Reading the Comics, December 29, 2013

I haven’t quite got seven comics mentioning mathematics themes this time around, but, it’s so busy the end of the year that maybe it’s better publishing what I have and not worrying about an arbitrary quota like mine.

Wuff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo (December 16) uses a spray of a bit of mathematics to stand in for “something just too complicated to understand”, and even uses a caricature of Albert Einstein to represent the person who’s just too smart to be understood. I’m a touch disappointed that, as best I can tell, the equations sprayed out don’t mean anything; I’ve enjoyed WuMo — a new comic to North American audiences — so far and kind of expected they would get an irrelevant detail like that plausibly right.

I’m also interested that sixty years after his death the portrait of Einstein still hasn’t been topped as an image for The Really, Really Smart Guy. Possibly nobody since him has managed to combine being both incredibly important — even if it weren’t for relativity, Einstein would be an important figure in science for his work in quantum mechanics, and if he didn’t have relativity or quantum mechanics, he’d still be important for statistical mechanics — and iconic-looking, which I guess really means he let his hair grow wild. I wonder if Stephen Hawking will be able to hold some of that similar pop cultural presence.

Steve Skelton’s 2 Cows and a Chicken (December 19) — which on Tuesdays and Thursdays is actually a Far Side-model strip — has a less heady comic strip just playing on the different meanings of “correction”.

Corey Pandolph’s Barkeater Lake (December 19) has a character messing with another one’s head by giving a wildly incorrect answer to an arithmetic problem. I’d have let the joke rest there but recently read Stanislas Debaene’s The Number Sense: How The Mind Creates Mathematics and learned that, apparently, minds will do arithmetic problems like this one (addition) approximately right. That is, if you tell someone that 17 plus 79 is 100, this answer may not be right, but they’ll probably accept it because they can tell that the sum ought to be somewhere around 100. But if you tell them that the answer is a 160, they’ll reject it right away because it can’t even be close to that. Apparently there’s also a margin for error, that people will accept answers which are close enough by percentage to the true answer and get more suspicious fairly quickly outside that boundary. I find it fascinating, at least, that minds should have a natural capacity for relatively quick mental arithmetic that extends even to problems like figuring out what 17 plus 79 ought to be.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange (December 21) — and please let me know if you can’t see the strip, because recently redid its whole web site and while it claims non-subscribers should be able to see this link I’m skeptical yet — does rather the same joke Corey Pandolph had done two days before, but this time with a dog giving a badly wrong answer without knowing it. And it happens that Debaene wrote about the number sense that animals have, as best as humans are able to measure it. Apparently it appears that while animals have rougher senses of number than humans have, they could still at least be puzzled by operations that suggest nonsensical results. I’m fascinated by all of this, not least because I got to learn how tests are designed so that infants and animals can be tested for mathematical ability. Apparently that’s one of the fields of academia where you can expect to say, “The experiment’s not working! We need a better magician!”, so I’m kind of sad that I’m not in that field of academia.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic (December 22) has rabbit Weenis wax about the cultural significance of the number seven to Trixie, who’s not interested in him. This all is true enough and it must be admitted seven has in western culture gotten a lot of cultural heft that poor number eighteen can only look upon enviously. Weenis goes on to babble meaninglessly at the end, but I suppose fairly given the circumstance.