I admit I’ve been a little unnerved lately. Between the A To Z project and the flood of mathematics-themed jokes from Comic Strip Master Command — and miscellaneous follies like my WordPress statistics-reading issues — I’ve had a post a day for several weeks now. The streak has to end sometime, surely, right? So it must, but not today. I admit the bunch of comics mentioning mathematical topics the past couple days was more one of continuing well-explored jokes rather than breaking new territory. But every comic strip is somebody’s first, isn’t it? (That’s an intimidating thought.)

Disney’s **Mickey Mouse** (June 6, rerun from who knows when) is another example of the word problem that even adults can’t do. I think it’s an interesting one for being also a tongue-twister. I tend to think of this sort of problem as a calculus question, but that’s surely just that I spend more time with calculus than with algebra or simpler arithmetic.

And then Disney’s **Donald Duck** (June 6 also, but probably a rerun from some other date) is a joke built on counting sheep. Might help someone practice their four-times table, too. I like the internal logic of this one. Maybe I just like sheep in comic strips.

Eric Teitelbaum and Bill Teitelbaum’s **Bottomliners** (June 6) is a bit of wordplay based on the idiom that figures will “add up” if they’re correct. There are so many things one can do with figures, though, aren’t there? Surely something will be right.

Justin Thompson’s **Mythtickle** (June 6, again a rerun) is about the curious way that objects are mostly empty space. The first panel shows on the alien’s chalkboard legitimate equations from quantum mechanics. The first line describes (in part) a function called psi that describes where a particle is likely to be found over time. The second and third lines describe how the probability distribution — where a particle is likely to be found — changes over time.

Doug Bratton’s **Pop Culture Shock Therapy** (July 7) just name-drops mathematics as something a kid will do badly in. In this case the kid is Calvin, from **Calvin and Hobbes.** While it’s true he did badly in mathematics I suspect that’s because it’s so easy to fit an elementary-school arithmetic question and a wrong answer in a single panel.

The idea of mathematics as a way to bludgeon people into accepting your arguments must have caught someone’s imagination over at the Parker studios. Jeff Parker’s **The Wizard of Id** for July 7 uses this joke, just as Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s **B.C.** did back on June 19th. (Both comic strips were created by the prolific Johnny Hart. I was surprised to learn they’re not still drawn and written by the same teams.) As I mentioned at the time, smothering people beneath mathematical symbols is logically fallacious. This is not to say it doesn’t work.

About Mickey’s math problem: Sam should shear six sheep in sixty-six seconds (assuming the sheep take the same amount of time to shear). But we don’t know anything about Shelley… is she an expert sheep-shearer like Sam? If she’s as bad as I am, it might take 6 hours… or never get done. How could calculus tell us?

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Yeah, there’s a gap in how to relate Sam’s and Shelly’s rates. I can imagine plausible relations, like, “Shelley shears sheep six seconds slower than Sam”, or such. But that problem shouldn’t take Mickey all night.

There’s some missing piece of data. Maybe the teacher was trying to see what students would say “the problem can’t be answered like this. If we added this information, then we could answer it.” That would be a good thing to teach.

I have sometimes given the instruction, “if a problem seems to be unsolvable because some information is missing, say what you need”. If it’s homework I go farther and say “make up a reasonable-sounding bit of information, say what that is, and continue with the problem”. It’s meant as a catch in case I mess up in writing the problem, but I have thought about putting out problems specifically like that.

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Regardless of any variation in skill, shouldn’t Mickey just have to keep the tongue twister going and answer that Shelly should shear sixty-six sheep in six seconds?

I really enjoyed both of these sheep comics, too.

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You’re right, too. The logic of the tongue twister ought to apply.

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