January 15, 2006

Tom Lehrer on Originality

It has long been my largely unrealized intention that an examination of the changing nature of originality in the twenty-first century, in an age of sampling and search engines, on a planet of seven billion souls, be an underlying, recurring, unifying theme of Catfish in the Memepool. My recent AJAX post is a case in point.

Paul Saylor

So, it is in this spirit that I'm going to indulge myself in a bit of personal nostalgia. Our peripatetic (but by no means itinerant) IBEAM Project Principal Investigator, Paul Saylor, made a scheduled stop at the Siebel Center as part of his winter tour last week, and was able, after an impromptu meeting, to offer me a ride home.

Paul is afflicted, thankfully, to a lesser degree than yours truly, with a weakness for the occasional dram (or is it a snifter?) of purple prose, and is, at times, well, a fellow big-word-using guy. It should suffice to say we are co-enablers when we get together.

It so happens that Paul had a CD by satirist and mathematician Tom Lehrer in the player in his rented van at the time. It engendered a veritably Proustian onslaught of rapturous recollections.

Tom Lehrer

Graeme Cree has described Lehrer rather well: "If you've never heard him, he's very similar to Mark Russell, except that he's funny."

As it happens, my dad was a big fan of Lehrer's records when I was growing up. I think he got them through a record club. We used to sit around the living room and listen them on our Motorola console stereo with him back during the reigns of John V and Lyndon I. I was just in elementary school in those days, and most (but not quite all) of the sociopolitical allusions were doubtless lost on me at the time. Nonetheless, my siblings and I somehow found them infectiously hysterical anyway, and I still remember them vividly (well, better than I have any right to be able to expect to be able to, anyway).

Still, I'd completely forgotten that Lehrer had written one tune in which he actually incorporated the names of all 102 of the known elements in the periodic table at the time, but there it was, and the conversation somehow turned to Lobachevsky. Lobachevsky, as Paul knew better than I, was the "father" of the hyperbolic strain of Non-Eulcidan geometry. The conversation quickly turned to intellectual paternity in general, even as the CD player turned to Lehrer's commentary on it.

It seems certain that I hand not heard this tune in forty years, long before I became a ivory tower hired-hand. But, suffice to say it sounded more relevant today than ever. Rather than comment any further on it myself, I urge the reader, should he or she be so inclined, to pursue the following primary sources: The lyrics are here. An MP3 can be found here.

In a similar vein, Lehrer's scathingly brilliant Werner Von Braun can be taken as trenchant, if not still timely, commentary on the compromises that are sometimes necessary to fund one's research.

Once the rockets go up...

Original thought is like original sin: both happened before you were born to people you could not have possibly met.
Fran Lebowitz

I don't have ideas. Ideas have me.
Thomas Jay Peckish II

And then I write
By morning, night,
And afternoon,
And pretty soon
My name in Dnepropetrovsk is cursed,
When he finds out I published first!
--Tom Lehrer, Lobachevsky

A footnote: Among the things I've always hoped to feature in Catfish in the Memepool were amusing tales of the sheer futility of the pursuit of original thought, especially in light of the fact that search engines have rendered it trivial to disabuse one's self of such notions. Its great sport. This is not to say that such occurrences are not original in the sense that they were independently conceived, just that such conceptions are more often than not unique. It's as if the memepool itself is ripe with certain notions, and we are merely channeling it. Channel Catfish…

Today's example: Here's a three-year old occurrence of the term meme-slinger I'd secretly, vainly hoped I might have minted in that AJAX post last week. Hackneyed though it may be, it still fit its subject to a tee…

--BF, just another Memepool Medium…

Posted by foote at January 15, 2006 11:31 AM