“I am very good at integral and differential calculus”*

*from “I am the very model of a modern Major-General”, Arthur Sullivan, W. S. Gilbert.


Andrew Robinson wrote at nature.com on 4.4.18:

“In 1959, the mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer — who turns 90 this month — performed what he characteristically called a “completely pointless” scientific song at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (He was a PhD student there at the time.) ‘The Elements’, now one of his most cherished works, sets the names of all the chemical elements then known to the tune of the ‘Major-General’s Song’ from The Pirates of Penzance, the comic opera by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Lehrer’s heroically precise, rapid-fire enunciation of 102 elements (reordered to allow flawless end-rhymes), ends with the much-quoted crack, “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard/And there may be many others but they haven’t been discarvard.”

In the 1960s, Lehrer followed up with more than a dozen astringent, cynical and often pointedly political songs, such as ‘So Long, Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb (A Song for World War III)’. As The New York Times had it, “Mr. Lehrer’s muse [is] not fettered by such inhibiting factors as taste.” (Lehrer reprinted the quote in his album liner notes.) In the fraught geopolitics and paranoia of the cold war, however, Lehrer’s social criticism touched a chord with many in the United States. Fans might, however, have been surprised to learn that he had crunched numbers for the National Security Agency as an army draftee in the mid-1950s.

Much of Lehrer’s oeuvre — some 50 songs (or 37, by his own ruthless reckoning) composed over nearly three decades — played with tensions at the nexus of science and society. His biggest hit, That Was The Year That Was, covered a gamut of them. This 1965 album gathered together songs Lehrer had written for That Was The Week That Was, the US satirical television show spawned by the BBC original. ‘Who’s Next?’ exposes the dangers of nuclear proliferation. ‘Pollution’ highlights environmental crises building at the time, such as undrinkable water and unbreathable air.

The rousing ballad ‘Wernher von Braun’ undermines the former Nazi — who designed the V-2 ballistic missile in the Second World War and later became a key engineer in the US Apollo space programme. In Lehrer’s view, it was acceptable for NASA to hire von Braun, but making him into an American hero was grotesque. “‘Once the rockets are up, who cares where they come down?’/‘That’s not my department,’ says Wernher von Braun” — lines that still resonate in today’s big-tech ethical jungle. ‘New Math’, meanwhile, skewers the education system through the lens of a misfired revolution in mathematics, with its telling refrain: “It’s so simple, so very simple, that only a child can do it” (A. Bellos Nature 516, 34–35; 2014)…

…He also largely gave up songwriting and public performing in the early 1970s. Following the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to then-US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1973, Lehrer commented: “Political satire became obsolete.” And in 2002 he remarked, still less optimistically: “Things I once thought were funny are scary now. I often feel like a resident of Pompeii who has been asked for some humorous comments on lava.” About the political earthquakes triggered by US President Donald Trump, Lehrer has been silent…”

Ron McKay wrote at herald Scotland.com on 1.11.20:

“HE hasn’t made a record in 50 years, hasn’t performed publicly in that time, his musical canon is less than 50 songs and while he isn’t exactly a recluse he shuns publicity, admitting to spreading the rumour that he was dead in the vain attempt to cut down on junk mail. But last week Tom Lehrer resurfaced, putting all his material into the public domain, royalty-free. Expect a Lehrer revival…

Lehrer is now 92, living quietly in California. The poet Philip Larkin marked 1963 as the year sex was invented, for Lehrer 1973 was when satire became obsolete with the Nobel Prize for Peace going to Henry Kissinger who, among other notable accolades, spied for the FBI on alleged communists as a student and went on to mastermind the carpet bombing of Cambodia in the Vietnam War…

In 2012 the US rapper 2 Chainz sampled Lehrer’s song The Old Dope Peddler (“He gives the kids free samples, Because he knows full well, That today’s young innocent faces, Will be tomorrow’s clientele.”). In response to the record company’s request for permission to use the sample, Lehrer responded, “As sole copyright owner… I grant you motherf*****s permission to do this. Please give my regards to Mr. Chainz, or may I call him 2?”

Now the rest of us (expletive deleted) can do what we want with his material.”

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