Reading the Comics, April 27, 2014: The Poetry of Calculus Edition


I think there are enough comic strips for another installment of this series, so, here you go. There are a couple comics once again using mathematics, and calculus particularly, just to signify that there’s something requiring a lot of brainpower going on, which is flattering to people who learned calculus well enough, at the risk of conveying a sense that normal people can’t hope to become literate in mathematics. I don’t buy that. Anyway, there were comics that went in other directions, which is why there’s more talk about Dutch military engineering than you might have expected for today’s entry.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (April 22) uses the traditional blackboard full of calculus to indicate a genius. The exact formulas on the board don’t suggest anything particular to me, although they do seem to parse. I wouldn’t be surprised if they turned out to be taken from a textbook, possibly in fluid mechanics, that I just happen not to have noticed.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin (April 23, rerun) has Ollie and Quentin flipping a coin repeatedly until Quentin (the lugworm) sees his choice come up. Of course, if it is a fair coin, a call of heads or tails will come up eventually, at least if we carefully define what we mean by “eventually”, and for that matter, Quentin’s choice will surely come up if he tries long enough.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs (April 23) is another strip using the motif of calculus as signifier of genius, as Fitzzy is reading Elements of the Differential and Integral Calculus, which is the sort of title you’d think might be any calculus textbook, and, yeah, it kind of is. Archive.org has books by this title as written by Albert E Church (1864), by Charles Davies (1855), by William Smyth (1859), by William Anthony Granville (1904) — that one still appearing in print —, by Augustus Love (1909), by Simon Newcomb (1887), by James Taylor (1894), by Elias Loomis (1874), by William Shaffer Hall (1922), by J W A Young and C E Linebarger (1900), by Arthur Sherburne Hardy (1893), by J W Nicholson (1896), by Donald Francis Campbell (1904), by Catherinus Putnam Buckingham (1875), and — falling slightly away from the original title by prefixing it with “An Introduction To The Study Of” — Axel Harnack and George L Cathcart (1891) and “A New Treatise On” Horatio Nelson Robinson and I F Quinby (1867) and tell me you’ve run across a better dynamic pair of names recently than “Horatio Nelson Robinson and I F Quinby”. You can’t.

This does raise the question of why so many books have the same title, and all I can say is, it’s the fashion in academia for book titles to be fairly literal, as if everyone still believes the books are composed as scrolls that are too tedious to unroll and survey and so must be labelled so that it’s clear whether it’s the sort of thing the reader was looking for. But then it’s also hard to imagine a creative or literary or poetic title for the subject matter, too. Or maybe I’m just too limited. I know poets have written about Euclid’s beauty; have they done anything of Leibniz or Karl Weierstrauss?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (April 24) pops back up with what I assume to be a Venn diagram, now that I know what they are, and I giggled at the way the diagram had to be prepared.

Mike Lester’s Mike du Jour (April 27) is based on the legend of Galileo Galilei dropping two balls from the Leaning Tower of Pisa in order to show different objects fell at the same rate. Galileo, for the record, didn’t do that, though The Renaissance Mathematicus notes that both Philoponus in the 6th century and Simon Stevin in 1586 actually did. Stevin, you of course remember no you don’t; you’ve never even heard the syllables before. But he was a Flemish mathematician renowned for explaining the tides by means of the moon’s gravitation, for the hydrostatic paradox (that the pressure of a liquid depends on its height, not its base’s area or its shape), for advancing the cause of decimal fractions, and better organized bookkeeping, which is the sort of thing that’s important but never mentioned in mathematics. He was also a military engineer who developed (among other things) methods for efficiently flooding the Dutch lowlands ahead of invading armies, and designed a land yacht which was apparently usable on the beach.

Paul Gilligan’s Pooch Cafe (April 27) shows off a knotted tangle of dog leashes. Knot theory is one of the fields of mathematics I always found particularly compelling, partly because of the ingenuity it takes to turn the concept of a knot into something that can be mathematically represented. For example, it’s not enough to just describe a knot as the curve that a piece of string has to trace out in space to replicate the knot. Why not? Imagine we have the knot you tie in a shoelace. Is the knot any actually different if the big loop the shoelace makes away from the knot is a little bit larger? Or smaller? Or what if you take a part of the shoelace away from the real knot, and flip a loop of it over without actually tying it? But if the specific shape of your knotted thing doesn’t matter then what are you studying?

Yet this can all be pretty well resolved, and made logically rigorous, to the point that — and this was one of those things which left me awestruck, in grad school — it’s possible to write a polynomial which exactly describes your knot. For that matter, it’s possible to write a polynomial which not only describes your knot, but is able to distinguish between the knot you started with and the knot you’d get by looking at its reflection in a mirror. This may not help you much getting a bundle of dogs untied, but I like to think it adds a certain grandeur of the eternal and unchanging truths to an everyday hassle.

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