So this is not a mathematics-themed comic update, not really. It’s just a bit of startling news about frequent Reading the Comics subject Andertoons. A comic strip back in December revealed that Wavehead had a specific name. According to the strip from the 3rd of December, the student most often challenging the word problem or the definition on the blackboard is named Tommy.
And then last week we got this bombshell:
So, also, it turns out I should have already known this since the strip ran in 2018 also. All I can say is I have a hard enough time reading nearly every comic strip in the world. I can’t be expected to understand them too.
So as not to leave things too despairing let me share a mathematics-mentioning Andertoons from yesterday and also from July 2018.
I will be late with this week’s A-to-Z essay. I’ve had more demands on my time and my ability to organize thoughts than I could manage and something had to yield. I’m sorry for that but figure to post on Friday something for the letter ‘Y’.
But there is some exciting news in one of my regular Reading the Comics features. It’s about the kid who shows up often in Mark Anderson’s Andertoons. At the nomination of — I want to say Ray Kassinger? — I’ve been calling him “Wavehead”. Last week, though, the strip gave his name. I don’t know if this is the first time we’ve seen it. It is the first time I’ve noticed. He turns out to be Tommy.
And what about my Reading the Comics posts, which have been on suspension since the 2020 A-to-Z started? I’m not sure. I figure to resume them after the new year. I don’t know that it’ll be quite the same, though. A lot of mathematics mentions in comic strips are about the same couple themes. It is exhausting to write about the same thing every time. But I have, I trust, a rotating readership. Someone may not know, or know how to find, a decent 200-word piece about lotteries published four months in the past. I need to better balance not repeating myself.
Also a factor is lightening my overhead. Most of my strips come from Comics Kingdom or GoComics. Both of them also cull strips from their archives occasionally, leaving me with dead links. (GoComics particularly is dropping a lot of strips by the end of 2020. I understand them dumping, say, The Sunshine Club, which has been in reruns since 2007. But Dave Kellett’s Sheldon?)
The only way to make sure a strip I write about remains visible to my readers is to include it here. But to make my including the strip fair use requires that I offer meaningful commentary. I have to write something substantial, and something that’s worsened without the strip to look at. You see how this builds to a workload spiral, especially for strips where all there is to say is it’s a funny story problem. (If any cartoonists are up for me being another, unofficial archive for their mathematics-themed strips? Drop me a comment, Bill Amend, we can work something out if it doesn’t involve me sending more money than I’m taking in.)
So I don’t know how I’ll resolve all this. Key will be remembering that I can just not do the stuff I find tedious here. I will not, in fact, remember that.
Bob Weber Jr’s Slylock Fox for the 1st of June sees Reeky Rat busted for speeding on the grounds of his average speed. It does make the case that Reeky Rat must have travelled faster than 20 miles per hour at some point. There’s no information about when he did it, just the proof that there must have been some time when he drove faster than the speed limit. One can find loopholes in the reasoning, but, it’s a daily comic strip panel for kids. It would be unfair to demand things like proof there’s no shorter route from the diner and that the speed limit was 20 miles per hour the whole way.
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 1st originally ran the 7th of April, 1981. Quincy and his friend ponder this being the computer age, and whether they can let computers handle mathematics.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 2nd has the characters talk about how mathematics offers answers that are just right or wrong. Something without “subjective grading”. It enjoys that reputation. But it’s not so, and that’s obvious when you imagine grading. How would you grade an answer that has the right approach, but makes a small careless error? Or how would you grade an approach that doesn’t work, but that plausibly could?
And how do you know that the approach wouldn’t work? Even in non-graded mathematics, we have subjectivity. Much of mathematics is a search for convincing arguments about some question. What we hope to be convinced of is that there is a sound logical argument making the same conclusions. Whether the argument is convincing is necessarily subjective.
Yes, in principle, we could create a full deductive argument. It will take forever to justify every step from some axiom or definition or rule of inference. And even then, how do we know a particular step is justified? It’s because we think we understand what the step does, and how it conforms to one (or more) rule. That’s again a judgement call.
(The grading of essays is also less subjective than you might think if you haven’t been a grader. The difference between an essay worth 83 points and one worth 85 points may be trivial, yes. But you will rarely see an essay that reads as an A-grade one day and a C-grade the next. This is not to say that essay grading is not subject to biases. Some of these are innocent, such as the way the grader’s mood will affect the grade. Or how the first several papers, or the last couple, will be less consistently graded than the ones done in the middle of the project. Some are pernicious, such as under-rating the work done by ethnic minority students. But these biases affect the way one would grade, say, the partial credit for an imperfectly done algebra problem too.)
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 3rd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. I could also swear that I’ve featured it here before. I can’t find it, if I have discussed this strip before. I may not have. Wavehead’s observing the difference between zero as an additive identity and its role in multiplication.
Ryan Pagelow’s Buni for the 3rd fits into the anthropomorphic-numerals category of joke. It’s really more of a representation of the year as the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 3rd has, as part of animal facts, the assertion that “llamas have basic math skills”. I don’t know of any specific research on llama mathematics skills. But animals do have mathematics skills. Often counting. Some amount of reasoning. Social animals often have an understanding of transitivity, as well, especially if the social groups have a pecking order.
This is the slightly belated close of last week’s topics suggested by Comic Strip Master Command. For the week we’ve had, I am doing very well.
Werner Wejp-Olsen’s Inspector Danger’s Crime Quiz for the 25th of May sees another mathematician killed, and “identifying” his killer in a dying utterance. Inspector Danger has followed killer mathematicians several times before: the 9th of July, 2012, for instance. Or the 4th of July, 2016, for a case so similar that it’s almost a Slylock Fox six-differences puzzle. Apparently realtors and marine biologists are out for mathematicians’ blood. I’m not surprised by the realtors, but hey, marine biology, what’s the deal? The same gimmick got used the 15th of May, 2017, too. (And in fairness to the late Wejp-Olsen, who could possibly care that similar names are being used in small puzzles used years apart? It only stands out because I’m picking out things that no reasonable person would notice.)
Jim Meddick’s Monty for the 25th has the title character inspired by the legend of genius work done during plague years. A great disruption in life is a great time to build new habits, and if Covid-19 has given you the excuse to break bad old habits, or develop good new ones, great! Congratulations! If it has not, though? That’s great too. You’re surviving the most stressful months of the 21st century, I hope, not taking a holiday.
Anyway, the legend mentioned here includes Newton inventing Calculus while in hiding from the plague. The actual history is more complicated, and ambiguous. (You will not go wrong supposing that the actual history of a thing is more complicated and ambiguous than you imagine.) The Renaissance Mathematicus describes, with greater authority and specificity than I could, what Newton’s work was more like. And some of how we have this legend. This is not to say that the 1660s were not astounding times for Newton, nor to deny that he worked with a rare genius. It’s more that we are lying to imagine that Newton looked around, saw London was even more a deathtrap than usual, and decided to go off to the country and toss out a new and unique understanding of the infinitesimal and the continuum.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 27th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. One of the students — not Wavehead — worries that a geometric ray, going on forever, could endanger people. There’s some neat business going on here. Geometry, like much mathematics, works on abstractions that we take to be universally true. But it also seems to have a great correspondence to ordinary real-world stuff. We wouldn’t study it if it didn’t. So how does that idealization interact with the reality? If the ray represented by those marks on the board goes on to do something, do we have to take care in how it’s used?
Comic Strip Master Command decided I should have a week to catch up on things, and maybe force me to write something original. Of all the things I read there were only four strips that had some mathematics content. And three of them are such glancing mentions that I don’t feel it proper to include the strip. So let me take care of this.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 20th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Wavehead apparently wants to know whether or is the better of these equivalent forms. I understand the impulse. Rarely in real life do we see two things that are truly equivalent; there’s usually some way in which one is better than the other. There may be two ways to get home for example, both taking about the same time to travel. One might have better scenery, though, or involve fewer difficult turns or less traffic this time of day. This is different, though: or are two ways to describe the same number. Which one is “better”?
The only answer is, better for what? What do you figure to do with this number afterwards? I admit, and suppose most people have, a preference for . But that’s trained into us, in large part, by homework set to reduce fractions to “lowest terms”. There’s honest enough reasons behind that. It seems wasteful to have a factor in the numerator that’s immediately divided out by the denominator.
If this were 25 years ago, I could ask how many of you have written out a check for twenty-two and 3/4 dollars, then, rather than twenty-two and 75/100 dollars? The example is dated but the reason to prefer an equivalent form is not. If I know that I need the number represented by , and will soon be multiplying it by eight, then may save me the trouble of thinking what three times two is. Or if I’ll be adding it to , or something like that. If I’m measuring this for a recipe I need to cut in three, because the original will make three dozen cookies and I could certainly eat three dozen cookies, then may be more convenient than . What is the better depends on what will clarify the thing I want to do.
A significant running thread throughout all mathematics, not just arithmetic, is finding equivalent forms. Ways to write the same concept, but in a way that makes some other work easier. Or more likely to be done correctly. Or, if the equivalent form is more attractive, more likely to be learned or communicated. It’s of value.
Jan Eliot’s Stone Soup Classics rerun for the 20th is a joke about how one can calculate what one is interested in. In this case, going from the number of days left in school to the number of hours and minutes and even seconds left. Personally, I have never had trouble remembering there are 24 hours in the day, nor that there are 86,400 seconds in the day. That there are 1,440 minutes in the day refuses to stick in my mind. Your experiences may vary.
Harry Bliss’s Bliss for the 23rd speaks of “a truck driver with a PhD in mathematical logic”. It’s an example of signifying intelligence through mathematics credentials. (It’s also a bit classicist, treating an intelligent truck driver as an unlikely thing.)
As much as everything is still happening, and so much, there’s still comic strips. I’m fortunately able here to focus just on the comics that discuss some mathematical theme, so let’s get started in exploring last week’s reading. Worth deeper discussion are the comics that turn up here all the time.
Lincoln Peirce’s Big Nate for the 5th is a casual mention. Nate wants to get out of having to do his mathematics homework. This really could be any subject as long as it fit the word balloon.
Not much to talk about there. But there is a fascinating thing about perimeters that you learn if you go far enough in Calculus. You have to get into multivariable calculus, something where you integrate a function that has at least two independent variables. When you do this, you can find the integral evaluated over a curve. If it’s a closed curve, something that loops around back to itself, then you can do something magic. Integrating the correct function on the curve around a shape will tell you the enclosed area.
And this is an example of one of the amazing things in multivariable calculus. It tells us that integrals over a boundary can tell us something about the integral within a volume, and vice-versa. It can be worth figuring out whether your integral is better solved by looking at the boundaries or at the interiors.
Heron’s Formula, for the area of a triangle based on the lengths of its sides, is an expression of this calculation. I don’t know of a formula exactly like that for the perimeter of a quadrilateral, but there are similar formulas if you know the lengths of the sides and of the diagonals.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th depicts, fairly, the sorts of things that excite mathematicians. The number discussed here is about algorithmic complexity. This is the study of how long it takes to do an algorithm. How long always depends on how big a problem you are working on; to sort four items takes less time than sorting four million items. Of interest here is how much the time to do work grows with the size of whatever you’re working on.
The mathematician’s particular example, and I thank dtpimentel in the comments for finding this, is about the Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm. This is a scheme for doing matrix multiplication, a particular kind of multiplication and addition of squares of numbers. The squares have some number N rows and N columns. It’s thought that there exists some way to do matrix multiplication in the order of N2 time, that is, if it takes 10 time units to multiply matrices of three rows and three columns together, we should expect it takes 40 time units to multiply matrices of six rows and six columns together. The matrix multiplication you learn in linear algebra takes on the order of N3 time, so, it would take like 80 time units.
