The Singing Scientist: The Life of Mathematician and Satirist Tom Lehrer

Satire is usually known for the use of humor, irony, and even ridicule in literature, comedic stand-ups, and other performing arts.

However, it isn’t always displayed in the science community, except for one man—Tom Lehrer.

Lehrer is an american musician, singer-songwriter, satirist, and praised mathematician—an unusual combo some might say. As a PhD student at Harvard University in 1959, Lehrer performed what he called a “completely pointless” scientific song. ‘The Elements’ is now one of his most cherished works that lists the names of all the chemical elements set to the tune of ‘Major-General’s Song’ from The Pirates of Penzance.

Lehrer’s famous rapid-fire enunciation of 102 elements can be watched in the video below.

video via The Tom Lehrer Wisdom Channel

Born and raised in New York City’s Upper East Side, Lehrer was seen as a mathematical prodigy. He began his studies at Harvard at the young age of 14, where he was also drawn to songwriting. However, after failing to connect to classical-music training, he focused on more popular/current day music.

In an interview in 2000, Lehrer explained how the two very different fields are actually seamless. “The logical mind, the precision, is the same that’s involved in math as in lyrics,” he said. “It’s like a puzzle, to write a song.”

Mathematician Stanislaw Ulam, one of the builders of the atomic bomb, says that rhyming forces “novel associations and becomes a sort of automatic mechanism of originality”.

Lehrer’s musical career continued at Harvard with a satirical show in the physics department, The Physical Revue (a pun on the name of the US journal then named Physical Review). He then began recording in 1953, even though radio stations refused to play his controversial material, word of mouth allowed for Lehrer’s fame to spread.

Lehrer hit true fame when he received the royal stamp of approval from Princess Margaret, which gain him support of the BBC.

After touring for many years, Lehrer’s love for math brought him back to Harvard to finish his PhD work. After which he began teaching mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge in 1962. Then from 1972 until his retirement in 2001 at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where he also taught a class in musical theatre.

Lehrer’s work of parodies and satirical songs will always remain some of the most original pieces, as well as mathematically elegant. So as Lehrer turns 90 this month, listen to one of his many pieces of work, and enjoy the scientifically elegant humor.

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The Singing Scientist: The Life of Mathematician and Satirist Tom Lehrer
Article Name
The Singing Scientist: The Life of Mathematician and Satirist Tom Lehrer
The mathematician and satirist, Tom Lehrer, turns 90 this month. To celebrate this milestone we look back at what made his work so original.

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