Surely I'm Joking!: A Physicist's Personal Essays

by Tatsuo Tabata
Copyright © 1999-2000 by Tatsuo Tabata

Contents of This Page

1. The Stolen Joke
2. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Tabata!"
3. "Finding Errors Is Your Hobby, Dr. Tabata!"
  3.1 To Professor Hendrik Casimir
  3.2 The English Edition of Yukawa's "Tabibito"
  3.3 The German Edition of Yukawa's "Tabibito"
  3.4 To Dr. Alwyn McKay
  3.5. In Search of Errors
  3.6. Feynman not in Tokyo but in Kyoto
4. "Why Is This Joke Funny?"

Go to all the Contents of "Surely I'm Joking!"

1. The Stolen Joke

"I'm sorry. I can't help it, Mr. Thomas. There's nothing personal, but you got to admit it's funny."

-- Graham Greene, "The Destructors" in Twenty-One Stroies

Some participants of the meeting went out for further drinking after the icebreaker, August 8, 1999. The lady in this photograph is not the single lady participant of the meeting referred to in the text, but the wife, Eva, of the organizer Lech Papiez (right most). I was sorry to stand between Eva and Lech. The photograph was taken by Vadim Moskvin. Photo of Some Participants

The Third International Workshop on Electron and Photon Transport Theory (IWEPT/3) was held in Indianapolis from August 8 to 12, 1999. I was the first speaker in the afternoon session on Tuesday, August 10. The morning session ended much behind the schedule because of heated discussion, and many participants did not yet come back from lunch even at the postponed start time. I was waiting for chairperson's opening words putting the draft of my talk on the speaker's table. Then John Garth came there, and looked at the draft. He murmured in a voice not so low, "'Good afternoon, a lady and gentlemen!' Interesting!" The chairperson, Alex Bielajew, heard it and started the session by "Good afternoon, a lady and gentlemen!"

Thus I was forced to wait for another chance of saying a joke after my presentation. Vadim Moskvin, the last speaker of the same session, was a victim. When the discussion on his talk seemed to have come to an end, I raised my hand and said, "I am one of co-authors, but my opinion is different from yours at one point (laughter). You talked about the down-stream boundary. I think it should be the incident surface." Vadim said, "There is only one boundary." I said, "Oh, yes! It is about semi-infinite medium. So there is only a single surface or boundary. Only your word was wrong. Our opinions are the same!" I shook hands with Vadim.

In the lunch time next day, I dedicated the following words to Colleen DesRosiers, the single lady participant, and Vadim: "We had only one mysterious lady in our meeting just as Vadim had a single, mysterious, down-stream boundary in his semi-infinite medium."

Some of other participants did not fail to give their good jokes, among which Indra Das's joke that Catholic ladies welcomed the possible discovery of neutrino mass was one of the finest. Some of the participants, including myself, did not catch his joke. I learned from him only at the dinnertime that "Mass" meant Christian religious ceremony. I spent the weekend days after the workshop at Indra's house in Philadelphia and read Graham Green's Twenty-One Stories for a few hours. In the fourth story entitled "The Hint of an Explanation," I found a passage, "When I was a child they taught me to serve at Mass," spoken by a Roman Catholic. This could be the hint of understanding Indra's joke, if I did not ask him an explanation.

Finally it is to be noted that the name of the workshop was misprinted on the participants' nametag as "Third International Workshop on Electron and Photon Transport Therapy." Surely there were many talks on the treatment planning of electron- and photon-beam therapy. "Theory" and "Therapy" have similar word faces. Therefore, I suppose that only a very few persons found this misprint by themselves. Did you find it?

(18 Aug 1999)

Note added later

On August 20, I received an e-mail message from Alex, which included the following passage (cited by his permission):

I have to correct part of your story. I did not overheard John say "A lady and gentlemen!" In fact, the idea for this goes back to the car race called the Indianapolis 500. The traditional start to this race is an announcer saying, "Gentlemen, start your engines!" Well, gender discrimination is becoming a thing of the past. One year, there was one woman entered in the race. I forget her name. This time the announcer said, "Lady and gentlemen, start your engines!". I have been waiting since the '70's to use this introduction. I'm a patient person. The opportunity finally happened at IWEPT/3.

