Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012


This will be a hastily-written installment since I married just this weekend and have other things occupying me. But there’s still comics mentioning math subjects so let me summarize them for you. The first since my last collection of these, on the 13th of June, came on the 15th, with Dave Whamond’s Reality Check, which goes into one of the minor linguistic quirks that bothers me: the claim that one can’t give “110 percent,” since 100 percent is all there is. I don’t object to phrases like “110 percent”, though, since it seems to me the baseline, the 100 percent, must be to some standard reference performance. For example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines routinely operated at around 104 percent, not because they were exceeding their theoretical limits, but because the original design thrust was found to be not quite enough, and the engines were redesigned to deliver more thrust, and it would have been far too confusing to rewrite all the documentation so that the new design thrust was the new 100 percent. Instead 100 percent was the design capacity of an engine which never flew but which existed in paper form. So I’m forgiving of “110 percent” constructions, is the important thing to me.

Steve Sicula’s Home and Away put in a simple math phobia joke on the 24th of June, and combined it with a golf strip. Golf strips are inexplicably popular among cartoonists, possibly because they conclude no one has ever been fired for doing golf strips, which is true if you overlook Nathan Cooper’s short-lived In The Sticks.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures does a rambling strip in which a father attempts poorly to explain why negative numbers are called that, attributing it comically to the idea that nobody likes them. This is — as often happens — surprisingly true. Negative numbers were viewed with considerable suspicion when they began being used; the idea that someone could have less than none of a thing is a conceptual leap which we forget is hard because we now inflict it on children. The name, though, preserves in fossil form the disapproval of working with these number that perhaps accountants and bankers found use for but surely had no role in real applications like temperatures. Similar hints of disdain are attached in the terms imaginary number, and in the complex number. By the 19th century the idea that things which don’t have immediately obvious interpretations — and by now most people are comfortable with some interpretation of negative numbers, and mathematicians very comfortable with imaginary and complex numbers, although mathematics folklore says that electrical engineers don’t like imaginary and complex numbers (which is frustrating as they provide great tools to understand alternating current) — may prove useful is probably why more abstract forms of numbers, like quaternions and octonions, got names which don’t suggest disapproval or, for that matter, approval.

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate did a math phobia/summer vacation homework joke for the 28th. It does start setting up the kind of word problem that people, I’d say, don’t suspect is math because it seems too obviously relevant.

On the 29th, the late Jim Unger’s strip Herman ran a panel with a quick division problem, although it’s more of a cheapskate joke. Herman was running a string of rerun panels and occasional new strips before Unger died and I don’t know how far his backlog of new strips extended. However, I have my suspicions that this may have been a rerun panel.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac brought in July with a lovely fanciful strip about the personalities of the numerals, and what those might be, and whether any of them have pet hamsters.

I haven’t got a permanent link for it yet — I suppose that the mid-July report will — but the July 2nd Willy and Ethel, by the prolific Joe Martin, proposes a number-crunching contest. This might be a working link to the strip, but I don’t promise I’ve got that right just yet. We’ll see.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

3 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012”

  1. Oh man, I should read this more !

    While it would be simple enough to justify negative numbers through nuclear physics (i.e. every particle having an antiparticle), it’s also not that hard to consider them as deficits (“Tim lacks 3 apples”) rather than “anti-assets”. That way, they don’t actually represent anything physical, but instead a difference (ha) from one’s expectation of a physical state. This also makes a lot more sense considering their use in accounting.

    Also, I’ve never heard that engineers dislike complex numbers. They’re practically essential…

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    1. Treating negative numbers as positive numbers in the other direction was historically the intermediate step between just working with negative numbers. Accountants seem to have been there first, with geometers following close behind. Descartes’ original construction of the coordinate system divided the plane into the four quadrants we still have, with positive numbers in each of them, representing “right and up” in the first quadrant, “left and up” in the second, “left and down” in the third, and “right and down” in the fourth. But this ends up being a nuisance and making do with a negative sign rather than a separate tally gets to be easier fast.

      I can’t speak about the truth of electrical engineers disliking complex numbers, but it is certainly a part of mathematics folklore that if any students are going to have trouble with complex numbers, or reject them altogether, it’s more likely to be the electrical engineers. I note also the lore of the Salem Hypothesis, about the apparent predilection of engineers, particularly electrical engineers, to nutty viewpoints. (Petr Beckmann is probably the poster child for this, as he spent considerable time telling everyone Relativity was a Fraud, and he was indeed an electrical engineer.)

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