In 1959, the mathematician and satirist Tom Lehrer — who turns 90 this month — performed what he characteristically called a “completely pointless” scientific song at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (He was a PhD student there at the time.) ‘The Elements’, now one of his most cherished works, sets the names of all the chemical elements then known to the tune of the ‘Major-General’s Song’ from The Pirates of Penzance, the comic opera by W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Lehrer’s heroically precise, rapid-fire enunciation of 102 elements (reordered to allow flawless end-rhymes), ends with the much-quoted crack, “These are the only ones of which the news has come to Harvard/And there may be many others but they haven’t been discarvard.”
In the 1960s, Lehrer followed up with more than a dozen astringent, cynical and often pointedly political songs, such as ‘So Long, Mom, I’m Off to Drop the Bomb (A Song for World War III)’. In the fraught geopolitics and paranoia of the cold war, however, Lehrer’s social criticism touched a chord with many in the United States. Fans might, however, have been surprised to learn that he had crunched numbers for the National Security Agency as an army draftee in the mid-1950s.