Reading the Comics, September 8, 2014: What Is The Problem Edition


Must be the start of school or something. In today’s roundup of mathematically-themed comics there are a couple of strips that I think touch on the question of defining just what the problem is: what are you trying to measure, what are you trying to calculate, what are the rules of this sort of calculation? That’s a lot of what’s really interesting about mathematics, which is how I’m able to say something about a rerun Archie comic. It’s not easy work but that’s why I get that big math-blogger paycheck.

Edison Lee works out the shape of the universe, and as ever in this sort of thing, he forgot to carry a number.

I’d have thought the universe to be at least three-dimensional.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee (September 2) talks about the shape of the universe. Measuring the world, or the universe, is certainly one of the older influences on mathematical thought. From a handful of observations and some careful reasoning, for example, one can understand how large the Earth is, and how far away the Moon and the Sun must be, without going past the kinds of reasoning or calculations that a middle school student would probably be able to follow.

There is something deeper to consider about the shape of space, though: the geometry of the universe affects what things can happen in them, and can even be seen in the kinds of physics that happen. A famous, and astounding, result by the mathematical physicist Emmy Noether shows that symmetries in space correspond to conservation laws. That the universe is, apparently, rotationally symmetric — everything would look the same if the whole universe were picked up and rotated (say) 80 degrees along one axis — means that there is such a thing as the conservation of angular momentum. That the universe is time-symmetric — the universe would look the same if it had got started five hours later (please pretend that’s a statement that can have any coherent meaning) — means that energy is conserved. And so on. It may seem, superficially, like a cosmologist is engaged in some almost ancient-Greek-style abstract reasoning to wonder what shapes the universe could have and what it does, but (putting aside that it gets hard to divide mathematics, physics, and philosophy in this kind of field) we can imagine observable, testable consequences of the answer.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (September 5) tells a joke starting with “two perfectly rational perfectly informed individuals walk into a bar”, along the way to a joke about economists. The idea of “perfectly rational perfectly informed” people is part of the mathematical modeling that’s become a popular strain of economic thought in recent decades. It’s a model, and like many models, is properly speaking wrong, but it allows one to describe interesting behavior — in this case, how people will make decisions — without complications you either can’t handle or aren’t interested in. The joke goes on to the idea that one can assign costs and benefits to continuing in the joke. The idea that one can quantify preferences and pleasures and happiness I think of as being made concrete by Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarian philosophers, although trying to find ways to measure things has been a streak in Western thought for close to a thousand years now, and rather fruitfully so. But I wouldn’t have much to do with protagonists who can’t stay around through the whole joke either.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (September 6) was probably composed in the spirit of joking, but it does hit something that I understand baffles kids learning it every year: that subtracting a negative number does the same thing as adding a positive number. To be fair to kids who need a couple months to feel quite confident in what they’re doing, mathematicians needed a couple generations to get the hang of it too. We have now a pretty sound set of rules for how to work with negative numbers, that’s nice and logically tested and very successful at representing things we want to know, but there seems to be a strong intuition that says “subtracting a negative three” and “adding a positive three” might just be different somehow, and we won’t really know negative numbers until that sense of something being awry is resolved.

Andertoons pops up again the next day (September 7) with a completely different drawing of a chalkboard and this time a scientist and a rabbit standing in front of it. The rabbit’s shown to be able to do more than multiply and, indeed, the mathematics is correct. Cosines and sines have a rather famous link to exponentiation and to imaginary- and complex-valued numbers, and it can be useful to change an ordinary cosine or sine into this exponentiation of a complex-valued number. Why? Mostly, because exponentiation tends to be pretty nice, analytically: you can multiply and divide terms pretty easily, you can take derivatives and integrals almost effortlessly, and then if you need a cosine or a sine you can get that out at the end again. It’s a good trick to know how to do.

Jeff Harris’s Shortcuts children’s activity panel (September 9) is a page of stuff about “Geometry”, and it’s got some nice facts (some mathematical, some historical), and a fair bunch of puzzles about the field.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals (September 7, perhaps a rerun; Turner died several months ago, though I don’t know how far ahead of publication he was working) features a word problem in terms of jellybeans that underlines the danger of unwarranted assumptions in this sort of problem-phrasing.

Moose has trouble working out 15 percent of $8.95; Jughead explains why.

How far back is this rerun from if Moose got lunch for two for $8.95?

Craig Boldman and Henry Scarpelli’s Archie (September 8, rerun) goes back to one of arithmetic’s traditional comic strip applications, that of working out the tip. Poor Moose is driving himself crazy trying to work out 15 percent of $8.95, probably from a quiz-inspired fear that if he doesn’t get it correct to the penny he’s completely wrong. Being able to do a calculation precisely is useful, certainly, but he’s forgetting that in tis real-world application he gets some flexibility in what has to be calculated. He’d save some effort if he realized the tip for $8.95 is probably close enough to the tip for $9.00 that he could afford the difference, most obviously, and (if his budget allows) that he could just as well work out one-sixth the bill instead of fifteen percent, and give up that workload in exchange for sixteen cents.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark (September 8) is another entry into the world of anthropomorphized numbers, so you can probably imagine just what π has to say here.

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