Monday, December 06, 2010


What's the integral of 1/cabin?

Y: A natural log cabin.

X: No, a houseboat – you forgot to add the c!

If you do not understand the joke embedded in the above Q&A, gentle reader, read no more. I’m sorry, but, at the cost of sounding supercilious, let me say, what follows will go above your head.

Those who have their mathematical bearings in place will know that the joke relies on calculus; to be more specific, the fact that the differential coefficient of the logarithm of x is 1/x and therefore the integral of 1/x is log x + c. The c is something which many beginners forget. Thus, the integral of 1/cabin is ‘log cabin + sea’ or a houseboat! QED.

Perhaps fewer readers would have sped away from this page, had I begun with a simpler question:

Q: Why do mathematicians like nature parks?

A: Because of the natural logs.

Here's a joke involving basic mathematics:

There are only three kinds of people in the world: those who can count, and those who can't.

This implies, of course, that the person making the statement belongs to the latter category.

But mathematicians are strange people. Not for them the simple and straightforward jokes like these. They refine (read ‘complicate’) it to make it incomprehensible to the reader. See these:

There are only 10 types of people in the world —
those who understand binary, and those who don't.

Those who understand binary will certainly be quick to grasp the joke because, in the binary, the expression 10 means 1x 21 + 0 = 2. Others would most certainly draw a blank.

Like I did when I was first asked, ‘Why do real programmers confuse between Halloween and Christmas?’ I knew Christmas was on the 25th December. To assist me in solving the conundrum, I was proffered the information that Halloween fell on the 31st October but it did not help matters. The puzzle is based on the fact that just as ‘Dec’ which, to laymen, is the short form of December, is Decimal to mathematicians, October is abbreviated to Oct, which, to mathematicians is Octal. As Dec 25 is 2 x 101 + 5 = 25 and Oct 31 is 3 x 81 + 1 = 25. No wonder the numerophiles confuse between Halloween and Christmas.

Any self-respecting layman knows the trite line: Why did the chicken cross the road?’ The answer is ‘To get to the other side.’ A mathematical variation follows as: ‘Why did the chicken cross the Möbius strip?’ As you might know, the Möbius Strip is a paper band made by giving one twist to a strip, making a surface with only one ‘side’ (and only one ‘edge’). So you realize that the standard answer To get to the other sideis impossible.

One who knows this unique feature of this contraption named after German mathematician August Ferdinand Möbius who discovered it in 1858 (Johann Benedict Listing, another mathematician from the same country, who discovered it independently in the same year was not as lucky) would be ready with the answer, ‘To get to the same side.

I spoke of superciliousness, a trait mathematicians are not innocent of. Hear this story:

Two mathematicians are drinking beer in a pub. The first one tells the second that the average person knows very little about basic math. The second one disagrees, and claims that most people can cope with a reasonable amount of math.

When the first mathematician goes off to the washroom, the second calls over the waitress. He tells her that in a few minutes, after his friend has returned, he will call her over and ask her a question; all she has to do is answer, ‘One third x cubed.’

She agrees, and goes off mumbling to herself.

The first guy returns and the two continue the conversation. The second proposes a bet to prove his point. He says he will ask the waitress an integral, and the first, chuckling within that he has already won the wager, agrees.

The second man calls over the waitress orders another beer and then asks her, ‘What is the integral of x squared?’

The waitress says, ‘One third x cubed.’ Then, while walking away, she turns back and says, ‘Plus a constant.’

The waitress, chosen as an example of someone not expected to know much mathematics beyond adding up the bill, turns out to know enough calculus to correct the mathematician's omission!


Balachandran V said...

Maths? It sounds like Greek! :)

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

makes me feel worthless:-(