I like it when there are themes to these collections of mathematical comics, but since I don’t decide what subjects cartoonists write about — Comic Strip Master Command does — it depends on luck and my ability to dig out loose connections to find any. Sometimes, a theme just drops into my lap, though, as with today’s collection: several cartoonists tossed off bits that had me double-checking their work and trying to figure out what it was I wasn’t understanding. Ultimately I came to the conclusion that they just made mistakes, and that’s unnerving since how could a mathematical error slip through the rigorous editing and checking of modern comic strips?
Mac and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute (March 1) tries to show off how to do a magic trick based on parity, using the spots on a die to tell whether it was turned in one direction or another. It’s a good gimmick, and parity — whether something is odd or even — can be a great way to encode information or to do simple checks against slight errors. That said, I believe the Kings made a mistake in describing the system: I can’t figure out how the parity of the three sides of a die facing you could not change, from odd to even or from even to odd, as the die is rotated one turn. I believe they mean that you should just count the dots on the vertical sides, so that for example in the “Howdy Do It?” panel in the lower right corner, add two and one to make three. But with that corrected it should be a good trick.
Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 (March 2) is a little panel about the resistant student, complaining about arithmetic being nice but not exciting. I’m sympathetic; it’s hard to see what’s fun about subtracting 9 from 36. Maybe there isn’t; my experience is that arithmetic’s the most fun when you can do something really surprising, like add up a dozen numbers and get the right answer, or work out how many seconds are in a year in your head. But it’s hard to see how to get to the point you can do that without working through the gritty stuff of 25 plus 6.
David Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble (March 3) does an abacus joke, which is maybe marginal to include, but heck, I need some kind of picture, which is just as well since the link should expire in early April.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff (March 3) is a little twist on the giving of 110 percent. Well, it’s really about compounding percentages, which is a good way to get confused, even if we pretend we have perfect agreement about percent of what.
Mark Heath’s Spot The Frog (March 3, rerun) is the second of this roundup’s strips to drive me crazy because I couldn’t figure how two months could be 2,592,000 seconds. Remember that a million seconds is about eleven and a half days. If you’re the right personality type this is hard to forget. So two months, 61 days in most cases, is a bit over five times eleven-and-a-half days, and so should be a touch over five million seconds. I finally gave in to the calculator and, yeah, Heath made a mistake: one month, if a month is 30 days, is 2,592,000 seconds. Two months — well, 61 days — would be 5,270,400 seconds. (If the two months are December and January, or July and August, then they’re 5,356,800 seconds. If the two months include February then we have to get into leap days. But the strip is dated March 4, and seems to be set in late winter-to-early spring, so the months would from contextual clues be March and April.)
Eric the Circle (March 4) and Griffinetsabine draw in, as you might expect, a really mathematical joke, at the Shape Single’s Bar. The line segment uses the terrible pick-up line of “wishing I was your derivative so I could lie tangent to your curves”, which it must be admitted is a fair description of what derivatives do. The derivative of a function at a point can be graphically interpreted as the slope of the tangent line to the curve representing the function at that point, and vice-versa; thus the connection between them. Tangent lines are quite liked, in part, because for a continuous function the tangent line will be a good approximation to the curve, at least in a neighborhood of the point where the tangent line touches the curve; and the equations describing a line are almost always easier to deal with than the original functions might be. So we can approximate a complicated problem with one that’s much easier to work with, often without losing whatever was really interesting about the problem we wanted to do. You see the appeal.
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix (March 4) reprints what is putatively the final Chaos Butterfly installment. Lorenz is name-dropped in the third panel; I don’t remember if that was done in previous installments.
John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands (March 4) does a joke meant to be taped to the walls of a calculus teacher’s office. The casual phrase “as x approaches infinity” contains some subtleties. It’s easy to give at least an instinctive idea of what we might mean by, say, “as x approaches 2”, since we can imagine x being given different values and whether that sequence of values is getting closer to or father away from 2 (or if it’s just fluttering around without getting much closer or more distant). But infinity … well, every finite number is as far from being infinitely large as every other number is. So how can x be “approaching infinity” if it’s never getting any closer? And yet at least I feel like I have an intuitive feeling for the idea of a quantity “approaching infinity”, so, what exactly is it that I think I mean by the term? If we pin down just what we mean by “x approaches 2”, we get most of the way to pinning down what we mean by “x approaches infinity”, though.