I transcribe every episode of My Favorite Theorem, the podcast I cohost with Kevin Knudson. It’s important for accessibility (and yes, I do judge you if you publish a podcast with no transcript, especially if you have a decent budget), but I’ve also found that a lot of hearing people prefer to read rather than listen to our podcast. Selfishly, having transcripts makes it possible to search text more easily in case I want to refer to something later.
A few months ago I started using otter.ai to help with my transcriptions. (This is not an Otter ad. It’s fine, but I think there are plenty of other companies that do similar work.) I upload the audio of the podcast, let the algorithm create a first draft of the transcript, and then listen to the podcast again and clean it up. Otter does a pretty decent job, but of course it is not perfect. It’s not too bad at everyday words, but its accuracy plummets on more technical terms or words from languages other than English, often to hilarious effect. In our episode with Jim Propp, it rendered "combinatorics" as "common at Oryx," "enumeration of tilings" as "immigration of Tyler," and "constant value theorem" as "Constantine of doom.” Amusing mondegreens like those make a somewhat tedious task a bit less of a slog for me.
On most episodes of My Favorite Theorem, we talk with one mathematician about their favorite theorem, but our most recent episode is a little different. You can listen to it here or at kpknudson.com, where the transcript also lives.
Kevin and I went to the Joint Mathematics Meetings in January and interviewed a small subset of the 6,000 or so attendees and asked for their “flash favorite theorems,” super short descriptions of their favorite theorems. We put together an episode with 16 of these “flash favorite” theorems, and it’s a lot of fun, if I do say so myself.
Most My Favorite Theorem episodes don’t have too many distinct mondegreens. The same bits of jargon tend to get interpreted in only one or two different incorrect ways. But a collection of 16 different voices (18 if you count Kevin and me), along with the background noise of a huge meeting, really cranked up the misheard math.
For your amusement, some mathematical mondegreens, courtesy of Otter and our friends at the Joint Math Meetings.
- Cauchy-Riemann equations: cushy remote equations (Eric Sullivan)
- Nullstellensatz: “small scale insights” and “nutshell and thoughts” (Courtney Gibbons)
- Banach-Tarski paradox: “throw the ball not a paradox” and “monitors to paradox” (Shelley Kandola)
- Euler’s identity on the Riemann zeta function: loyalist identity on the remasters function
Riemann zeta function: remain seated function (Terence Tsui)
- Math biologist: massive biologist (Courtney Davis)
- Isomorphism: is Marxism (Jenny Kenkel)
- linear algebra: when you’re out there (Charlie Cunningham)
- Voronoi: very annoying (Ellie Dannenberg)
- Sharkovskii: circus be (Michelle Manes)
- Gödel’s incompleteness: Good Al’s inconvenience (John Cobb)
Poor Al! If only someone would make it so the axioms of mathematics had no limitations at all, he’d be so much happier! Have you ever heard a mathematical mondegreen? Let me know on Twitter.