any data that could be found has probably already made some impact upon the world, despite what the perceived purpose is, even if the purpose is as urgent as a call to save the lives of millions of ants in a dying dirt pile close to you, not two blocks away from your home. For whatever purpose, the case has already been made.

The only glaring problem with the case is that it, by ordinary perception, appears too artificial, almost as if it were crafted by an insane mind, and not something of natural or divine origin. It is so unnecessarily complex that the only possible explanation, however unrealistic it may be, is that the case must be composed of both real and imaginary components. In all, experts and myself have thus concluded: The case is a lie.