I didn't think that Alex was an evil-minded thief of the joke, but imagined that his stealing of the joke was itself a kind of joke. However, the fact was much more stranger than my complex imagination.

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2. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Tabata!"

Sasaki-sensei and we
The former mathematics teacher Ms. Yoko Sasaki (at the center with a ribbon) and her ex-students

In the evening of Friday, November 14, 1997, I attended the 3rd Meeting of Sumire-Kai (Violet Association), which was established for old boys and girls who finished Kindai (Violet Hill) Senior High School in Kanazawa and live in Kanto (East) District. The high school had the general course for ten years only, and then became Kanazawa Senior High School of Commerce (it had been Kanazawa Middle School of Commerce until just after Japan's defeat in the 2nd Wold War). The meeting was held in Shinjuku, and we had two former teachers. One of them was Ms. Yoko Sasaki, a mathematics teacher, who taught us Analysis I. She said to me "Why are you here? You don't live in Kanto, do you?" I answered, "No, I don't, but I came a long way from Kansai (West) just to see you, Sasaki-sensei." ("Sensei" is a Japanese word corresponding to Mr. or Ms., but used only for teachers and Diet members.) Then she said, "Tabata-san rashii jodan yu-ga yane!" (something close to "Surely you're joking, Mr. Tabata!" in Kanazawa dialect).

Sasaki-sensei is older than I only by ten years. So she was very young when we attended her lessons. During the summer vacation of the first-grade year, a friend of mine, Kajita-kun ("kun" means Mr. and is used only for friends, colleagues or younger male persons including children), wished to call at her house to ask her about matrices and determinants, though these were not the topics she taught us; and I went with him. She had a baby in her arms when we visited her. Sasaki-sensei remembered all about it. I also asked her if she remembered this: Standing beside me during one of examinations, she murmured, "Nani shitoru gaine!" ("What a foolish thing you are doing!"). When we learned the absolute-value symbols, I was absent from school owing to a cold. So I was slow to understand that the vertical lines in some of hand-written equations in the first question were those symbols, and read one of the equations, for example, as y=1x-11 instead of y=lx-1l. The question requested us to draw the graphs of the equations. Wondering why she wrote 1x for x and put such a strangely large number as 11, I drew a graph of the line passing through the points (0, -11) and (11, 0). However, the teacher's murmur made me notice my misreading, and I was able to correct my answer just in time. She did not remember this.

In the bullet train to Tokyo, I read part of "A Mathematician's Apology" written by G. H. Hardy (Cambridge University Press, first published in 1940). In section 12, he gives two examples of "real" mathematical theorems, "theorems every mathematician will admit to be first-rate." One of them is Pythagoras's proof of the "irrationality" of the square root of 2, which is argued by reductio ad absurdum. This is just one of the things Sasaki-sensei taught us. I wished to tell her about it, and said, "You taught me about the proof of the irrationality of . . ." Then she said, "Tabata-san, muzukashii hanashi sentoite tai" ("Please don't talk about a difficult topic"). She might have been afraid that I would point out some mistake in her old lecture. I did not intend to do so, but her words disrupted the talk about my latest reading.

"Vicky," one of our most brilliant classmates, was present at the meeting, too. She looked quite fine in spite of the serious illness from which she suffered some years ago, and told us that she had joined a tour to Spain and Portugal with her husband last month. I said to her, "Do you remember that you taught me about a problem of Analysis I?" "Yes, I learned Analysis I from Sasaki-sensei." "I mean that YOU taught ME." "No, I don't remember it." "Because of my absence for a few days, I didn't know how to deal with the inequality that included the absolute-value symbols. I asked about it not to you but to Tajima-kun at the next seat. He didn't know about it either, and asked you in front of us. Then you turned to us and told us how to solve such a problem. Your explanation was very clear and understandable; it might have been clearer than Sasaki-sensei's." "You remember such an old thing quite in detail, don't you?"

