Reading the Comics, February 17, 2016: Using Mathematics Edition
Is there a unifying theme between many of the syndicated comic strips with mathematical themes the last few days? Of course there is. It’s students giving snarky answers to their teachers’ questions. That’s the theme every week. But other stuff comes up.
Joe Martin’s Boffo for the 12th of depicts “the early days before all the bugs were worked out” of mathematics. And the early figure got a whole string of operations which don’t actually respect the equals sign, before getting finally to the end. Were I to do this, I would use an arrow, =>, and I suspect many mathematicians would too. It’s a way of indicating the flow of one’s thoughts without trying to assert that 2+2 is actually the same number as 1 + 1 + 1 + 1 + 6.
And this comic is funny, in part, because it’s true. New mathematical discoveries tend to be somewhat complicated, sloppy messes to start. Over time, if the thing is of any use, the mathematical construct gets better. By better I mean the logic behind it gets better explained. You’d expect that, of course, just because time to reflect gives time to improve exposition. But the logic also tends to get better. We tend to find arguments that are, if not shorter, then better-constructed. We get to see how something gets used, and how to relate it to other things we’d like to do, and how to generalize the pieces of argument that go into it. If we think of a mathematical argument as a narrative, then, we learn how to write the better narrative.
Then, too, we get better at notation, at isolating what concepts we want to describe and how to describe them. For example, to write the fourth power of a number such as ‘x’, mathematicians used to write ‘xxxx’ — fair enough, but cumbersome. Or then xqq — the ‘q’ standing for quadratic, that is, square, of the thing before. That’s better. At least it’s less stuff to write. How about “xiiii” (as in the Roman numeral IV)? Getting to “x4” took time, and thought, and practice with what we wanted to raise numbers to powers to do. In short, we had to get the bugs worked out.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 12th of February is your normal student-resisting-word-problems joke. And hey, at least they have train service still in Smith’s hometown.
Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons for the 12th (a rerun; Galsbergen died last year) is a similar student-resisting-problems joke. Arithmetic gets an appearance no doubt because it’s the easiest kind of problem to put on the board and not distract from the actual joke.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 14th (a rerun from the early 2000s) mentions the chaos butterfly. I am considering retiring chaos butterfly mentions from these roundups because I seem to say the same thing each time. But I haven’t yet, so I’ll say it. Part of what makes a system chaotic is that it’s deterministic and unpredictable. Most different outcomes result from starting points so similar they can’t be told apart. There’s no guessing whether any action makes things better or worse, and whether that’s in the short or the long term.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 14th is surely not a response to that Pearls Before Swine from last time. I believe all the Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal strips to appear on Gocomics are reruns from its earlier days as a web comic. But it serves as a riposte to the “nobody uses mathematics anyway” charge. And it’s a fine bit of revenge fantasy.
Historically, being the sole party that understands the financial calculations has not brought money lenders appreciation.
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 17th also can’t be a response to that Pearls Before Swine. The lead times just don’t work that way. But it gives another great reason to learn mathematics. I encourage anyone who wants to be Lord and Queen of Mathdom; it’s worth a try.
Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 17th tells one of the obvious jokes about infinite sets. Fortunately mathematicians aren’t expected to list everything that goes into an infinitely large set. It would put a terrible strain on our wrists. Usually it’s enough to describe the things that go in it. Some descriptions are easy, especially if there’s a way to match the set with something already familiar, like counting numbers or real numbers. And sometimes a description has to be complicated.
There are urban legends among grad students. Many of them are thesis nightmares. One is about such sets. The story goes of the student who had worked for years on a set whose elements all had some interesting collection of properties. At the defense her advisor — the person who’s supposed to have guided her through finding and addressing an interesting problem — actually looks at the student’s work for the first time in ages, or ever. And starts drawing conclusions from it. And proves that the only set whose elements all have these properties is the null set, which hasn’t got anything in it. The whole thesis is a bust. Thaves probably didn’t have that legend in mind. But you could read the comic that way.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 17th gives a hint how long kids in comic strips have been giving smart answers to teachers. This installment’s from 1928 sometime. Skippy’s pretty confident in himself, it must be said.