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I am trying to understand the motivation for the jingle about plagiarism written by Tom Lehrer. A YouTube version can be found here http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IL4vWJbwmqM .

Where does history stand on the matter, what did Lobachevsky plagiarize?

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As Arturo points out, Lehrer implies nothing. However, there was quite a fuss among Gauss, Lobachevsky and Polya over non-Euclidean Geometry! –  Pedro Tamaroff Apr 25 '12 at 0:46
@Peter, Polya? You mean, Bolyai? Not all Hungarians are isomorphic. –  Gerry Myerson Apr 25 '12 at 4:58
@Gerry Ha. Yes, I meant Janos Bolyai. –  Pedro Tamaroff Apr 25 '12 at 9:25
Interestingly he ain't dead, maybe somebody should ask the guy? –  Mikhail Jul 24 at 6:44

2 Answers 2

up vote 15 down vote accepted


The song is a take-off of an old Danny Kaye routine (as Lehrer explains in the intro to the song in at least one of his albums) about Konstantin Stanislavski. The name "Lobachevsky" was chosen for reasons of meter and syllable stress.

(You can listen to a version of Danny Kaye's routine in youtube)

Lehrer has stated/written that he did not mean to suggest any plagiarism on the part of Lobachevsky. According to Wikipedia, in the liner notes to the song Lehrer writes:

"[the song is] not intended as a slur on [Lobachevsky's] character"

and the name was chosen

"solely for prosodic reasons"

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I would just like to add that I have also found no evidence of Tom Lehrer ever writing a paper of Analytic and Algebraic Topology of Locally Euclidean Metrizations of Infinitely Differentiable Riemannian Manifolds (Боже мой!). –  Arthur Fischer Mar 12 '12 at 8:44
I believe the question is not without warrant as János Bolyai had done similar work. Perhaps in Lehrer's time they considered Lobachevsky a plagiarist. –  Mikhail Mar 12 '12 at 10:53
@Misha: No, they didn't. And Lehrer was clear in the liner notes. –  Arturo Magidin Mar 12 '12 at 14:55

The song relies on a general Cold War amusement at all things that sounded strange and Russian (as in the Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, or some of the James Bond villains), and the exaggeration of many common stereotypes and tropes connected to the USSR and Russia. Mathematics was one of the main things the Western public associated with Soviet Russia in the post-Sputnik era (edit: see comment below), so the choice of a mathematician as the protagonist is natural.

Lehrer was also a mathematics Ph.D student. The basic outline of the Gauss-Lobachevsky-Bolyai historical episode is famous enough in mathematical circles that Lehrer knew it would generate some additional humorous associations when combined with the "plagiarize!" motif. Given this and the Danny Kaye routine, putting the ideas together must have been quite natural for Lehrer, especially with Nikolai Ivanovich Lobachevsky being a suitably long name (by US standards) to pronounce multiple times in the song.

If one were writing a parody involving Shakespeare then a comparable line would be "steal from Marlowe!" (or Bacon, or Burbage, or another of the famous hypothetical authors), and given the comedic license it would not be interpreted as a serious statement about the origin of the Shakespeare plays.

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The post-Sputnik era? Sputnik 1957; Lehrer/Lobachevsky recorded 1953, probably written earlier. –  Gerry Myerson Apr 25 '12 at 5:00
@Gerry: thanks for the correction. –  zyx Apr 25 '12 at 5:43

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