When the photographer from People magazine showed up to do a spread on me in 1996 (yes, 1996 – pre-open-source, it’s from my first 15 minutes of fame as a lexicographer), he taught me a useful term – “face people”. Face people are people who are famous for being famous, the vacant icons of celebrity narcissism who throng the pages of magazines like, well, People. The photographer observed that he found dealing with someone who is not a face person refreshing.
In a similar way, I always find it heartening when I discover someone who by position ought to be a mere face person but is in fact one of us. And by ‘us’, I mean a geek. Er. Reads science fiction, likes computers, enjoys challenging games, is generally into bright-person stuff. This is especially nice on the rare occasions when the putative face person has made a show-biz reputation acting like a bright geeky sort.
And today I learned that Daniel Radcliffe, the kid who played Harry Potter, went on British TV, described Tom Lehrer as the cleverest and funniest man of the 20th century and his hero, and then sang The Elements. Badly, but with feeling..
Now I’m not going to say that I know Radcliffe has the whole constellation of geek traits. But after seeing that YouTube clip, I know which way to bet.
It is worth the few minutes of light-hearted fun to hear the original @ youtube.com by searching for “tom lehrer elements”. There are several results from all sorts of engaging folks who’ve animated this delightful little ditty with all manner of illustration. Enjoyment… Simple & fun. perhaps even elegant fun.
that last line is a bitch, isn’t it? (otoh he handled the one with molybdenum in it better than i’ve ever been able to.)
There’s a very clever version going around that uses Google Instant as animation (with Lehrer’s original recording).
> it’s from my first 15 minutes of fame as a lexicographer
ESR says: Yep.
Um, Eric, dear, you get to judge his performance if you can sing even ONE LINE of The Elements.
>Um, Eric, dear, you get to judge his performance if you can sing even ONE LINE of The Elements.
I have in fact managed this. Mind you, I’m not claiming I do it better than Radcliffe; unlike him, I’ve never memorized the entire lyrics. But any geek who can’t rattle off “There’s antimony arsenic aluminum selenium” off the top of his head should probably hang it up and go to a disco or something.
Ah, Lehrer. Apt surname. He taught so many people so many things, like New Math :
You can’t take three from two; two is less than three…
Don’t forget Lehrer’s hilarious song about the Muse of Muses, Alma Mahler-Werfel
Russell, you just had to throw down that challenge, didn’t you? Now we’ll get a video of Eric…
Paul’s reply: “United States, Canada, Mexico, Panama…”
Oh, I can rattle it off … singing, well, that’s a whole separate problem. My wife assures me that I can’t carry a tune in a bucket. That’s why I have to stick to musical instruments. :)
Worth noting that They Might Be Giants recently released their elements song. Not as clever or complete as Lehrer, but rather poetic. And yes, it made my geek heart happy to see TMBG make science-themed music.
I think this explains the earnestly hopeful tone for some of the more stretching-it entries on tropes’ “One Of Us” page.
Anyone can sing Lehrer’s The Elements.
But can you sing the extended version, that adds two more versus for the elements added since he composed it?
How about backwards?
Oh, and Eric – don’t look too closely at Lehrer’s politics. You may spoil your enjoyment of his music.
>But can you sing the extended version, that adds two more versus for the elements added since he composed it?
Where can this be found?
“Antimony etc.” is acceptable. Also acceptable is “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Hah-vahd. There may be many others but they haven’t been dis-cah-vahd.” Which for some reason good Daniel left off.
Bonus points for knowing the name of the song and play from which the tune derived.
If esr hadn’t done it already, I’d have asked too; where, oh where?
Edublogger Joanne Jacobs posted a link to Radcliffe’s performance, and a commenter said plaintively that it was a shame that he left off Seaborgium. I said,
Seaborgium was named much more recently than the song was written, wasn’t it? Wikipedia says the name was proposed in 1994 and formally adopted in 1997, and that sounds about right; I heard Seaborg speak at Lawrence Livermore National Lab when I was working in Pleasanton (just down the road), and that would be between Feb.1995 and June 1997. I vaguely recall he mentioned the proposal had been made but hadn’t been adopted. Not sure how old the song is, but a lot earlier than that. Lehrer stopped writing songs around 1970 or so. Some of his songs were updated, but it’s hard to see how you’d do that with “Elements.”
