Laughter comes from many places and takes many forms. That passenger on the bus is chuckling at a well-written quip in a good novel. The giggling fit from the other room is your family reacting to the hero of an action-comedy making a pratfall. Raucous laughter reverberates through the house at 3 am as you watch yet another YouTube video starring a funny animal. We all enjoy a good laugh*, and sometimes we’re okay with brainless cat videos*2; other times, we want our laughter to come with a side of enlightenment, or at least a new factoid we can use to impress our friends.
Before I get into the funny books*3, I’d like to draw attention to Ha! the Science of When We Laugh and Why by Scott Weems, which examines exactly what it promises with that title. It isn’t a funny book in and of itself; sure, there are jokes scattered throughout, but they’re there to support the book’s scientific approach to humour. Besides exploring what makes us laugh, Weems also examines what laughter does to our brains. Did you know that “getting” a joke fires the parts of our brain that deal with conflict resolution? Or that laughter therapy is a legitimate treatment in hospitals*4? It also lightly touches on how humour changes across cultures around the world. While it’s a pop-sci style book, don’t go into this one expecting a light and breezy read, as Weems doesn’t shy away from getting technical. This book won’t make you funnier or draw out a hearty guffaw, but it will help you understand why you’re laughing at the next couple of books.
That understanding will keep you sane when you start laughing at mathematics of all topics. Admittedly it’s math with a side of tragedy, and you know the old equation: tragedy + math = comedy. Wait… Did I get that right? Ah well, surely it won’t be disastrous if I’m wrong, unlike some of the examples in Humble Pi When Math Goes Wrong in the Real World. Stand-up mathematician Matt Parker has collected stories of how a missing number here, a rounding error there, or just plain not considering the consequences could result in, to put it mildly, issues. These range from a person’s surname being database kryptonite to a new London skyscraper melting cars parked on the street with its concave windows on a rare sunny day in the city. A potential tragedy occurred when a passenger jet had both engines fail mid-flight since someone had measured the fuel in pounds, not kilograms (oops!). An experienced crew and a safe place to glide to for a landing meant the biggest tragedy for the passengers was the loss of time, not lives. An exceedingly costly error happened on the same scale: a mars probe crashed into the Martian surface because one part of its code worked in imperial instead of metric like everything else. Parker explains the math behind the problems (and the problems behind the math) in an engaging style that even the most math-averse reader would understand.
But maybe real-world math examples aren’t what you’re looking for? Perhaps you’re more interested in quantifying the power output of a little green force-user or wondering how fast you can hit a speed bump and still survive*5. If questions like these haunt your dreams, then What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions is the book for you. Former NASA roboticist turned webcomic superstar Randall Munroe (of XKCD fame) is used to receiving unusual (and sometimes concerning*6) questions from friends and readers and being expected to answer them. Luckily for us, Munroe was up to the challenge and even started by answering them through his website*7. Some questions in the book are duplicated from the site, but others are brand-new and only in the published book. No question is too out-there, and every answer is grounded in real-world science made accessible through Munroe’s entertaining writing style and signature stick-figure drawings. Just… Try not to think too hard about the kinds of people who ask the more disturbing questions. Or what they might do with the answers.
Hopefully, these items tickle your fancy or funny bone. I know I’ll be putting some of the knowledge from Ha! to use, trying to convince the scowlers in my life to lighten up for their health.
* I say this, but I’m sure everyone can think of at least one person in their lives who relishes resentment, delights in being dour, and is only satisfied when scowling.
*2 I wrote this, and even I’m not sure if brainless is modifying cat, video, or both.
*3 Or at least what I think are funny books, but I guess that’s obvious. Sorry if you scrolled down to this footnote hoping for something witty.
*4 Laughter isn’t the best medicine, but it certainly helps!
*5 Okay, maybe these are physics questions, but that’s just applied math (Comic by Randall Munroe, author of What If?)
*6 Could you build a jetpack using downward-firing machine guns?
*7 I’ve linked one of my favourites, where the initially innocent question is ramped up to comical absurdity.