We don’t know the way to do that. The Coppersmith–Winograd algorithm was thought, after Virginia Vassilevska Williams’s work in 2011, to take something like N2.3728642 steps. So that six-rows-six-columns multiplication would take slightly over 51.796 844 time units. In 2014, François le Gall found it was no worse than N2.3728639 steps, so this would take slightly over 51.796 833 time units. The improvement doesn’t seem like much, but on tiny problems it never does. On big problems, the improvement’s worth it. And, sometimes, you make a good chunk of progress at once.
This little essay should let me wrap up the rest of the comic strips from the past week. Most of them were casual mentions. At least I thought they were when I gathered them. But let’s see what happens when I actually write my paragraphs about them.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 2nd is a bit of wordplay, having Euclid and Galileo talking about parallel universes. I’m not sure that Galileo is the best fit for this, but I’m also not sure there’s another person connected who could be named. It’d have to be a name familiar to an average reader as having something to do with geometry. Pythagoras would seem obvious, but the joke is stronger if it’s two people who definitely did not live at the same time. Did Euclid and Pythagoras live at the same time? I am a mathematics Ph.D. and have been doing pop mathematics blogging for nearly a decade now, and I have not once considered the question until right now. Let me look it up.
It doesn’t make any difference. The comic strip has to read quickly. It might be better grounded to post Euclid meeting Gauss or Lobachevsky or Euler (although the similarity in names would be confusing) but being understood is better than being precise.
Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 2nd is a strip about the foolhardiness of playing the lottery. And it is foolish to think that even a $100 purchase of lottery tickets will get one a win. But it is possible to buy enough lottery tickets as to assure a win, even if it is maybe shared with someone else. It’s neat that an action can be foolish if done in a small quantity, but sensible if done in enough bulk.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 3rd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Wavehead has made a bunch of failed attempts at subtracting seven from ten, but claims it’s at least progress that some thing have been ruled out. I’ll go along with him that there is some good in ruling out wrong answers. The tricky part is in how you rule them out. For example, obvious to my eye is that the correct answer can’t be more than ten; the problem is 10 minus a positive number. And it can’t be less than zero; it’s ten minus a number less than ten. It’s got to be a whole number. If I’m feeling confident about five and five making ten, then I’d rule out any answer that isn’t between 1 and 4 right away. I’ve got the answer down to four guesses and all I’ve really needed to know is that 7 is greater than five but less than ten. That it’s an even number minus an odd means the result has to be odd; so, it’s either one or three. Knowing that the next whole number higher than 7 is an 8 says that we can rule out 1 as the answer. So there’s the answer, done wholly by thinking of what we can rule out. Of course, knowing what to rule out takes some experience.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 4th is the Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 4th for the week. It shows in joking but not wrong fashion a mathematical physicist’s encounters with orbital mechanics. Orbital mechanics are a great first physics problem. It’s obvious what they’re about, and why they might be interesting. And the mathematics of it is challenging in ways that masses on springs or balls shot from cannons aren’t.
A few problems are very easy, like, one thing in circular orbit of another. A few problems are not bad, like, one thing in an elliptical or hyperbolic orbit of another. All our good luck runs out once we suppose the universe has three things in it. You’re left with problems that are doable if you suppose that one of the things moving is so tiny that it barely exists. This is near enough true for, for example, a satellite orbiting a planet. Or by supposing that we have a series of two-thing problems. Which is again near enough true for, for example, a satellite travelling from one planet to another. But these is all work that finds approximate solutions, often after considerable hard work. It feels like much more labor to smaller reward than we get for masses on springs or balls shot from cannons. Walking off to a presumably easier field is understandable. Unfortunately, none of the other fields is actually easier.
Pythagoras died somewhere around 495 BC. Euclid was born sometime around 325 BC. That’s 170 years apart. So Pythagoras was as far in Euclid’s past as, oh, Maria Gaetana Agnesi is to mine.
Besides kids doing homework there were a good ten or so comic strips with enough mathematical content for me to discuss. So let me split that over a couple of days; I don’t have the time to do them all in one big essay.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 2nd is declared to be a Venn Diagram joke. As longtime readers of these columns know, it’s actually an Euler Diagram: a Venn Diagram requires some area of overlap between all combinations of the various sets. Two circles that never touch, or as these two do touch at a point, don’t count. They do qualify as Euler Diagrams, which have looser construction requirements. But everything’s named for Euler, so that’s a less clear identifier.
John Kovaleski’s Daddy Daze for the 2nd talks about probability. Particularly about the probability of guessing someone’s birthday. This is going to be about one chance in 365, or 366 in leap years. Birthdays are not perfectly uniformly distributed through the year. The 13th is less likely than other days in the month for someone to be born; this surely reflects a reluctance to induce birth on an unlucky day. Births are marginally more likely in September than in other months of the year; this surely reflects something having people in a merry-making mood in December. These are tiny effects, though, and to guess any day has about one chance in 365 of being someone’s birthday will be close enough.
If the child does this long enough there’s almost sure to be a match of person and birthday. It’s not guaranteed in the first 365 cards given out, or even the first 730, or more. But, if the birthdays of passers-by are independent — one pedestrian’s birthday has nothing to do with the next’s — then, overall, about one-365th of all cards will go to someone whose birthday it is. (This also supposes that we won’t see things like the person picked saying that while it’s not their birthday, it is their friend’s, here.) This, the Law of Large Numbers, one of the cornerstones of probability, guarantees us.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 2nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. And it’s a Venn Diagram joke, at least if the two circles are “really” there. Diplopia is what most of us would call double vision, seeing multiple offset copies of a thing. So the Venn diagram might be an optical illusion on the part of the businessman and the reader.
Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 3rd is an anthropomorphic mathematical symbols joke. I suppose it’s algebraic symbols. We usually get to see the ‘x’ and ‘y’ axes in (high school) algebra, used to differentiate two orthogonal axes. The axes can be named anything. If ‘x’ and ‘y’ won’t do, we might move to using and . In linear algebra, when we might want to think about Euclidean spaces with possibly enormously many dimensions, we may change the names to and . (We could use subscripts of 0 and 1, although I do not remember ever seeing someone do that.)
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals for the 3rd is a repeat, of course. Turner died several years ago and no one continued the strip. But it is also a repeat that I have discussed in these essays before, which likely makes this a good reason to drop Wee Pals from my regular reading here. There are 42 distinct ways to add (positive) whole numbers up to make ten, when you remember that you can add three or four or even six numbers together to do it. The study of how many different ways to make the same sum is a problem of partitioning. This might not seem very interesting, but if you try to guess how many ways there are to add up to 9 or 11 or 15, you’ll notice it’s a harder problem than it appears.
And for all that, there’s still some more comic strips to review. I will probably slot those in to Sunday, and start taking care of this current week’s comic strips on … probably Tuesday. Please check in at this link Sunday, and Tuesday, and we’ll see what I do.
I apologize for missing Sunday. I wasn’t able to make the time to write about last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. But I’m back in the swing of things. Here are some of the comic strips that got my attention.
Still, we do keep discovering things we didn’t know were numbers before. The earliest number notations, in the western tradition, for example, used letters to represent numbers. This did well for counting numbers, up to a large enough total. But it required idiosyncratic treatment if you wanted to handle large numbers. Hindu-Arabic numerals make it easy to represent whole numbers as large as you like. But that’s at the cost of adding ten (well, I guess eight) symbols that have nothing to do with the concept represented. Not that, like, ‘J’ looks like the letter J either. (There is a folk etymology that the Arabic numerals correspond to the number of angles made if you write them out in a particular way. Or less implausibly, the number of strokes needed for the symbol. This is ingenious and maybe possibly has helped one person somewhere, ever, learn the symbols. But it requires writing, like, ‘7’ in a way nobody has ever done, and it’s ahistorical nonsense. See section 96, on page 64 of the book and 84 of the web presentation, in Florian Cajori’s History of Mathematical Notations.)
Still, in time we discovered, for example, that there were irrational numbers and those were useful to have. Negative numbers, and those are useful to have. That there are complex-valued numbers, and those are useful to have. That there are quaternions, and … I guess we can use them. And that we can set up systems that resemble arithmetic, and work a bit like numbers. Those are often quite useful. I expect Lemon and Sayers were having fun with the idea of new numbers. They are a thing that, effectively, happens.
David Malki’s Wondermark for the 27th describes engineering as “like math, but louder”, which is a pretty good line. And it uses backgrounds of long calculations to make the point of deep thought going on. I don’t recognize just what calculations are being done there, but they do look naggingly familiar. And, you know, that’s still a pretty lucky day.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 27th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It depicts Wavehead having trouble figuring where to put the decimal point in the multiplication of two decimal numbers. Relatable issue. There are rules you can follow for where to put the decimal in this sort of operation. But the convention of dropping terminal zeroes after the decimal point can make that hazardous. It’s something that needs practice, or better: though. In this case, what catches my eye is that 2.95 times 3.2 has to be some number close to 3 times 3. So 9.440 is the plausible answer.
Mike Twohy’s That’s Life for the 27th presents a couple of plausible enough word problems, framed as Sports Math. It’s funny because of the idea that the workers who create events worth billions of dollars a year should be paid correspondingly.
So Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 12th is the only comic strip of some substance that I noticed last week. You see what a slender month it’s been. It does showcase the unsettling nature of seeing notations for similar things mixed. It’s not that there’s anything which doesn’t parse about having decimals in the numerator or denominator. It just looks weird. And that can be enough to throw someone out of a problem. They might mistake the problem for one that doesn’t have a coherent meaning. Or they might mistake it for one too complicated to do. Learning to not be afraid of a problem that looks complicated is worth doing. As is learning how to tell whether a problem parses at all, even if it looks weird.
So finally I get to the mathematically-themed comic strips of last week. There were four strips which group into natural pairings. So let’s use that as the name for this edition.
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 3rd puts forth “cookie and cake charts”, as a riff on pie charts. There’s always room for new useful visual representations of data, certainly, although quite a few of the ones we do use are more than two centuries old now. Pie charts, which we trace to William Playfair’s 1801 Statistical Breviary, were brought to the public renown by Florence Nightingale. She wanted her reports on the causes of death in the Crimean War to communicate well, and illustrations helped greatly.
Wayno and Piraro’s Bizarro for the 9th is another pie chart joke. If I weren’t already going on about pie charts this week I probably would have relegated this to the “casual mentions” heap. I love the look of the pie, though.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th jokes about stereotypes of mathematics and English classes. Or exams, anyway. There is some stabbing truth in the presentation of English-as-math-class. Many important pieces of mathematics are definitions or axioms. In an introductory class there’s not much you can usefully say about, oh, why we’d define a limit to be this rather than that. The book surely has its reasons and we’ll avoid confusion by trusting in them.
I dislike the stereotype of English as a subject rewarding longwinded essays that avoid the question. It seems at least unfair to what good academic writing strives for. (If you wish to argue about bad English writing, you have your blog for that, but let’s not pretend mathematics lacks fundamentally bad papers.) And writing an essay about why a thing should be true, or interesting, is certainly worthwhile. I’m reminded of a mathematical logic professor I had, who spoke of a student who somehow could not do a traditional proper-looking proof. But could write a short essay explaining why a thing should be true which convinced the professor that the student deserved an A. The professor was sad that the student was taking the course pass-fail.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 6th shows off a bit of mathematical modeling. The specific problem is silly, yes. But the approach is dead on: identify the things that affect what you’re interested in, and how they interact. Add to this estimates of the things’ values and you’ll get at least a provisional answer. You can then use that answer to guide the building of a more precise model, if you need one.
