Brain Pickings

The Science of Humor and the Humor of Science: A Brilliant 1969 Reflection on Laughter as Self-Defense Against Automation

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“Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor?”

What, exactly, makes a joke funny? How does an intelligent joke remain a joke without diluting the intellectual and remain intelligent without compromising the funny? From the altogether fantastic 1973 volume A Random Walk in Science (public library) — a compendium of comments, both lighthearted and serious, by scientists that “reveal their intensely human ambitions, frustrations and elation” and that “record some changing attitudes within science and mirror the interaction of science with society” — comes an essay titled “Keeping Up with Science” by Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki, adapted from his 1969 paper published in UNESCO’s journal Impact of Science on Society. Feleki explores the role of humor — specifically educated humor and scientific humor, even more precisely — as a sort of cultural defense mechanism against the incomprehensibly fast-paced technological progress of modern society. Revisiting Feleki’s words more than four decades later — after then-unthinkable developments like personal genomics, 3-D printing, advanced robotic space probes, and the world wide web — gives them all the more amplified resonance. He writes:

With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke loose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements.

Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all. And what is this elixir if not humor? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humor and science can keep in step…

Considering the question of humor to be one of “extraordinary importance,” Feleki notes that “to laugh at a joke without analyzing it is work half done” and sets out to explore what humor actually is:

The term “humor” itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humor. Humor as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humor is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humor.

Still, Feleki concedes that one of the hallmarks of humor is how it eludes definition. He outlines, instead, “some partial truths about humor”:

It is evident that humor is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not “light” literature.

Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original.

The basis of acid humor is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers.

Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh.

The greatest blessing of humor is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh.

Feleki goes on to demonstrate the tenets of the science of humorology through a single joke, which he himself told to an acquaintance at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences:

Two geologists converse in a cafe. One of them says: “Yes, unfortunately fifteen years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish.” A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: “What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool?” “Fifteen billion years,” the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: “Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million!”

Soil sample containing Siberian actinobacteria, about half a million years old. Photograph by Rachel Sussman from her project 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for details.

But as Feleki awaits an outburst of laughter, or at the very least an amused smile, from the professor, he is faced with nothing but “brown study — rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes.” Just as he began to wonder whether his companion had understood the joke, the professor gave an appreciative nod, which he substantiated with a romp through the history of philosophical theories explaining humor:

The joke is good… If we accept Aristotle’s definition according to which the comic, the ridiculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate.

And, then, what about Hobbes’s hypothesis? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride, as seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority.

The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time.

In Schopenhauer’s terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike the cold.

Nor is Bergson’s theory of automatism left out of account, because the protagonist is jolted out of the mathematically induced natural time sense that measures human life.

To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it.

With this, the professor burst into uncontrollable laughter “so hard that tears flowed and he held his sides.” Faleki returns to the heart of the matter:

It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved the Little Idiot, the two traveling salesmen, someone’s mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of scientific humor requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need to future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humor in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the process of science.

Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: “Can’t you move straight? You must be drunk again!” The other photon protests vehemently: “What do you expect? Can’t you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field?” Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.

A Random Walk in Science is a fantastic read from cover to cover. In the introduction, editor Robert L. Weber captures the volume’s spirit perfectly by citing something he read in the Worm Runner’s Digest, a publication that began as one researcher’s “personal joke with the Scientific Establishment” and evolved into a bona fide journal without losing its sense of humor:

We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

The collection is thus the Establishment’s effort to inhabit the spirit of the humorist. The result is infinitely delightful.

Complement this particular meditation with Arthur Koestler’s seminal “bisociation” theory of how humor works.

Thanks, Lucinda

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