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Keeping up with science

By Laszlo Felenki
With the invention of the steam engine the hell of science broke oose. Since then one admirable discovery has followed the other. Today no human brain is capable of comprehending the whole of science. Today there are part-sciences with part-scientists. Man has hopelessly surpassed himself. He can be proud of this, but he is no longer able to keep track of his own achievements. Our life has become so mechanized and electronified that one needs some kind of an elixir to make it bearable at all, And what is this elixir if not humour ? It is decisive for the present and future of mankind whether humour and science can keep in step, whether there will be time to tell a joke during a journey between two planets, and whether the savant will feel like laughing while he is making efforts to use space for peaceful purposes. The question what is humour ? is one of extraordinary importance; we need to clarify the basic concepts to begin with. To laugh at a joke without analysing it is work half done. The term humour itself means fluid or moisture, indicating that already the ancient Greeks must have known both moisture and humour. Humour as a fluid probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them. Humour is, of course, palatable even without moisture; in such cases we are dealing with dry humour. One of the characteristics of humour is that it eludes definition. Some partial truths about humour are nevertheless recognizable and I will now cite them. For instance, it is evident that humour is difficult to write and therefore is certainly not light literature. Parody is a humorous genre of literature. A really good parody or take-off is better than the original. The basis of acid humour is ulcers. Many humorists have ulcers. Truth is often humorous simply because it is so unusual that it makes people laugh. The greatest blessing of humour is that it relaxes tension. It is really indispensable in situations when there is nothing left but a big laugh (cfcurrent history). Just as the disease of the horse can be demonstrated on a single mare at a veterinary school, by the same token a single joke is suitable for the analysis of all the tenets of the science of humorology. I myself discovered this important fact by mere chance. I told a joke to an acquaintance, who is, by the way, an officer of the Humorology Department of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences .


Well, do you know the one, I began, in which two geologists

converse in a cafe ? One of them says: Yes, unfortunately fifteen billion years from now the Sun will cool, and then all life on Earth will perish. A card-player nearby has been half listening to the joke, and turns in terror to the geologist: What did you say? In how many years will the Sun cool? Fifteen billion years, the scientist replies. The card-player lets out a sigh of relief: Oh, I was afraid you said fifteen million! When I completed the joke to the best of my histrionic ability, I expected the professor to laugh, for it is a delightful little joke, I think. However, instead of the expected smile or laugh my man seemed to be in a brown study-rock-bottom humiliation for a teller of jokes. I was just beginning to think that the professor had not understood the joke, which would not have been too surprising, after all, as humorology was his profession. My supposition, however, proved to be erroneous. A few seconds later the professor gave an appreciative nod. The joke is good, he said. If we accept Aristotles definition according to which the comic, the rediculous is some fault, deficiency or ugliness which nonetheless causes no pain or trouble, we will find the joke just heard meets these criteria. The cooling of the Sun is certainly a deficiency, or more accurately heat deficiency, although it is not ugliness, for even a chill celestial object can be a very pleasing sight as there are several examples in the universe to demonstrate. And, then, what about Hobbess hypothesis ? In his treatise on the causes of laughter Hobbes pointed out that laughter is the feeling of pride as, seeing the weakness of others, we experience our own intellectual superiority. The joke also satisfies the contrast theory. For, according to Kant, contrast is the essence of the comic. And in fact it would be difficult to imagine a sharper contrast than that existing between the ephemeral life of man and cosmic time. In Schopenhauers terms, this can also be taken as the disharmony of a concept with some realistic object with which it is associated. Indeed, the card-player who sighs with relief at the idea that he can calmly continue his card-playing until the 14 millionth year of his life, for it will remain warm enough, entertains a most unrealistic thought within the context of a most realistic idea that men like to live as long as possible and dislike to be cold. Nor is Bergsons theory of automatism left out of account because the protagonist is jolted out of the mechanically induced natural time sense that measures human life. To sum it up, I repeat that the joke is funny. Hence I am fully justified in laughing at it. And at this moment my friend started to laugh so hard that his tears flowed and he held his sides. It was easy to laugh in the past at the modest jokes which involved

the Little Idiot, the two travelling salesmen, someones mother-in-law, the drunk, or the Scotsman. Only a small surprise element had to be provided for the listener. A proper appreciation of science & humour requires the proper scientific qualifications. The vital need of future generations is for a scientific education so they can have the incomparable surcease of humour in order to endure the state of perfection to which man and life will have been reduced by the progress of science. Just consider what degree of culture and education is required to understand the joke which is said to have practically drawn tears of laughter from Einstein and Oppenheimer. One photon asks the other photon weaving about in space: Cant you move straight? You must be drunk again! The other photon protests vehemently: What do you expect? Cant you see that I am getting soaked in a gravitational field ? Yes, this is coming, this is what we have to get prepared for.