This little bugs-on-Superman problem makes note of the units everything’s measured in. Paying attention to the units is often done in dimensional analysis, a great tool for building simple models. I ought to write an essay sequence about that sometime.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 9th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. This one plays on the use of the same word to measure an angle and a temperature. Degree, etymologically, traces back to “a step”, like you might find in stairs. This, taken to represent a stage of progress, got into English in the 13th century. By the late 14th century “degree” was used to describe this 1/360th slice of a circle. By the 1540s it was a measure of heat. Making the degree the unit of temperature, as on a thermometer, seems to be written down only as far back as the 1720s.
And for a last strip of the week, Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 7th mentions an advantage of being a cartoonist “instead of an engineer” is how cartooning doesn’t require math. Also I guess this means the regular guy in Real Life Adventures represents one (or both?) of the creators? I guess that makes the name Real Life Adventures make more sense. I just thought he was a generic comic strip male. And, of course, there’s nothing about mathematics that keeps one from being a cartoonist, although I don’t know of any current daily-syndicated cartoonists with strong mathematics backgrounds. Bill Amend, of FoxTrot, and Bud Grade, of The Piranha Club/Ernie, were both physics majors, which is a heavy-mathematics program.
While there were a good number of comic strips to mention mathematics this past week, there were only a few that seemed substantial to me. This works well enough. This probably is going to be the last time I keep the Reading the Comics post until after Sunday, at least until the Fall 2019 A To Z is finished.
Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun for the 18th is a joke building on animals’ number sense. And, yeah, about dumb parents too. Horses doing arithmetic have a noteworthy history. But more in the field of understanding how animals learn, than in how they do arithmetic. In particular in how animals learn to respond to human cues, and how slight a cue has to be to be recognized and acted on. I imagine this reflects horses being unwieldy experimental animals. Birds — pigeons and ravens, particularly — make better test animals.
Art Sansom and Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser for the 18th gives a mental arithmetic problem. It’s a trick question, yes. But Brutus gives up too soon on what the problem is supposed to be. Now there’s no calculating, in your head, exactly how many seconds are in a year; that’s just too much work. But an estimate? That’s easy.
At least it’s easy if you remember one thing: a million seconds is about eleven and a half days. I find this easy to remember because it’s one of the ideas used all the time to express how big a million, a billion, and a trillion are. A million seconds are about eleven and a half days. A billion seconds are a little under 32 years. A trillion seconds are about 32,000 years, which is about how long it’s been since the oldest known domesticated dog skulls were fossilized. I’m sure that gives everyone a clear idea of how big a trillion is. The important thing, though, is that a million seconds is about eleven and a half days.
So. Think of the year. There are — as the punch line to Hattie’s riddle puts it — twelve 2nd’s in the year. So there are something like a million seconds spent each year on days that are the 2nd of the month. There about a million seconds spent each year on days that are the 1st of the month, too. There are about a million seconds spent each year on days that are the 3rd of the month. And so on. So, there’s something like 31 million seconds in the year.
You protest. There aren’t a million seconds in twelve days; there’s a million seconds in eleven and a half days. True. Also there aren’t 31 days in every month; there’s 31 days in seven months of the year. There’s 30 days in four months, and 28 or 29 in the remainder. That’s fine. This is mental arithmetic. I’m undercounting the number of seconds by supposing that a million seconds makes twelve days. I’m overcounting the number of seconds by supposing that there are twelve months of 31 days each. I’m willing to bet this undercount and this overcount roughly balance out. How close do I get?
There are 31,536,000 seconds in a common year. That is, a non-leap-year. So “31 million” is a bit low. But it’s not bad for working without a calculator.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 19th lays on us the Eubulides Paradox. It’s traced back to the fourth century BCE. Eubulides was a Greek philosopher, student of “Not That” Euclid of Megara. We know Eubulides for a set of paradoxes, including the Sorites paradox. As T-Rex’s friends point out, we’ve all heard this paradox. We’ve all gone on with our lives, knowing that the person who said it wanted us to say they were very clever. Fine.
But if we take this seriously we find … this keeps not being simple. We can avoid the problem by declaring self-referential statements exist outside of truth or falsity. This forces us to declare the sentence “this sentence is true” can’t be true. This seems goofy. We can avoid the problem by supposing there are things that are neither true nor false. That solves our problem here at the mere cost of ruining our ability to prove stuff by contradiction. There’s a lot of stuff we prove by contradiction. It’s hard to give that all up for this (Although, so far as I’m aware, anything that can be proved by contradiction can also be proven by a direct line of reasoning. The direct line may just be tedious.) We can solve this problem by saying that our words are fuzzy imprecise things. This is true enough, as see any time my love and I debate how many things are in “a couple of things”. But declaring that we just can’t express the problem well enough to answer it seems like running away from the question. We can resolve things by accepting there are limits to what can be proved by logic. Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem shows that any interesting enough logic system has statements that are true but unprovable. A version of this paradox helps us get to this interesting conclusion.
So this is one of those things it should be easy to laugh off, but why it should be easy is hard.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 21st is about the other great logic problem of the 20th century. The Halting Problem here refers to Turing Machines. This is the algorithmic model for computing devices. It’s rather abstract, so the model won’t help you with your C++ homework, but nothing will. But it turns out we can represent a computer running a program as a string of cells. Each cell holds one of a couple possible values. The program is a series of steps. Each step starts at one cell. The program resets the value of that cell to something dictated by the algorithm. Then, the program moves focus to another cell, again as the algorithm dictates. Do enough of this and you get SimCity 2000. I don’t know all the steps in-between.
So. The Halting Program is this: take a program. Run it. What happens in the long run? Well, it does something or other, yes. But there’s three kinds of things it can do. It can run for a while and then finish, that is, ‘halt’. It can run for a while and then get into a repeating loop, after which it repeats things forever. It can run forever without repeating itself. (Yeah, I see the structural resemblance to terminating decimals, repeating decimals, and irrational numbers too, but I don’t know of any link there.) The Halting Problem asks, if all we know is the algorithm, can we know what happens? Can we say for sure the program will always end, regardless of what the data it works on are? Can we say for sure the program won’t end if we feed it the right data to start?
If the program is simple enough — and it has to be extremely simple — we can say. But, basically, if the program is complicated enough to be even the least bit interesting, it’s impossible to say. Even just running the program isn’t enough: how do you know the difference between a program that takes a trillion seconds to finish and one that never finishes?
For human needs, yes, a program that needs a trillion seconds might as well be one that never finishes. Which is not precisely the joke Weinersmith makes here, but is circling around similar territory.
There were several more comic strips last week worth my attention. One of them, though, offered a lot for me to write about, packed into one panel featuring what comic strip fans call the Wall O’ Text.
Bea R’s In Security for the 9th is part of a storyline about defeating an evil “home assistant”. The choice of weapon is Michaela’s barrage of questions, too fast and too varied to answer. There are some mathematical questions tossed in the mix. The obvious one is “zero divided by two equals zero, but why’z two divided by zero called crazy town?” Like with most “why” mathematics questions there are a range of answers.
The obvious one, I suppose, is to appeal to intuition. Think of dividing one number by another by representing the numbers with things. Start with a pile of the first number of things. Try putting them into the second number of bins. How many times can you do this? And then you can pretty well see that you can fill two bins with zero things zero times. But you can fill zero bins with two things — well, what is filling zero bins supposed to mean? And that warns us that dividing by zero is at least suspicious.
That’s probably enough to convince a three-year-old, and probably most sensible people. If we start getting open-mined about what it means to fill no containers, we might say, well, why not have two things fill the zero containers zero times over, or once over, or whatever convenient answer would work? And here we can appeal to mathematical logic. Start with some ideas that seem straightforward. Like, that division is the inverse of multiplication. That addition and multiplication work like you’d guess from the way integers work. That distribution works. Then you can quickly enough show that if you allow division by zero, this implies that every number equals every other number. Since it would be inconvenient for, say, “six” to also equal “minus 113,847,506 and three-quarters” we say division by zero is the problem.
This is compelling until you ask what’s so great about addition and multiplication as we know them. And here’s a potentially fruitful line of attack. Coming up with alternate ideas for what it means to add or to multiply are fine. We can do this easily with modular arithmetic, that thing where we say, like, 5 + 1 equals 0 all over again, and 5 + 2 is 1 and 5 + 3 is 2. This can create a ring, and it can offer us wild ideas like “3 times 2 equals 0”. This doesn’t get us to where dividing by zero means anything. But it hints that maybe there’s some exotic frontier of mathematics in which dividing by zero is good, or useful. I don’t know of one. But I know very little about topics like non-standard analysis (where mathematicians hypothesize non-negative numbers that are not zero, but are also smaller than any positive number) or structures like surreal numbers. There may be something lurking behind a Quanta Magazine essay I haven’t read even though they tweet about it four times a week. (My twitter account is, for some reason, not loading this week.)
Michaela’s questions include a couple other mathematically-connected topics. “If infinity is forever, isn’t that crazy, too?” Crazy is a loaded word and probably best avoided. But there are infinity large sets of things. There are processes that take infinitely many steps to complete. Please be kind to me in my declaration “are”. I spent five hundred words on “two divided by zero”. I can’t get into that it means for a mathematical thing to “exist”. I don’t know. In any event. Infinities are hard and we rely on them. They defy our intuition. Mathematicians over the 19th and 20th centuries worked out fairly good tools for handling these. They rely on several strategies. Most of these amount to: we can prove that the difference between “infinitely many steps” and “very many steps” can be made smaller than any error tolerance we like. And we can say what “very many steps” implies for a thing. Therefore we can say that “infinitely many steps” gives us some specific result. A similar process holds for “infinitely many things” instead of “infinitely many steps”. This does not involve actually dealing with infinity, not directly. It involves dealing with large numbers, which work like small numbers but longer. This has worked quite well. There’s surely some field of mathematics about to break down that happy condition.
And there’s one more mathematical bit. Why is a ball round? This comes around to definitions. Suppose a ball is all the points within a particular radius of a center. What shape that is depends on what you mean by “distance”. The common definition of distance, the “Euclidean norm”, we get from our physical intuition. It implies this shape should be round. But there are other measures of distance, useful for other roles. They can imply “balls” that we’d say were octahedrons, or cubes, or rounded versions of these shapes. We can pick our distance to fit what we want to do, and shapes follow.
I suspect but do not know that it works the other way, that if we want a “ball” to be round, it implies we’re using a distance that’s the Euclidean measure. I defer to people better at normed spaces than I am.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 10th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It’s also a refreshing break from talking so much about In Security. Wavehead is doing the traditional kid-protesting-the-chalkboard-problem. This time with an electronic chalkboard, an innovation that I’ve heard about but never used myself.
I was away from home most of last week. Comic Strip Master Command was kind and acknowledged this. There wasn’t much for me to discuss. There’s not even many comics too slight to discuss. I thank them for their work in not overloading me. But if you wondered why Sunday’s post was what it was, you now know. I suspect you didn’t wonder.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 29th of July is a comfortable and familiar face for these Reading the Comics posts. I’m glad to see it. The joke is built on negative numbers, and Wavehead’s right to say this is kind of the reason people hate mathematics. At least, that mathematicians will become comfortable with something that has a clear real-world intuitive meaning, such as that adding things together gets you a bigger thing. And then for good reasons of logic get to counter-intuitive things, such as adding things together to get a lesser thing. Negative numbers might be the first of these intuition-breaking things that people encounter. That or fractions. I encounter stories of people who refuse to accept that, say, is smaller than , although I’ve never seen it myself.
So why do mathematicians take stuff like “adding” and break it? Convenience, I suppose, is the important reason. Having negative numbers lets us treat “having a quantity” and “lacking a quantity” using the same mechanisms. So that’s nice to have. If we have positive and negative numbers, then we can treat “adding” and “subtracting” using the same mechanisms. That’s nice to do. The trouble is then knowing, like, “if -3 times 4 is greater than -16, is -3 times -4 greater than 16? Or less than? Why?”
