Reading the Comics, September 24, 2016: Infinities Happen Edition


I admit it’s a weak theme. But two of the comics this week give me reason to talk about infinitely large things and how the fact of being infinitely large affects the probability of something happening. That’s enough for a mid-September week of comics.

Kieran Meehan’s Pros and Cons for the 18th of September is a lottery problem. There’s a fun bit of mathematical philosophy behind it. Supposing that a lottery runs long enough without changing its rules, and that it does draw its numbers randomly, it does seem to follow that any valid set of numbers will come up eventually. At least, the probability is 1 that the pre-selected set of numbers will come up if the lottery runs long enough. But that doesn’t mean it’s assured. There’s not any law, physical or logical, compelling every set of numbers to come up. But that is exactly akin to tossing a coin fairly infinity many times and having it come up tails every single time. There’s no reason that can’t happen, but it can’t happen.

'It's true, Dr Peel. I'm a bit of a psychic.' 'Would you share the winning lottery numbers with me?' '1, 10, 17, 39, 43, and 47'. 'Those are the winning lottery numbers?' 'Yes!' 'For this Tuesday?' 'Ah! That's where it gets a bit fuzzy.'
Kieran Meehan’s Pros and Cons for the 18th of September, 2016. I can’t say whether any of these are supposed to be the PowerBall number. (The comic strip’s title is a revision of its original, which more precisely described its gimmick but was harder to remember: A Lawyer, A Doctor, and a Cop.)

Leigh Rubin’s Rubes for the 19th name-drops chaos theory. It’s wordplay, as of course it is, since the mathematical chaos isn’t the confusion-and-panicky-disorder of the colloquial term. Mathematical chaos is about the bizarre idea that a system can follow exactly perfectly known rules, and yet still be impossible to predict. Henri Poincaré brought this disturbing possibility to mathematicians’ attention in the 1890s, in studying the question of whether the solar system is stable. But it lay mostly fallow until the 1960s when computers made it easy to work this out numerically and really see chaos unfold. The mathematician type in the drawing evokes Einstein without being too close to him, to my eye.

Allison Barrows’s PreTeena rerun of the 20th shows some motivated calculations. It’s always fun to see people getting excited over what a little multiplication can do. Multiplying a little change by a lot of chances is one of the ways to understanding integral calculus, and there’s much that’s thrilling in that. But cutting four hours a night of sleep is not a little thing and I wouldn’t advise it for anyone.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 20th riffs on Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s a great image, the idea of the library containing every book possible. And it’s good mathematics also; it’s a good way to probe one’s understanding of infinity and of probability. Probably logic, also. After all, grant that the index to the Library of Babel is a book, and therefore in the library somehow. How do you know you’ve found the index that hasn’t got any errors in it?

Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 21st originally ran the 21st of September, 1949. It’s another example of arithmetic as a proof of intelligence. Routine example, although it’s crafted with the usual Bushmiller precision. Even the close-up, peering-into-your-soul image if Professor Stroodle in the second panel serves the joke; without it the stress on his wrinkled brow would be diffused. I can’t fault anyone not caring for the joke; it’s not much of one. But wow is the comic strip optimized to deliver it.

Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains for the 23rd is also a mathematics-as-proof-of-intelligence strip, although this one name-drops calculus. It’s also a strip that probably would have played better had it come out before Blackfish got people asking unhappy questions about Sea World and other aquariums keeping large, deep-ocean animals. I would’ve thought Comic Strip Master Command to have sent an advisory out on the topic.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 23rd is, among other things, a guide for explaining the difference between speed and velocity. Speed’s a simple number, a scalar in the parlance. Velocity is (most often) a two- or three-dimensional vector, a speed in some particular direction. This has implications for understanding how things move, such as pedestrians.

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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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