Reading the Comics, April 20, 2015: History of Mathematics Edition


This is a bit of a broad claim, but it seems Comic Strip Master Command was thinking of all mathematics one lead-time ago. There’s a comic about the original invention of mathematics, and another showing off 20th century physics equations. This seems as much of the history of mathematics as one could reasonably expect from the comics page.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons gets its traditional appearance around here with the April 17th strip. It features a bit of arithmetic that is indeed lovely but wrong.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. (April 17) presents the invention of the “aw, but isn’t algebra useless” joke. And yeah, it’s anachronistic, but anachronism is the whole point of B.C.. To complain about that is like complaining that The Muppets misrepresents how important frogs are to the variety-show business. Anyway, algebra as the concept of manipulating one or more numbers before you even know what the number is surely goes back to when people first started computing. You can see Babylonian or Ancient Egyptian puzzles that all seem to read like “a thing and a seventh of a thing are 24; what is the thing?” The sort of algebra we get in middle and high school classes, with equations like “y = mx + b” and drawings of curves that aren’t circles, was largely developed over the course of the 16th century in Europe. I say largely, but not exclusively. Remember that the story of anything worth developing is longer and more complicated and more ambiguous than you think, even with that thought in mind. Still, after René Descartes we start to see equations in forms, and using notations, in ways still familiar to us. And after Descartes we also see the use of equations to better understand geometry, and the use of geometry to better understand equations, which are also hallmarks of this kind of algebra. So this gives some idea how anachronistic this particular B.C. is.

Larry Wright’s Kit ‘N’ Carlyle (April 17) suggests at least one admittedly grim thing that a cat might have to count. At least some research suggests that cats are able to discern between two and three things, and to have some kind of number sense. I confess I’m not interested enough in how cats count to pay forty dollars to read the article. If you’re interested and put forth the money, though, I’d be glad to pass on your report.

Is Joe comfortable with his answer of 75? (He lies down with it on his chest.) 'Yeah, I'm pretty comfortable with it!'
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 17th of April, 2015.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy (April 17) is a nice reminder about doing a sanity check of your answers. A result you’re not comfortable with often indicates either that you did something wrong or that you didn’t understand what you were doing.

In Tony Rubino and Gary Markstein’s Daddy’s Home (April 19) Elliot uses an impressive page of equations to explain “why I got a D in algebra”. The blackboard full of results is actually legitimate physics. Some of it is straightforward definition, for example \omega = 2 \pi f , the angular frequency of a rotating or oscillating thing is two times pi times its frequency. Some are basic equations of more advanced fields. Near Elliot’s nose, for example, is the last part of \vec{S} = \frac{1}{\mu_0}\left(\vec{E} \times \vec{B} \right) . This describes the Poynting vector, which measures the energy flux of an electromagnetic field. Just above and to the left of the word balloon is E = \hbar \omega , which describes the relationship of the energy (E) of a photon to its angular frequency ω. So we can see why he’s doing poorly in algebra: Elliot studied an upper-level undergraduate physics textbook by mistake. I like this one for the physics-final cheat-sheet nature of the blackboard, though.

'If I had six apples in one hand and three apples in the other and, what would I have?' 'Really big hands!'
Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 20th of April, 2015. The link will likely expire around the 20th of May.

Bud Blake’s Tiger (April 20, rerun) is a word-problem-resistance joke. Tiger should have switched over to holding grapes, though.

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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.

9 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, April 20, 2015: History of Mathematics Edition”

  1. The ancient Egyptians, Babylonians and Greeks had their own system of algebra. I’ve read before that the Babylonians can even solve some forms of quadratic and cubic equations, though it’s unclear whether they have developed a general system for calculating cubic equations (Well, to my knowledge, the general method was first discovered by Tartaglia during the 16th century). The geometric algebra of the Greeks, though elegant, was very inefficient and inflexible compared with the methods that we use nowadays.

    Btw, the word problem in Tiger was quite funny.

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    1. The ancients certainly did have their own systems for what we now see as algebra, particularly how to work out what a number is using only information about the number. I wouldn’t mean to slight them, particularly because the insight and ingenuity required to solve problems is the more amazing when you consider they didn’t have modern advantages in notation and theories of what numbers are and how they might be manipulated.

      It’s hard to pin down exactly when algebra became algebra, the sort of thing you can get a textbook titled Algebra Isn’t Impossible! today. The biggest developments in its notation and understanding and definition as a group of topics seems to have been in the 16th and 17th centuries, though. I tend to think of Tartaglia as being on the early end of this process, and people like Napier near the end of it, but I don’t want to be dogmatic about that as the date range.

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  2. Communication has improved much over the years, but it can still be lacking. I think even today there could be people who know how to do things that won’t actually “get invented” for many more years.

    I liked the Tiger comic the best.

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