I handed Vicky a leaflet, "Vicky (A Novella)," which I wrote some months before. She said, "Recollections in English? I'll read it using a dictionary." Six among seven of our classmates who attended the meeting walked to the hotel in Shinjuku where I stayed, and had a party after party at a coffee shop there. When they were going to leave the hotel by two taxis, Vicky said to me, "Thank you for everything today," though I didn't think to have done much to her. When she took seat in the taxi, the bottom of her long crimson coat opened widely and one of her beautiful and young-looking legs peeped out. It was a good evening, but returning here, I had caught a cold and stayed home for two days.

(19 Nov 1997, adapted 23 Sep 1999)
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3. "Finding Errors Is Your Hobby, Dr. Tabata!"

An international symposium to celebrate the jubilee of the meson theory was held in Kyoto in 1985. At a coffee break of the symposium, I said to Professor Satio Hayakawa of Nagoya University, "In your article in 'The Birth of Particle Physics' edited by Brown and Hoddeson, you wrote that there were meetings on meson theory during the wartime Japan and that they had the name 'illusion meetings,' which was a pun on the Japanese word for meson. What was the name in Japanese?" He answered, "It was Mehsoh-kai." I said, "I thought so, but it is a pun on the English word 'meson,' not the pun on the Japanese word for meson."

The above conversation was made in Japanese. Hayakawa interpreted it into English for Professor Laurie Brown of Northwestern University. The latter, to whom I had sent a long letter to indicate many errors in his translation (with his student R. Yoshida) of Hideki Yukawa's "Tabibito (Traveler)",* said to me, "Finding errors is your hobby, Dr. Tabata!"

In this section I am collecting my letters sent to overseas authors to tell about their errors, i.e., my hobby letters. In citing them, some modifications are made in an effort to improve English.

* A related story is given in section 5 of "What Little I Can Talk about Feynman."

(24 Mar 2000)
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3.1. To Professor Hendrik Casimir

December 14, 1984

Dear Professor Casimir,

I have very much enjoyed reading your book entitled "Haphazard Reality."

I would like to call your attention to a minor error in the book. The date of the Japanese capitulation (lines 5-6 on page 218) is not 8 August 1945 but 15 August 1945, though the former is also a memorable day because of the dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki.* In Japan we commemorate 15 August, wishing eternal peace of the world, so that it is one of the most important day of the year to us.

Sincerely yours,
Tatsuo Tabata

*Note: This was my stupid error. See the next letter.

February 2, 1985

Dear Professor Casimir,

Thank you very much for your kind reply of January 5. I liked your interesting errata and much better the passage:

Let us hope that your wishes for eternal peace will be fulfilled! That is more important than anything else.

I have contributed a short story to the newspaper, "Nikkan Hoshasen (The Daily Radiation)", issued in mimeographed copies by the labor-union of our institute, Radiation Center of Osaka Prefecture. The story told why I wrote you and how I liked your reply, and was accompanied by the Japanese translation of your letter along with my notes giving information necessary to understand your errata. Thus a number of people working in our institute appreciated your letter.

I am ashamed to say that my previous letter of several lines only had an serious error. The date of dropping of the second atomic bomb on Nagasaki was not 8 August but 9 August 1945. I became aware of this error just when I posted the letter. The eighth day of the month is associated with a gross folly of Japan, Pearl Harbor attack, on 8 December 1941.

Sincerely yours,
Tatsuo Tabata

(Adapted 5 Apr 2000)
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3.2. The English Edition of Yukawa's "Tabibito"

March 10, 1985

Dear Professor Brown,

I enjoyed reading H. Yukawa's "Tabibito (The Traveller)" translated by you and R. Yoshida. I think that the translation is felicitous and that it conveys Yukawa's style of writing very well.

