Reading the Comics, June 24, 2017: Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Edition

Somehow this is not the title of every Reading The Comics review! But it is for this post and we’ll explore why below.

Piers Baker’s Ollie and Quentin for the 18th is a Zeno’s Paradox-based joke. This uses the most familiar of Zeno’s Paradoxes, about the problem of covering any distance needing infinitely many steps to be done in a finite time. Zeno’s Paradoxes are often dismissed these days (probably were then, too), on the grounds that the Ancient Greeks Just Didn’t Understand about convergence. Hardly; they were as smart as we were. Zeno had a set of paradoxes, built on the questions of whether space and time are infinitely divisible or whether they’re not. Any answer to one paradox implies problems in others. There’s things we still don’t really understand about infinity and infinitesimals and continuity. Someday I should do a proper essay about them.

Dave Coverly’s Speed Bump for the 18th is not exactly an anthropomorphic-numerals joke. It is about making symbols manifest in the real world, at least. The greater-than and less-than signs as we know them were created by the English mathematician Thomas Harriot, and introduced to the world in his posthumous Artis Analyticae Praxis (1631). He also had an idea of putting a . between the numerals of an expression and the letters multiplied by them, for example, “4.x” to mean four times x. We mostly do without that now, taking multiplication as assumed if two meaningful quantities are put next to one another. But we will use, now, a vertically-centered dot to separate terms multiplied together when that helps our organization. The equals sign we trace to the 16th century mathematician Robert Recorde, whose 1557 Whetsone of Witte uses long but recognizable equals signs. The = sign went into hibernation after that, though, until the 17th century and it took some time to quite get well-used. So it often is with symbols.

Mr Tanner: 'Today we'll talk about where numbers come from. Take zero, for instance ... Quincy, do you know who invented the zero?' Quincy: 'I'm not sure, Mr Tanner, but from the grades I get it must have been one of my teachers.'

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 25th of April, 1978 and rerun the 19th of June, 2017. The question does make me wonder how far Mr Tanner was going to go with this. The origins of zero and one are great stuff for class discussion. Two, also. But what about three? Five? Ten? Twelve? Minus one? Irrational numbers, if the class has got up to them? How many students are going to be called on to talk about number origins? And how many truly different stories are there?

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 25th of April, 1978 and rerun the 19th of June, starts from the history of zero. It’s worth noting there are a couple of threads woven together in the concept of zero. One is the idea of “nothing”, which we’ve had just forever. I mean, the idea that there isn’t something to work with. Another is the idea of the … well, the additive identity, there being some number that’s one less than one and two less than two. That you can add to anything without changing the thing. And then there’s symbols. There’s the placeholder for “there are no examples of this quantity here”. There’s the denotation of … well, the additive identity. All these things are zeroes, and if you listen closely, they are not quite the same thing. Which is not weird. Most words mean a collection of several concepts. We’re lucky the concepts we mean by “zero” are so compatible in meaning. Think of the poor person trying to understand the word “bear”, or “cleave”.

John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 19th is a “New Math” joke, fittingly done with cavemen. Well, numerals were new things once. Amusing to me is that — while I’m not an expert — in quite a few cultures the symbol for “one” was pretty much the same thing, a single slash mark. It’s hard not to suppose that numbers started out with simple tallies, and the first thing to tally might get dressed up a bit with serifs or such but is, at heart, the same thing you’d get jabbing a sharp thing into a soft rock.

Guy Gilchrist’s Today’s Dogg for the 19th I’m sure is a rerun and I think I’ve featured it here before. So be it. It’s silly symbol-play and dog arithmetic. It’s a comic strip about how dogs are cute; embrace it or skip it.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal is properly speaking reruns when it appears on For whatever reason Weinersmith ran a patch of mathematics strips there this past week. So let me bundle all that up. On the 19th he did a joke mathematicians get a lot, about how the only small talk anyone has about mathematics is how they hated mathematics. I’m not sure mathematicians have it any better than any other teachers, though. Have you ever known someone to say, “My high school gym class gave me a greater appreciation of the world”? Or talk about how grade school history opened their eyes to the wonders of the subject? It’s a sad thing. But there are a lot of things keeping teachers from making students feel joy in their subjects.

For the 21st Weinersmith makes a statisticians joke. I can wrangle some actual mathematics out of an otherwise correctly-formed joke. How do we ever know that something is true? Well, we gather evidence. But how do we know the evidence is relevant? Even if the evidence is relevant, how do we know we’ve interpreted it correctly? Even if we have interpreted it correctly, how do we know that it shows what we want to know? Statisticians become very familiar with hypothesis testing, which amounts to the question, “does this evidence indicate that some condition is implausibly unlikely”? And they can do great work with that. But “implausibly unlikely” is not the same thing as “false”. A person knowledgeable enough and honest turns out to have few things that can be said for certain.

The June 23rd strip I’ve seen go around Mathematics Twitter several times, as see above tweet, about the ways in which mathematical literacy would destroy modern society. It’s a cute and flattering portrait of mathematics’ power, probably why mathematicians like passing it back and forth. But … well, how would “logic” keep people from being fooled by scams? What makes a scam work is that the premise seems logical. And real-world problems — as opposed to logic-class problems — are rarely completely resolvable by deductive logic. There have to be the assumptions, the logical gaps, and the room for humbuggery that allow hoaxes and scams to slip through. And does anyone need a logic class to not “buy products that do nothing”? And what is “nothing”? I have more keychains than I have keys to chain, even if we allow for emergencies and reasonable unexpected extra needs. This doesn’t stop my buying keychains as souvenirs. Does a Penn Central-logo keychain “do nothing” merely because it sits on the windowsill rather than hold any sort of key? If so, was my love foolish to buy it as a present? Granted that buying a lottery ticket is a foolish use of money; is my life any worse for buying that than, say, a peanut butter cup that I won’t remember having eaten a week afterwards? As for credit cards — It’s not clear to me that people max out their credit cards because they don’t understand they will have to pay it back with interest. My experience has been people max out their credit cards because they have things they must pay for and no alternative but going further into debt. That people need more money is a problem of society, yes, but it’s not clear to me that a failure to understand differential equations is at the heart of it. (Also, really, differential equations are overkill to understand credit card debt. A calculator with a repeat-the-last-operation feature and ten minutes to play is enough.)