Reading the Comics, September 16, 2015: Celebrity Appearance Edition

I couldn’t go on calling this Back To School Editions. A couple of the comic strips the past week have given me reason to mention people famous in mathematics or physics circles, and one who’s even famous in the real world too. That’ll do for a title.

Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 15th of September tells what I want to call an old joke about geese formations. The thing is that I’m not sure it is an old joke. At least I can’t think of it being done much. It seems like it should have been.

The formations that geese, or other birds, form has been a neat corner of mathematics. The question they inspire is “how do birds know what to do?” How can they form complicated groupings and, more, change their flight patterns at a moment’s notice? (Geese flying in V shapes don’t need to do that, but other flocking birds will.) One surprising answer is that if each bird is just trying to follow a couple of simple rules, then if you have enough birds, the group will do amazingly complex things. This is good for people who want to say how complex things come about. It suggests you don’t need very much to have robust and flexible systems. It’s also bad for people who want to say how complex things come about. It suggests that many things that would be interesting can’t be studied in simpler models. Use a smaller number of birds or fewer rules or such and the interesting behavior doesn’t appear.

The geese are flying in V, I, and X patterns. The guess is that they're Roman geese.
Jeff Corriveau’s Deflocked for the 15th of September, 2015.

Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classics from the 15th and 16th of September (originally run the 22nd and 23rd of July, 1992) are about mathematical forecasts of the future. This is a hard field. It’s one people have been dreaming of doing for a long while. J Willard Gibbs, the renowned 19th century physicist who put the mathematics of thermodynamics in essentially its modern form, pondered whether a thermodynamics of history could be made. But attempts at making such predictions top out at demographic or rough economic forecasts, and for obvious reason.

The next day Dilbert’s garbageman, the smartest person in the world, asserts the problem is chaos theory, that “any complex iterative model is no better than a wild guess”. I wouldn’t put it that way, although I’m not sure what would convey the idea within the space available. One problem with predicting complicated systems, even if they are deterministic, is that there is a difference between what we can measure a system to be and what the system actually is. And for some systems that slight error will be magnified quickly to the point that a prediction based on our measurement is useless. (Fortunately this seems to affect only interesting systems, so we can still do things like study physics in high school usefully.)

Maria Scrivan’s Half Full for the 16th of September makes the Common Core joke. A generation ago this was a New Math joke. It’s got me curious about the history of attempts to reform mathematics teaching, and how poorly they get received. Surely someone’s written a popular or at least semipopular book about the process? I need some friends in the anthropology or sociology departments to tell, I suppose.

In Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 16th of September, Heart is already feeling lost in mathematics. She’s in enough trouble she doesn’t recognize mathematics terms. That is an old joke, too, although I think the best version of it was done in a Bloom County with no mathematical content. (Milo Bloom met his idol Betty Crocker and learned that she was a marketing icon who knew nothing of cooking. She didn’t even recognize “shish kebob” as a cooking term.)

Mell Lazarus’s Momma for the 16th of September sneers at the idea of predicting where specks of dust will land. But the motion of dust particles is interesting. What can be said about the way dust moves when the dust is being battered by air molecules that are moving as good as randomly? This becomes a problem in statistical mechanics, and one that depends on many things, including just how fast air particles move and how big molecules are. Now for the celebrity part of this story.

Albert Einstein published four papers in his “Annus mirabilis” year of 1905. One of them was the Special Theory of Relativity, and another the mass-energy equivalence. Those, and the General Theory of Relativity, are surely why he became and still is a familiar name to people. One of his others was on the photoelectric effect. It’s a cornerstone of quantum mechanics. If Einstein had done nothing in relativity he’d still be renowned among physicists for that. The last paper, though, that was on Brownian motion, the movement of particles buffeted by random forces like this. And if he’d done nothing in relativity or quantum mechanics, he’d still probably be known in statistical mechanics circles for this work. Among other things this work gave the first good estimates for the size of atoms and molecules, and gave easily observable, macroscopic-scale evidence that molecules must exist. That took some work, though.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 16th of September shows off the Metropolitan Museum of Symmetry. This is probably meant to be an art museum. Symmetries are studied in mathematics too, though. Many symmetries, the ways you can swap shapes around, form interesting groups or rings. And in mathematical physics, symmetries give us useful information about the behavior of systems. That’s enough for me to claim this comic is mathematically linked.


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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