There was a great article on what we know of the life of Tom Lehrer the other day. I urge everyone to read it, simply because the man is an icon within our nation’s entertainment landscape.
The article states what many others have always wondered; why did such a popular entertainer want to leave the limelight and riches that had so readily embraced him?
Dear Gentle Reader, I humbly submit for your approval this hypothesis. Mr. Lehrer was not in love with his audience, or his entertaining craft. We, his singing, songs, and piano playing were not his first love.
His first love was, and probably still is, Mathematics. And that is the key to his retirement, solitude, and heartbreak. For once you have even the barest glimpse of what lies within the realm of the mathematical realm, you can understand why someone would reject everything else in order to live there, even if only for a moment.
If you are not mathematical, this will be hard to convey, but I will do my best. To be religious, it is like peering into the mind of God. To be artistic, it is like understanding the very brush and clay that Nature uses to create the world around us. To be a child, it is like a box of toys is lain at your feet for you to play with, without instructions or restrictions from adults. To be poetic, it is seeing infinite beauty within every particle, every action in our universe. Finally, being practical, it is truly all of these things. For mathematics is a realm that exists as surely as matter, energy, and logic exist. It reveals natural structures that can’t even be imagined once they are seen, for they have aspects extending far beyond our feeble senses. Mathematics plays with concepts so powerful that our great civilization is built upon only some of them in the crudest ways. Finally, mathematics gives insights into our universe that we are not able to fully understand.
Mr. Lehrer has seen into the realm of math, and has been properly awed, and humbled. He opened his heart to let her in. Unfortunately for the rest of the world, math was not as forthcoming to Mr. Lehrer. He did not achieve great insights, and has not attained what he set out to in the beginning, a formal and social acknowledgement of that achievement. He is not Dr. Lehrer, but Mr. Tom Lehrer. He is remembered as a wonderfully entertaining man, not an explorer of the mathematical realm.
Is it no wonder that he prefers solitude to platitude?