Despite all their surface diversity, most jokes and funny incidents have the following logical structure: Typically you lead the listener along a garden path of expectation, slowly building up tension. At the very end, you introduce an unexpected twist that entails a complete reinterpretation of all the preceding data, and moreover, it's critical that the new interpretation, though wholly unexpected, makes as much "sense" of the entire set of facts as did the originally "expected" interpretation.In this regard, jokes have much in common with scientific creativity, with what Thomas Kuhn calls a "paradigm shift" in response to a single "anomaly." (It's probably not coincidence that many of the most creative scientists have a great sense of humor.) Of course, the anomaly in the joke is the traditional punch line and the joke is "funny" only if the listener gets the punch line by seeing in a flash of insight how a completely new interpretation of the same set of facts can incorporate the anomalous ending.The longer and more tortuous the garden path of expectation, the "funnier" the punch line when finally delivered.
I found myself drawn to biology, with all its frustrating yet fascinating complexities. When I was twelve, I remember reading about axolotls, which are basically a species of salamander that has evolved to remain permanently in the aquatic larval stage. They manage to keep their gills (rather than trading them in for lungs, like salamanders or frogs) by shutting down metamorphosis and becoming sexually mature in the water. I was completely flabbergasted when I read that by simply giving these creatures the “metamorphosis hormone” (thyroid extract) you could make the axolotl revert back into the extinct, land-dwelling, gill-less adult ancestor that it had evolved from. You could go back in time, resurrecting a prehistoric animal that no longer exists anywhere on Earth. I also knew that for some mysterious reason adult salamanders don’t regenerate amputated legs but the tadpoles do. My curiosity took me one step further, to the question of whether an axolotl—which is, after all, an “adult tadpole”—would retain its ability to regenerate a lost leg just as a modern frog tadpole does. And how many other axolotl-like beings exist on Earth, I wondered, that could be restored to their ancestral forms by simply giving them hormones? Could humans—who are after all apes that have evolved to retain many juvenile qualities—be made to revert to an ancestral form, perhaps something resembling Homo erectus, using the appropriate cocktail of hormones? My mind reeled out a stream of questions and speculations, and I was hooked on biology forever. I found mysteries and possibilities everywhere.
How can a three-pound mass of jelly that you can hold in your palm imagine angels, contemplate the meaning of infinity, and even question its own place in the cosmos? Especially awe inspiring is the fact that any single brain, including yours, is made up of atoms that were forged in the hearts of countless, far-flung stars billions of years ago. These particles drifted for eons and light-years until gravity and change brought them together here, now. These atoms now form a conglomerate- your brain- that can not only ponder the very stars that gave it birth but can also think about its own ability to think and wonder about its own ability to wonder. With the arrival of humans, it has been said, the universe has suddenly become conscious of itself. This, truly, it the greatest mystery of all.