Reading the Comics, December 3, 2013


It’s been long enough for a couple more mathematics-themed comics to gather, so, let me share them with you. The comics easily available to me may be increasing, too, as dailyink.com has indicated they’re looking to make it easier for people who aren’t subscribers to their service to look at the daily strips. I’d be glad to include them back in my roundup of mathematics strips, at least when I see them making mathematics jokes; there’ve been surprisingly few of them lately. Maybe the King Features Syndicate artists know it’s generally too much effort for me to feature them for a joke about how silly word problems are and have been saving us both the trouble.

Frank Page’s Bob the Squirrel began a sequence November 20 with the kid Lauren doing her math homework and Bob the Squirrel, one of multiple imaginary squirrels which I follow on Twitter, helping. It starts with percentages, a concept I admit that other people find harder than I ever did, probably because the “per cent” just made it clear to me at a young age what the whole thing was about. On the 21st Bob claims to have known a squirrel named Algebra, which wouldn’t be the strangest name for a squirrel. “Algebra”, the word, isn’t drawn from anyone’s name; it’s instead drawn from the title of the book Hisab al-jabr w’al-muqabala, Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala (“The Compendious Book On Calculation By Completion and Balancing”), written by Muḥammad ibn Mūsā al-Khwārizmī, whose name did give us the word “algorithm”, which is the kind of successful word-generating power that you usually expect only from obscure Swedish towns. Bob closes things off with your standard breaking-the-word-problem sort of joke.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (November 22) anthropomorphizes digits a bit, reminding me that I haven’t noticed The Argyle Sweater doing anything lately.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal (November 25) did a joke about never using calculus in real life. This sort of joke is built on the assumption that school is a bunch of job training exercises, rather than mind-building and citizen-creating, but never mind that. Herb here is a restaurant owner and probably doesn’t realize where calculations useful to his business are basically calculus tools, perhaps in disguise.

For a real-world example of someone who did use calculus in daily life, and rediscovered it through a disguise, here’s Mary M Tai’s Glucose Tolerance and Other Metabolic Curves, about a method for estimating the area under metabolic curves. Finding areas under curves is exactly what the integral does, and the numerical estimate which Tai worked out here was the trapezoid rule. (I didn’t find this myself; it was being passed around the mathematics Twitter universe although I failed to make a note of who passed it to me, for which I apologize.)

Dana Simpson’s Heavenly Nostrils (November 25) has the elementary school kid Phoebe facing standardized testing and whatever exactly percentiles are. What they are is a way of looking at how some collection of data is distributed: the first percentile is the smallest number larger than one percent of all the results; the tenth percentile is the smallest number larger than ten percent of all the results; the fiftieth percentile is the smallest number larger than fifty percent of all the results; and so on, up to the ninety-ninth or hundredth percentile. How far apart, say, the 25th and the 75th percentiles are gives you an idea of how bunched up or how spread out the data is.

So why is that interesting? And there it’s often because the shape of data, how spread out it is and how it’s distributed, is more useful than any particular group of data points. If most of your data points are below the arithmetic mean (the thing people mean when they say “the average”), for example, it’s indicating that a couple of abnormally high scores are raising that average. If you have a lot of data points clustered around two separate values, it suggests that you have two kinds of things being measured. If the data points were exam scores, this suggests the class has two groups at very different ability levels. And percentiles are one of the ways you can look at data and see what its shape is.

Heavenly Nostrils went back to a mathematical topic by the 30th, with Marigold (the unicorn) enthusiastic about Phoebe’s learning of a particular use of percentages, so I suppose this collection of mathematics comics has got a theme after all.

Gary Wise’s Real Life Adventures (November 27) does a little math-is-useless joke. I grant that perhaps there isn’t much daily use for a decatetrahedron — I’m not even confident that’s the right way to put the word together; tetradecahedron appears to be much more popular — but 14-sided figures can be neat to look at. According to the Counting Polyhedra page, there are some 1,496,225,352 distinct convex polyhedrons (a convex polyhedron means … well, there’s no divots, no points where a corner is curved inwards), which is more than I’d have guessed off the top of my head. If you’ve got the rest of your life to doodle with them you might try drawing them all, although if you want to just peek at the answers instead Wolfram Mathworld draws a couple of the most obvious ones, including a couple that are not convex.

And let me close off with Percy Crosby’s Skippy (December 3), a comic from the 1920s and which has a cute little bit that you could argue is about relative motions and the question of what exactly we mean by speed. Is it obviously mathematics? Well, it’s that sort of physics that depends on mathematical insight to be noticed, much less studied, so it’s near enough for me.

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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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