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.


  • Ugh. I think I’ve seen that “joke” before. I’m sorry it’s still around now–and that you had to see it.

  • It’s a classic, apparently. Ick.

  • “Classic” in the sense of having been around for quite a while, yes. I remember running across it as a high school student in the early 70s. The ick factor is definitely there if you take the story at all seriously. I’d say that most of those who shared and circulated this story were thinking of rape as an abstract evil, not as something that someone in the room might have personally experienced or been threatened with. Curly Pi as Snidely Whiplash.

    And that in turn reflects the attitudes and gender imbalances of the times. This article ( traces the story back to an engineering magazine at the University of Iowa in 1968 (Trigger warning: along with a copy of the story itself). While there were women in engineering in the 60s and 70s, it wasn’t anywhere close to a 50-50 ratio. A friend of mine who got her PhD in engineering in the 1980s told me that at her first engineering job out of college, the mail room sent all her technical magazine subscriptions to the company library instead of to her – because they assumed that any woman in an engineering department had to be the secretary. We’ve come quite a ways since then.

  • That story is utterly despicable. I am disgusted by the fact the prof at Dave W’s link calls it “clever.” If you’re a rapist, maybe it is clever.

  • :O

    What is this madness and why is it allowed to exist?