And now I get caught up again, if briefly, to the mathematically-themed comic strips I can find. I’ve dubbed this one the trapezoid edition because one happens to mention the post that will outlive me.
Todd Clark’s Lola (May 4) is a straightforward joke. Monty’s given his chance of passing mathematics and doesn’t understand the prospect is grim.
Joe Martin’s Willy and Ethel (May 4) shows an astounding feat of mind-reading, or of luck. How amazing it is to draw a number at random from a range depends on many things. It’s less impressive to pick the right number if there are only three possible answers than it is to pick the right number out of ten million possibilities. When we ask someone to pick a number we usually mean a range of the counting numbers. My experience suggests it’s “one to ten” unless some other range is specified. But the other thing affecting how amazing it is is the distribution. There might be ten million possible responses, but if only a few of them are likely then the feat is much less impressive.
The distribution of a random number is the interesting thing about it. The number has some value, yes, and we may not know what it is, but we know how likely it is to be any of the possible values. And good mathematics can be done knowing the distribution of a value of something. The whole field of statistical mechanics is an example of that. James Clerk Maxwell, famous for the equations which describe electromagnetism, used such random variables to explain how the rings of Saturn could exist. It isn’t easy to start solving problems with distributions instead of particular values — I’m not sure I’ve seen a good introduction, and I’d be glad to pass one on if someone can suggest it — but the power it offers is amazing.
Nate Fakes’s Break Of Day (May 6) is an anthropomorphic numbers joke. It does show off the connotation that subtraction has of being a bad thing. I started out writing “negative” thing, but the link between negative and bad is surely the same idea. I notice division doesn’t get warned about, though. (I’ll give the cartoon a pass for not worrying about addition of negative numbers. That’s just subtraction anyway.)
Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby (May 6) is trying to worm its way into my “How Many Trapezoids I Can Draw” post. Little does the Shape Shifter know that I already counted squares as a kind of trapezoid. Well, I count rectangles as a kind of trapezoid, but squares are a kind of rectangle too.
Stan Drake’s The Heart of Juliet Jones (May 9, originally published February 12, 1958) tosses off a mention of how a penny, doubled, for a month would bring one to being a millionaire. It brings one to having more than give million dollars, as the Mayor says. That’s a good bit of exponentiation to know, although I’d like to know where you could go to double any sum of money regularly for a solid month. Well, I’m not greedy. I’d be reasonably content with a doubling scheme that only worked for a solid week.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy (May 9, originally published 1928) might be the earliest student-resisting-the-word-problem joke I’ve seen illustrated. Of course I’ve read very few comic strips from 1928 or earlier. It’s still a good joke. Skippy was one of the first comics to star a kid who’s simply wiser than his years. It was a major influence on Peanuts and, either directly or through Peanuts, continues to influence strips that star kids today. Also, Crosby’s sense of humor was strikingly modern: his comics are funny in about the same ways modern strips are. It’s easy to imagine this joke being drawn by a contemporary cartoonist, which you couldn’t say about (for example) Little Nemo in Slumberland or other early comic strips. I’m surprised not to have seen just this punch line recently, though.
So while Willy and Ethel gave me the most to talk about, this was the comic that most entertained me.