I found however a number of minor errors in the book. I enclose errata here, wishing that these would be useful for revised printing of the book. While many of the entries in the errata are typographical errors, those marked with the symbol * are plainly translators' errors. The Japanese edition of "Tabibito" I consulted was the one in "Collection of H. Yukawa's Essays Selected by the Author," Vol. 5 (Asahi Shimbun, 1971).

Most of the errors are in Japanese proper nouns. I was able to find many errors of this kind because a native Japanese-speaker can be very sensitive to such errors. The fact that most of Chinese characters have plural pronunciations makes it difficult to read Japanese proper nouns correctly.

When I first read "Tabibito" in Asahi Shimbun, I was a graduate student of Kyoto University. Just before its serial publication, I had attended Yukawa's undergraduate course on quantum mechanics. While I have been working in the field of experimental radiation physics, I admire Yukawa's pioneering work on theoretical particle physics, and respect also his personality and endeavor after nuclear disarmament. I welcome heartily the publication of your translation of "Tabibito."

Sincerely yours,
Dr. Tatsuo Tabata

H. Yukawa: "Tabibito" translated by L. Brown and R. Yoshida

(Note in citing here: Only some entries from a long list are shown below.)

Page Line Now reads in part Should read
*60 3 Amatsu Tientsin1
*82 15 from bottom shadow pictures transfer pictures2
*97 6 from bottom 109 meters 5.5 kilometers3
*132 14-13 from bottom the lowered lamps the lamps of low candle-power4
*137 2-3 any period . . . imbalance? there was, viewed . . . , great imbalance of youth in any era?5
*161 12 from bottom unified wave theory wave monism6
*193 15 Tenmaubashi Station Tenmabashi Station7
  1. A city and port of China; Tenshin in Japanese pronunciation.
  2. "Utsushie" means shadow-pictures, too, but these are played rather than "sold." (Note added later: "Shadow-pictures" might have been a correct translation in this case.)
  3. "50 cho" equals to fifty times 109 meters and is about 5.5 kilometers. You forgot doing multiplication.
  4. The lamps of the coaches in those days were of low power, and not specially lowered for sleeping hours.
  5. From the end of the previous chapter, the author refers to imbalances in different times of history. To mean "period of growth," the word "nendai" would have been used instead of "jidai."
  6. As contrasted with wave-particle dualism that came later; the Japanese word to mean "unified theory" is not "ichigen-ron" but "toitsu-ron."
  7. The Chinese character can be read as "Tenmanbashi (not Tenmaubashi)," but is not read so for the name of a street in Osaka.

(Adapted 1 June 2000)
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3.3. The German Edition of Yukawa's "Tabibito"

July 26, 1986

Dear Professor Fischer,

I enjoyed reading H. Yukawa's "Tabibito -- Ein Wanderer" translated by you. It is very nice that Yukawa's autobiography can now be read by a lot of people in Germany, where there were many excellent physicists whose publications gave stimuli to young Yukawa.

Your translation conveys Yukawa's style of writing very well. However, I found about sixty minor errors in the book, and enclose a list of them, wishing that it would be useful for revising the book in the future. Some entries are simple typographical errors, some are misreading of Japanese proper nouns, and some others are mistranslation mostly of words or phrases. I referenced the original Japanese text in "Collection of H. Yukawa's Essays Selected by the Author," Vol. 5 (Asahi Shimbun, 1971). I believe that it is essentially identical with the Kadokawa edition used by you.

Last year, I wrote Prof. L. Brown, one of the co-translators of the English edition of "Tabibito," enclosing errata. Most entries in the errata were misreading of proper nouns. I read your translation more carefully, because yours was more faithful to the original. The numbers of errors I found happened to be almost the same in the two editions.

I heartily welcome the publication of your translation of "Tabibito," and wish that a corrected version would appear in the near future.

Sincerely yours,
Tatsuo Tabata

H. Yukawa: "Tabibito -- Ein Wanderer"
(Line 6b, for example, means the sixth line from bottom.)

(Note in citing here: Only some entries from a long list are shown below.)

