Reading the Comics, May 12, 2016: No Pictures Again Edition


I’ve hardly stopped reading the comics. I doubt I could even if I wanted at this point. But all the comics this bunch are from GoComics, which as far as I’m aware doesn’t turn off access to comic strips after a couple of weeks. So I don’t quite feel justified including the images of the comics when you can just click links to them instead.

It feels a bit barren, I admit. I wonder if I shouldn’t commission some pictures so I have something for visual appeal. There’s people I know who do comics online. They might be able to think of something to go alongside every “Student has snarky answer for a word problem” strip.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers for the 8th of May drops in an absolute zero joke. Absolute zero’s a neat concept. People became aware of it partly by simple extrapolation. Given that the volume of a gas drops as the temperature drops, is there a temperature at which the volume drops to zero? (It’s complicated. But that’s the thread I use to justify pointing out this strip here.) And people also expected there should be an absolute temperature scale because it seemed like we should be able to describe temperature without tying it to a particular method of measuring it. That is, it would be a temperature “absolute” in that it’s not explicitly tied to what’s convenient for Western Europeans in the 19th century to measure. That zero and that instrument-independent temperature idea get conflated, and reasonably so. Hasok Chang’s Inventing Temperature: Measurement and Scientific Progress is well-worth the read for people who want to understand absolute temperature better.

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten & David Clark’s Barney and Clyde for the 9th is another strip that seems like it might not belong here. While it’s true that accidents sometimes lead to great scientific discoveries, what has that to do with mathematics? And the first thread is that there are mathematical accidents and empirical discoveries. Many of them are computer-assisted. There is something that feels experimental about doing a simulation. Modern chaos theory, the study of deterministic yet unpredictable systems, has at its founding myth Edward Lorentz discovering that tiny changes in a crude weather simulation program mattered almost right away. (By founding myth I don’t mean that it didn’t happen. I just mean it’s become the stuff of mathematics legend.)

But there are other ways that “accidents” can be useful. Monte Carlo methods are often used to find extreme — maximum or minimum — solutions to complicated systems. These are good if it’s hard to find a best possible answer, but it’s easy to compare whether one solution is better or worse than another. We can get close to the best possible answer by picking an answer at random, and fiddling with it at random. If we improve things, good: keep the change. You can see why this should get us pretty close to a best-possible-answer soon enough. And if we make things worse then … usually but not always do we reject the change. Sometimes we take this “accident”. And that’s because if we only take improvements we might get caught at a local extreme. An even better extreme might be available but only by going down an initially unpromising direction. So it’s worth allowing for some “mistakes”.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 10th of Anderson is some wordplay on volume. The volume of boxes is an easy formula to remember and maybe it’s a boring one. It’s enough, though. You can work out the volume of any shape using just the volume of boxes. But you do need integral calculus to tell how to do it. So maybe it’s easier to memorize the formula for volumes of a pyramid and a sphere.

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County for the 10th of May is a rerun from 1981. And it uses a legitimate bit of mathematics for Milo to insult Freida. He calls her a “log 10 times 10 to the derivative of 10,000”. The “log 10” is going to be 1. A reference to logarithm, without a base attached, means either base ten or base e. “log” by itself used to invariably mean base ten, back when logarithms were needed to do ordinary multiplication and division and exponentiation. Now that we have calculators for this mathematicians have started reclaiming “log” to mean the natural logarithm, base e, which is normally written “ln”, but that’s still an eccentric use. Anyway, the logarithm base ten of ten is 1: 10 is equal to 10 to the first power.

10 to the derivative of 10,000 … well, that’s 10 raised to whatever number “the derivative of 10,000” is. Derivatives take us into calculus. They describe how much a quantity changes as one or more variables change. 10,000 is just a number; it doesn’t change. It’s called a “constant”, in another bit of mathematics lingo that reminds us not all mathematics lingo is hard to understand. Since it doesn’t change, its derivative is zero. As anything else changes, the constant 10,000 does not. So the derivative of 10,000 is zero. 10 to the zeroth power is 1.

So, one times one is … one. And it’s rather neat that kids Milo’s age understand derivatives well enough to calculate that.

Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix rerun for the 10th happens to have a bit of graph theory in it. One of Uncle Cap’n’s Puzzle Pontoons is a challenge to trace out a figure without retracting a line or lifting your pencil. You can’t, not this figure. One of the first things you learn in graph theory teaches how to tell, and why. And thanks to a Twitter request I’m figuring to describe some of that for the upcoming Theorem Thursdays project. Watch this space!

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 11th, a rerun from the 6th of February, 1952, is cute enough. It’s one of those jokes about how a problem seems intractable until you’ve found the right way to describe it. I can’t fault Charlie Brown’s thinking here. Figuring out a way the problems are familiar and easy is great.

Shaenon K Garrity and Jeffrey C Wells’s Skin Horse for the 12th is a “see, we use mathematics in the real world” joke. In this case it’s triangles and triangulation. That’s probably the part of geometry it’s easiest to demonstrate a real-world use for, and that makes me realize I don’t remember mathematics class making use of that. I remember it coming up some, particularly in what must have been science class when we built and launched model rockets. We used a measure of how high an angle the rocket reached, and knowledge of how far the observing station was from the launchpad. But that wasn’t mathematics class for some reason, which is peculiar.

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