Reading the Comics, April 21, 2014: Bill Amend In Name Only Edition

Recently the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics met in New Orleans. Among the panelists was Bill Amend, the cartoonist for FoxTrot, who gave a talk about the writing of mathematics comic strips. Among the items he pointed out as challenges for mathematics comics — and partly applicable to any kind of teaching of mathematics — were:

  • Accessibility
  • Stereotypes
  • What is “easy” and “hard”?
  • I’m not exactly getting smarter as I age
  • Newspaper editors might not like them

Besides the talk (and I haven’t found a copy of the PowerPoint slides of his whole talk) he also offered a collection of FoxTrot comics with mathematical themes, good for download and use (with credit given) for people who need to stock up on them. The link might be expire at any point, note, so if you want them, go now.

While that makes a fine lead-in to a collection of mathematics-themed comic strips around here I have to admit the ones I’ve seen the last couple weeks haven’t been particularly inspiring, and none of them are by Bill Amend. They’ve covered a fair slate of the things you can write mathematics comics about — physics, astronomy, word problems, insult humor — but there’s still interesting things to talk about. For example:

Eric the Circle (April 9), this installment apparently written by “Kyle”, gets more mathematical than usual by including a diagram of the sort of inclined-plane physics problem that you’d actually do in a physics class. It’s also a bit of a vector problem, as the force of gravity is divided into the portion of the force that’s parallel to the plane (and which can cause the object to move) and the portion that’s perpendicular to the plane (which doesn’t cause any particular motion, but can tell you something about the amount of friction the object senses).

Alex Hallat’s Arctic Circle (April 11) has a guest character talking with one of the regular penguins that “everything can be described with mathematics”, and goes on to give examples, up to the insulting of the regular character. That there do seem to be ways to represent, mathematically, most interesting things in the world is a real wonder, and is amazing; it’s really not clear why the universe should appear to be representable this way.

Gary Brookins’s Pluggers (April 16) uses “Plugger Math” to describe the problem of working out what’s the most pizza one can get for one’s money. NPR made a bit of noise about this a few months ago, when Quoctrung Bui studied price-per-square-inch choices for many pizza places and sizes. It’s not a bad application of one’s mental arithmetic skills, anyway.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (April 18) returns to this column again with a discussion of Olbers’ Paradox, which involves some subtle mathematical concepts and is about a question that seems obvious: why is the night sky dark? To my surprise, the Weingartens and Clark fumble the point, suggesting that it’s an unresolved mystery. On the 19th the strip goes on to talk about the curvature of the universe, and what you might see if you looked far enough away.

Tom Horacek’s Foolish Mortals (April 21) riffs on the legend of Isaac Newton sitting under the apple tree for a quick, amusing joke.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup To Nutz (April 21) uses the form of a word problem to let Stromoski get out a joke that, eh, he’s done better with.