(Speaking as someone who owned the first Lehrer LP, 10-inch, not long after it came out. Mathematicians didn’t have a lot of popular icons, and word got around.)
And there are two whole verses more?
esr might be amused to know that my son Peter (who goes by Seebs), whom he mentioned in CATB, was brought up on Lehrer, and brought down the house (and in the school psychiatrist) when he warbled one of Lehrer’s anti-war songs at his elementary school’s therapy session aimed at children who were traumatized by some television program about nuclear peril.
>esr might be amused to know that my son Peter (who goes by Seebs), whom he mentioned in CATB, was brought up on Lehrer, and brought down the house (and in the school psychiatrist) when he warbled one of Lehrer’s anti-war songs at his elementary school’s therapy session aimed at children who were traumatized by some television program about nuclear peril.
Truly, I am not even the faintest bit surprised to hear this.
@esr – you seem to imply an agreement with Radcliffe’s assessment of the guy as “the cleverest and funniest man of the 20th century and his hero”…
Do you REALLY consider someone a hero who holds the following sentiments: “I’m not tempted to write a song about George W. Bush. I couldn’t figure out what sort of song I would write. That’s the problem: I don’t want to satirise George Bush and his puppeteers, I want to vaporize them.”. ***EMPHASIS on “VAPORIZE” – coming out of a supposed peace-loving guy***
(Lest there be any doubt about him being one of the “libertarian leaning people disenchanted about incompetent big-government conservative Bush”, the next fact should dispel that: ‘In a phone call to Gene Weingarten of the Washington Post in February 2008, Lehrer instructed Weingarten to “Just tell the people that I am voting for Obama.”‘
>Do you REALLY consider someone a hero who holds the following sentiments:
Wrong question. Tom Lehrer isn’t my hero, because I don’t rate satirists that highly.
In any case, Radcliffe may not know or care about Lehrer’s politics. I didn’t know anything about them myself until Ken Burnside raised the subject.
My reaction on reading Lehrer’s crack about Bush was that these seemed the words of an ossified old man and that his younger self might have had more sense. His political satire was always the weakest part of his oeuvre.
UPDATE: George Carlin seems like a good, slightly more contemporary parallel. Very funny and humane as a young man when he was willing to skewer anything; ugly, disappointing and bitter as an old man ranting about politics.
I couldn’t resist adding my own personal Lehrer favorites:
New Math (already mentioned in a previous post)
I Got It From Agnes
Poisoning Pigeons in the Park
And an honourable mention for The Vatican Rag
“2…4…6…8…time to transubstantiate!”
Tom Lehrer stole some of his melodies from Gilbert and Sullivan.
“I am a very model of a modern Major General!”
I think a lot of the fun went out of life for George Carlin after he realized that cocain makes you feel …. LIKE YOU WANT MORE COCAINE!
Lehrer’s politics are pretty thoroughly gentry liberal. He stopped doing satire shortly after Nixon got elected. He said it was too depressing to consider. It’s easier to satirize imbecility than evil is his money quote.
I say that satirizing evil is the most important social function a satirist has.
I’m still trying to re-locate the video of the extended edition; I think I last saw it in 2005 or 2006 – it was shortly after I first met Eric.
Someone has also tried to restructure the song so that groups of elements from the same column of the periodic table are in the same versus, with bonus points for being adjacent based on chemical properties; this was a horrible failure as a song, regrettably, but a heroic effort nonetheless.
Yeah, what’s not to like about Radcliffe? He’s hot, he’s a geek, and his political views are very similar to my own.
Not quite Tom Lehrer, but the one on the French Revolution is quite catchy…
Haiti, Jamaica, Peru…
I can’t sing the elements song. I memorized the periodic table and start singing the element in their atomic number order.
ISTR that Animaniacs had a few similar songs…