Jeffrey Caulfield and Brian Ponshock’s Yaffle for the 31st of July uses the blackboard-full-of-mathematics as shorthand for deep thought about topics. The equations don’t mean much of anything, individually or collectively. I’m curious whether Caulfield and Ponshock mean, in the middle there, for that equation to be π times y2 equalling z3, or whether it’s π times x times y2 that is. Doens’t matter either way. It’s just decoration.
There were a decent number of mathematically-themed comic strips this past week. This figures, because I’ve spent this past week doing a lot of things, and look to be busier this coming week. Nothing to do but jump into it, then.
Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 21st is your usual strip about the student resisting the story problem. Story problems are hard to set. Ideally, they present problems like mathematicians actually do, proposing the finding of something it would be interesting to learn. But it’s hard to find different problems like this. You might be fairly interested in how long it takes a tub filling with water to overflow, but the third problem of this kind is going to look a lot like the first two. And it’s also hard to find problems that allow for no confounding alternate interpretations, like this. Have some sympathy and let us sometimes just give you an equation to solve.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 21st is a pun built on two technical definitions for “induction”. The one used in mathematics, and logic, is a powerful tool for certain kinds of proof. It’s hard to teach how to set it up correctly, though. It’s a way to prove an infinitely large number of logical propositions, though. Let me call those propositions P1, P2, P3, P4, and so on. Pj for every counting number j. The first step of the proof is showing that some base proposition is true. This is usually some case that’s really easy to do. This is the fun part of a proof by induction, because it feels like you’ve done half the work and it amounts to something like, oh, showing that 1 is a triangular number.
The second part is hard. You have to show that whenever Pj is true, this implies that Pj + 1 is also true. This is usually a step full of letters representing numbers rather than anything you can directly visualize with, like, dots on paper. This is usually the hard part. But put those two halves together? And you’ve proven that all your propositions are true. Making things line up like that is so much fun.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 22nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It’s again your student trying to get out of not really knowing mathematics in class. Longtime readers will know, though, that I’m fond of rough drafts in mathematics. I think most mathematicians are. If you are doing something you don’t quite understand, then you don’t know how to do it well. It’s worth, in that case, doing an approximation of what you truly want to do. This is for the same reason writers are always advised to write something and then edit later. The rough draft will help you find what you truly want. In thinking about the rough draft, you can get closer to the good draft.
Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal for the 22nd is one lost on me. I grew up when Schoolhouse Rock was a fun and impossible-to-avoid part of watching Saturday Morning cartoons. So there’s a lot of simple mathematics that I learned by having it put to music and played often.
Still, it’s surprising Herb can’t think of why it might be easier to remember something that’s fun, that’s put to a memory-enhancing tool like music, and repeated often, than it is to remember whether 8 times 7 is 54. Arithmetic gets easier to remember when you notice patterns, and find them delightful. Even fun. It’s a lot like everything else humans put any attention to, that way.
We continue to be in the summer vacation doldrums for mathematically-themed comic strips. But there’ve been a couple coming out. I could break this week’s crop into two essays, for example. All of today’s strips are comics that turn up in my essays a lot. It’s like hanging out with a couple of old friends.
Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 17th uses the motif of arithmetic expressions as “difficult” things. The expressions Samson quotes seem difficult for being syntactically weird: What does the colon under the radical sign mean in ? Or they’re difficult for being indirect, using a phrase like “50%” for “half”. But with some charity we can read this as Horace talking about 3:33 am to about 6:30 am. I agree that those are difficult hours.
It also puts me in mind of a gift from a few years back. An aunt sent me an Irrational Watch, with a dial that didn’t have the usual counting numbers on it. Instead there were various irrational numbers, like the Golden Ratio or the square root of 50 or the like. Also the Euler-Mascheroni Constant, a number that may or may not be irrational. Nobody knows. It’s likely that it is irrational, but it’s not proven. It’s a good bit of fun, although it does make it a bit harder to use the watch for problems like “how long is it until 4:15?” This isn’t quite what’s going on here — the square root of nine is a noticeably rational number — but it seems in that same spirit.
I may need to rewrite that old essay. An “improper” form satisfies all the required conditions for the term. But it misses some of the connotation of the term. It’s true that, say, the new process takes “a fraction of the time” of the old, if the old process took one hour and the new process takes fourteen years. But if you tried telling someone that they would assume you misunderstood something. The ordinary English usage of “fraction” carries the connotation of “a fraction between zero and one”, and that’s what makes a “proper fraction”.
In practical terms, improper fractions are fine. I don’t know of any mathematicians who seriously object to them, or avoid using them. The hedging word “seriously” is in there because of a special need. That need is: how big is, say, ? Is it bigger than five? Is it smaller than six? An improper fraction depends on you knowing, in this case, your fourteen-times tables to tell. Switching that to a mixed fraction, , helps figure out what the number means. That’s as far as we have to worry about the propriety of fractions.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th uses the form of a Fermi problem for its joke. Fermi problems have a place in mathematical modeling. The idea is to find an estimate for some quantity. We often want to do this. The trick is to build a simple model, and to calculate using a tiny bit of data. The Fermi problem that has someone reached public consciousness is called the Fermi paradox. The question that paradox addresses is, how many technologically advanced species are there in the galaxy? There’s no way to guess. But we can make models and those give us topics to investigate to better understand the problem. (The paradox is that reasonable guesses about the model suggest there should be so many aliens that they’d be a menace to air traffic. Or that the universe should be empty except for us. Both alternatives seem unrealistic.) Such estimates can be quite wrong, of course. I remember a Robert Heinlein essay in which he explained the Soviets were lying about the size of Moscow, his evidence being he didn’t see the ship traffic he expected when he toured the city. I do not remember that he analyzed what he might have reasoned wrong when he republished this in a collection of essays he didn’t seem to realize were funny.
So the interview question presented is such a Fermi problem. The job applicant, presumably, has not committed to memory the number of employees at the company. But there would be clues. Does the company own the whole building it’s in, or just a floor? Just an office? How large is the building? How large is the parking lot? Are there people walking the hallways? How many desks are in the offices? The question could be answerable. The applicant has a pretty good chain of reasoning too.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 20th has several mathematical jokes in it. One is the use of excessively many decimal points to indicate intelligence. Grant that someone cares about the hyperbolic cosines of 15.2. There is no need to cite its wrong value to nine digits past the decimal. Decimal points are hypnotic, though, and listing many of them has connotations of relentless, robotic intelligence. That is what Amend went for in the characters here. That and showing how terrible nerds are when they find some petty issue to rage over.
Eugene is correct about the hyperbolic cosine being wrong, there, though. He’s not wrong to check that. It’s good form to have some idea what a plausible answer should be. It lets one spot errors, for one. No mathematician is too good to avoid making dumb little mistakes. And computing tools will make mistakes too. Fortunately they don’t often, but this strip originally ran a couple years after the discovery of the Pentium FDIV bug. This was a glitch in the way certain Pentium chips handled floating-point division. It was discovered by Dr Thomas Nicely, at Lynchberg College, who found inconsistencies in some calculations when he added Pentium systems to the computers he was using. This Pentium bug may have been on Amend’s mind.
Eugene would have spotted right away that the hyperbolic cosine was wrong, though, and didn’t need nine digits for it. The hyperbolic cosine is a function. Its domain is the real numbers. It range is entirely numbers greater than or equal to one, or less than or equal to minus one. A 0.9 something just can’t happen, not as the hyperbolic cosine for a real number.
And what is the hyperbolic cosine? It’s one of the hyperbolic trigonometric functions. The other trig functions — sine, tangent, arc-sine, and all that — have their shadows too. You’ll see the hyperbolic sine and hyperbolic tangent some. You will never see the hyperbolic arc-cosecant and anyone trying to tell you that you need it is putting you on. They turn up in introductory calculus classes because you can differentiate them, and integrate them, the way you can ordinary trig functions. They look just different enough from regular trig functions to seem interesting for half a class. By the time you’re doing this, your instructor needs that.
The ordinary trig functions come from the unit circle. You can relate the Cartesian coordinates of a point on the circle described by to the angle made between that point and the center of the circle and the positive x-axis. Hyperbolic trig functions we can relate the Cartesian coordinates of a point on the hyperbola described by to angles instead. The functions … don’t have a lot of use at the intro-to-calculus level. Again, other than that they let you do some quite testable differentiation and integration problems that don’t look exactly like regular trig functions do. They turn up again if you get far enough into mathematical physics. The hyperbolic cosine does well in describing catenaries, that is, the shape of flexible wires under gravity. And the family of functions turn up in statistical mechanics, often, in the mathematics of heat and of magnetism. But overall, these functions aren’t needed a lot. A good scientific calculator will offer them, certainly. But it’ll be harder to get them.
There is another oddity at work here. The cosine of 15.2 degrees is about 0.965, yes. But mathematicians will usually think of trigonometric functions — regular or hyperbolic — in terms of radians. This is just a different measure of angles. A right angle, 90 degrees, is measured as radians. The use of radians makes a good bit of other work easier. Mathematicians get to accustomed to using radians that to use degrees seems slightly alien. The cosine of 15.2 radians, then, would be about -0.874. Eugene has apparently left his calculator in degree mode, rather than radian mode. If he weren’t so worked up about the hyperbolic cosine being wrong he might have noticed. Perhaps that will be another exciting error to discover down the line.
This strip was part of a several-months-long story Bill Amend did, in which Jason has adventures at Math Camp. I don’t remember the whole story. But I do expect the strip to have several more appearances here this summer.
This has not been the slowest week for mathematically-themed comic strips. The slowest would be the week nothing on topic came up. But this was close. I admit this is fine as I have things disrupting my normal schedule this week. I don’t need to write too many essays too.
On-topic enough to discuss, though, were:
Lalo Alcaraz’s La Cucaracha for the 9th features a teacher trying to get ahead of student boredom. The idea that mathematics is easier to learn if it’s about problems that seem interesting is a durable one. It agrees with my intuition. I’m less sure that just doing arithmetic while surfing is that helpful. My feeling is that a problem being interesting is separate from a problem naming an intersting thing. But making every problem uniquely interesting is probably too much to expect from a teacher. A good pop-mathematics writer can be interesting about any problem. But the pop-mathematics writer has a lot of choice about what she’ll discuss. And doesn’t need to practice examples of a problem until she can feel confident her readers have learned a skill. I don’t know that there is a good answer to this.
Also part of me feels that “eight sick waves times eight sick waves” has to be “sixty-four sick-waves-squared”. This is me worrying about the dimensional analysis of a joke. All right, but if it were “eight inches times eight inches” and you came back with “sixty-four inches” you’d agree something was off, right? But it’s easy to not notice the units. That we do, mechanically, the same thing in multiplying (oh) three times $1.20 or three times 120 miles or three boxes times 120 items per box as we do multiplying three times 120 encourages this. But if we are using numbers to measure things, and if we are doing calculations about things, then the units matter. They carry information about the kinds of things our calculations represent. It’s a bad idea to misuse or ignore those tools.
Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 14th is roughly the anthropomorphized geometry cartoon of the week. It does name the three ways to group triangles based on how many sides have the same length. Or if you prefer, how many interior angles have the same measure. So it’s probably a good choice for your geometry tip sheet. “Scalene” as a word seems to have entered English in the 1730s. Its origin traces to Late Latin “scalenus”, from the Greek “skalenos” and meaning “uneven” or “crooked”.
