Reading the Comics, October 2019: Cube Edition


Comic Strip Master Command hoped to give me an easy week, one that would let me finally get ahead on my A-to-Z essays and avoid the last-minute rush to complete tasks. I showed them, though. I can procrastinate more than they can give me breaks. This essay alone I’m writing about ten minutes after you read it.

Eric the Circle for the 7th, by Shoy, is one of the jokes where Eric’s drawn as something besides a circle. I can work with this, though, because the cube is less far from a circle than you think. It gets to what we mean by “a circle”. If it’s all the points that are exactly a particular distance from a given center? Or maybe all the points up to that particular distance from a given center? This seems too reasonable to argue with, so you know where the trick is.

Drawing of a cube. Caption: 'Eric the Circle is trying to develop his Halloween costume into a more 3-dimensional character.'
Eric the Circle for the 7th of October, 2019. This one by Shoy. Essays with appearances by Eric the Circle should be at this link.

The trick is asking what we mean by distance? The ordinary distance that normal people use has a couple names. The Euclidean distance, often. Or Euclidean metric. Euclidean norm. It has some fancier names that can wait. Give two points. You can find this distance easily if you have their coordinates in a Cartesian system. (There’s infinitely many Cartesian systems you could use. You can pick whatever one you like; the distance will be the same whatever they are.) That’s that thing about finding the distance between corresponding coordinates, squaring those distances, adding that up, and taking the square root. And that’s good.

That’s not our only choice, though. We can make a perfectly good distance using other rules. For example, take the difference between corresponding coordinates, take the absolute value of each, and add all those absolute values up. This distance even has real-world application. It’s how far it is to go from one place to another on a grid of city squares, where it’s considered poor form to walk directly through buildings. There’s another. Instead of adding those absolute values up? Just pick the biggest of the absolute values. This is another distance. In it, circles look like squares. Or, in three dimensions, spheres look like cubes.

T-Rex: 'The world of tomorrow! We detect evidence of alien life: a signal from a distant solar system. It starts out simple, numbers, counting. Then it gets to more advanced mathematics. Then: instructions for decoding images about to be transmitted. In months we go from hoping we're not alone to about to find out what they look like!' Dromiceiomimus: 'What do they look like?' T-Rex: 'WHO KNOWS? We're at the frontier of imagination here!' Utahraptor: 'Maybe they look like puppies?' T-Rex: 'Please! No way aliens look like puppies!' Utahraptor: 'For generations we wondered if we're alone. Today we know: no. Life is out there, and it's puppies. Our universe is teeming with puppies.' T-Rex: 'Fine, I accept this version of events. THE END.'
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 9th of October, 2019. This and other essays with Dinosaur Comics discussed should be at this link.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 9th builds on a common science fictional premise, that contact with an alien intelligence is done through mathematics first. It’s a common supposition in science fiction circles, and among many scientists, that mathematics is a truly universal language. It’s hard to imagine a species capable of communication with us that wouldn’t understand two and two adding up to four. Or about the ratio of a circle circumference to its diameter being independent of that diameter. Or about how an alternating knot for which the minimum number of crossing points is odd can’t ever be amphicheiral.

All right, I guess I can imagine a species that never ran across that point. Which is one of the things we suppose in using mathematics as a universal language. Its truths are indisputable, if we allow the rules of logic and axioms and definitions that we use. And I agree I don’t know that it’s possible not to notice basic arithmetic and basic geometry, not if one lives in a sensory world much like humans’. But it does seem to me at least some of mathematics is probably idiosyncratic. In representation at least; certainly in organization. I suspect there may be trouble in using universal and generically true things to express something local and specific. I don’t know how to go from deductive logic to telling someone when my birthday is. Well, I’m sure our friends in the philosophy department have considered that problem and have some good thoughts we can use, if there were only some way to communicate with them.

Mathematician filling a blackboard with: 'ENOUGH = [ long ,multi-level expression ] = ENOUGH'. Caption: 'Theoretical mathematician proving why he's had all he can take.'
Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 12th of October, 2019. Essays that have some mention of Free Range should appear at this link.

Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 12th is your classic blackboard-full-of-symbols. I like the beauty of the symbols used. I mean, the whole expression doesn’t parse, but many of the symbols do and are used in reasonable ways. Long trailing strings of arrows to extend one line to another are common and reasonable too. In the middle of the second line is \vec{n = z}, which doesn’t make sense, but which doesn’t make sense in a way that seems authentic to working out an idea. It’s something that could be cleaned up if the reasoning needed to be made presentable.


Later this week I’ll run a list of the fair number of comics that mentioned mathematics along the way to a joke, but that don’t do much with that mention. And this week in the A-to-Z sequence should see both M and N given their chances.

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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