Thursday, April 17, 2008
We live in a world focused on celebrity, but there are also luminaries -- those guiding lights who actually inspire celebrities along with the rest of us. Today there's a luminary we'd like to call out: Tom Lehrer. It hasn't escaped our attention that Mr. Lehrer turned 80 last week. (We have it on good authority that his view of numbers is such that 80 is not so different than 79, so he probably won't mind this belated note.) We think he's great. We're fans.
Mr. Lehrer is the Harvard mathematician turned parodist songwriter-performer whose sense of humor, intelligence and rhythm created a cult following that, weirdly enough, anticipated a lot of what Google's culture tries to be about. His work is clever, playful and fun and connects things in ways that surprises, delights and inspires. (Consider "The Element Song", his ode to the periodic table, or his lesson on "New Math".) How could we not be inspired by someone who can craft a good laugh, a great tune, and an elegant equation?
From "The Masochism Tango" to "Who's Next" to "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park" (trust us, you have to hear it), Mr. Lehrer's unique music carved out a distinctive place in popular music in the 1950s and '60s. He made his fans feel smart. An entrepreneur -- and we like entrepreneurs -- he self-produced and sold his songs via mail order. And for all the edginess in his humor, he ended up writing some ten clever songs for the '70s public television children's program The Electric Company, including a tune about the letter 'e.'
Although Wikipedia notes that he performed only 109 shows and wrote just 37 songs over 20 years, we think his impact and influence goes well beyond those numbers. He was the best kind of "geek" before the word made its way into pop culture. He's the kind of character as comfortable teaching a university course on the history of the musical -- which he did -- as running a seminar on the nature of mathematics -- which he did.
We hope that in retirement Mr. Lehrer is enjoying himself even a fraction as much as we've enjoyed his work. We're grateful that he's such a great example of how science, humor, music and mathematics can be combined to create such wonderful things.