Reading the Comics, October 1, 2015: Big Questions Edition


I’m cutting the collection of mathematically-themed comic strips at the transition between months. The set I have through the 1st of October is long enough already. That’s mostly because the first couple strips suggested some big topics at least somewhat mathematically-based came up. Those are fun to reason about, but take time to introduce. So let’s jump into them.

Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate: First Class for the 27th of September was originally published the 22nd of September, 1991. Nate and Francis trade off possession of the basketball, and a strikingly high number of successful shots in a row considering their age, in the infinitesimally sliced last second of the game. There’s a rather good Zeno’s-paradox-type-question to be made out of this. Suppose the game started with one second to go and Nate ahead by one point, since it is his strip. At one-half second to go, Francis makes a basket and takes a one point lead. At one-quarter second to go, Nate makes a basket and takes a one point lead. At one-eighth of a second to go, Francis repeats the basket; at one-sixteenth of a second, Nate does. And so on. Suppose they always make their shots, and suppose that they are able to make shots without requiring any more than half the remaining time available. Who wins, and why?

Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit for the 27th of September is built on the question of whether the universe might be just a computer simulation, and if so, how we might tell. Being a computer simulation is one of those things that would seem to explain why mathematics tells us so much about the universe. One can make a probabilistic argument about this. Suppose there is one universe, and there are some number of simulations of the universe. Call that number N. If we don’t know whether we’re in the real or the simulated universe, then it would seem we have an estimated probability of being in the real universe of one divided by N plus 1. The chance of being in the real universe starts out none too great and gets dismally small pretty fast.

But this does put us in philosophical difficulties. If we are in something that is a complete, logically consistent universe that cannot be escaped, how is it not “the real” universe? And if “the real” universe is accessible from within “the simulation” then how can they be separate? The question is hard to answer and it’s far outside my realm of competence anyway.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy Classics for the 27th of September originally ran the 15th of September, 2008. And it talks about the ideas of zero-point energy and a false vacuum. This is about something that seems core to cosmology: how much energy is there in a vacuum? That is, if there’s nothing in a space, how much energy is in it? Quantum mechanics tells us it isn’t zero, in part because matter and antimatter flutter into and out of existence all the time. And there’s gravity, which is hard to explain quite perfectly. Mathematical models of quantum mechanics, and gravity, make various predictions about how much the energy of the vacuum should be. Right now, the models don’t give us really good answers.

Some suggest that there might be more energy in the vacuum than we could ever use, and that if there were some way to draw it off — well, there’d never be a limit to anything ever again. I think this an overly optimistic projection. The opposite side of this suggests that if it is possible to draw energy out of the vacuum, that means it must be possible to shift empty space from its current state to a lower-energy state, much the way you can get energy out of a pile of rocks by making the rocks fall. But the lower-energy vacuum might have different physics in ways that make it very hard for us to live, or for us to exist. I think this an overly pessimistic projection. But I am not an expert in the fields, which include cosmology, quantum mechanics, and certain rather difficult tinkerings with the infinitely many.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. for the 28th of September is a joke in the form of true, but useless, word problem answers. Well, putting down a lower bound on what the answer is can help. If you knew what three times twelve was, you could get to four times twelve reliably, and that’s a help. But if you’re lost for three times twelve then you’re just stalling for time and the teacher knows it.

Paul Gilligan’s Pooch Cafe for the 28th of September uses the monkeys-on-keyboards concept. It’s shifted here to cats on a keyboard, but the principle is the same. Give a random process enough time and you can expect it to produce anything you want. It’s a matter of how long you can wait, though. And all the complications of how to make something that’s random. Cats won’t do it.

Mel Henze’s Gentle Creatures for the 29th of September is a rerun. I’m not sure when it was first printed. But it does use “ability to do mathematics” as a shorthand for “is intelligent at all”. That’s flattering to put in front of a mathematician, but I don’t think that’s really fair.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 30th of September is a protest about using mathematics in real life. I’m surprised Thatababy’s Dad had an algebra teacher proclaiming differential equations would be used. Usually teachers assert that whatever they’re teaching will be useful, which is how we provide motivation.

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