Reading the Comics, March 30, 2016: Official At-Bat Edition

Comic Strip Master Command slowed down the pace at which the newspaper comics were to talk mathematical subjects. All right, that’s their prerogative. But it leaves me here, at Thursday, with slightly too few comics for my tastes. On the other hand, if I don’t run with what I have, I might not have anything to post for the 31st of March, and it would be a shame to go this whole month with something posted every day only to spoil it on the 31st. This is a pretty juvenile reason to do a thing, so here we are. Enjoy, please.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 25th of March is a students-grumbling joke. I’m not sure what to make of the argument “arithmetic might be education, but that algebra stuff is indoctrination”. I imagine it reflects the feeling that the rules of arithmetic are all these nice straightforward things, and then algebra’s rules seem a bewildering set of near-gibberish. I can understand people looking at the quadratic formula, being told it has something to do with parabolas and an axis, throwing up their hands, and declaring it all this crazy game they’ll never play.

What people are forgetting in this is that everything sounds like this crazy gibberish game at first. The confusion you felt when first trying to factor a quadratic polynomial? It’s the same confusion you felt when first doing long division. And when you first multiplied a three-digit by a two-digit number. And when you had to subtract with borrowing. It’s also the same confusion you have when you first hear the first European settlement of Manhattan was driven by the Netherlands’ war for independence from Spain. Learning is changing the baffling confusion of life into an understandable pattern.

Which is not to deny that we could do a better job motivating stuff. You have no idea how many drafts of the Dedekind Domain essay I threw out because there were just too many words describing conditions and not why any of them mattered. I’m lazy; I don’t like scrapping that much text. And I’m still not quite happy with Normal Groups.

Jeff Mallet’s Frazz for the 27th is an easier joke to explain. It’s also one whose appeal I really understand. There is a compelling beauty to the notation and the symbols of higher mathematics. I remember when a kid I peered at one of my parents’ calculus textbooks. The reference page of common integrals was enchanting. It wasn’t the only thing that drove me towards mathematics. But the aesthetic beauty is there.

And it’s not just mathematicians and mathematics-based fields that see it. The arts editor for my undergraduate school’s unread leftist weekly newspaper asked me to work out a problem, any problem, to include as graphic arts. I was happy to. (I was the managing editor for the paper at the time.) I even had a great problem, from the final exam in my freshman Classical Mechanics course. The problem was to derive the equivalent of Kepler’s Laws of Motion with a different force law. Instead of the inverse-square attraction of gravity we used the exponential-decay-style interactions of the weak force. It was a brilliant exam question, frankly, and made for a page of symbols that maybe nobody understood but that I’ll bet everyone thought pretty.

John Forgetta and L A Rose’s The Meaning of Lila for the 27th is probably a rerun. The strip mostly is, although a few new or updated comics are fit into the rotation. It’s an example of a census joke, in which you classify away the whole population of the world. I remember first seeing it, as a kid, in a church bulletin. That one worked out how the entire working population of the United States was actually only two people and that’s why you’re always so tired. You could probably use the logic of this sort of joke to teach Venn diagrams. The logic that produces a funny low count relies on counting people several times, once for each of many categories they might fit in.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 30th made me giggle. I suppose there’s an essay to be written about whether we need mathematics, and what we need it for. But wouldn’t that just take away from the fun of it?


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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