Page Line Now reads in part Should read
11 13 die Kernphysik die Atomphysik1
17 9-10 bis er nicht sämtlich bis er sämtlich2
25 9-10 In unserem Viertel wohnen ausserdem viele, die keine Kriegsverluste erleiden mussten. Unser Stadt erlitt ausserdem kein Opfer des Luftangriffs in Krieg.3
29 5 ist das gefährlich. scheint das unmöglich.4
48 5-6 Vater war oft auf Reisen, und dann musste sie das sie das Haus hüten. Vater blieb oft vom Hause aus, weil er reisen musste.5
56 8 im Regen auf dem Schulplatz in der Turnhalle6
59 11b des Generalfeldmarschall Togo des Grossadmirals Togo7
10, 22;
Ishihara Jun Ishiwara Jun8
88 9-10 Nishida Ikutaro Nishida Kitaro9
Kobori Ken Kobori Akira10
129 16b Ich wusste noch nicht, wieviel sinnvoller dies war Viel war dies sinnvoller11
136 18b 1927 erschien Erwin Schrödingers Abhandlungen zur Wellenmechanik 1926 erschien Erwin Schrödingers Abhandlungen zur Wellenmechanik12
146 19 1900 order 1901 von 1900 bis 190213
5, 8
Kopenhagener Deutung Kopenhagener Geist14
165 9b Tenmanbashi Tenmabashi15
174 19-20 Ich dachte, dass man . . . zutrifft. (delete this sentence)16
  1. The author uses here the word "Genshi-butsurigaku" in the sense that includes not only atomic physics proper but also its basis and further development into subatomic domain, though he uses the word later as the popular word for nuclear physics (page 162, line 11 from bottom); when we speak of "the field of physics that had made rapid development since the beginning of the 20th century", it means a whole area of physics constructed on the basis of relativity and quantum theory including these theories themselves. Furthermore, considering from his whole research career, Yukawa's specialty was elementary-particle physics rather than nuclear physics. Therefore, "die Kernphysik" is not adequate here.
  2. The "nicht" used here is logically unnecessary; I do not know if such an illogical "nicht" is idiomatic in German.# In the original, the word corresponding to "nicht" is surely used, but the conjunction used corresponds not to "bis" but to "während".
  3. Though the author does not use the word that corresponds directly to "Luftangriff", we, Japanese, understand the sentence as shown in the "should-read" column from the historical fact.
  4. "Abunai" has the meaning, "uncertain", as well as "dangerous". The phrase "mon da" that follows "abunai" has a nuance of joke, so that it is more natural here to interpret "abunai" as "uncertain".
  5. "Und dann musste sie das Haus hüten" is contradictory to the previous statement.
  6. "Uten-taisojo" is a single word meaning the gymnasium, where gymnastics can be exercised on rainy days.
  7. Togo was in the navy.
  8. See, for example, the author's name in Ishiwara's paper, "Die universelle Bedeutung des Wirkungssquantums", Tokyo-Sugaku-Butsurigakkai Kiji, Ser. 2, Vol. 8, p. 106 (1915).
  9. Cf. page 141, line 16.
  10. Cf. page 89, line 3 from bottom.
  11. "Wakaranakatta" means here not "I did not know", but "it was indeed ..." However, if "Ich wusste noch nicht" has also the latter meaning, then this entry would not be an error.
  12. Annalen der Physik Vol. 79, p. 361 (1926).
  13. Error in the original; Dirac was born in 1902.
  14. The author describes here not the famous Copenhagen "interpretation" of quantum mechanics but the "spirit" of those working at the Bohr Institute.
  15. Cf. page 159, line 9 from bottom.
  16. The corresponding sentence is not found in the original. It is possible that lines from 21 to 23 on the same page have been erroneously duplicated here with a slight change.

