Reading the Comics, June 1, 2018: His First Name Is Tom For What That’s Worth Edition


And now I’ve got caught up with last week’s comics. I can get to readying for this coming Sunday looking at … so far … nine comic strips that made the preliminary cut. Whimper.

This time the name does mean something.

Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 31st complains about not being treated as a “prime number”. There’s a lot of linguistic connotation gone into this strip. The first is the sense that to be a number is to be stripped of one’s humanity, to become one of a featureless horde. Each number is unique, of course; Iva Sallay’s Find the Factors page each day starts with some of the features of each whole number in turn. But one might look at, oh, 84,644 and not something very different from 84,464.

Frank: 'The boss treats me like a number, and not a prime one.'
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 31st of May, 2018. In the past I’ve gone out trying to find and print Thaves’s first name, on the grounds that I should fully credit people. I’m coming around on this, first because I keep forgetting his first name and looking it up every time is tiresome. But more important, if Thaves wants to be known simply as ‘Thaves’ what am I doing arguing that? Is there a different Thaves, possibly his evil twin, producing another comic strip named Frank and Ernest that I have to make clear I’m not talking about? So that’s my level of overthinking these captions right now.

And yet there’s the idea that there are prime numbers, celebrities within the anonymous counting numbers. The name even says it; a prime something is especially choice. And we speak of prime numbers as somehow being the backbone of numbers. This reflects that we find unique factorizations to be a useful thing to do. But being a prime number doesn’t make a number necessarily better. There are reasons most (European) currencies, before decimalization, divided their currency unit into 20 parts of 12 parts each. And nobody divided them into 19 parts of 13 parts each. As often happens, whether something is good depends on what you’re hoping it’s good for.

[ Movie showing the digits of Pi marching out of a flying saucer.] Guy in movie: 'What are they?' Woman in movie: 'They appear to be numbers.' Guy watching movie: 'I just love sci-pi movies.'
Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 1st of June, 2018. Sure, but what do you do for the sequel? No, τ is not a thing.

Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 1st of June is more or less the anthropomorphized numerals installment for the week. It’s also a bit of wordplay, so, good on them. There’s not so many movies about mathematics. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures are the ones that come to mind, at least in American cinema. And there was the TV detective series Numbers. It seems odd that there wasn’t, like, some little studio prestige thing where Paul Muni played Évariste Galois back in the day. But a lot of the mathematical process isn’t cinematic. People scribbling notes, typing on a computer, or arguing about something you don’t understand are all hard to make worth watching. And the parts that anyone could understand — obsession, self-doubt, arguments over priority, debates about implications — are universal to any discovery or invention. Note that the movies listed are mostly about people who happen to be doing mathematics. You could change the specialties to, say, chemical engineering without altering the major plot beats. Well, Pi would need more alteration. But you could make it about any process that seems to offer reliable forecasting in a new field.

Bernice, whispering: 'Luann! Did you hear? Tiffany asked Aaron Hill to the dance but he turned her down! He said he's inviting 'someone else'!' Teacher: 'So if x is 1/4 y over 42.6 minus (Q^2 R)/19 ...' Bernice: 'And we know WHO that 'someone else' is, don't we?' [ Luann is wide-eyed with joy. ] Teacher: 'Can anyone tell me what 'R' is?' Luann: 'YES!' Teacher: 'Good! Come up here to the board, Luann.'
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 1st of June, 2018. It originally ran the 1st of June, 1990.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 1st takes place in mathematics class. The subject doesn’t matter for the joke. It could be anything that doesn’t take much word-balloon space but that someone couldn’t bluff their way through.

Mr Barrows: 'You're pretty good at numbers, Quincy. Are you going to work with figures when you grow up?' Quincy: 'I'm not sure yet, Mr Barrows. I'm either gonna be a very tall accountant or a very short basketball player.'
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 7th of April, 1979 and reprinted the 1st of June, 2018. I get why Quincy would figure he’d grow up to be a very tall accountant, but why does he just assume he’d be a very short basketball player? Isn’t it as easy to imagine you’ll grow up to be a typically-sized basketball player? Does he know something we don’t?

Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 7th of April, 1979 has Quincy thinking what he’ll do with his head for figures. He sees accounting as plausible. Good for him. Society always needs accountants. And they probably do more of society’s mathematics than the mathematicians do.

Scientist type pointing to the blackboard full of arithmetic: 'Cutting-edge formula? No, that's the wi-fi password.'
Bill Abbott’s Spectickles for the 1st of June, 2018. So, is this all the characters that have to be typed in, or is it one of those annoying things where you have to solve the puzzle to get the password?

Bill Abbott’s Spectickles for the 1st features the blackboard-full-of-mathematics to represent the complicated. It shows off the motif that an advanced mathematical formula will be a long and complicated one. This has good grounds behind it. If you want to model something interesting that hasn’t been done before, chances are it’s because you need to consider many factors. And trying to represent them will be clumsily done. It takes reflection and consideration and, often, new mathematical tools to make a formula pithy. Famously, James Clerk Maxwell introduced his equations about electricity and magnetism as a set of twenty equations. By 1873 Maxwell, making some use of quaternions, was able to reduce this to eight equations. Oliver Heaviside, in the late 19th century, used the still-new symbols of vector mechanics. This let him make an attractive quartet. We still see that as the best way to describe electromagnetic fields. As with writing, much of mathematics is rewriting.

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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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