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. 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.


Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

11 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, April 27, 2014: The Poetry of Calculus Edition”

    1. Thank you. It’d be nice to think that mathematics is a universal language, but I’m not so sure. When I see, for example, arithmetic represented as knots in woven thread I feel like I couldn’t begin to understand what’s going on, and that’s just a difference of notation.


  1. I especially think a teacher could use 2 of these comics effectively in a school mathematics course:
    Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (April 24) topic: probability theory, flipping coins
    Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin (April 23, rerun) topic: Venn diagrams
    Thanks for all the reading you do and sharing with us!


    1. I believe you’re right, that those are the comics that could most easily be put into a course. It’s interesting that there are some comics which open up their subject so you can go on talking about them, while others just don’t offer anything more to say once you’ve reached the punch line. It’s not even tied particularly to how funny the joke is. There’s something further at work.


    1. Thanks kindly, and now that you ask, I’m curious. It doesn’t seem to be explicitly listed in their Core Math pages, although MA104 has a number of optimization and approximation problems that seem to be exactly that sort of problem, and MA205 seems to follow up on some of the optimization problems.

      I’m intrigued that apparently the only core math course that anyone taking any track will encounter is MA206, the Probability and Statistics course. I can’t make a serious argument against that subject’s usefulness, though.


  2. A particularly nice collection! I wonder why calculus has become that signature equivalent of genius / nerdiness? Science writer Jennifer Ouellette has also written a pop-sci book about calculus in everyday life – and how she overcome her anxiety and finally self-studied it.

    Has it always been that way? Is it an American thing? I can’t recall that calculus was that special when I was in school or at the university.


    1. Thank you. I suppose it isn’t surprising mathematics should be a useful shorthand for “complicated stuff you have to be really smart to figure out”, since historically it’s been something people needed advanced training in, and it was used for fields like accounting that required precision and imagination and abundant training. Then science came along and that’s even more demanding in some ways than accounting.

      I’m not sure why it settled on calculus as the ultimate mathematics, though. It might be that’s the last mathematics that a person not going into a specialized field is likely to see, so people could make references to it and expect to communicate.

      It might also be, particularly for comic strips and other visual art, that there’s just this wonderful graphic appeal to integral signs, especially multiple integral signs, and that’s irresistible to draw.

      Now I wonder if there has been some examination of the pop cultural view of mathematics, though, the way there’ve been some explorations of how Albert Einstein became The Scientist for the 20th Century.


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