Reading the Comics, March 1, 2014: Isn’t It One-Half X Squared Plus C? Edition


So the subject line references here a mathematics joke that I never have heard anybody ever tell, and only encounter in lists of mathematics jokes. It goes like this: a couple professors are arguing at lunch about whether normal people actually learn anything about calculus. One of them says he’s so sure normal people learn calculus that even their waiter would be able to answer a basic calc question, and they make a bet on that. He goes back and finds their waiter and says, when she comes with the check he’s going to ask her if she knows what the integral of x is, and she should just say, “why, it’s one-half x squared, of course”. She agrees. He goes back and asks her what the integral of x is, and she says of course it’s one-half x squared, and he wins the bet. As he’s paid off, she says, “But excuse me, professor, isn’t it one-half x squared plus C?”

Let me explain why this is an accurately structured joke construct and must therefore be classified as funny. “The integral of x”, as the question puts it, has not just one correct answer but rather a whole collection of correct answers, which are different from one another only by the addition of a constant whole number, by convention denoted C, and the inclusion of that “plus C” denotes that whole collection. The professor was being sloppy in referring to just a single example from that collection instead of the whole set, as the waiter knew to do. You’ll see why this is relevant to today’s collection of mathematics-themed comics.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz (February 22) points out one of the grand things about mathematics, that if you follow the proper steps in a mathematical problem you get to be right, and to be extraordinarily confident in that rightness. And that’s true, although, at least to me a good part of what’s fun in mathematics is working out what the proper steps are: figuring out what the important parts of something you want to study should be, and what follows from your representation of them, and — particularly if you’re trying to represent a complicated real-world phenomenon with a model — whether you’re representing the things you find interesting in the real-world phenomenon well. So, while following the proper steps gets you an answer that is correct within the limits of whatever it is you’re doing, you still get to work out whether you’re working on the right problem, which is the real fun.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow (February 23, rerun) uses that ambiguous place between mathematics and physics to represent extreme smartness. The equation the physicist brings to Neil is the (time-dependent) Schrödinger Equation, describing how probability evolves in time, and the answer is correct. If Neil’s coworkers at Lucky Cow were smarter they’d realize the scam, though: while the equation is impressively scary-looking to people not in the know, a particle physicist would have about as much chance of forgetting this as of forgetting the end of “E equals m c … ”.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange (February 24) builds on the familiar infinite-monkeys metaphor, but misses an important point. Price is right that yes, an infinite number of monkeys already did create the works of Shakespeare, as a result of evolving into a species that could have a Shakespeare. But the infinite monkeys problem is about selecting letters at random, uniformly: the letter following “th” is as likely to be “q” as it is to be “e”. An evolutionary system, however, encourages the more successful combinations in each generation, and discourages the less successful: after writing “th” Shakespeare would be far more likely to put “e” and never “q”, which makes calculating the probability rather less obvious. And Shakespeare was writing with awareness that the words mean things and they must be strings of words which make reasonable sense in context, which the monkeys on typewriters would not. Shakespeare could have followed the line “to be or not to be” with many things, but one of the possibilities would never be “carport licking hammer worbnoggle mrxl 2038 donkey donkey donkey donkey donkey donkey donkey”. The typewriter monkeys are not so selective.

Dan Thompson’s Brevity (February 26) is a cute joke about a number’s fashion sense.

Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow turns up again (February 28, rerun) for the Rubik’s Cube. The tolerably fun puzzle and astoundingly bad Saturday morning cartoon of the 80s can be used to introduce abstract algebra. When you rotate the nine little cubes on the edge of a Rubik’s cube, you’re doing something which is kind of like addition. Think of what you can do with the top row of cubes: you can leave it alone, unchanged; you can rotate it one quarter-turn clockwise; you can rotate it one quarter-turn counterclockwise; you can rotate it two quarter-turns clockwise; you can rotate it two quarter-turns counterclockwise (which will result in something suspiciously similar to the two quarter-turns clockwise); you can rotate it three quarter-turns clockwise; you can rotate it three quarter-turns counterclockwise.

If you rotate the top row one quarter-turn clockwise, and then another one quarter-turn clockwise, you’ve done something equivalent to two quarter-turns clockwise. If you rotate the top row two quarter-turns clockwise, and then one quarter-turn counterclockwise, you’ve done the same as if you’d just turned it one quarter-turn clockwise and walked away. You’re doing something that looks a lot like addition, without being exactly like it. Something odd happens when you get to four quarter-turns either clockwise or counterclockwise, particularly, but it all follows clear rules that become pretty familiar when you notice how much it’s like saying four hours after 10:00 will be 2:00.

Abstract algebra marks one of the things you have to learn as a mathematics major that really changes the way you start looking at mathematics, as it really stops being about trying to solve equations of any kind. You instead start looking at how structures are put together — rotations are seen a lot, probably because they’re familiar enough you still have some physical intuition, while still having significant new aspects — and, following this trail can get for example to the parts of particle physics where you predict some exotic new subatomic particle has to exist because there’s this structure that makes sense if it does.

Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends (March 1) is set off with the sort of abstract question that comes to mind when you aren’t thinking about mathematics: how many five-card combinations are there in a deck of (52) cards? Ruthie offers an answer, although — as the commenters get to disputing — whether she’s right depends on what exactly you mean by a “five-card combination”. Would you say that a hand of “2 of hearts, 3 of hearts, 4 of clubs, Jack of diamonds, Queen of diamonds” is a different one to “3 of hearts, Jack of diamonds, 4 of clubs, Queen of diamonds, 2 of hearts”? If you’re playing a game in which the order of the deal doesn’t matter, you probably wouldn’t; but, what if the order does matter? (I admit I don’t offhand know a card game where you’d get five cards and the order would be important, but I don’t know many card games.)

For that matter, if you accept those two hands as the same, would you accept “2 of clubs, 3 of clubs, 4 of diamonds, Jack of spades, Queen of spades” as a different hand? The suits are different, yes, but they’re not differently structured: you’re still three cards away from a flush, and two away from a straight. Granted there are some games in which one suit is worth more than another, in which case it matters whether you had two diamonds or two spades; but if you got the two-of-clubs hand just after getting the two-of-hearts hand you’d probably be struck by how weird it was you got the same hand twice in a row. You can’t give a correct answer to the question until you’ve thought about exactly what you mean when you say two hands of cards are different.

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