Mathochism: The dark side of math humor
One woman’s attempt to revisit the math that plagued her in school. But can determination make up for 25 years of math neglect?
A recent post/rant on the inadvisability of skipping steps in a lecture prompted several kind readers to leave me links to math and science jokes.
While most were either really cheesy or silly, some were pretty on point with the attitudes and personalities of folks in STEM, particularly in academia.
And then, there was the tale of “Little Polly Nomial and Curly Pi.”
Now, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with this tale. My spouse, who majored in a science in college and took advanced math, had mentioned this story in passing. The way he told it, though, made it sound innocuous but ribald, the kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge joke you might see in a vintage copy of Playboy. (Say what you will about Playboy, but that publication has always seemed to embrace the importance of both parties having a good time.)
But when I actually read this so-called math joke, I was pretty icked out. It’s essentially a tale of stalking, and rape, and the moral of the story is not “
rapists irrational constants are bad,” but “lock up your daughters polynomials, because giving them freedom will get them raped.”
I imagine this rotten chestnut has been around a while. And I realize I’m a big ol’ humorless bore, but that alleged joke made me remember that, even in the world of allegedly genderless numbers, being female isn’t safe. And solving a problem, to some, is all about domination and humiliation. Would it be better if little Polly Nomial were little Paul E. Nomial? No, I can’t imagine it would be.
All text copyrighted by A.K. Whitney, and cannot be used without permission.