Reading the Comics, October 26, 2013


And once again while I wasn’t quite looking we got a round of eight comic strips with mathematical themes to review. Some of them aren’t even about kids not understanding fractions, if you can imagine.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (October 14) does the usual confused-student joke. It’s a little unusual in having the subject be different ways to plot data, though, with line graphs, bar graphs, and scatter graphs being shown off. I think remarkable about this is that line graphs and bar graphs were both — well, if not invented, then at least popularized — by one person, William Playfair, who’s also to be credited for making pie charts a popular tool. Playfair, an engineer and economist of the late 18th and early 19th century, and I do admire him for developing not just one but multiple techniques for making complicated information easier to see.

Eric the Circle (October 16) breaks through my usual reluctance to include it — just having a circle doesn’t seem like it’s enough — because it does a neat bit of mathematical joking, in which a cube looks “my dual” in an octahedron. Duals are one of the ways mathematicians transform one problem into another, that usually turns out to be equivalent; what’s surprising is that often a problem that’s difficult for the original is easy, or at least easier, for the dual.

Solid polyhedrons, like the cube, have pretty easy-to-construct duals: where the original polyhedron has a solid face, the dual has a single corner (by convention put at the center of the face). If two faces of the original polyhedron share an edge, then there should be an edge connecting the dual’s corners. I won’t spoil the fun, but, if you have a bit of time you might want to work out what the dual of the octahedron shown there is, and if you’re a bit more ambitious might want to think about what the dual to a dual polyhedron is.

Many kinds of mathematical constructs, not just the representations of solid objects, have duals, and the general idea of turning a problem into a related but hopefully easier one is part of the standard toolkit.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nuts (October 16) puts poor little Roy-boy through the torment of having no idea what’s going on in mathematics again. Still, as one of the commenters points out, this is a particular example of the genre that I haven’t run across before, and the choice of “75 degrees” is particularly nice as it seems funnier to me than saying 90 degrees or 100 degrees (or even 180 degrees) would be.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn (October 17, rerun from 1985) is the same baffled-student joke as Soup To Nutz presents. I have seen this particular example of the baffled-student joke before, although I do generally like the sort of exaggeration or hyperbole that underlies getting eleven out of ten wrong. Of course, one of the commenters is right that it’s possible to give an answer that’s wrong in multiple ways at once, and if it helps matters any those are terribly hard to grade. The instructor — this instructor, anyway — wants to give partial credit, but if the approach is wrong and it’s not even carried out correctly from the wrong premise, well, I suppose the student has got it worse. But it’s not easy for the grader either. Please, be considerate to your instructors if you still have them, and do your problems perfectly; that’s our favorite grading.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (October 20) presents musical selections and treads close to the line between mathematics and physics. I’m including it here because I don’t know who it is does roundups of physics-themed comic strips. I’m sure someone’s completed the filking of all this.

Justin Boyd’s Invisible Bread (October 25) uses Venn diagrams. These are great tools for clarifying logic problems, particularly; they’ve also become among the Internet’s favorite tools for creating easy-to-read jokes, or insults.

Max Garcia’s Sunny Street (October 25) has a quick little world-of-anthropomorphic-numbers joke. I can’t say it’s among the more highbrow gags out there, but what the heck, The Argyle Sweater didn’t make it into this round of strips so something needs to take its place.

Larry Wright’s Motley (October 26, rerun from 1986) poses one of the wiseacre-word-problems that you get so much of in comic strips like this. I don’t think it’s much of a joke, although the word problem is one with a structure I like: it’s most easily done in a couple of parts, each step depending on the previous, and I could see a reworded version of it representing something a person’s interested in knowing.

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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.

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