Blog: humour

| Enith Vlooswijk

A woman walks into a mortuary. The mortician lifts up the sheet and the woman says: ‘Yes, that is my husband, but what detergent are you using to keep your sheets so white?’ The joke comes from ‘Das schwarze Buch’ by the German comic artist Uli Stein. It was used in a Viennese experiment with 156 subjects. These people were asked whether they liked the jokes.

Photo by: Gijs van Ouwerkerk

Their intelligence, aggression, mood and educational background were also tested. The researchers’ conclusion: the more someone liked Stein’s jokes, the less aggressive and the more intelligent they were. Ergo, there is a link between intelligence and black humour. The experiment, which was published last year, received a disproportionate amount of attention in various media that do not shy away from clickbait. The question of whether appreciation of Stein’s humour might have more to do with one’s personal taste than one’s intelligence was not covered.

I encountered this study while searching on Google for articles about humour and science. I was inspired to do so by my interest in Andre Konstantinovitsj Geim. This British-Dutch physician with a Russian background is, to the best of my knowledge, the only one with two Nobel Prizes to his name: the Ig Nobel Prize for making a frog levitate in a magnetic field and the Nobel Prize in Physics for his ground-breaking research into graphene. The Ig Nobel Prize is given out for research that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. On a Friday night in 1997, Geim had the idea of throwing water onto a high-powered magnet in Nijmegen. When it began to levitate, his wife suggested he tried the same with a frog. The picture of the floating frog went around the world. The experiment also worked with his hamster, Tisha. Under the pen name of H.A.M.S. Ter Tisha, she was credited as the co-author of the article he published on his experiment. Geim has a great sense of humour, as interviews with him make abundantly clear. When asked about the importance of humour in science, he told journalist Bo Blanckenburg about the disgruntled response from the scientific community to his joke with the frog: ‘I would not take my work too seriously. As if boring and serious always go together! If you have a chance to make fun of yourself, you should take it. It helps keep things in perspective.’

He eventually left Nijmegen for the University of Manchester, where the atmosphere on the research floor is supposedly less hierarchical. I envy his colleagues and can only hope they have a better sense of humour than the Viennese.