Reading the Comics, March 15, 2015: Pi Day Edition


I had kind of expected the 14th of March — the Pi Day Of The Century — would produce a flurry of mathematics-themed comics. There were some, although they were fewer and less creatively diverse than I had expected. Anyway, between that, and the regular pace of comics, there’s plenty for me to write about. Recently featured, mostly on Gocomics.com, a little bit on Creators.com, have been:

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug (March 11) features a cat who claims to be “pondering several quantum equations” to prove something about a parallel universe. It’s an interesting thing to claim because, really, how can the results of an equation prove something about reality? We’re extremely used to the idea that equations can model reality, and that the results of equations predict real things, to the point that it’s easy to forget that there is a difference. A model’s predictions still need some kind of validation, reason to think that these predictions are meaningful and correct when done correctly, and it’s quite hard to think of a meaningful way to validate a predication about “another” universe.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics (March 11, rerun) is a March Madness strip, based on the probability of calling every one of the (then) 63 NCAA basketball tournament games correctly. You’ll be hearing a lot about the probability of making all these picks correctly, although I’m not sure it’s perfectly clear what the probability is. The easy, almost naive, assumption is to suppose that you have a 50 percent — a one in two — chance of calling any game correctly, and so the chance of picking all 63 games correctly is 0.50^{63} which is unreasonably tiny. But the truth is you haven’t got a 50 percent chance of picking every game correctly: if you pick the number-one seed to beat the number-16, then, based on past tournament results, you will be right every single time. Picking the number-two seed to beat number-15 is not quite as sure a thing, but it makes you right far more than 50 percent of the time. I’m not sure there are enough results for all the conceivable matches — what if a number-nine seed plays a number-twelve seed? — to say what’s the better bet. The question is harder than it seems at a quick look, which is the way all interesting questions work.

Hector D Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo (March 13) shows over-achieving kid Gracie hoping to calculate the lift of the kite they’re flying, while her father just wants to calculate the fun they’re having. There’s room for both, of course. Calculating properties of a thing you’re doing for fun can be its own sort of fun, even if you’re just tracking something like records of the highest you get a kite in the air, or the strongest — or lightest — wind you can keep it controlled in. And it can be a way to learn how to do the thing you find fun all the better. Now, can fun be calculated? We can say, qualitatively, that some things are more fun than other things, and we can hope to do things that are more fun, or find ways to do them that are more fun. Isn’t that calculating fun?

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal (March 13) has a rather pointed word-problem answer.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater (March 14) surprised me by doing a mathematically-themed strip on the 14th of March that isn’t at all tied to Pi Day. It’s just anthropomorphic numerals, simple as that, and a pun on exponential growth.

And Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (March 15) is really only included because of my generous spirit, but I like the phone bank.

With that, though, we do come to the strips from the 14th of March that are specifically Pi Day comics, although Comic Strip Master Command doesn’t seem to have thought beyond the observation that “pi” and “pie” sound alike:

Pie chart. Most of the chart: 'likes pie'. Small wedge of the chart: 'likes charts'.
Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short for the 14th of March, 2015.

Daniel Beyer’s Long Story Short actually I assume is a Pi Day entry, because of the much-used pun, although there’s nothing that really demands the strip be one for the 14th of March to make sense.

Pab Sungenis’s New Adventures of Queen Victoria plays as well as the motif that mathematicians are interested in lots of decimal places. Having lots of decimal digits is fun, certainly, in its way, and a mathematician is likely to have gone through a phase in life where memorizing digits of pi feels like an urgent thing to do, but that’s a kind of fanboyish enthusiasm for numbers, the equivalent of working out Captain Kirk’s pre-Enterprise assignments, rather than something interesting about the digits. And once memorized at an early age the digits tend to stick in the memory. Anyway, my point is, Alan Turing is just deliberately burying Victoria under digits, for the fun of it.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark makes a cleverer use of the pun than its competitors, I think.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze is perfectly in tune with its characters — Roy is precisely the sort of nerd who would find it particularly hilarious to eat pie at just that moment — although it’s distracted me horribly by writing the time of day as “9:26.53”. I’ve never seen mixes of colons and points like that in writing the time before and imagine the upper dot in the minute-to-second separator got lost in production.

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Author: Joseph Nebus

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

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