The Truth of Cartoons: What Is So Funny?
A cartoon can tell a truth in a drastic funny way, a truth which cannot be told bluntly without comic, because that would violate social conventions.
The cartoon is funny because it is true: If a person is fat, it is funny to depict
the person as very fat. If a person is stupid it is funny to show the person as very stupid.
To depict a fat person as slim or a stupid person as clever is not funny…
because it is not true.The comic effect probably results from breaking a convention by revealing something known or felt by many, which however nobody dares to say out loud.
The humor of a cartoon can be mean and discriminating aimed at killing, or can show empathy and sharing of misfortune. But both mean ironic and good empatic humor usually carry some truth.
Theory of Humor
According to Henri Bergson comedy arises from the counterparts of the essential elements of life of irreversibility and individuality, that is, comedy results from repetition and inversion, which both represent mechanized life. A dancing doll is comical because it mecanically mimics a real dancer. By mechanically putting on a new hat, a person can change character, and this is funny. Because the inversion tells a truth: People largely act like mechanized dolls without individuality, but pretend they don’t. Compare with Chap 52 of The Clock and the Arrow: A Brief Theory of Time.
Theories for humor have also been proposed by Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Kant, Freud and Spencer, based on incongruity, superiority, relief and play, none of which seems to cover scientific cartoons very well. Of course breaking a convention by telling the truth can relieve the tension of pretending that what is true is not true, or vice versa, but it seems that the truth aspect is more fundamental than the relief aspect.
Hypocrisy can resist direct humour-free confrontation but not so easily comic. Einstein is by far the most popular subject of scientific cartoons because the immense hypocrisy surrounding Einstein and relativity theory: Educated people seek to give the impression to understand by stating that they don’t, which is true, but not funny…or maybe it is funny…
This site gives lots of background material for a study of The Theory of Scientific Humor. You may start with The Science of Penguin Logic.
Gary Larson: The Far Side is Near
The scientific community adores Gary Larson’s The Far Side because it tells truths about science, which scientists are not allowed to express themselves. The California Academy of Sciences created an exhibit that traveled to natural history museums around the country, showcasing 400 Larson cartoons. Entomologists have named a louse and a butterfly after Larson. The funny thing with a Larson cartoon is that it is true. And the truth which has to be concealed but somehow must be expressed, is that according to the mathematician David Hilbert,
- Physics is too hard for physicists.
Why is this so funny? Because nobody understands quantum mechanics, not even dogs! Physics is simply too hard for physicists.
Reality of Academic Life
Climate Science: Bogus
Albert Einstein: Stupid, Unhappy and Lonely
Yes, Einstein got unhappy because while rocketed to fame by the general public, he was doomed senile by the leading physicists headed by Niels Bohr, because he could not believe that God plays atomic dice. Was Einstein stupid? Did Einstein not understand math? Was Einstein a Dr Faustus of modern physics?
Isaac Newton: Clever and Dull
To the right a 19th century cartoon by Cruikshank of Newton with a lady friend whose finger he uses to pack the tobacco in his pipe. Newton did not smoke and he didn’t have any lady friends.
Modern Physics: Religion and Church
Niels Bohr: Too Domineering
According to Nobel Laureate Steven Weinberg, Niels Bohr brainwashed a whole generation of physicists to confess to the Copenhagen interpretation of Schrödinger’s wave function, and in particular ridiculed Schrödinger who did not confess, see The Brainwash by Bohr.
Erwin Schrödinger: The Cat Is Not Real
Nobody Understands Entropy
Leonardo da Vinci: Genial Inventor
Charles Darwin: Like an Ape
In the right cartoon from circa 1871, the gorilla is saying: “That man wants to claim my pedigree. He says he is one of my descendants.” Mr Bergh (the founder of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) replies: “Now, Mr Darwin, how could you insult him so?”
To depict anybody as an ape is funny, because in some sense a human being is an ape. So even if Darwin was not more ape-like that you and me, it was funny to depict him as an ape, and thus display a truth about him and you and me. Really funny!
Sigmund Freud’s Psychoanalysis: Works!
The way this works is that you say the first thing that comes to your mind… It is difficult to prove that physchoanalysis is not effective, which compared with the perception that its effect is very unclear, is funny.
Ludwig Wittgenstein: Serious and Not Funny
Statements by Wittgenstein:
- I don’t know why we are here, but I’m pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves.
- You learned the concept ‘pain’ when you learned language.
- A serious and good philosophical work could be written consisting entirely of jokes.
Richard Feynman: Funny but Serious
Feynman presented himself as a funny womanizer playing bongo drums. It is not clear if this presentation is a sign of geniality as indicated in the bestseller Genius,or if it is a cover-up of a not so great intellect…compare Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feyman.