Saturday, May 19, 2018

Tom Lehrer at 90

Image result for tom lehrer

Environmental & Science Education
History of Science
Mathematics Education
Edward Hessler

In early April, Andrew Robinson wrote an essay celebrating the musical life of mathematician Tom Lehrer who recently turned 90 years old.

In 1959, Lehrer was a Ph.D. student in mathematics at Harvard when he performed the first of more than a dozen astringent, cynical and often pointedly political songs, such as 'So Long, Mom, I'm Off to Drop the Bomb (A Song for World War III)'. As The New York Times put it, 'Mr. Lehrer's muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste." The Times was wrong.  I hadn't known that Lehrer entered Harvard at the ripe young age of 14.

Lehrer never did complete his Ph.D. (It was to have been a contribution to the mathematics of statistics.) concluding that he had nothing to say. So in 1962 he headed across the river to MIT where he taught maths for a decade. Then in 1972 he moved to the University of California-Santa Clara where he taught maths (and one course in musical theater) until his retirement in 2001.

Image result for tom lehrerHere is Robinson's tribute which provides many details and also a link to his first and likely most famous song, The Elements. Ninety-two then but as of 2016, 118 of which 94 exist naturally. The remaining are products of often difficult synthesis. A quick search of the web will yield many more of Lehrer's songs. Robinson writes that depending on who is counting, Lehrer wrote 50 songs (or 37 as Lehrer counted). I include Lobachevsky (with lyrics) which he first performed in 1953.

I can't resist another about the "new math," an attempt in the 1960 to bring mathematics education into the new age...beyond what one might call, to borrow a phrase from theoretical physicists, the "Shut up and calculate" school. Or to put it another way to understand rather than as a set of algorithms. I particularly like this version of Lehrer's hilariously funny New Math. It includes the words which may help you follow the song.

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