I think there are just barely enough comic strips from the past week to make three essays this time around. But one of them has to be a short group, only three comics. That’ll be for the next essay when I can group together all the strips that ran in February. One strip that I considered but decided not to write at length about was Ed Allison’s dadaist Unstrange Phenomena for the 28th. It mentions Roman Numerals and the idea of sneaking message in through them. But that’s not really mathematics. I usually enjoy the particular flavor of nonsense which Unstrange Phenomena uses; you might, too.
John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 29th uses an arithmetic problem as shorthand for an accomplished education. The problem is solvable. Of course, you say. It’s an equation with quadratic polynomial; it can hardly not be solved. Yes, fine. But McPherson could easily have thrown together numbers that implied x was complex-valued, or had radicals or some other strange condition. This is one that someone could do in their heads, at least once they practiced in mental arithmetic.
I feel reasonably confident McPherson was just having a giggle at the idea of putting knowledge tests into inappropriate venues. So I’ll save the full rant. But there is a long history of racist and eugenicist ideology that tried to prove certain peoples to be mentally incompetent. Making an arithmetic quiz prerequisite to something unrelated echoes that. I’d have asked McPherson to rework the joke to avoid that.
(I’d also want to rework the composition, since the booth, the swinging arm, and the skirted attendant with the clipboard don’t look like any tollbooth I know. But I don’t have an idea how to redo the layout so it’s more realistic. And it’s not as if that sort of realism would heighten the joke.)
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th riffs on the problem of squaring the circle. This is one of three classical problems of geometry. The lecturer describes it just fine: is it possible to make a square that’s got the same area as a given circle, using only straightedge and compass? There are shapes it’s easy to do this for, such as rectangles, parallelograms, triangles, and (why not?) this odd crescent-moon shaped figure called the lune. Circles defied all attempts. In the 19th century mathematicians found ways to represent the operations of classical geometry with algebra, and could use the tools of algebra to show squaring the circle was impossible. The squaring would be equivalent to finding a polynomial, with integer coefficients, that has as a root. And we know from the way algebra works that this can’t be done. So squaring the circle can’t be done.
The lecturer’s hack, modifying the compass and straightedge, lets you in principle do whatever you want. The hack isn’t new either. Modifying the geometric tools changes what you can and can’t do. The Ancient Greeks recognized that adding some specialized tools would make the problem possible. But that falls outside the scope of the problem.
Which feeds to the secondary joke, of making the philosophers sad. Often philosophy problems test one’s intuition about an idea by setting out a problem, often with unpleasant choices. A common problem with students that I’m going ahead and guessing are engineers is then attacking the setup of the question, trying to show that the problem couldn’t actually happen. You know, as though there were ever a time significant numbers of people were being tied to trolley tracks. (By the way, that thing about silent movie villains tying women to railroad tracks? Only happened in comedies spoofing Victorian melodramas. It’s always been a parody.) Attacking the logic of a problem may make for good movie drama. But it makes for a lousy student and a worse class discussion.
Ted Shearer’s Quincy rerun for the 30th uses a bit of mathematics and logic talk. It circles the difference between the feeling one can have about the rational meaning of a situation and how the situation feels to someone. It seems like a jump that Quincy goes from being asked about logic to talking about arithmetic. Possibly Quincy’s understanding of logic doesn’t start from the sort of very abstract concept that makes arithmetic hard to get to, though.
There should be another Reading the Comics post this week. It should be here, when it appears. There should also be one on Sunday, as usual.