Reading the Comics, August 25, 2014: Summer Must Be Ending Edition


I’m sorry to admit that I can’t think of a unifying theme for the most recent round of comic strips which mention mathematical topics, other than that this is one of those rare instances of nobody mentioning infinite numbers of typing monkeys. I have to guess Comic Strip Master Command sent around a notice that summer vacation (in the United States) will be ending soon, so cartoonists should start practicing their mathematics jokes.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 a.m. (August 22, rerun) presents what’s surely the lowest-probability outcome of a toss of a fair coin: its landing on the edge. (I remember this as also the gimmick starting a genial episode of The Twilight Zone.) It’s a nice reminder that you do have to consider all the things that might affect an experiment’s outcome before concluding what are likely and unlikely results.

It also inspires, in me, a side question: a single coin, obviously, has a tiny chance of landing on its side. A roll of coins has a tiny chance of not landing on its side. How thick a roll has to be assembled before the chance of landing on the side and the chance of landing on either edge become equal? (Without working it out, my guess is it’s about when the roll of coins is as tall as it is across, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were some slightly oddball thing like the roll has to be the square root of two times the diameter of the coins.)

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (August 22) presents an “advanced Sudoku”, in a puzzle that’s either trivially easy or utterly impossible: there’s so few constraints on the numbers in the presented puzzle that it’s not hard to write in digits that will satisfy the results, but, if there’s one right answer, there’s not nearly enough information to tell which one it is. I do find interesting the problem of satisfiability — giving just enough information to solve the puzzle, without allowing more than one solution to be valid — an interesting one. I imagine there’s a very similar problem at work in composing Ivasallay’s Find The Factors puzzles.

Phil Frank and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries (August 24, rerun) presents a “mind aerobics” puzzle in the classic mathematical form of drawing socks out of a drawer. Talking about pulling socks out of drawers suggests a probability puzzle, but the question actually takes it a different direction, into a different sort of logic, and asks about how many socks need to be taken out in order to be sure you have one of each color. The easiest way to apply this is, I believe, to use what’s termed the “pigeon hole principle”, which is one of those mathematical concepts so clear it’s hard to actually notice it. The principle is just that if you have fewer pigeon holes than you have pigeons, and put every pigeon in a pigeon hole, then there’s got to be at least one pigeon hole with more than one pigeons. (Wolfram’s MathWorld credits the statement to Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet, a 19th century German mathematician with a long record of things named for him in number theory, probability, analysis, and differential equations.)

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (August 24) pulls out the old little pun about algebra and former romantic partners. You’ve probably seen this joke passed around your friends’ Twitter or Facebook feeds too.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set (August 25) presents some terrible people’s definition of calculus, as “useless math with letters instead of numbers”, which I have to gripe about because that seems like a more on-point definition of algebra. I’m actually sympathetic to the complaint that calculus is useless, at least if you don’t go into a field that requires it (although that’s rather a circular definition, isn’t it?), but I don’t hold to the idea that whether something is “useful” should determine whether it’s worth learning. My suspicion is that things you find interesting are worth learning, either because you’ll find uses for them, or just because you’ll be surrounding yourself with things you find interesting.

Shifting from numbers to letters, as are used in algebra and calculus, is a great advantage. It allows you to prove things that are true for many problems at once, rather than just the one you’re interested in at the moment. This generality may be too much work to bother with, at least for some problems, but it’s easy to see what’s attractive in solving a problem once and for all.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s WuMo (August 25) uses a couple of motifs none of which I’m sure are precisely mathematical, but that seem close enough for my needs. First there’s the motif of Albert Einstein as just being so spectacularly brilliant that he can form an argument in favor of anything, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. Surely that derives from Einstein’s general reputation of utter brilliance, perhaps flavored by the point that he was able to show how common-sense intuitive ideas about things like “it’s possible to say whether this event happened before or after that event” go wrong. And then there’s the motif of a sophistic argument being so massive and impressive in its bulk that it’s easier to just give in to it rather than try to understand or refute it.

It’s fair of the strip to present Einstein as beginning with questions about how one perceives the universe, though: his relativity work in many ways depends on questions like “how can you tell whether time has passed?” and “how can you tell whether two things happened at the same time?” These are questions which straddle physics, mathematics, and philosophy, and trying to find answers which are logically coherent and testable produced much of the work that’s given him such lasting fame.

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