In Spider Man 2 Peter is talking to Otto before an experiment. Peter, Otto, and his wife Rosie have this exchange:

ROSIE: You need to sleep soundly tonight, Otto.

OTTO: Did Edison sleep before he turned on the light? Did Marconi sleep before he turned on the radio? Did Beethoven sleep before he wrote the 5th?

PETER : Did Bernoulli sleep before he found the curves of quickest descent?

OTTO: Rosie, I love this boy.

I can't figure out what Peter is saying. He's delivering the line like he's proving Otto wrong and Bernoulli somehow slept before or in order to discover the curves of quickest descent. From what I can gleam from Wikipedia, Bernoulli sent a challenge out to the mathematics community, got promising answers from several mathematicians, and then published his combined findings. Nothing in particular stands out as requiring or being related to sleep.

  • 34
    Because he's a colossal nerd. Thats literally the joke.
    – Valorum
    Aug 9 '17 at 17:47
  • 30
    "Did Beethoven sleep before he wrote the 5th?" Probably, since he spent about 4 years writing it.
    – chepner
    Aug 9 '17 at 19:02
  • 16
    The repetition of the phrase "Did <subject> sleep before he <action?>" is a rhetorical device known as anaphora. The use of anaphora dramatizes the dialogue and creates a tension between Otto and Rosie. Peter resolves the tension humorously by interjecting, in the same rhetorical form, a remark that simultaneously acknowledges Otto's point and engages with Otto's intellect. yourdictionary.com/anaphora Aug 9 '17 at 19:15
  • 3
    Was that the same movie in which Peter used the word ‘exponential’ in a sloppy (and thus non-nerdy) way? Aug 9 '17 at 20:59
  • 5
    @AntonSherwood Since when do blockbuster Hollywood films bother getting their facts right? ;-)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 9 '17 at 21:37

The most likely interpretation is the one already pointed out by onewho and Valorum: that Peter is simply showing off his knowledge and impressing Otto by doing so. After all, how many non-scientists would even have heard of Bernoulli and the curves of quickest descent, let alone be able to drop a reference into a casual conversation in such an off-the-cuff manner?

Digging a little deeper into the context though, there are a few interesting twists on this one:

  • After Bernoulli announced the problem of finding a curve of quickest descent, it went a long time before being solved - a time during which he obviously must have slept. Even his own period of solidly working on it was two weeks long.

    Bernoulli allowed six months for the solutions but none were received during this period. At the request of Leibniz, the time was publicly extended for a year and a half. [...] Johann Bernoulli took two weeks to solve it.

  • One of the solutions to this problem (albeit Newton's and not Bernoulli's) was achieved without sleep, at least supposedly.

    On 29 January 1697 the challenge was received by Isaac Newton, who found it in his mail, in a letter from Johann Bernoulli, when he arrived home from the Royal Mint at 4 p.m., and stayed up all night to solve it and mailed the solution anonymously by the next post. Upon reading the solution, Bernoulli immediately recognized its author, exclaiming that he recognizes a lion from his claw mark.

  • 19
    I believe it is Newton's solution, erroneously attributed to Bernoulli. The story of Newton's solution being done in a single night, and the "recognise the lion" quote is a well known titbit from the history of maths. I suspect the writer is referencing this, but got the details wrong.
    – James K
    Aug 9 '17 at 21:04
  • 1
    On the showing off part, I seem to recall the line from Otto "Brilliant but lazy" being used before. Making Peter want to show his worth
    – Edelk
    Aug 10 '17 at 12:33
  • One potential view is that Bernoulli did nothing (slept) for a long time while waiting for others to do the work.
    – JollyJoker
    Aug 10 '17 at 12:56
  • 2
    @JamesK likely, they deemed Newton too well-known as a physicist. Almost everybody knows about him and that apple story; saying “did Newton sleep before he found the curves of quickest descent” would have done more to sidetrack the audience (what does he have to do with “curves of descent”? Is this plot-relevant?...) than to give Peter a nerd-show moment. Aug 10 '17 at 19:36
  • 3
    @leftaroundabout Good point. Knowing about Newton gives you almost no nerd cred; knowing about the Bernoullis is much more noteworthy.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Aug 10 '17 at 20:01

There is no joke here. Peter wasn't trying to prove Otto wrong or insinuate that Bernoulli somehow slept before discovering the curves of the quickest descent.

The comment Peter makes is meant to indicate to Otto that Peter is on the same intellectual level as Otto. It's because Peter is able to keep up with Otto's intelligence, despite Peter's age, and lack of experience, that Otto 'loves this boy'.

  • 4
    Not only that he pulls out the reference, but he shares the same sentiment vis a vis sleep.
    – Ross
    Aug 9 '17 at 18:09

In fact, the dialogue here plays on two levels.

First, why a reference to the need for sleep, before making some big discovery (or move) ?

This reminds of the anecdote over the discovery of the cyclic structure of benzene by Kekulé Von Stradonitz. This prominent German scientist once explained how he found the long-time-sought-for solution: he dreamt of a snake eating its own tail, or 'ouroboros'. When he woke, he knew that benzene molecules would have a cyclic form!

Otto is thus arguing that he does not need sleep to be a genius, or make a great move. Doing so, he uses publicly well-known facts about inventions and their inventors.

Actually, his point is stronger than that: he wants to do exactly what he is intending to, without delay nor disturbance.

Peter, on the other hand, answers with a non-trivial scientific reference. This makes Otto admirative of Peter, but this is not what Peter wants.

Peter is trying to warn his old friend Otto that he's going to make a big mistake, whereas Otto only sees Peter as challenging his own knowledge.

  • 1
    I agree. Peter senses somehow that Otto is going down a path of "quickest descent" with his experiment. A fall from being an admired genius to a hated villain who has lost everything.
    – Hermetix
    Aug 11 '17 at 7:55

“Curves of quickest descent” in simple terms basically Bernoulli discovered that obviously while descending (going down) a straight path might be a shorter distance to travel BUT going down a curved path is the fastest. Peter Parker uses this principle of physics while he’s out being Spider-Man you see him swinging & falling in a curved path because as your hitting that curve you’re generating more speed, making you travel quicker & you see him following bernoulli’s principle which is the little joke behind it. Small but a big piece of detail. Him being the geek he is you can see how he knows this.

  • 1
    It's possible that Spider-Man might have some practical knowledge of curves of quickest descent, but this doesn't really answer the question. How does Bernoulli's questioning/exposition of curves of quickest descent relate to the repeated theme of not sleeping, and why is (or isn't) it a joke?
    – DavidW
    Jun 29 '20 at 15:47

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