Reading the Comics, July 22, 2013


This is a shorter than usual entry for my roundup of comic strips mentioning mathematical topics, because I anticipate being a bit too busy to present this later in the week.

Ruben Boiling’s Tom the Dancing Bug (July 12) features one of his irresistible (to me) “Super-Fun-Pak Comix”, among them, A Voice From Another Dimension, which is a neat bit of Flatland-inspired fun between points in space. Edwin Abbot Abbot’s Flatland is one of those rare advanced-mathematical concepts that got firmly lodged into the pop culture, probably because it is a supremely accessible introduction to the concept of multidimensional space. People love learning about things which go against their everyday intuition, and the book (eventually) made the new notions of general relativity feel like they could be understood by anyone.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin (July 14, rerun) does a strip based on the most famous of Zeno’s paradoxes, the one about how one could possibly move given that to get from one point to another one has to get to the midpoint first, and the midpoint of the original point and the midpoint, and so on. (Baker also tries to cover his strip’s British origins by referencing the “math” singular of the situation; it doesn’t particularly show here, but there is something ineffably right-pondian about the strip.)

Occasionally the paradox — which is disproved every time everyone does anything — is pulled out to make fun of the philosophic-minded since, obviously, we can see it’s possible to move places. But, at the risk of mind-reading across many centuries and cultures, it seems to me the paradox isn’t about trying to show an everyday action is impossible. It’s part of a set designed to show we don’t quite have an intuitive understanding of space and time and motion. Space, for example, would seem to either be infinitely divisible or else not be: you can keep cutting distances in half, or your reach some smallest possible distance. Zeno’s paradoxes provide a set of apparent consequences for these possibilities, and while it’s easy enough to resolve one, the bunch of them (and there are four that have come down to us) aren’t quite easy to mutually resolve.

Aaron Johnson’s W T Duck (July 17, rerun) features a Venn diagram, which as I make it out is the source for about one-fifth of all jokes on the Internet, probably because you can turn a joke into a graphic and so have a chance that it’ll be actually looked at.

Leela Lee’s Angry Little Girls (July 19) goes — as so many strips did last time — to the working out of square roots by hand as emblematic of the kind of math problem anyone needs help with. If I had to do this problem, I’d note that, first, the root has to be something between 10 and 20, since 245 is between 100 and 400. Better, since I remember the square root of 2 is about 1.414, I know the square root of 200 must be about 14.14, since 200 is 2 times 100, so the square root of 200 must be the square root of 2 times the square root of 10. So I’d go looking for numbers a little above 14, such as, 15. 15 times 15 has to be 225 though (I do have that one memorized, although, since 15 times 15 has to be a little more than 200, and the final digits of 15 times 15 — five times five — give you 25, that really points you towards something close to 200 plus 25). 16 times 16 is 256 (another one I have memorized, although that’s a little easier if you play with how computers record numbers a lot). So, the answer’s got to be somewhere between 15 and 16; if I were to just guess 15.5, I’d probably be tolerably close for mental arithmetic. The actual square root of 245 is about 15.652, so, there you go. There’s no point doing this by hand except for the fun it gives.

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