There've been musicians like astronomer Herschel, and there've been chemists like Borodin – but all my life a favorite mathematician has been Tom Lehrer, whose songs began to come out when he was a graduate student in the '50s.
Born on April 9th, 1928, Tom Lehrer was encouraged by his parents to play the piano as a child, and graduated from Harvard in math at the tender age of 18. A brief stint as a scientist yielded things like The Elements.
Today, while the world is still wrestling with nuclear proliferation, Tom Lehrer had it right – over 50 years ago.
Many of his songs are still apt. His hunting song is a good example.
Tom Lehrer never finished his Ph.D., preferring teaching to research, and he taught at MIT as well as at Harvard and Wellesley. His strong social conscience came out in many songs – particularly the one about the German rocket scientist, Dr.Wernher von Braun.
After 1972 he taught math at the Univ. of California at Santa Cruz, yet often spending summers back in Boston.
It's hard to believe Tom Lehrer is now 85. His songs of the '50s and '60s (which exist on CDs now, transcribed from the original LPs) pre-date, of course, the women's lib movement. Nevertheless, it may be fun to conclude this little essay, and fade out with, his song about the liberated Alma Werfel.
1. Article: “Still a Sly Wit”, by Todd S.Purdum, in N.Y.Times, July 16, 2000.
2. Data from Dr Demento, on CD insert, “Songs and More Songs, by Tom Lehrer.”
Dr. David Nightingale is Professor Emeritus of Physics at the State University of New York at New Paltz, and is the co-author of the text, A Short Course in General Relativity.
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