Reading the Comics, January 16, 2019: Young People’s Mathematics Edition


Today’s quartet of mathematically-themed comic strips doesn’t have an overwhelming theme. There’s some bits about the mathematics that young people do, so, that’s enough to separate this from any other given day’s comics essay.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 14th is built on a bit of mathematical folklore. As Weinersmith’s mathematician (I don’t remember that we’ve been given her name) mentions, there is a belief that “revolutionary” mathematics is done by young people. That isn’t to say that older mathematicians don’t do great work. But the stereotype is that an older mathematician will produce masterpieces in already-established fields. It’s the young that establish new fields. Indeed, one of mathematics’s most prestigious awards, the Fields Medal, is only awarded to mathematicians under the age of forty. I was cheated of mine. Long story.

Mathematician: 'Only young people do revolutionary mathematics. 20 is ancient. 15 is old. 10 is middle-aged.' Kid, holding up two fingers: 'Three is THIS MANY.' Mathematician: 'It's counter-intuitive, but we must accept it.'
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 14th of January, 2019. I have many essays inspired by something said in Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. You can find them at this link.

There’s intuitive appeal in the idea that revolutions in thinking are for the young. We think that people get set in their ways as they develop their careers. We have a couple dramatic examples, most notably Évariste Galois, who developed what we now see as foundations of group theory and died at twenty. While the idea is commonly held, I don’t know that it’s actually true. That is, that it holds up to scrutiny. It seems hard to create a definition for “revolutionary mathematics” that could be agreed upon by two people. So it would be difficult to test at what age people do their most breathtaking work, and whether it is what they do when young or when experienced.

Is there harm to believing an unprovable thing? If it makes you give up on trying, yes. My suspicion is that true revolutionary work happens when a well-informed, deep thinker comes to a field that hasn’t been studied in that way before. And when it turns out to be a field well-suited to study that way. That doesn’t require youth. It requires skill in one field, and an understanding that there’s another field ready to be studied that way.

Spud: 'Can you help me with this math problem?' Wallace: '10 + 12? It helps if you visualize real things. Say you have ten cans of E-Z Cheez and someone gives you twelve more ... how many cans of E-Z Cheez do you have?' Spud: 'I'm sweating.'
Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave for the 14th of January, 2019. I have only had a few chances to talk about Wallace the Brave so far, but the chances I’ve taken are at this link. (It and Breaking Cat News are the two recently-launched comics I’m most excited by.)

Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave for the 14th is a mathematics anxiety joke. Wallace tries to help by turning an abstract problem into a concrete one. This is often a good way to approach a problem. Even in more advanced mathematics, one can often learn the way to solve a general problem by trying a couple of specific examples. It’s almost as though there’s only a certain amount of abstraction people can deal with, and you need to re-cast problems so they stay within your limits.

Yes, the comments turn to complaining about Common Core. I’m not sure what would help Spud work through this problem (or problems in general). But thinking of alternate problems that estimated or approached what he really wanted might help. If he noticed, for example, that 10 + 12 has to be a little more than 10 + 10, and he found 10 + 10 easy, then he’d be close to a right answer. If he noticed that 10 + 12 had to be 10 + 10 + 2, and he found 10 + 10 easy, then he might find 20 + 2 easy as well. Maybe Spud would be better off thinking of ways to rewrite a problem without changing the result.

Widow, to the party gathered at the gravesite: 'Needless to say, calculus wasn't his best subject.' The epitaph: 'It's a calculated risk, but you only live once!'
Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur for the 15th of January, 2019. Essays mentioning Non Sequitur should appear at this link.

Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur for the 15th mentions calculus. It’s more of a probability joke. To speak of a calculated risk is to speak of doing something that’s not certain, but that has enough of a payoff to be worth the cost of failure. But one problem with this attitude is that people are very, very bad at estimating probabilities. We have terrible ideas of how likely losses are and how uncertain rewards can be. But even if we allow that the risks and rewards are calculated right, there’s a problem with things you only do once. Or only can do once. You can get into a good debate about whether there’s even a meaningful idea of probability for things that happen only the one time. Life’s among them.

Kid: 'Dad! Let's tackle my homework!' Moose: 'Later, son. I'm busy.' Kid goes to Westpork Savings and Loan. The bank clerk's sitting under a sign, 'Let us help you with your money problems.' Kid reads: 'If Farmer Smith sells wheat at $1.25 a bushel and Farmer Brown sells it at $1.30, how many bushels must each sell ... '
Bob Weber Sr’s Moose and Molly for the 16th of January, 2019. I haven’t had the chance to talk about Moose and Molly before. But now I have the tag, and will be putting essays mentioning it at this link.

Bob Weber Sr’s Moose and Molly for the 16th is a homework joke. It does actually depend on being mathematics homework, though, or there’d be no grounds for Moose’s kid to go to the savings and loan clerk who’ll help with “money problems”.


I think there’s one more batch of comic strips to discuss this week. When I’ve published it, you should find the essay at this link. And then there’ll be Sunday again.

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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.

2 thoughts on “Reading the Comics, January 16, 2019: Young People’s Mathematics Edition”

    1. Could well be! I don’t know that the strip is in reruns (and Weber Sr is also credited on Slylock Fox, which is certainly still in production). But picking prices for a story problem is tricky; you need numbers that aren’t too much bother to calculate with, particularly. I suspect they’re only distracting if the student knows the numbers are nonsense, and I’m willing to believe that a student (outside farm country) hasn’t got any idea what wheat prices are like.

      Though every time I go to the farmer’s market I think of that Frazz where some apple price was given, and thinking I should compare that to actual apple prices. By the time I get home I completely forget to look up what the comic strip used as prices.

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