“Isosceles” also goes to Late Latin and, before that, the Greek “isoskeles”, with “iso” the prefix meaning “equal” and “skeles” meaning “legs”. The curious thing to me is “Isosceles”, besides sounding more pleasant, came to English around 1550. Meanwhile, “equilateral” — a simple Late Latin for “equal sides” — appeared around 1570. I don’t know what was going on that it seemed urgent to have a word for triangles with two equal sides first, and a generation later triangles with three equal sides. And then triangles with no two equal sides went nearly two centuries without getting a custom term.
But, then, I’m aware of my bias. There might have been other words for these concepts, recognized by mathematicians of the year 1600, that haven’t come to us. Or it might be that scalene triangles were thought to be so boring there wasn’t any point giving them a special name. It would take deeper mathematics history knowledge than I have to say.
Those are all the mathematically-themed comic strips I can find something to discuss from the past week. There were some others with mentions of mathematics, though. These include:
I’d meant to get back into discussing continuous functions this week, and then didn’t have the time. I hope nobody was too worried.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 19th is set up as geometry or trigonometry homework. There are a couple of angles that we use all the time, and they do correspond to some common unit fractions of a circle: a quarter, a sixth, an eighth, a twelfth. These map nicely to common cuts of circular pies, at least. Well, it’s a bit of a freak move to cut a pie into twelve pieces, but it’s not totally out there. If someone cuts a pie into 24 pieces, flee.
Tom Batiuk’s vintage Funky Winkerbean for the 19th of May is a real vintage piece, showing off the days when pocket electronic calculators were new. The sales clerk describes the calculator as having “a floating decimal”. And here I must admit: I’m poorly read on early-70s consumer electronics. So I can’t say that this wasn’t a thing. But I suspect that Batiuk either misunderstood “floating-point decimal”, which would be a selling point, or shortened the phrase in order to make the dialogue less needlessly long. Which is fine, and his right as an author. The technical detail does its work, for the setup, by existing. It does not have to be an actual sales brochure. Reducing “floating point decimal” to “floating decimal” is a useful artistic shorthand. It’s the dialogue equivalent to the implausibly few, but easy to understand, buttons on the calculator in the title panel.
Floating point is one of the ways to represent numbers electronically. The storage scheme is much like scientific notation. That is, rather than think of 2,038, think of 2.038 times 103. In the computer’s memory are stored the 2.038 and the 3, with the “times ten to the” part implicit in the storage scheme. The advantage of this is the range of numbers one can use now. There are different ways to implement this scheme; a common one will let one represent numbers as tiny as 10-308 or as large as 10308, which is enough for most people’s needs.
The disadvantage is that floating point numbers aren’t perfect. They have only around (commonly) sixteen digits of significance. That is, the first sixteen or so nonzero numbers in the number you represent mean anything; everything after that is garbage. Most of the time, that trailing garbage doesn’t hurt. But most is not always. Trying to add, for example, a tiny number, like 10-20, to a huge number, like 1020 won’t get the right answer. And there are numbers that can’t be represented correctly anyway, including such exotic and novel numbers as . A lot of numerical mathematics is about finding ways to compute that avoid these problems.
Back when I was a grad student I did have one casual friend who proclaimed that no real mathematician ever worked with floating point numbers, because of the limitations they impose. I could not get him to accept that no, in fact, mathematicians are fine with these limitations. Every scheme for representing numbers on a computer has limitations, and floating point numbers work quite well. At some point, you have to suspect some people would rather fight for a mistaken idea they already have than accept something new.
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 19th does a bit of stage magic supported by arithmetic: forecasting the sum of three numbers. The trick is that all eight possible choices someone would make have the same sum. There’s a nice bit of group theory hidden in the “Howdydoit?” panel, about how to do the trick a second time. Rotating the square of numbers makes what looks, casually, like a different square. It’s hard for human to memorize a string of digits that don’t have any obvious meaning, and the longer the string the worse people are at it. If you’ve had a person — as directed — black out the rows or columns they didn’t pick, then it’s harder to notice the reused pattern.
The different directions that you could write the digits down in represent symmetries of the square. That is, geometric operations that would replace a square with something that looks like the original. This includes rotations, by 90 or 180 or 270 degrees clockwise. Mac King and Bill King don’t mention it, but reflections would also work: if the top row were 4, 9, 2, for example, and the middle 3, 5, 7, and the bottom 8, 1, 6. Combining rotations and reflections also works.
If you do the trick a second time, your mark might notice it’s odd that the sum came up 15 again. Do it a third time, even with a different rotation or reflection, and they’ll know something’s up. There are things you could do to disguise that further. Just double each number in the square, for example: a square of 4/18/8, 14/10/6, 12/2/16 will have each row or column or diagonal add up to 30. But this loses the beauty of doing this with the digits 1 through 9, and your mark might grow suspicious anyway. The same happens if, say, you add one to each number in the square, and forecast a sum of 18. Even mathematical magic tricks are best not repeated too often, not unless you have good stage patter.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 20th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Wavehead’s marveling at what seems at first like an asymmetry, about squares all being rhombuses yet rhombuses not all being squares. There are similar results with squares and rectangles. Still, it makes me notice something. Nobody would write a strip where the kid marvelled that all squares were polygons but not all polygons were squares. It seems that the rhombus connotes something different. This might just be familiarity. Polygons are … well, if not a common term, at least something anyone might feel familiar. Rhombus is a more technical term. It maybe never quite gets familiar, not in the ways polygons do. And the defining feature of a rhombus — all four sides the same length — seems like the same thing that makes a square a square.
Of course I like all the comics. … Well, that’s not literally true; but I have at least some affection for nearly all of the syndicated comics. This essay I bring up some strips, partly, because I just like them. This is my content hole. If you want a blog not filled with comic strips, go start your own and don’t put these things on it.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 5th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Also a bit of a comment on the ability of collective action to change things. Wavehead is … well, he’s just wrong about making the number four plus the number four equal to the number seven. Not based on the numbers we mean by the words “four” and “seven”, and based on the operation we mean by “plus” and the relationship we mean by “equals”. The meaning of those things is set by, ultimately, axioms and deductive reasoning and the laws of deductive reasoning and there’s no changing the results.
But. The thing we’re referring to when we say “seven”? Or when we write the symbol “7”? That is convention. That is a thing we’ve agreed on as a reference for this concept. And that we can change, if we decide we want to. We’ve done this. Look at a thousand-year-old manuscript and the symbol that looks like ‘4’ may represent the number we call five. And the names of numbers are just common words. They’re subject to change the way every other common word is. Which is, admittedly, not very subject. It would be almost as much bother to change the word ‘four’ as it would be to change the word ‘mom’. But that’s not impossible. Just difficult.
Juba’s Viivi and Wagner for the 5th is a bit of a percentage joke. The characters also come to conclude that a thing either happens or it does not; there’s no indefinite states. This principle, the “excluded middle”, is often relied upon for deductive logic, and fairly so. It gets less clear that this can be depended on for predictions of the future, or fears for the future. And real-world things come in degrees that a mathematical concept might not. Like, your fear of the home catching fire comes true if the building burns down. But it’s also come true if a quickly-extinguished frying pan fire leaves the wall scorched, embarrassing but harmless. Anyway, relaxing someone else’s anxiety takes more than a quick declaration of statistics. Show sympathy.
Harry Bliss and Steve Martin’s Bliss for the 6th is a cute little classroom strip, with arithmetic appearing as the sort of topic that students feel overwhelmed and baffled by. It could be anything, but mathematics uses the illustration space efficiently. The strip may properly be too marginal to include, but I like Bliss’s art style and want more people to see it.
Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave for the 7th puts up what Spud calls a sadistic math problem. And, well, it is a story problem happening in their real life. You could probably turn this into an actual exam problem without great difficulty.
I can’t tell you how hard it is not to just end this review of last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips after the first panel here. It really feels like the rest is anticlimax. But here goes.
John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 20th is one of those strips that’s not on your mathematics professor’s office door only because she hasn’t seen it yet. The intended joke is obvious, mixing the tropes of the Old West with modern research-laboratory talk. “Theoretical reckoning” is a nice bit of word juxtaposition. “Institoot” is a bit classist in its rendering, but I suppose it’s meant as eye-dialect.
What gets it a place on office doors is the whiteboard, though. They’re writing out mathematics which looks legitimate enough to me. It doesn’t look like mathematics though. What’s being written is something any mathematician would recognize. It’s typesetting instructions. Mathematics requires all sorts of strange symbols and exotic formatting. In the old days, we’d handle this by giving the typesetters hazard pay. Or, if you were a poor grad student and couldn’t afford that, deal with workarounds. Maybe just leave space in your paper and draw symbols in later. If your university library has old enough papers you can see them. Maybe do your best to approximate mathematical symbols using ASCII art. So you get expressions that look something like this:
/ 2 pi
| x cos(theta) dx - 2 F(theta) == R(theta)
This gets old real fast. Mercifully, Donald Knuth, decades ago, worked out a great solution. It uses formatting instructions that can all be rendered in standard, ASCII-available text. And then by dark incantations and summoning of Linotype demons, re-renders that as formatted text. It handles all your basic book formatting needs — much the way HTML, used for web pages, will — and does mathematics much more easily. For example, I would enter a line like:
There are many, many expansions available to this, to handle specialized needs, hardcore mathematics among them.
Anyway, the point that makes me realize John Deering was aiming at everybody with an advanced degree in mathematics ever with this joke, using a string of typesetting instead of the usual equations here?
The typesetting language is named TeX.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It’s about one of those questions that nags at you as a kid, and again periodically as an adult. The perimeter is the boundary around a shape. The circumference is the boundary around a circle. Why do we have two words for this? And why do we sound all right talking about either the circumference or the perimeter of a circle, while we sound weird talking about the circumference of a rhombus? We sound weird talking about the perimeter of a rhombus too, but that’s the rhombus’s fault.
The easy part is why there’s two words. Perimeter is a word of Greek origin; circumference, of Latin. Perimeter entered the English language in the early 15th century; circumference in the 14th. Why we have both I don’t know; my suspicion is either two groups of people translating different geometry textbooks, or some eager young Scholastic with a nickname like ‘Doctor Magnifico Triangulorum’ thought Latin sounded better. Perimeter stuck with circules early; every etymology I see about why we use the symbol π describes it as shorthand for the perimeter of the circle. Why `circumference’ ended up the word for circles or, maybe, ellipses and ovals and such is probably the arbitrariness of language. I suspect that opening “circ” sound cues people to think of it for circles and circle-like shapes, in a way that perimeter doesn’t. But that is my speculation and should not be mistaken for information.
Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen’s Betty for the 24th is a sudoku comic. Betty makes the common, and understandable, conflation of arithmetic with mathematics. But she’s right in identifying sudoku as a logical rather than an arithmetic problem. You can — and sometimes will see — sudoku type puzzles rendered with icons like stars and circles rather than numerals. That you can make that substitution should clear up whether there’s arithmetic involved. Commenters at GoComics meanwhile show a conflation of mathematics with logic. Certainly every mathematician uses logic, and some of them study logic. But is logic mathematics? I’m not sure it is, and our friends in the philosophy department are certain it isn’t. But then, if something that a recognizable set of mathematicians study as part of their mathematics work isn’t mathematics, then we have a bit of a logic problem, it seems.
So this past week has been a curious blend for the mathematically-themed comics. There were many comics mentioning some mathematical topic. But that’s because Grand Advenue and Luann Againn — reprints of early 90s Luann comics — have been doing a lot of schoolwork. There’s a certain repetitiveness to saying, “and here we get a silly answer to a story problem” four times over. But we’ll see what I do with the work.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 7th is Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Very comforting to see. It’s a geometry-vocabulary joke, with Wavehead noticing the similar ends of some terms. I’m disappointed that I can’t offer much etymological insight. “Vertex”, for example, derives from the Latin for “highest point”, and traces back to the Proto-Indo-European root “wer-”, meaning “to turn, to bend”. “Apex” derives from the Latin for “summit” or “extreme”. And that traces back to the Proto-Indo-European “ap”, meaning “to take, to reach”. Which is all fine, but doesn’t offer much about how both words ended up ending in “ex”. This is where my failure to master Latin by reading a teach-yourself book on the bus during my morning commute for three months back in 2002 comes back to haunt me. There’s probably something that might have helped me in there.
