Reading the Comics, September 21, 2019: Prime Numbers and the Rest


This is almost all a post about some comics that don’t need more than a mention. You know, strips that just have someone in class not buying the word problem. These are the rest of last week’s.

Before I get there, though, I want to share something. I ran across an essay by Chris K Caldwell and Yeng Xiong: What Is The Smallest Prime? The topic is about 1, and whether that should be a prime number. Everyone who knows a little about mathematics knows that 1 is generally not considered a prime number. But we’re also a bit stumped to figure out why, since the idea of “a prime number is divisible by 1 and itself” seems to fit this, even if the fit is weird. And we have an explanation for this: 1 used to be thought of as prime, but it made various theorems more clumsy to present. So it was either cut 1 out of the definition or add the equivalent work to everything, and mathematicians went for the solution that was less work. I know that I’ve shared this story around here. (I’m surprised to find I didn’t share it in my Summer 2017 A-to-Z essay about prime numbers.)

The truth is more complicated than that. The truth of anything is always more complicated than its history. Even an excellent history’s. It’s not that the short story has things wrong, precisely. But that that matters are more complicated than that. The history includes things we forget were ever problems, like, the question of whether 1 should be a number. And that the question of whether mathematicians “used to” consider 1 a number is built on the supposition that mathematicians were a lot more uniform in their thinking than they were. Even to the individual: people were inconsistent in what they themselves wrote, because most mathematicians turn out to be people.

It’s an eight-page paper, and not at all technical, so if you’re just interested in the history of whether 1 is a prime number, this is quite readable. It also points out a word ready for resurrection that we could use to mean “1 and the prime numbers”: the incomposites.


So that’s some good reading. Now to the comic strips that you can glance at and agree are comic strips which say “math” somewhere in there. (They’d say “maths” if I read more British comic strips.)

Bob Scott’s Bear With Me for the 16th has Bear trying to help Molly get out of algebra.

Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit for the 17th mentions entropy, which is so central to understanding statistical mechanics and information theory. It’s in the popular understanding of entropy, that of it being a thing which makes stuff get worse. But that’s of mathematical importance too.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 18th is about Maria having trouble with a mathematics exam. By the 20th, though, she’s doing better, and she has reasons.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 20th is set during mathematics class.


This wraps up last week’s comic strips. I hope to have my next Reading the Comics post on Sunday. And then tomorrow I get to ‘H’ in the Fall 2019 A to Z essays. Thank you for reading.

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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