Reading the Comics, October 24, 2018: Frazz Really Wants To Be My Friend Edition


It’s another week with several on-topic installments of Frazz. Again, Jef Mallet, you and I live in the same metro area. Wave to me at the farmer’s market or something. I’m kind of able to talk to people in real life, if I can keep in view three different paths to escape and know two bathrooms to hide in. Horrock’s is great for that.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 22nd is a bit of wordplay. It’s built on the association between “negative” and “wrong”. And the confusing fact that multiplying a negative number by a negative number results in a positive number. It sounds like a trick. Still, negative numbers are tricky. The name connotes something that’s gone a bit wrong. It took time to understand what they were and how they should work. This weird multiplication rule follows from that. If we don’t suppose this to be true, then we break other ideas we have about multiplication and comparative sizes and such. Mathematicians needed to get comfortable with negative numbers. For a long time, for example, mathematicians would treat x^2 - 4x + 4 = 0 and x^4 + 4x + 4 = 0 as different kinds of polynomials to solve. Today we see a -4 as no harder than a +4, now that we’re good at multiplying it out. And I have read, but have not seen explained, that there was uncertainty among the philosophers of mathematics about whether we should consider negative numbers, as a group, to be greater than or less than positive numbers. (I have reasons for thinking this a mighty interesting speculation.) There’s reasons to doubt them, is what I have to say.

Mrs Olsen: 'Any questions? Goody. Caulfield.' Caulfield: 'If a negative times a negative is a positive, how come two wrongs don't make a right?' [Later] Frazz: 'Maybe negative isn't the same as wrong.' Caulfield: 'You are not incorrect.'
Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 22nd of October, 2018. Good thing to learn, really.

Bob Weber Jr and Jay Stephens’s Oh Brother for the 22nd reminds me of my childhood. At some point I was pairing up the counting numbers and the letters of the alphabet, and realized that the alphabet ended while the numbers did not. Something about that offended my young sense of justice. I’m not sure how, anymore. But that it was always possible to find a bigger number than whatever you thought was the biggest caught my imagination.

Bud: 'Lily! Lily! What's the biggest number?' Lily: 'It's the same as the number of times you bug me.' Bud: 'But that's an ongoing, never-ending number.' Lily: 'Exactly!' Bud: 'Thanks for explaining math in practical terms!'
Bob Weber Jr and Jay Stephens’s Oh Brother for the 22nd of October, 2018. This may be a rerun; I don’t know if the strip is still in original production.

There is, surely, a largest finite number that anybody will ever use for something, even if it’s just hyperbole. I’m curious what it will be. Surely we can’t have already used it. A number named Skewes’s Number was famous, for a while, as the largest number actually used in a proof of something. The fame came from Isaac Asimov writing an essay about the number, and why someone might care, and how hard it is just describing how big the number is in a comprehensible way. Wikipedia tells me this number’s far been exceeded by, among other things, something called Rayo’s Number. It’s “the smallest number bigger than any finite number named by an expression in the language of set theory with a googol symbols or less” (plus some technical points to keep you from cheating). Which, all right, but I’d like to know if we think the first digit is a 1, maybe a 2? Somehow I don’t demand that of Skewes, perhaps because I read that Asimov essay when I was at an impressionable age.

Caulfield: 'If a fraction divided by a fraction is just a fraction times a flipped fraction, what happens if you fish with a fly for flying fish?' Mrs Olsen: 'You can't wade that far out in the ocean.' [ Later ] Frazz: 'So, nothing.' Caulfield: 'I don't think you can divide a fraction by a fraction and get zero.'
Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 23rd of October, 2018. I appreciate when Mrs Olsen is given the chance to show she does know things.

Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 23rd has Caulfield talk about a fraction divided by a fraction. And particularly he says “a fraction divided by a fraction is just a fraction times a flipped fraction”. This offends me, somehow. This even though that is how I’d calculate the value of the division, if I needed to know that. But it seems to me like automatically going to that process skips recognizing that, say, \frac{2}{5} \div \frac{1}{10} shouldn’t be surprising if it turns out not to be a fraction. Well, Caulfield’s just looking to cause trouble with a string of wordplay. I can think of how to divide a fraction by a fraction and get zero.

One is really the only number there is! All other numbers are simply collections of ones.
Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots for the 23rd of October, 2018. This is a rerun, but from 1977; the strip is not in regular production anymore.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots for the 23rd promises to recapitulate the whole history of mathematics in a single panel. Ambitious bit of work. It’s easy to picture going from the idea of 1 to any of the positive whole numbers, though. It’s so easy it doesn’t even need humans to do it; animals can count, at least a bit. We just carry on to a greater extent than the crows or the raccoons do, so far as we’ve heard. From those, it takes some squinting, but you can think of negative whole numbers. And from that you get zero pretty quickly. You can also get rational numbers. The western mathematical tradition did this by looking at … er … ratios, that something might be to another thing as two is to five. Circumlocutions like that. Getting to irrational numbers is harder. Can be harder. Some irrational numbers beg you to notice them: the square root of two, for example. Square root of three. Numbers that come up from solving polynomial equations. But there are more number than those. Many more numbers. You might suspect the existence of a transcendental number, that isn’t the root of any polynomial that’s decently behaved. But finding one? Or finding that there are more transcendental number than there are real numbers? This takes a certain brilliance to suspect, and to prove out. But we can get there with rational numbers — which we get to from collections of ones — and the idea of cutting sets of numbers into those smaller than and those bigger than something. Ashleigh Brilliant has more truth than, perhaps, he realized when he drew this panel.

Goldfish, in a tank, to its peers: 'This may seem weird, but my research indicates that the universe has the shape of a perfect cuboid.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 24th of October, 2018. I’m curious how the ground is accounted for.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 24th has goldfish work out the shape of space. A goldfish in this case has the advantage of being able to go nearly everywhere in the space. But working out what the universe must look like, when you can only run local experiments, is a great geometric problem. It’s akin to working out that the Earth must be a sphere, and about how big a sphere, from the surveying job one can do without travelling more than a few hundred kilometers.


If you’re interested in reading the comics, you might want to see Reading the Comics posts. They’re here. More essays mentioning Frazz should be at this link. Essays that discuss ideas brought up by Oh Brother! should be this link. Essays which talk about Frazz — wait. I said that. This and other appearances by Pot Shots should be at this link. And posts which feature Carpe Diem should be at link. Do please stick around for more of my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z, too. I’m trying to keep up at two essays a week through the end of the year, which is not precisely fall.

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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. He/him.

5 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, October 24, 2018: Frazz Really Wants To Be My Friend Edition”

      1. I’m now mildly curious what the smallest counting number is that there’s no song for. And what the largest one with a song is. At least songs that anybody recognizes; I’d be surprised if some mathematics teacher hasn’t come up with a ditty for all sorts of oddball numbers.

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