# Mr. Minoru Yata kindly wrote me, "There seems to be the use of "nicht" for putting emphasis on the tone of an exclamatory sentence without the meaning of negation," and gave the following example from the song "O'Tannennbaum": "Wie oft hat nicht zur Weihnachtzeit, ein Baum von dir mich hoch-erfreut!" (6 Apr 2003)

(Adapted 24 June 2000)
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3.4. To Dr. Alwyn McKay

Dr. M<sup>c</sup>Kay
Dr. McKay

August 8, 1986

Dear Dr. McKay,

Last year I enjoyed reading your book, "The Making of the Atomic Age." You described in your book a Japanese atom-bomb project during the Second World War. I do not think that this historical fact weakens Japanese people's appeal for a total ban and elimination of nuclear weapons, but think that it teaches us the dangerous relation of science and military technology.

An article entitled "Scooping a Visionary Japanese Atom-Bomb" appeared in the 9-August-1985 issue of a Japanese popular journal "Shukan Posuto (The Weekly Post)." I'm enclosing its photocopy, wishing that you find a Japanese person for helping you to read it. The author is Shin-ichi Sano, a journalist, who made an interview with Professor Masahiro Ishida at Research Reactor Institute, Kyoto University, to ask about the "F project." The article does not reveal about the project itself more than the article published in Science [Vol. 199, p. 152 (1978)] and cited by you. Actually the project was of small scale, and did not make any advance. However, we, Japanese scientists of the present generation, should learn much from the presence of the project, not to participate in the development of weapons again.

The survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have an intense desire that there should never be another Hiroshima and Nagasaki anywhere on earth. People all over the world should now have the same desire for the very survival of the whole of humanity.

I found two minor errors in your book. One is on page 111; the name of the nuclear physicist Bunsabe Arakatsu should read Bunsaku Arakatsu. This is not your own error but the error taken over from the article in Science mentioned above. I was a student of Professor Emeritus Kiichi Kimura, who was an assistant professor under Professor Arakatsu and whose name appears in the Shukan Posuto article.

The other error is on page 146. You cited the article in Science as written by C. Weiner. However, the author is Deborah Shapley. In her article she describes about the use of materials lent to Science by Herbert F. York, Jr. and Charles Weiner. This might have lead to the error.

Wishing your happy life and the eternal peace of the world,

Sincerely yours,
Tatsuo Tabata

(Adapted 24 Mar 2000)
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3.5. In Search of Errors

January 12, 1987

Dear Mr. Gribbin,

I have just begun to read your book, "In Search of the Big Bang." In "Acknowledgments" of the book, you wrote that you would welcome the readers to spot errors. So I have read your descriptions on Japanese physicists first, and have found the followings to write you:

(1) In line 6 on page 299, Shin'ichiro Tomonaga's affiliation is written as Tokyo University. However, it is better to write as "the Tokyo University of Education." It is true that Tomonaga was professor at the Institute for Nuclear Study, the University of Tokyo, when he received Nobel Prize, but the post was a part-time one for three years from 1964. His permanent post was at the Tokyo University of Education (formerly the Tokyo University of Literature and Science; presently Tsukuba University), where he worked from 1940 to l969 ["Collection of Shin'ichiro Tomonaga's Writings" (in Japanese) (Misuzu Shobo, Tokyo 1985) Suppl. Vol. 3, p. 345].

(2) In line 10 from bottom on page 313, the two theorists Yoichiro Nambu and M. Y. Han are referred to as Japanese. However, Han is not Japanese but Korean. I think that this error was overtaken from A. Pickering's "Constructing Quarks." L. M. Brown pointed out the same error in his review of that book [Science Vol. 228, p. 857 (1985)].

(3) The title of the above Pickering's book is misprinted as "Construction Quarks" in line 3 on page 401.

Sincerely yours,
Tatsuo Tabata

(Adapted 14 May 2000)
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3.6. Feynman not in Tokyo but in Kyoto

February 20, 1989

Dear Mr. Leighton,

I would appreciate receiving an audio-casette tape, "Richard Feynman: Safe-cracker Suite." A cheek for $12 is enclosed; the extra amount of 2$ is for an estimated foreign postage.1

In the story "I Just Shook His Hand, Can You Believe It?" of the book "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" it is written that Feynman was the honorary chairman of one session of a conference held in Tokyo in the summer of 1986. Was it not Kyoto International Symposium, the Jubilee of the Meson Theory, held in Kyoto from August 15 to 17, 1985?