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 7th is an activity puzzle this time. It’s also a legitimate problem of graph theory. Not a complicated one, but still, one. Graph theory is about sets of points, called vertices, and connections between points, called edges. It gives interesting results for anything that’s networked. That shows up in computers, in roadways, in blood vessels, in the spreads of disease, in maps, in shapes.
One common problem, found early in studying graph theory, is about whether a graph is planar. That is, can you draw the whole graph, all its vertices and edges, without any lines cross each other? This graph, with six vertices and three edges, is planar. There are graphs that are not. If the challenge were to connect each number to a 1, a 2, and a 3, then it would be nonplanar. That’s a famous non-planar graph, given the obvious name K3, 3. A fun part of learning graph theory — at least fun for me — is looking through pictures of graphs. The goal is finding K3, 3 or another one called K5, inside a big messy graph.
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 8th has had a week of story problems featuring both of the kid characters. Here’s the start of them. Making an addition or subtraction problem about counting things is probably a good way of making the problem less abstract. I don’t have children, so I don’t know whether they play marbles or care about them. The most recent time I saw any of my niblings I told them about the subtleties of industrial design in the old-fashioned Western Electric Model 2500 touch-tone telephone. They love me. Also I’m not sure that this question actually tests subtraction more than it tests reading comprehension. But there are teachers who like to throw in the occasional surprisingly easy one. Keeps students on their toes.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 10th is part of a sequence showing Gunther helping Luann with her mathematics homework. The story started the day before, but this was the first time a specific mathematical topic was named. The point-slope form is a conventional way of writing an equation which corresponds to a particular line. There are many ways to write equations for lines. This is one that’s convenient to use if you know coordinates for one point on the line and the slope of the line. Any coordinates which make the equation true are then the coordinates for some point on the line.
Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 10th tosses in a line about logical paradoxes. In this case, using a classic problem, the self-referential statement. Working out whether a statement is true or false — its “truth value” — is one of those things we expect logic to be able to do. Some self-referential statements, logical claims about themselves, are troublesome. “This statement is false” was a good one for baffling kids and would-be world-dominating computers in science fiction television up to about 1978. Some self-referential statements seem harmless, though. Nobody expects even the most timid world-dominating computer to be bothered by “this statement is true”. It takes more than just a statement being about itself to create a paradox.
And a last note. The blog hardly needs my push to help it out, but, sometimes people will miss a good thing. Ben Orlin’s Math With Bad Drawings just ran an essay about some of the many mathematics-themed comics that Hilary Price and Rina Piccolo’s Rhymes With Orange has run. The comic is one of my favorites too. Orlin looks through some of the comic’s twenty-plus year history and discusses the different types of mathematical jokes Price (with, in recent years, Piccolo) makes.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 18th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. This features the kids learning some of the commonest terms in descriptive statistics. And, as Wavehead says, the similarity of names doesn’t help sorting them out. Each is a kind of average. “Mean” usually is the arithmetic mean, or the thing everyone including statisticians calls “average”. “Median” is the middle-most value, the one that half the data is less than and half the data is greater than. “Mode” is the most common value. In “normally distributed” data, these three quantities are all the same. In data gathered from real-world measurements, these are typically pretty close to one another. It’s very easy for real-world quantities to be normally distributed. The exceptions are usually when there are some weird disparities, like a cluster of abnormally high-valued (or low-valued) results. Or if there are very few data points.
The word “mean” derives from the Old French “meien”, that is, “middle, means”. And that itself traces to the Late Latin “medianus”, and the Latin “medius”. That traces back to the Proto-Indo-European “medhyo”, meaning “middle”. That’s probably what you might expect, especially considering that the mean of a set of data is, if the data is not doing anything weird, likely close to the middle of the set. The term appeared in English in the middle 15th century.
The word “median”, meanwhile, follows a completely different path. That one traces to the Middle French “médian”, which traces to the Late Latin “medianus” and Latin “medius” and Proto-Indo-European “medhyo”. This appeared as a mathematical term in the late 19th century; Etymology Online claims 1883, but doesn’t give a manuscript citation.
The word “mode”, meanwhile, follows a completely different path. This one traces to the Old French “mode”, itself from the Latin “modus”, meaning the measure or melody or style. We get from music to common values by way of the “style” meaning. Think of something being done “á la mode”, that is, “in the [ fashionable or popular ] style”. I haven’t dug up a citation about when this word entered the mathematical parlance.
So “mean” and “median” don’t have much chance to do anything but alliterate. “Mode” is coincidence here. I agree, it might be nice if we spread out the words a little more.
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 18th has Edison introduce a sequence to his grandfather. Doubling the number of things for each square of a checkerboard is an ancient thought experiment. The notion, with grains of wheat rather than cookies, seems to be first recorded in 1256 in a book by the scholar Ibn Khallikan. One story has it that the inventor of chess requested from the ruler that many grains of wheat as reward for inventing the game.
If we followed Edison Lee’s doubling through all 64 squares we’d have, in total, need for 263-1 or 18,446,744,073,709,551,615 cookies. You can see why the inventor of chess didn’t get that reward, however popular the game was. It stands as a good display of how exponential growth eventually gets to be just that intimidatingly big.
Edison, like many a young nerd, is trying to stagger his grandfather with the enormity of this. I don’t know that it would work. Grandpa ponders eating all that many cookies, since he’s a comical glutton. I’d estimate eating all that many cookies, at the rate of one a second, eight hours a day, to take something like eighteen billion centuries. If I’m wrong? It doesn’t matter. It’s a while. But is that any more staggering than imagining a task that takes a mere ten thousand centuries to finish?
Mathematics is, to an extent, about finding interesting true statements. What makes something interesting? That depends on the person surprised, certainly. A good guideline is probably “something not obvious before you’ve heard it, thatlooks inevitable after you have”. That is, a surprise. Learning mathematics probably has to be steadily surprising, and that’s good, because this kind of surprise is fun.
If it’s always a surprise there might be trouble. If you’re doing similar kinds of problems you should start to see them as pretty similar, and have a fair idea what the answers should be. So, from what Toby has said so far … I wouldn’t call him stupid. At most, just inexperienced.
Eric the Circle for the 19th, by Janka, is the Venn Diagram joke for the week. Properly any Venn Diagram with two properties has an overlap like this. We’re supposed to place items in both circles, and in the intersection, to reflect how much overlap there is. Using the sizes of each circle to reflect the sizes of both sets, and the size of the overlap to represent the size of the intersection, is probably inevitable. The shorthand calls on our geometric intuition to convey information, anyway.
Tony Murphy’s It’s All About You for the 19th has a bunch of things going on. The punch line calls “algebra” what’s really a statistics problem, calculating the arithmetic mean of four results. The work done is basic arithmetic. But making work seem like a more onerous task is a good bit of comic exaggeration, and algebra connotes something harder than arithmetic. But Murphy exaggerates with restraint: the characters don’t rate this as calculus.
Then there’s what they’re doing at all. Given four clocks, what’s the correct time? The couple tries averaging them. Why should anyone expect that to work?
There’s reason to suppose this might work. We can suppose all the clocks are close to the correct time. If they weren’t, they would get re-set, or not looked at anymore. A clock is probably more likely to be a little wrong than a lot wrong. You’d let a clock that was two minutes off go about its business, in a way you wouldn’t let a clock that was three hours and 42 minutes off. A clock is probably as likely to show a time two minutes too early as it is two minutes too late. This all suggests that the clock errors are normally distributed, or something like that. So the error of the arithmetic mean of a bunch of clock measurements we can expect to be zero. Or close to zero, anyway.
There’s reasons this might not work. For example, a clock might systematically run late. My mantle clock, for example, usually drifts about a minute slow over the course of the week it takes to wind. Or the clock might be deliberately set wrong: it’s not unusual to set an alarm clock to five or ten or fifteen minutes ahead of the true time, to encourage people to think it’s later than it really is and they should hurry up. Similarly with watches, if their times aren’t set by Internet-connected device. I don’t know whether it’s possible to set a smart watch to be deliberately five minutes fast, or something like that. I’d imagine it should be possible, but also that the people programming watches don’t see why someone might want to set their clock to the wrong time. From January to March 2018, famously, an electrical grid conflict caused certain European clocks to lose around six minutes. The reasons for this are complicated and technical, and anyway The Doctor sorted it out. But that sort of systematic problem, causing all the clocks to be wrong in the same way, will foil this take-the-average scheme.
Murphy’s not thinking of that, not least because this comic’s a rerun from 2009. He was making a joke, going for the funnier-sounding “it’s 8:03 and five-eights” instead of the time implied by the average, 8:04 and a half. That’s all right. It’s a comic strip. Being amusing is what counts.
Since I took the Pi Day comics ahead of their normal sequence on Sunday, it’s time I got back to the rest of the week. There weren’t any mathematically-themed comics worth mentioning from last Friday or Saturday, so I’m spending the latter part of this week covering stuff published before Pi Day. It’s got me slightly out of joint. It’ll all be better soon.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week. That’s nice to have. It’s built on the concept of story problems. That there should be “stories” behind a problem makes sense. Most actual mathematics, even among mathematicians, is done because we want to know a thing. Acting on a want is a story. Wanting to know a thing justifies the work of doing this calculation. And real mathematics work involves looking at some thing, full of the messiness of the real world, and extracting from it mathematics. This would be the question to solve, the operations to do, the numbers (or shapes or connections or whatever) to use. We surely learn how to do that by doing simple examples. The kid — not Wavehead, for a change — points out a common problem here. There’s often not much of a story to a story problem. That is, where we don’t just want something, but someone else wants something too.
Parker and Hart’s The Wizard of Id for the 11th is a riff on the “when do you use algebra in real life” snark. Well, no one disputes that there are fields which depend on advanced mathematics. The snark comes in from supposing that a thing is worth learning only if it’s regularly “useful”.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 12th has Joe stalling class to speak to “the guy who invented zero”. I really like this strip since it’s one of those cute little wordplay jokes that also raises a legitimate point. Zero is this fantastic idea and it’s hard to imagine mathematics as we know it without the concept. Of course, we could say the same thing about trying to do mathematics without the concept of, say, “twelve”.
We don’t know who’s “the guy” who invented zero. It’s probably not all a single person, though, or even a single group of people. There are several threads of thought which merged together to zero. One is the notion of emptiness, the absense of a measurable thing. That probably occurred to whoever was the first person to notice a thing wasn’t where it was expected. Another part is the notion of zero as a number, something you could add to or subtract from a conventional number. That is, there’s this concept of “having nothing”, yes. But can you add “nothing” to a pile of things? And represent that using the addition we do with numbers? Sure, but that’s because we’re so comfortable with the idea of zero that we don’t ponder whether “2 + 1” and “2 + 0” are expressing similar ideas. You’ll occasionally see people asking web forums whether zero is really a number, often without getting much sympathy for their confusion. I admit I have to think hard to not let long reflex stop me wondering what I mean by a number and why zero should be one.
And then there’s zero, the symbol. As in having a representation, almost always a circle, to mean “there is a zero here”. We don’t know who wrote the first of that. The oldest instance of it that we know of dates to the year 683, and was written in what’s now Cambodia. It’s in a stone carving that seems to be some kind of bill of sale. I’m not aware whether there’s any indication from that who the zero was written for, or who wrote it, though. And there’s no reason to think that’s the first time zero was represented with a symbol. It’s the earliest we know about.
Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 12th has some talk about numbers, and favorite numbers. Lemont claims to have had 8 as his favorite number because its shape, rotated, is that of the infinity symbol. C-Dog disputes Lemont’s recollection of his motives. Which is fair enough; it’s hard to remember what motivated you that long ago. What people mostly do is think of a reason that they, today, would have done that, in the past.
The ∞ symbol as we know it is credited to John Wallis, one of that bunch of 17th-century English mathematicians. He did a good bit of substantial work, in fields like conic sections and physics and whatnot. But he was also one of those people good at coming up with notation. He developed what’s now the standard notation for raising a number to a power, that stuff, and showed how to define raising a number to a rational-number power. Bunch of other things. He also seems to be the person who gave the name “continued fraction” to that concept.
Wallis never explained why he picked ∞ as a shape, of all the symbols one could draw, for this concept. There’s speculation he might have been varying the Roman numeral for 1,000, which we’ve simplified to M but which had been rendered as (|) or () and I can see that. (Well, really more of a C and a mirror-reflected C rather than parentheses, but I don’t have the typesetting skills to render that.) Conflating “a thousand” with “many” or “infinitely many” has a good heritage. We do the same thing when we talk about something having millions of parts or costing trillions of dollars or such. But, Wallis never explained (so far as we’re aware), so all this has to be considered speculation and maybe mnemonic helps to remembering the symbol.
Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City for the 12th is another story problem joke. Curiously the joke seems to be simply that the father gets confused following the convolutions of the story. The specific story problem circles around the “participation awards are the WORST” attitude that newspaper comics are surprisingly prone to. I think the LaBans just wanted the story problem to be long and seem tedious enough that our eyes glazed over. Anyway you could not pay me to read whatever the comments on this comic are. Sorry not sorry.
The last burst of mathematically-themed comic strips last week nearly all came the 1st of the month. But the count fell just short. I can only imagine what machinations at Comic Strip Master Command went wrong, that we couldn’t get a full four comics for the same day. Well, life is messy and things will happen.
Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal for the 1st is a rerun. I discussed it last time I noticed it too. I’d previously taken Herb to be gloating about not using the calculus he’d studied. I may be reading too much into what seems like a smirk in the final panel, though. Could be he’s thinking of the strangeness that something which, at the time, is challenging and difficult and all-consuming turns out to not be such a big deal. Which could be much of high school.
But my first instinct is still to read this as thinking of the “uselessness” of calculus. It betrays the terrible attitude that education is about job training. It should be about letting people be literate in the world’s great thoughts. Mathematics seems to get this attitude a lot, but I’m aware I may feel a confirmation bias. If I had become a French major perhaps I’d pay attention to all the comic strips where someone giggles about how they never use the foreign languages they learned in high school either.
Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes from a Multiverse for the 1st is set in a “Mathpinion City”, showing people arguing about mathematical truths. It seems to me a political commentary, about the absurdity of rejecting true things over perceived insults. The 1+1=3 partisans aren’t even insisting they’re right, just that the other side is obnoxious. Arithmetic here serves as good source for things that can’t be matters of opinion, at least provided we’ve agreed on what’s meant by ideas like ‘1’ and ‘3’.
Mathematics is a human creation, though. What we decide to study, and what concepts we think worth interesting, are matters of opinion. It’s difficult to imagine people who think 1+1=2 a statement so unimportant they don’t care whether it’s true or false. At least not ones who reason anything like we do. But that is our difficulty, not a constraint on what life could think.
Neil Kohney’s The Other End for the 1st has a mathematics cameo. It’s the subject of a quiz so difficult that the kid begs for God’s help sorting it out. The problems all seem to be simplifying expressions. It’s a skill worth having. There are infinitely many ways to write the same quantity. Some of them are more convenient than others. Brief expressions, for example, are often easier to understand. But a longer expression might let us tease out relationships that are good to know. Many analysis proofs end up becoming simpler when you multiply by one — that is, multiplying by and dividing by the same quantity, but using the numerator to reduce one part of the expression and the denominator to reduce some other. Or by adding zero, in which you add and subtract a quantity and use either side to simplify other parts of the expression. So, y’know, just do the work. It’s better that way.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 2nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Wavehead’s learning about invertible operations: that a particular division can undo a multiplication. Or, presumably, that a particular multiplication can undo a division. Fair to wonder why you’d want to do that, though. Most of the operations we use in arithmetic have inverses, or come near it. (There’s one thing you can multiply by which you can’t divide out.) The term used in group theory for this is to say the real numbers are a “field”. This is a ring in which not just does addition have an inverse, but so does multiplication. And the operations commute; dividing by four and multiplying by four is as good as multiplying by for and dividing by four. You can build interesting mathematical structures that don’t have some of these properties. Elementary-school division, where you might describe (say) 26 divided by 4 as “6 with a remainder of 2” is one of them.
Last week started out at a good clip: two comics with enough of a mathematical theme I could imagine writing a paragraph about them each day. Then things puttered out. The rest of the week had almost nothing. At least nothing that seemed significant enough. I’ll list those, since that’s become my habit, at the end of the essay.
Perhaps it’s so. Some societies have been found to have, what seem to us, rather few numerals. This doesn’t reflect on anyone’s abilities or intelligence or the like. And it doesn’t mean people who lack a word for, say, “forty-nine” would be unable to compute. It might take longer, but probably just from inexperience. If someone practiced much calculation on “forty-nine” they’d probably have a name for it. And folks raised in the western mathematics use, even enjoy, some vagueness about big numbers too. We might say there are “dozens” of a thing even if there are not precisely 24, 36, or 48 of the thing; “52” is close enough and we probably didn’t even count it up. “Hundred” similarly has gotten the connotation of being a precise number, but it’s used to mean “really quite a lot of a thing”. The words “thousands”, “millions”, and mock-numbers like “zillions” have a similar role. They suggest different ranges of what might be “many”.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th is a SABRmetrics joke! At least, it’s an optimization joke, built on the idea that you can find an optimum strategy for anything, whether winning baseball games or The War. The principle is hard to argue with. Nobody would doubt that different approaches to a battle affect how likely winning is. We can imagine gathering data on how different tactics affect the outcome. (We can easily imagine combat simulators running these experiments, particularly.)
The catch — well, one catch — is that this tempts one to reward a process. Once it’s taken for granted the process works, then whether it’s actually doing what you want gets forgotten. And once everyone knows what’s being measured it becomes possible to game the system. Famously, in the mid-1960s the United States tried to judge its progress in the Vietnam War by counting the number of enemy soldiers killed. There was then little reason to care about who was killed, or why. And reason to not care whether actual enemy soldiers were being killed. There’s good to be said about testing whether the things you try to do work. There’s great danger in thinking that the thing you can measure guarantees success.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st is a bit of fun with definitions. Mathematicians rely on definitions. It’s hard to imagine a proof about something undefined. But definitions are hard to compose. We usually construct a definition because we want a common term to describe a collection of things, and to exclude another collection of things. And we need people like Wavehead who can find edge cases, things that seem to satisfy a definition while breaking its spirit. This can let us find unstated assumptions that we should pay attention to. Or force us to accept that the definition is so generally useful that we’ll tolerate it having some counter-intuitive implications.
My favorite counter-intuitive implication is in analysis. The field has a definition for what it means that a function is continuous. It’s meant to capture the idea that you could draw a curve representing the function without having to lift the pen that does it. The best definition mathematicians have settled on allows you to count a function that’s continuous at a single point in all of space. Continuity seems like something that should need an interval to happen. But we haven’t found a better way to define “continuous” that excludes this pathological case. So we embrace the weirdness in exchange for general usefulness.
Charles Brubaker’s Ask A Cat for the 21st is a guest appearance from Brubaker’s other strip, The Fuzzy Princess. It’s a rerun and I did discuss it earlier. Soap bubbles make for great mathematics. They’re easy to play with, for one thing. That’s good for capturing imagination. And the mathematics behind them is deep, and led to important results analytically and computationally. It happens when this strip first ran I’d encountered a triplet of essays about the mathematics of soap bubbles and wireframe surfaces. My introduction to those essays is here.
Benita Epstein’s Six Chix for the 25th I wasn’t sure I’d include. But Roy Kassinger asked about it, so that tipped the scales. The dog tries to blame his bad behavior on “the algorithm”, bringing up one of the better monsters of the last couple years. An algorithm is just the procedure by which you do something. Mathematically, that’s usually to solve a problem. That might be finding some interesting part of the domain or range of a function. That might be putting a collection of things in order. that might be any of a host of things. And then we go make a decision based on the results of the algorithm.
What earns The Algorithm its deserved bad name is mindlessness. The idea that once you have an algorithm that a problem is solved. Worse, that once an algorithm is in place it would be irrational to challenge it. I have seen the process termed “mathwashing”, by analogy with whitewashing, and it’s a good one. The notion that because something is done by computer it must be done correctly is absurd. We knew it was absurd before there were computers as we knew them, as see anyone for the past century who has spoken of a “Kafkaesque” interaction with a large organization. It’s impossible to foresee all the outcomes of any reasonably complicated process, much less to verify that all the outcomes are handled correctly. This is before we consider that there will always be mistakes made in the handling of data. Or in the carrying out of the process. And that’s before we consider bad actors. I’m sure there must be research into algorithms designed to handle gaming of the system. I don’t know that there are any good results yet, though. We certainly need them.
As I said Sunday, last week was a slow one for mathematically-themed comic strips. Here’s the second half of them. They’re not tightly on point. But that’s all right. They all have titles starting with ‘A’. I mean if you ignore the article ‘the’, the way we usually do when alphabetizing titles.
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 11th is basically a name-drop of mathematics. The joke would be unchanged if the teacher asked Agnes to circle all the adjectives in a sentence, or something like that. But there are historically links between religious thinking and mathematics. The Pythagoreans, for example, always a great and incredible starting point for any mathematical topic or just some preposterous jokes that might have nothing to do with their reality, were at least as much a religious and philosophical cult. For a long while in the Western tradition, the people with the time and training to do advanced mathematics work were often working for the church. Even as people were more able to specialize, a mystic streak remained. It’s easy to understand why. Mathematics promises to speak about things that are universally true. It encourages thinking about the infinite. It encourages thinking about the infinitely tiny. It courts paradoxes as difficult as any religious Mystery. It’s easy to snark at someone who takes numerology seriously. But I’m not sure the impulse that sees magic in arithmetic is different to the one that sees something supernatural in a “transfinite” item.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 11th is another mistimed Pi Day joke. π is, famously, an irrational number. But so is every number, except for a handful of strange ones that we’ve happened to find interesting. That π should go on and on follows from what an irrational number means. It’s a bit surprising the 4 didn’t know all this before they married.
I appreciate the secondary joke that the marriage counselor is a “Hugh Jripov”, and the counselor’s being a ripoff is signaled by being a ÷ sign. It suggests that maybe successful reconciliation isn’t an option. I’m curious why the letters ‘POV’ are doubled, in the diploma there. In a strip with tighter drafting I’d think it was suggesting the way a glass frame will distort an image. But Hilburn draws much more loosely than that. I don’t know if it means anything.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 12th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the essay. I’m so relieved to have a regular stream of these again. The teacher thinks Wavehead doesn’t need to annotate his work. And maybe so. But writing down thoughts about a problem is often good practice. If you don’t know what to do, or you aren’t sure how to do what you want? Absolutely write down notes. List the things you’d want to do. Or things you’d want to know. Ways you could check your answer. Ways that you might work similar problems. Easier problems that resemble the one you want to do. You find answers by thinking about what you know, and the implications of what you know. Writing these thoughts out encourages you to find interesting true things.
