## Reading the Comics, February 26, 2013

I hit the seven-comics line without quite realizing it, because I’d been dividing my notes between my home computer and one I can access from work. (I haven’t quite taken to writing entries on my iPad, much as I told myself that’d be a great use for it before I bought it, mostly because it’s too annoying to enter all the HTML tags by hand on the iPad keyboard. I’m of the generation that tries to hew its own HTML, even when there’s no benefit to doing that.) This is also skipping a couple strips that just mentioned the kids were in math class because that felt too slight a link to even me.

Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett’s On A Claire Day (February 15) discusses the “probability formulas” of a box of chocolates. Distribution functions are just what the name suggests: the set of the possible outcomes of something (like, picking this candy) with the chance of each turning up. It’s useful in simple random-luck problems like gathering candies, but by adding probability distributions to mechanics you create the tool of statistical mechanics, which lets the messy complicated reality of things be treated.

Pascal Wyse and Joe Berger’s Berger and Wyse (February 18) uses one of the classic motifs of the word problem: fractions as portions of apples, and visualizing fractions by thinking of apple slices. (I tend to eat apples whole, or at least nearly whole, which makes me realize that I probably visualize fractions of apples as a particular instance of fractions rather than as particular versions of apples.)

Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser (February 21) just shows off Roman numerals and makes fun of the fact they can be misunderstood. But then what can’t?

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (February 22) uses the tolerably famous bit of mathematical history about negative numbers being unknown to the ancients and tosses in a joke about the current crisis in the Greek economy so, as ever, don’t read the comments thread.

William Wilson’s Ordinary Bill (February 22) possibly qualifies for entry into the “silent penultimate panel” family of comic strips (I feel like having significant implied developments in the next-to-the-final panel violates the spirit of the thing but it isn’t my category to define) for a joke about how complicated it is to do one’s taxes. I suspect this is something that’s going to turn up a lot in the coming two months.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (February 24) (I’m wondering whether this or Frank and Ernest gets in here more) pops in with a chalkboard full of math symbols as the way to draw “something incredibly hard to understand”.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (February 26) has a pie joke that’s so slight I’d almost think they were just angling for the chance for me to notice them. But the name-dropping of the Helsinki Mathematical Institute, and earlier strips with features like references such as to Joseph Henry, make me suspect they’re just enjoying being moderately nerdy. That said, I’m not aware of a specific “Helsinki Mathematical Institute”, although the Rolf Nevanlinna Institute at the University of Helsinki would probably get called something like that. They wouldn’t consider hiring me, anyway.

## Peter M 9:58 pm

onWednesday, 6 March, 2013 Permalink |As a matter of historical interest, when did negative numbers become known, in a separate sense to subtraction of positive numbers?

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## Joseph Nebus 5:00 pm

onFriday, 8 March, 2013 Permalink |That’s a hard question to answer, not least because it’s really hard to pin down just when anything became known. The earliest generally accepted idea of what negative numbers were seems to be the idea that they’re debts — I suspect this is how people still understand and picture them today, at least to start learning — but I don’t think that is quite a separate sense to subtracting positive integers.

They went through stages of being slightly more accepted as computational conveniences and useful fictions, with a lot of arguing about the rules by which they would work, and whether such ideas as “a negative times a negative is a positive” even make sense. I think it could be argued it wasn’t until the 19th century and the putting of negative number arithmetic on a pretty sound logical basis that they were quite fully understood as something other than a funny accounting trick.

This is a neat subject that turns out to be more than I can fully answer right now — I’m away from my primary references — so I should come back to it shortly, when I have the ability.

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