Reading the Comics, November 13, 2013


For this week’s round of comic strips there’s almost a subtler theme than “they mention math in some way”: several have got links to statistical mechanics and the problem of recurrence. I’m not sure what’s gotten into Comic Strip Master Command that they sent out instructions to do comics that I can tie to the astounding interactions of infinities and improbable events, but it makes me wonder if I need to write a few essays about it.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (October 30) summons the classic “infinite monkeys” problem of probability for its punch line. The concept — that if you had something producing strings of letters at random (taken to be monkeys because, I suppose, it’s assumed they would hit every key without knowing what sensibly comes next), it would, given enough time, produce any given result. The idea goes back a long way, and it’s blessed with a compelling mental image even though typewriters are a touch old-fashioned these days.

It seems to have gotten its canonical formulation in Émile Borel’s 1913 article “Statistical Mechanics and Irreversibility”, as you might expect since statistical mechanics brings up the curious problem of entropy. In short: every physical interaction, say, when two gases — let’s say clear air and some pink smoke as 1960s TV shows used to knock characters out — mix, is time-reversible. Look at the interaction of one clear-gas molecule and one pink-gas molecule and you can’t tell whether it’s playing forward or backward. But look at the entire room and it’s obvious whether they’re mixing or unmixing. How can something be time-reversible at every step of every interaction but not in whole?

The idea got a second compelling metaphor with Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel, with a bit more literary class and in many printings fewer monkeys.

Barney and Clyde pop back up here for November 12, with Mr Clyde, “a good math teacher, but his jokes are terrible”, which offers the sort of joke that there isn’t so much to say about.

Chip Samson’s The Born Loser (October 30) despite running a couple weeks before the Barney and Clyde mentioned above is still thinking along the same lines. I can’t blame a comic strip for writing so as to get clipped out and sent to people’s math teacher friends.

Jack Pullan’s Boomerangs (November 1, Rerun) talks a bit about entropy, which is probably the most popular scientific concept to emerge from the 19th century. It’s also probably the only statistical mechanics concept that the average person feels they have a good understanding of: it’s some kind of measure of how disorganized a system is, and that disorder can be expected to increase inevitably. But — as we started out this tour discussing — since every physical interaction is reversible, how can entropy’s increase not be reversible?

If you have a provisional answer for that in mind, then go on to read the comic strip’s comments and wonder about the people who give parenting advice to the Exasperated Mom in a Three-Generations-And-A-Dog strip that’s in reruns.

Jim Unger’s Herman (November 3, Rerun) is just using a math problem for a slightly confusing clueless-student joke. It’s probably too slight a connection for this roundup, but I can’t run a column of nothing but infinite-probability and entropy discussions.

Mac and Bill King’s Magic in the Minute (November 10) offers a cute little magic trick that makes use of one of the interesting properties of the Möbius strip — that cutting the strip along the right direction doesn’t actually break it into two pieces. One of the commenters notes that it takes practice to do this as a magic trick, as you have to cut the paper in front of the audience without their noticing the half-twist that makes a Möbius strip exist. Of course, you have to practice all magic tricks so the audience doesn’t notice what gives it away.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz (November 11) has Royboy assigning personalities to various numbers, which gets him nothing but grief. Of course, assigning properties to numbers has a long history behind it. Treated seriously it becomes the numerology that looks for great mysteries of the universe in ordinary arithmetic. I wouldn’t recommend doing that as anything more than a bit of play, which seems to be what Royboy is thinking of here, or as maybe reflections of the kind of work you have to do with them. For example, ten is a pretty nice number to do any arithmetic with: it’s just not hard to add, subtract, multiply, or divide for. Sevens and eights, now, those nobody really wants to add to whatever number they’re working with.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (November 13) is captioned aptly “Conspiracy Theory of Relativity”, and while I imagine Anderson was just joining two phrases that include the word “theory”, it is the case that relativity draws a number of complaints from outside mainstream science. It’s not hard to imagine why it would: it’s one of the big discoveries of the 20th century, but its core concepts are accessible to anyone, and the conclusions it implies — particularly in how it forces us to give up trying to answer questions like whether two things happen simultaneously — feel contrary to our intuition. In that regard it’s probably much like several pure mathematics problems that draw similar attention, such as the differing sizes of infinity or, historically, the problems of squaring the circle or trisecting and angle using straightedge and compass.

Since really no effort to dethrone relativity is going to succeed, someone confident he’s right and the mathematics and scientific communities wrong may turn to conspiracy theories to explain his position. What exactly the conspiracy to promote Einstein and dethrone “common sense” is supposed to accomplish is vague. I suppose it’s the usual: they’re ways to control those huge academic-department budgets and the power base that tenure-track positions offer to help destroy civilization already.

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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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