I attended that symposium and saw Feynman serving as a chairman. The first speaker of the session chaired by him was Minoru Kobayasi, Professor Emeritus at Kyoto University. Professor Kobayasi read a paper entitled "The Birth of Yukawa Theory" in Japanese, and an English translation was read by a young physicist paragraph by paragraph. So Professor Kobayasi must have used up his time before coming to the end of his paper to annoy Feynman as told in the story, though I do not remember this point surely.

During a coffee break of the symposium, a friend of mine talked with Feynman on his book, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" At that time I had not read the book yet, so that I missed a good chance of talking with Feynman!2

Sincerely yours,
Tatsuo Tabata

Notes added later:

  1. A related story is given in sections 9 and 10 of "What Little I Can Talk about Feynman."
  2. See also section 7 of "What Little I Can Talk about Feynman."

(Adapted 29 Apr 2000)
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4. "Why Is This Joke Funny?"

James Livingston's well written book on magnets1 included the following passage:

Radio waves--wiggling electric and magnetic fields--from dozens of distant radio stations are all simultaneously hitting the antenna, which has the task of translating that electromagnetic chatter into music, news, or the views of Rush Limbaugh.

Most of those who live outside North America possibly do not know who Rush Limbaugh is. If he wishes to make his book to be read world over, therefore, Livingston should not have referred to Rush Limbaugh here. However, I happened to know this name. To explain the reason for this, I have to tell a story of some length.

The Second International Workshop on Electron and Photon Transport Theory was held in Seattle in June 1997. The three organizers of this workshop liked to append jokes to the e-mail announcements of the Workshop. The final announcement included several good jokes (the organizers called them "bad jokes"), to which one of the organizers, Dave Jette added the following:

Rush Limbaugh and his chauffeur were out driving in the country and accidentally hit and killed a pig that had wandered out on a country road. Limbaugh told the chauffeur to drive up to the farm and apologize to the farmer. They drove up to the farm, the chauffeur got out, knocked on the front door, and was let in. He was in there for what seemed hours. When he came out, Limbaugh was confused about why his driver had been there so long. "Well, first the farmer shook my hand, then he offered me a beer, then his wife brought me some cookies, and his daughter showered me with kisses," explained the driver. "What did you tell the farmer?" Limbaugh asked. The chauffeur replied, "I told him that I was Rush Limbaugh's driver and I'd just killed the pig."

I did not understand why this can be a joke, but there was a note attached to this joke:

I realize that you probably have to live in North America to appreciate this joke, but it was too good to pass up!

Therefore, it was unnecessary for me to be ashamed of being unable to appreciate the joke. I sent Dave an e-mail message by writing, "As you commented, I don't appreciate the joke of Rush Limbaugh and his chauffeur. Can you explain why it's funny? I know that it's silly to ask the explanation of a joke, but if I learn one thing more, I should be happier."

He replied:

Rush Limbaugh is a highly popular, and quite conservative, host of a radio talk show, for which listeners call in and expound their (usually) reactionary views. Often this discourse is quite uninformed and far right wing, such as claiming that there is no such thing as the ozone holes and denouncing immigrants. Thus many people also regard him as a "pig", a view which may be enhanced by his being greatly overweight. Thus, in the joke, the family thinks that the "pig" which the chauffeur killed was Rush Limbaugh.

Owing to Dave's kind reply, I was able to enjoy Livingston's passage cited at the top of this essay. This experience teaches us: Don't be afraid of asking the explanation of the joke when you don't understand it! By doing so, you will surely learn something more and be happier than before.

  1. J. D. Livingston, "Driving Force" (Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1996). In the IDEA site you find another story related to this book.

(24 Aug 2000; Dave Jette's joke and e-mail reply have been cited by his permission.)

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