Vaccines usually take 10 years to develop. The impetus of global lockdowns has given us one inside of a year. Once again, in a time of crisis, humanity has demonstrated its incredible reserve capacity.
It’s not as simple as an unusually focused commitment of resources, although that has certainly helped. The removal of bureaucratic barriers was also very helpful. But I’d guess an important factor, though unquantifiable and so overlooked, was the sense of purpose and duty that scientists and technicians and everyone else felt as they worked on one of the hundred-plus vaccine efforts of the past year.
Tom Lehrer is no longer a household name, but he was one of the most important political satirists of the 20th century. A musical comedian, his lyrics are edgy, irreverent and heroically creative. Working from the 1950s through the 1960s, he mocked the Church, the Army, the space program — no cow remained sacred. His crudity kept him off the radio and away from full mainstream success, but he still sold millions of records and, maybe more importantly, influenced the comedians of today. Weird Al Yankovich, Randy Newman, and Lizz Winstead, the creator of The Daily Show, all cite him directly. Bo Burnham is a clear spiritual descendant. As political satire has blitzkrieged mainstream American culture, it’s worth looking at its greatest practitioner in the 20th century and seeing what we can learn.
The most obvious element of Lehrer’s biography is his titanic intellect. In 1946, at the age of 18, he started his Ph.D. in math at Harvard (a place he memorably termed a “hotbed of celibacy”). In a group of friends that included a future Nobel laureate, he was considered “the intellectual leader.” Equally impressive as a musician, he once entertained friends at a Harvard party by playing Rachmaninoff in two keys at once, one for each hand.
What’s so important about rhyme? Why does it have a stranglehold on so much of humanity’s collective creative output? It has aesthetic power: “Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky.” It flaunts wit: Lin-Manuel Miranda rhyming “jettison” with “debt is in.” And some artists show how much they value these qualities when they reach a little too far for a rhyme: “Don’t ever fix your lips like collagen / And say something when you gon’ end up apologin.” Well done, Kanye.
But rhyming is not just aesthetic. It establishes a constraint that can jumpstart the creative process. More than that, it prompts us to connect words that we otherwise wouldn’t, simply because they rhyme. Words have semantic properties — their definitions and connotations — and syntactic ones, which we’ll broaden a bit to just mean not semantic.
Every once in a while, as I pass the enormous columns of Widener Library, I’m struck by the historical permanence of Harvard. Widener grants imposing physicality to the abstract idea that Harvard has been around for a long, long time.
Almost every Harvard student of the past decade has contributed to the collaborative literary masterpiece that is the Q-Guide comment section. At the end of the semester, some students use their new-found freetime to craft poetic odes to a great course or professor, while others assemble cutting polemics no less artful — all in wonderful anonymity. A few highlights: