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Alan Harper

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Humor is one of the few fundamental social phenomena that has been common to all societies since the beginning of mankind. The lack of interest in the phenomenon of humor from academia is caused by the fact that the two lie in directly opposite realms: seriousness and farce. Science treats itself seriously, and hence occupies itself only with serious matters. From the perspective of science humor is a phenomenon that is inherently "not serious", and thus not worth studying. However, the realm of humor is of great importance to the society. It is this very distinction between humor and reality, together with its "seriousness", that makes it such a valuable commentator of the latter. Michael Mulkay, the author of "On Humour", argued that the phenomenon is worth studying not because it's interesting in itself but because it helps us better understand the world of "seriousness".

The issue regarding similarities between humor and mathematics has been examined by John Allen Paulos in his book "Mathematics and Humour" (1988). Both mathematics and humor are a sort of an intellectual game; in mathematics the accent falls on the logical side, in humor – on the funny side. Logic, patterns, formulas, structures – they are the essence of not just mathematics but also humor. In humor logic is reversed, patterns destroyed, formulas broken, and structure shaken. All these transformations are not, however, purely coincidental. The story takes the listener to a new level of sense and order, very different from the original one. Moreover, both mathematics and humor are simple and economical. The beauty of a mathematical proof depends to some degree on its level of concision and elegance. Similarly, a joke loses its strength when it's long and heavy.

The bridge between humor and mathematics come from paradoxes and puzzles. They have a more intellectual character than a joke but a less serious tone than mathematics. For example:


Two trains, set apart from each other by a distance of 300 miles, begin to move towards each other alongside the same tracks. The first train goes at a speed of 100 miles per hour, whereas the second – 50 miles per hour. At the moment the trains begin to move a bird flying at the speed of 200 miles per hour takes off from the top of the first train and flies toward the other. Having reached its destination the bird turns around and flies back to the starting point and then repeats its flight between the two trains. How far will the bird fly before the trains collide?


If a person attempting to solve the puzzle focuses on the length of the flight alone, they will face the complex task of adding each consecutive path. However, if somebody realizes that the necessary time for the trains to meet is 2 hours (since the trains are approaching each other at the speed of 100 + 50 = 150 miles per hour), then they would immediately calculate that the bird will cover the distance of 2 x 200 = 400 miles.

Deduction and logic play an equally important role in mathematics and humor. Some rudimentary knowledge of logic is necessary to, for example, understand jokes build on syllogism. Very often jokes follow a structure that can be easily represented using logical deduction. For example: the teller of the joke says "In what model the axioms 1, 2, and 3 are true?". Listener replies: "In model M". The teller retorts: "Not at all! It's model N".

This is a common structure for many humorous puzzles.


A beggar approached a lady sitting on a bench and asks: - What is hard and dry when it enters, and soft and wet when it leaves? – Mhmmm… This is… - the lady blushes. – Chewing Gum- answers the beggar.


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Alan Harper is frequently featured at, a Polish site with humorous images and photos.
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MLA Style Citation:
Harper, Alan "Humor and Mathematics - Paradoxical Bridge." Humor and Mathematics - Paradoxical Bridge. 01 Aug. 2013 25 Jun. 2017 <>.
APA Style Citation:
Harper, Alan (2013, August 01). Humor and Mathematics - Paradoxical Bridge. Retrieved June 25, 2017, from
Chicago Style Citation:
Harper, Alan "Humor and Mathematics - Paradoxical Bridge." Humor and Mathematics - Paradoxical Bridge
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