Reading The Comics, October 20, 2014: No Images This Edition

Since I started including Comics Kingdom strips in my roundups of mathematically-themed strips I’ve been including images of those, because I’m none too confident that Comics Kingdom’s pages are accessible to normal readers after some time has passed. has — as far as I’m aware, and as far as anyone has told me — no such problems, so I haven’t bothered doing more than linking to them. So this is the first roundup in a long while I remember that has only Gocomics strips, with nothing from Comics Kingdom. It’s also the first roundup for which I’m fairly sure I’ve done one of these strips before.

Guy Endore-Kaiser and Rodd Perry and Dan Thompson’s Brevity (October 15, but a rerun) is an entry in the anthropomorphic-numbers line of mathematics comics, and I believe it’s one that I’ve already mentioned in the past. This particular strip is a rerun; in modern times the apparently indefatigable Dan Thompson has added this strip to the estimated fourteen he does by himself. In any event it stands out in the anthropomorphic-numbers subgenre for featuring non-integers that aren’t pi.

Ralph Hagen’s The Barn (October 16) ponders how aliens might communicate with Earthlings, and like pretty much everyone who’s considered the question mathematics is supposed to be the way they’d do it. It’s easy to see why mathematics is plausible as a universal language: a mathematical truth should be true anywhere that deductive logic holds, and it’s difficult to conceive of a universe existing in which it could not hold true. I have somewhere around here a mention of a late-19th-century proposal to try contacting Martians by planting trees in Siberia which, in bloom, would show a proof of the Pythagorean theorem.

In modern times we tend to think of contact with aliens being done by radio more likely (or at least some modulated-light signal), which makes a signal like a series of pulses counting out prime numbers sound likely. It’s easy to see why prime numbers should be interesting too: any species that has understood multiplication has almost certainly noticed them, and you can send enough prime numbers in a short time to make clear that there is a deliberate signal being sent. For comparison, perfect numbers — whose factors add up to the original number — are also almost surely noticed by any species that understands multiplication, but the first several of those are 6, 28, 496, and 8,128; by the time 8,128 pulses of anything have been sent the whole point of the message has been lost.

And yet finding prime numbers is still not really quite universal. You or I might see prime numbers as key, but why not triangular numbers, like the sequence 1, 3, 6, 10, 15? Why not square or cube numbers? The only good answer is, well, we have to pick something, so to start communicating let’s hope we find something that everyone will be able to recognize. But there’s an arbitrariness that can’t be fully shed from the process.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day (October 17) reminds us of the value of having a tutor for mathematics problems — if you’re having trouble in class, go to one — and of paying them appropriately.

Steve Melcher’s That Is Priceless (October 17) puts comic captions to classic paintings and so presented Jusepe de Ribera’s 1630 Euclid, Letting Me Copy His Math Homework. I confess I have a broad-based ignorance of art history, but if I’m using search engines correctly the correct title was actually … Euclid. Hm. It seems like Melcher usually has to work harder at these things. Well, I admit it doesn’t quite match my mental picture of Euclid, but that would have mostly involved some guy in a toga wielding a compass. Ribera seems to have had a series of Greek Mathematician pictures from about 1630, including Pythagoras and Archimedes, with similar poses that I’ll take as stylized representations of the great thinkers.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (October 18) plays around statistical ideas that include expectation values and the gambler’s fallacy, but it’s a good puzzle: has the doctor done the procedure hundreds of times without a problem because he’s better than average at it, or because he’s been lucky? For an alternate formation, baseball offers a fine question: Ted Williams is the most recent Major League Baseball player to have a season batting average over .400, getting a hit in at least two-fifths of his at-bats over the course of the season. Was he actually good enough to get a hit that often, though, or did he just get lucky? Consider that a .250 hitter — with a 25 percent chance of a hit at any at-bat — could quite plausibly get hits in three out of his four chances in one game, or for that matter even two or three games. Why not a whole season?

Well, because at some point it becomes ridiculous, rather the way we would suspect something was up if a tossed coin came up tails thirty times in a row. Yes, possibly it’s just luck, but there’s good reason to suspect this coin doesn’t have a fifty percent chance of coming up heads, or that the hitter is likely to do better than one hit for every four at-bats, or, to the original comic, that the doctor is just better at getting through the procedure without complications.

Ryan North’s quasi-clip-art Dinosaur Comics (October 20) thrilled the part of me that secretly wanted to study language instead by discussing “light verb constructions”, a grammatical touch I hadn’t paid attention to before. The strip is dubbed “Compressed Thesis Comics”, though, from the notion that the Tyrannosaurus Rex is inspired to study “computationally” what forms of light verb construction are more and what are less acceptable. The impulse is almost perfect thesis project, really: notice a thing and wonder how to quantify it. A good piece of this thesis would probably be just working out how to measure acceptability of a particular verb construction. I imagine the linguistics community has a rough idea how to measure these or else T Rex is taking on way too big a project for a thesis, since that’d be an obvious point for the thesis to crash against.

Well, I still like the punch line.