Reading the Comics, September 22, 2018: Last Chance Edition


I plan tomorrow to have another of my Mathematics A To Z posts. This weekend I’ll publish this month’s Playful Mathematics Blog Carnival. So if you’ve seen any web site, blog, video, podcast, or other reference that had something that delighted and taught you something, this is your last chance to let me know, and let my audience know about it. Please leave a comment if you know about anything I ought to see. Thank you.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 20th is a numerals and a wordplay joke. It is not hard to make numerals tattooed on a person an alarming thing. But when done with (I trust) the person’s consent, and done whimsically like this, it’s more a slightly odd bit of play.

(Lio walks past a man who's got many different renderings of the numeral '2' on his arms. He comes up to a storefront: 'Tattwos'.)
Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 20th of September, 2018. It … seems a little out of the usual run of Lio‘s sense of humor, but then I don’t know where else Tatulli could have used the joke.

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 21st is ultimately a strip about motivating someone to learn arithmetic. Agnes’s reasoning is sound, though. If the only reason to learn this unpleasant chore is because your job may need it, why not look at another job? We wouldn’t try to convince someone who didn’t want to learn French that they’ll need it for their job as … a tour guide in Quebec? There’s plenty of work that doesn’t need that. I suspect kids don’t buy “this is good for your future job” as a reason. Even if it were, general education should not be job training either.

Teacher: 'Agnes, please finish the third division problem.' Agnes: 'I don't think so. I'm going to be a diesel mechanic.' Teacher: 'Do you even know what that is?' Agnes: 'No, but I found a brochure in Grandma's sock drawer, and the people in it looked rapturous about work.' Teacher: 'Diesel mechanics need to know division.' Agnes: 'Fine, I'll go with one of the others. How about a mortician?'
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 21st of September, 2018. Agnes doesn’t pursue being a mortician, at least this time, and instead tries out keeping a journal.

Juba’s Viivi and Wagner for the 21st gives Wagner a short-lived ambition to be a wandering mathematician. The abacus serves as badge of office. There are times and places that his ambition wouldn’t be completely absurd. Before the advent of electric and electronic computing, people who could calculate were worth hiring for their arithmetic. In 18th Century London there was a culture of “penny universities”, people with academic training making a living by giving lectures and courses to whatever members of the public cared to come to their talk, often in coffee-houses or barns.

Wagner: 'I decided to be a wandering mathematician. I already bought an abacus. I'll earn my living by performing simple additions and subtractions.' Viivi : 'You'll probably starve to death.' Wagner: 'I don't do probability calculus.'
Juba’s Viivi and Wagner for the 21st of September, 2018. This puts me in mind of a Peanuts where Sally Brown wondered about what if their father lost their job. What could she do to help the family earn its living? She suggested: she could make her bed.

Mathematicians learn that there used to be public spectacles, mathematicians challenging one another to do problems, with real cash or jobs on the line. They learn this because one such challenge figures in to the story of Gerolamo Cardano and Niccolò Fontana, known as Tartaglia. It’s about how we learned formulas to solve some kinds of polynomials. You may sense uncertainty in my claim there. It’s because it turns out it’s hard to find clear records of this sort of challenge outside the Cardano-Tartaglia match. That isn’t to say these things weren’t common. It’s just that I’ve been slowly learning to be careful about my claims.

(I’m aided here by a startling pair of episodes of The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps podcast. This pair — “Trivial Pursuits: Fourteenth Century Logic” and “Sara Uckleman on Obligations” — describe a fascinating logic game that sounds like it would still be a great party game, for which there’s numerous commentaries and rule sets and descriptions of how to play. But no records of people actually ever playing it, or talking about games they had played, or complaining about being cheated out of a win or stuff like that. It’s a strong reminder to look closely at what your evidence does support.)

Father: 'Son, I know you pretended to be sick today so you could skip school.' Kid: 'But I didn't!' Father: 'Shhh. It's OK. Don't tell Mom, but I got tickets to a luchador show this afternoon.' Kid: 'Oh boy!' [ LATER ... ] Luchador: 'Raaa! I'm the masked Karl Weierstrass and I'm WRESTLING with how to rigorously define the limit of a function!' Kid: 'Nooooooooooooo!'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 22nd of September, 2018. So do you think the father is really into the luchador show in the last panel or is he just going along with this while his kid comes to hate promises of fun?

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 22nd is the comforting return of Zach Weinersmith to these essays. And yes, it’s horrible parenting to promise something fun and have it turn out to be a mathematics lecture, but that’s part of the joke.

Karl Weierstrass was a real person, and a great mathematician best known for giving us a good, rigorous idea of what a limit is. We need limits because, besides their being nice things to have, calculus depends on them. At least, calculus depends on thinking about calculations on infinitely many things. Or on things infinitesimally small. Trying to do this works pretty well, much of the time. But you can also start calculating like this and get nonsense. How to tell whether your particular calculation works out or is nonsense?

Weierstrass worked out a good, rigorous idea for what we mean by a limit. It mostly tracks with what we’d intuitively expect. And it avoids all the dangerous spots we’ve noticed so far. Particularly, it doesn’t require us to ever look at anything that’s infinitely vast, or infinitesimally small. Anything we calculate on is done with regular arithmetic, that we’re quite confident in. But it lets us draw conclusions about the infinitely numerous or tiny. It’s brilliant work. When it’s presented to someone in the start of calculus, it leaves them completely baffled but they can maybe follow along with the rules. When it’s presented to mathematics majors in real analysis, it leaves them largely baffled but they can maybe follow along with the reasons. Somewhere around grad school I got comfortable with it, even excited. Weierstrass’s sort of definition turns up all over the place in real and in functional analysis. So at the least you get very comfortable with it.

So it is part of Weinersmith’s joke that this is way above that kid’s class level. As a joke, that fails for me. The luchador might as well be talking complete nonsense and the kid would realize that right away. There’s not the threat that this is something he ought to be able to understand. But it will probably always be funny to imagine mathematician wrestlers. Can count on that. I didn’t mean that as a joke, but you’ll notice I’m letting it stand.


And with that, you know what I figure to post on Sunday. It and my other Reading the Comics posts should be at this tag. Other appearances of Lio should be at this link. The mentions of Agnes should be at this link. Essays with some mention of Viivi and Wagner will be at this link, although it’s a new tag, so who knows how long it’ll take for the next to appear? And other essays with Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal will be at this link when there’s any to mention.

Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there. He/him.

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