# Reading the Comics, May 4, 2015: Hatless Aliens Edition

I have to make two confessions for this round of mathematics comic strips. First is that I was busy for like two days and missed about a jillion comic strips. So this is the first part of some catching-up to do. The second is that I don’t have a favorite of this bunch. The most interesting, I suppose, is the Mr Boffo, because it lets me get into a little trivia about Albert Einstein. But there’s not any in this bunch that made me smile much or that gave me a juicy topic to discuss. Maybe tomorrow.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue ran a week of snarky-answers-to-word-problems strips. April 28th, April 30th, and May 2nd featured mathematics questions. This must reflect how easy it is to undermine the logic of a mathematics question. The April 27th strip is about using Roman numerals, which I suppose is arithmetic. I’m not sure there’s much point to learning Roman numerals. We don’t do any calculations using the Roman numeral scheme except to show why Arabic numerals are better. All you get from Roman numerals is an ability to read building cornerstones and movie copyright dates. At least learning cursive handwriting provides the learner with a way to make illegible notes.

Dana Summer’s Bound and Gagged (April 30) uses the idea that geometry teachers need fancier shapes than the rest of us. This raises the question of whether a polygon is more fancy than a circle. I offer that in case you ever need to start a good, lively discussion that ends in a brawl. Cecil Adams of The Straight Dope notes some cases of artistic depictions of non-circular halos. These were meant to depict other kinds of holy glory.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes (April 30, rerun) is about Calvin’s gum-chewing hobby. Here he’s depicted as worrying about the measures of his performance as a way of working out whether he’s having fun. The reasoning is silly. But tracking data and looking for correlations helps one tell good strategies from bad. And for many people the obsessive tracking of data turns into part of the fun. There is a joy in the assembling of data which people who don’t see it can’t appreciate.

Joe Martin’s Boffo (May 2) is another strip of the “Einstein just needed a little help” theme. It reminds me of the Far Side in which Einstein’s cleaning lady mentions how everything looks squared away. I hope it’s not disheartening to learn that in the 1905 paper introducing this idea, Einstein didn’t write “E = mc2”. Instead he writes that when a body radiates an amount of energy L then its mass decreases by the quantity L/c2, and in text rather than an equation. In a sense “E = mc2” is a misquote along the lines of “Play it again, Sam” and “Beam me up, Scotty”. In a very narrow sense. I don’t know with certainty but feel it pretty sure Einstein wrote the famous equation in its canonical form, and an equation isn’t quite the same thing as a quote, I think.

Hey, remember that cartoon everyone on your Facebook timeline was passing around, about if you have pencils and I have apples how many pancakes fit on a roof, and the answer is purple because aliens don’t wear hats? Stephen Bentley got sent that one leadtime ago, and he made it the focus of Herb and Jamaal on the 4th of May. I can’t wait until he gets the one with Sally Brown talking about buying forty watermelons.

I would like to speak up for math-question logic, though. Unless a problem has a mistake in it the solution can be logically deduced from the information given. (Or the question might be a test of whether the student knows when a question is well-formed.) The hard part usually comes from the answer requiring information which has to be deduced rather than just read. The information is there, but it has to be found in the universe of potential conclusions. Without practice in where to look in that universe the answer might as well be hatless aliens.

## Author: Joseph Nebus

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

## 7 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, May 4, 2015: Hatless Aliens Edition”

1. ivasallay says:

I got a soft chuckle from that Roman numeral comic.

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1. It is a good, reliable joke form, of the “Say goodnight, Gracie” structure.

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2. I’ve heard various stories about where Einstein got the inspiration for Special Relativity from (apart from extending Hendrik Lorentz) – including sitting on trams watching other trams run by, and/or thinking about how elements of gramophone records related to each other during dull times in the patent office. All of them are probably apocryphal.

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1. I believe that Einstein had described how he stared at trains, and at the train station’s clock — which had several faces for the different train lines, from the days before standard time zone — as something he did. I’m not sure how much this inspired thinking about what it meant to say “this is the time”, or “these two events are simultaneous”. It may have just been that it was a soothing, pleasantly orderly thing to look at. I’m unfortunately far from the references I faintly remember describing the scene better, though.

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