Reading the Comics, November 21, 2019: Computational Science Edition


There were just a handful of comic strips that mentioned mathematical topics I found substantial. Of those that did, computational science came up a couple times. So that’s how we got to here.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 17th has Joe writing an essay on the history of computing. It’s basically right, too, within the confines of space and understandable mistakes like replacing Pennsylvania with an easier-to-spell state. And within the confines of simplification for the sake of getting the idea across briefly. Most notable is Joe explaining ENIAC as “the first electronic digital computer”. Anyone calling anything “the first” of an invention is simplifying history, possibly to the point of misleading. But we must simplify any history to have it be understandable. ENIAC is among the first computers that anyone today would agree is of a kind with the laptop I use. And it’s certainly the one that, among its contemporaries, most captured the public imagination.

Kid's report on Computers, with illustrations: 'Before computers there were calculators, and the first calculator was an abacus. [Caveman counting ug, tug, trug, frug on one.] The first mechanical kind of calculator wsa built by a French kid named Blaise Pascal in 1644. [Kid saying, yo, Papa, look!] In 1886 an American named Herman Hollerith invented a punch card machine to be used in the 1890 census. [ Hollerith dragging a computer on a cart and saying, 'I'm coming to my census!' ] Then in 1946 some smart guys in Pennsa^H Penssy^H Ohio invented the first electronic digital computer called ENIAC, which was bigger than a houseboat, but couldn't float. [ computer sinking in water ] In the 1970s the microprocessor was invented, and computers got small enough to come into your house and be personal [ computer waking someone from bed saying 'Good morning, Larry ] Some personal computers are called laptops because if they were called lapbottoms you might sit on them. [ guy yiking after sitting on one ] Computers are now in a lot of very important things, like talking action figures, video games, and bionic superheroes. Computers help with just about everything, except writing this report, because my mom told me to do it the caveman way with paper and pencils and books.'
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 17th of November, 2019. This strip is a reprint of one from several years ago (all the ones on GoComics are reruns; the ones on Creators.com are new releases), but I don’t know when it originally appeared. This and other essays mentioning One Big Happy, current run or repeats, should be at this link.

Incidentally, Heman Hollerith was born on Leap Day, 1860; this coming year will in that sense see only his 39th birthday.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 18th is based on the question of whether P equals NP. This is, as T-Rex says, the greatest unsolved problem in computer science. These are what appear to be two different kinds of problems. Some of them we can solve in “polynomial time”, with the number of steps to find a solution growing as some polynomial function of the size of the problem. Others seem to be “non-polynomial”, meaning the number of steps to find a solution grows as … something not a polynomial.

T-Rex: 'God, do you like poutine?' God: 'Man, does P equal NP?' T-Rex: 'Um. Maybe? It's kinda the greatest unsolved problem in computer science! If P=NP then a whole class of problems are easily solvable! But we've been trying to efficiently solve these for years. But if P doesn't equal NP, why haven't we been able to prove it? So are you saying 'probably I hate poutine, but it's really hard to prove'? Or are you saying, 'If I like poutine, then all public-key crypto is insecure?' Utahraptor: 'So who likes poutine?' T-Rex: 'God! Possible. And the problem is equivalent to the P=NP problem.' Utahraptor: 'So the Clay Mathematics Institute has a $1,000,000 prize for the first correct solution to the question 'Does God like poutine'?' T-Rex: 'Yes. This is the world we live in: 'does God like poutine' is the most important question in computer science. Dr Professor Stephen Cook first pondered whether God likes poutine in 1971; his seminal paper on the subject has made him one of computational complexity theory/God poutine ... actually, that's awesome. I'm glad we live in this wicked sweet world!'
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 18th of November, 2019. I take many chances to write about this strip. Essays based on Dinosaur Comics should appear at this link.

You see one problem. Not knowing a way to solve a problem in polynomial time does not necessarily mean there isn’t a solution. It may mean we just haven’t thought of one. If there is a way we haven’t thought of, then we would say P equals NP. And many people assume that very exciting things would then follow. Part of this is because computational complexity researchers know that many NP problems are isomorphic to one another. That is, we can describe any of these problems as a translation of another of these problems. This is the other part which makes this joke: the declaration that ‘whether God likes poutine’ is isomorphic to the question ‘does P equal NP’.

We tend to assume, also, that if P does equal NP then NP problems, such as breaking public-key cryptography, are all suddenly easy. This isn’t necessarily guaranteed. When we describe something as polynomial or non-polynomial time we’re talking about the pattern by which the number of steps needed to find the solution grows. In that case, then, an algorithm that takes one million steps plus one billion times the size-of-the-problem to the one trillionth power is polynomial time. An algorithm that takes two raised to the size-of-the-problem divided by one quintillion (rounded up to the next whole number) is non-polynomial. But for most any problem you’d care to do, this non-polynomial algorithm will be done sooner. If it turns out P does equal NP, we still don’t necessarily know that NP problems are practical to solve.

Dolly, writing out letters on a paper, explaining to Jeffy: 'The alphabet ends at 'Z', but numbers just keep going.'
Bil Keane and Jeff Keane’s The family Circus for the 20th of November, 2019. Essays with some discussion of The Family Circus appear at this link.

Bil Keane and Jeff Keane’s The Family Circus for the 20th has Dolly explaining to Jeff about the finiteness of the alphabet and infinity of numbers. I remember in my childhood coming to understand this and feeling something unjust in the difference between the kinds of symbols. That we can represent any of those whole numbers with just ten symbols (thirteen, if we include commas, decimals, and a multiplication symbol for the sake of using scientific notation) is an astounding feat of symbolic economy.

Zach Weinersmth’s Saturday Morning Breakfast cereal for the 21st builds on the statistics of genetics. In studying the correlations between one thing and another we look at something which varies, usually as the result of many factors, including some plain randomness. If there is a correlation between one variable and another we usually can describe how much of the change in one quantity depends on the other. This is what the scientist means on saying the presence of this one gene accounts for 0.1% of the variance in eeeeevil. The way this is presented, the activity of one gene is responsible for about one-thousandth of the level of eeeeevil in the person.

Scientist: 'I'm afraid your baby has ... THE SATAN GENE!' Father: 'My baby!' Scientist: 'Yes! The Satan Gene is responsible for 0.1% of the variance in EEEEEEVIL!' Father: 'Did you say 0.1%?' Scientist: 'It's ONE GENE, dude! That's a really high correlation!'
Zach Weinersmth’s Saturday Morning Breakfast cereal for the 21st of November, 2019. Some of the many appearances by Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal in these essays are gathered at this link. I’m probably missing several.

As the father observes, this doesn’t seem like much. This is because there are a lot of genes describing most traits. And that before we consider epigenetics, the factors besides what is in DNA that affect how an organism develops. I am, unfortunately, too ignorant of the language of genetics to be able to say what a typical variation for a single gene would be, and thus to check whether Weinersmith has the scale of numbers right.


This finishes the mathematically-themed comic strips from this past week. If all goes to my plan, Tuesday and Thursday will find the last of this year’s A-to-Z postings for this year. And Wednesday? I’ll try to think of something for Wednesday. It’d be a shame to just leave it hanging loose like it might.

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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