Reading the Comics, July 16, 2016: More To Life Than Mathematics Edition


I know, it’s impolitic for me to say something like my title. But I noticed a particular rerun in this set of mathematically-themed comics. And it left me wondering if I should drop that from my daily routine. There are strips I read more out of a fear of missing out than anything else. Most of them are in perpetual reruns, though some of them are so delightful I wouldn’t dare drop them. (Here I mean Cul de Sac and Peanuts.) An individual comic takes typically little time to read, but add that up and it does take a while, especially on vacation or the like. I won’t actually change anything; I’m too stubborn in lazy ways for that. But it crosses my mind.

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life for the 14th is what set me off. Lachowski’s rerun this before, and I’ve mentioned it before, back in March of 2015 and back in November 2012. Given this I wonder if there’s a late-2013 or early-2014 reuse of the strip I failed to note around here. Or just missed, possibly because I was on vacation.

Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship reprint for the 14th gives me the title for this edition. It uses symbols and diagrams of mathematics for their graphical artistry, the sort of thing I’m surprised doesn’t get done more. Back in college the creative-writing-and-arts editor for the unread leftist weekly asked me to do a page of physics calculations as an aesthetic composition and I was glad to do it. Good notation has a beauty to it; I wonder if people would like mathematics more if they got to spend time at play with its shapes.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 14th name-checks the New Math. The New Math was this attempt to reform mathematics in the 1970s. It was great for me, and my love remembers only liking or understanding mathematics while in New Math-guided classes. But it was an attempt at educational reform that didn’t promise that people at the cash registers would make change fast enough, and so was doomed to failure. (I am being reductive here. Much about the development of New Math went wrong, and it’s unfair to blame it all on the resistance of parents to new teaching methods. But educational reform always crashes hard against parents’ reasonable question, “Why should my child be your test case?”)

Many of the New Math ideas grew out of the work of Nicholas Bourbaki, and the attempt to explain mathematics on completely rigorous logical foundations, as free from intuition as possible to get. That sounds like an odd thing to do; intuition is a guide to useful ways to spend one’s time and energy. But that supposes the intuition is good.

Much of late 19th and early 20th century mathematics was spent discovering cases in which intuitive understandings of things were wrong. Deterministic systems can be unpredictable. A curve can be continuous at a single point and nowhere else in space. Infinitely large sets can be bigger or smaller than other sets. A line can wriggle around so much that it has a volume, it fills space. In that context wanting to ditch intuition a a once-useful but now-unreliable guide is not a bad idea.

I like the New Math. I suppose we always like the way we first learned things. But I still think it’s got a healthy focus. The idea that mathematics is built on rules we agree to use, and that we are free to change if we find they’re not doing things we need, is true. It’s one easy to forget considering mathematics’ primary job, which has always been making trade, accounting, and record-keeping go smoothly. Changing those systems are perilous. But we should know something about how to pick tools to use.

Zoe Piel’s At The Zoo for the 15th uses the blackboard-full-of-mathematics image to suggest deep thinking. (Toby the lion’s infatuated with the vet, which is why he’s thinking how to get her to visit again.) Really there’s a bunch of iconic cartoon images of deep thinking, including a mid-century-esque big-tin-box computer with reel-to-reel memory tape. Modern computers are vastly more powerful than that sort of 50s/60s contraption, but they’re worthless artistically if you want to suggest any deep thinking going on. You need stuff with moving parts for that, even in a still image.

Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classics for the 16th originally ran the 21st of May, 1993. And it comes back to a practical use for mathematics and the sort of thing we do need to know how to calculate. It also uses the image of mathematics as obscurant nonsense.

That tweet’s interesting in itself, although one of the respondents wonders if William meant astrology, often called “mathematics” at the time. That would be a fairer thing to call magic. But it would be only a century after William of Malmesbury’s death that Arabic numerals would become familiar in Europe. They would bring suspicions that merchants and moneylenders were trying to cheat their customers, by using these exotic specialist notations with unrecognizable rules, instead of the traditional and easy-to-follow Roman numerals. If this particular set of mathematics comics were mostly reruns, that’s all right; sometimes life is like that.

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