And this was too marginal a mention of mathematics even for me, even on a slow week. But Georgia Dunn’s Breaking Cat News for the 12th has a cat having a nightmare about mathematics class. And it’s a fun comic strip that I’d like people to notice more.
This was a slow week for mathematically-themed comic strips. Such things happen. I put together a half-dozen that see on-topic enough to talk about, but I stretched to do it. You’ll see.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 6th mentions addition as one of the things you learn in an average day of elementary school. I can’t help noticing also the mention of Johnny Appleseed, who’s got a weird place in my heart as he and I share a birthday. He got to it first. Although Johnny Appleseed — John Champan — is legendary for scattering apple seeds, that’s not what he mostly did. He would more often grow apple-tree nurseries, from which settlers could buy plants and demonstrate they were “improving” their plots. He was also committed to spreading the word of Emanuel Swedenborg’s New Church, one of those religious movements that you somehow don’t hear about. But there was this like 200-year-long stretch where a particular kind of idiosyncratic thinker was Swedenborgian, or at least influenced by that. I don’t know offhand of any important Swedenborgian mathematicians, I admit, but I’m glad to hear if someone has news.
Justin Thompson’s MythTickle rerun for the 9th mentions “algebra” as something so dreadful that even being middle-aged is preferable. Everyone has their own tastes, yes, although it would be the same joke if it were “gym class” or something. (I suppose that’s not one word. “Dodgeball” would do, but I never remember playing it. It exists just as a legendarily feared activity, to me.) Granting, though, that I had a terrible time with the introduction to algebra class I had in middle school.
Tom Wilson’s Ziggy for the 9th is a very early Pi Day joke, so, there’s that. There’s not much reason a take-a-number dispenser couldn’t give out π, or other non-integer numbers. What the numbers are doesn’t matter. It’s just that the dispensed numbers need to be in order. It should be helpful if there’s a clear idea how uniformly spaced the numbers are, so there’s some idea how long a wait to expect between the currently-serving number and whatever number you’ve got. But that only helps if you have a fair idea of how long an order should on average take.
With me wrapping up the mathematically-themed comic strips that ran the first of the year, you can see how far behind I’m falling keeping everything current. In my defense, Monday was busier than I hoped it would be, so everything ran late. Next week is looking quite slow for comics, so maybe I can catch up then. I will never catch up on anything the rest of my life, ever.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 2nd is a bit of wordplay about regular and irregular polygons. Many mathematical constructs, in geometry and elsewhere, come in “regular” and “irregular” forms. The regular form usually has symmetries that make it stand out. For polygons, this is each side having the same length, and each interior angle being congruent. Irregular is everything else. The symmetries which constrain the regular version of anything often mean we can prove things we otherwise can’t. But most of anything is the irregular. We might know fewer interesting things about them, or have a harder time proving them.
I’m not sure what the teacher would be asking for in how to “make an irregular polygon regular”. I mean if we pretend that it’s not setting up the laxative joke. I can think of two alternatives that would make sense. One is to draw a polygon with the same number of sides and the same perimeter as the original. The other is to draw a polygon with the same number of sides and the same area as the original. I’m not sure of the point of either. I suppose polygons of the same area have some connection to quadrature, that is, integration. But that seems like it’s higher-level stuff than this class should be doing. I hate to question the reality of a comic strip but that’s what I’m forced to do.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff rerun for the 4th is a gambler’s fallacy joke. Superficially the gambler’s fallacy seems to make perfect sense: the chance of twelve bad things in a row has to be less than the chance of eleven bad things in a row. So after eleven bad things, the twelfth has to come up good, right? But there’s two ways this can go wrong.
Suppose each attempted thing is independent. In this case, what if each patient is equally likely to live or die, regardless of what’s come before? And in that case, the eleven deaths don’t make it more likely that the next will live.
Suppose each attempted thing is not independent, though. This is easy to imagine. Each surgery, for example, is a chance for the surgeon to learn what to do, or not do. He could be getting better, that is, more likely to succeed, each operation. Or the failures could reflect the surgeon’s skills declining, perhaps from overwork or age or a loss of confidence. Impossible to say without more data. Eleven deaths on what context suggests are low-risk operations suggest a poor chances of surviving any given surgery, though. I’m on Jeff’s side here.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 5th is a welcome return of Wavehead. It’s about ratios. My impression is that ratios don’t get much attention in themselves anymore, except to dunk on stupid Twitter comments. It’s too easy to jump right into fractions, and division. Ratios underlie this, at least historically. It’s even in the name, ‘rational numbers’.
Wavehead’s got a point in literally comparing apples and oranges. It’s at least weird to compare directly different kinds of things. This is one of those conceptual gaps between ancient mathematics and modern mathematics. We’re comfortable stripping the units off of numbers, and working with them as abstract entities. But that does mean we can calculate things that don’t make sense. This produces the occasional bit of fun on social media where we see something like Google trying to estimate a movie’s box office per square inch of land in Australia. Just because numbers can be combined doesn’t mean they should be.
Larry Wright’s Motley rerun for the 5th has the form of a story problem. And one timely to the strip’s original appearance in 1987, during the National Football League players strike. The setup, talking about the difference in weekly pay between the real players and the scabs, seems like it’s about the payroll difference. The punchline jumps to another bit of mathematics, the point spread. Which is an estimate of the expected difference in scoring between teams. I don’t know for a fact, but would imagine the scab teams had nearly meaningless point spreads. The teams were thrown together extremely quickly, without much training time. The tools to forecast what a team might do wouldn’t have the data to rely on.
I had not wanted to mention, for fear of setting off a panic. But Mark Anderson’s Andertoons, which I think of as being in every Reading the Comics post, hasn’t been around lately. If I’m not missing something, it hasn’t made an appearance in three months now. I don’t know why, and I’ve been trying not to look too worried by it. Mostly I’ve been forgetting to mention the strange absence. This even though I would think any given Tuesday or Friday that I should talk about the strip not having anything for me to write about. Fretting about it would make a great running theme. But I have never spotted a running theme before it’s finished. In any event the good news is that the long drought has ended, and Andertoons reappears this week. Yes, I’m hoping that it won’t be going to long between appearances this time.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 16th talks about probabilities. This in the context of assessing risks. People are really bad at estimating probabilities. We’re notoriously worse at assessing risks, especially when it’s a matter of balancing a present cost like “fifteen minutes waiting while the pharmacy figures out whether insurance will pay for the flu shot” versus a nebulous benefit like “lessened chance of getting influenza, or at least having a less severe influenza”. And it’s asymmetric, too. We view improbable but potentially enormous losses differently from the way we view improbable but potentially enormous gains. And it’s hard to make the rationally-correct choice reliably, not when there are so many choices of this kind every day.
Tak Bui’s PC and Pixel for the 16th features a wall full of mathematical symbols, used to represent deep thought about a topic. The symbols are gibberish, yes. I’m not sure that an actual “escape probability” could be done in a legible way, though. Or even what precisely Professor Phillip might be calculating. I imagine it would be an estimate of the various ways he might try to escape, and what things might affect that. This might be for the purpose of figuring out what he might do to maximize his chances of a successful escape. Although I wouldn’t put it past the professor to just be quite curious what the odds are. There’s a thrill in having a problem solved, even if you don’t use the answer for anything.
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 18th has a trivia-panel-spoof dubbed Amazing Yet Tautological. One could make an argument that most mathematics trivia fits into this category. At least anything about something that’s been proven. Anyway, whether this is a tautological strip depends on what the strip means by “average” in the phrase “average serving”. There’s about four jillion things dubbed “average” and each of them has a context in which they make sense. The thing intended here, and the thing meant if nobody says anything otherwise, is the “arithmetic mean”. That’s what you get from adding up everything in a sample (here, the amount of egg salad each person in America eats per year) and dividing it by the size of the sample (the number of people in America that year). Another “average” which would make sense, but would break this strip, would be the median. That would be the amount of egg salad that half of all Americans eat more than, and half eat less than. But whether every American could have that big a serving really depends on what that median is. The “mode”, the most common serving, would also be a reasonable “average” to expect someone to talk about.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 19th is that strip’s much-awaited return to my column here. It features solid geometry, which is both an important part of geometry and also a part that doesn’t get nearly as much attention as plane geometry. It’s reductive to suppose the problem is that it’s harder to draw solids than planar figures. I suspect that’s a fair part of the problem, though. Mathematicians don’t get much art training, not anymore. And while geometry is supposed to be able to rely on pure reasoning, a good picture still helps. And a bad picture will lead us into trouble.
Two of the four comic strips I mean to feature here have credits that feel unsatisfying to me. One of them is someone’s pseudonym and, yeah, that’s their business. One is Dennis the Menace, for which I find an in-strip signature that doesn’t match the credentials on Comics Kingdom’s web site, never mind Wikipedia. I’ll go with what’s signed in the comic as probably authoritative. But I don’t like it.
R Ferdinand and S Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace for the 16th is about calculation. One eternally surprising little thing about calculators and computers is that they don’t do anything you can’t do by hand. Or, for that matter, in your head. They do it faster, typically, and more reliably. They can seem magical. But the only difference between what they do and what we do is the quantity with which they do this work. You can take this as humbling or as inspirational, as fits your worldview.
Ham’s Life on Earth for the 16th is a joke about the magical powers we attribute to mathematics. It’s also built on one of our underlying assumptions of the world, that it must be logically consistent. If one has an irrefutable logical argument that something isn’t so, then that thing must not be so. It’s hard to imagine how an illogical world would work. But it is hard not to wonder if there’s some arrogance involved in supposing the world has to square with the rules of logic that we find sensible. And to wonder whether we perceive world consistent with that logic because our expectations frame what we’re able to perceive.
In any case, as we frame logic, an argument’s validity shouldn’t depend on the person making the argument. Or even whether the argument has been made. So it’s hard to see how simply voicing the argument that one doesn’t exist could have that effect. Except that mathematics has got magical connotations, and vice-versa. That’ll be good for building jokes for a while yet.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 17th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. It’s wordplay, built on the connotation that division is a bad thing. It seems less dire if we think of division as learning how to equally share something that’s been held in common, though. Or if we think of it as learning what to multiply a thing by to get a particular value. Most mathematical operations can be taken to mean many things. Surely division has some constructive and happy interpretations.
Paul Gilligan’s Pooch Cafe for the 17th is a variation of the monkeys-on-keyboards joke. If what you need is a string of nonsense characters then … well, a cat on the keys is at least famous for producing some gibberish. It’s likely not going to be truly random, though. If a cat’s paw has stepped on, say, the ‘O’, there’s a good chance the cat is also stepping on ‘P’ or ‘9’. It also suggests that if the cat starts from the right, they’re more likely to have a character like ‘O’ early in the string of characters and less likely at the end. A completely random string would be as likely to have an ‘O’ at the start as at the end of the string.
And even if a cat on the keyboard did produce good-quality randomness, well. How likely a randomly-generated string of characters is to match a thing depends on the length of the thing. If the meaning of the symbols doesn’t matter, then ‘Penny Lane’ is as good as ‘*2ft,2igFIt’. This is not to say you can just use, say, ‘asdfghjkl’ as your password, at least not for anything that would hurt you if it were cracked. If everyone picked all passwords with no regard for what the symbols meant, these would be. But passwords that seem easy to think get used more often than they should be. It’s not that they’re easier to guess, but that guessing them is more likely to be correct.
Later this week I’ll host this month’s Playful Mathematics Blog Carnival! If you know of any mathematics that teaches or delights or both please share it with me, and we’ll let the world know. Also this week I should finally start my 2018 Mathematics A To Z, explaining words from mathematics one at a time.
Three of the five comic strips I review today are reruns. I think that I’ve only mentioned two of them before, though. But let me preface all this with a plea I’ve posted before: I’m hosting the Playful Mathematics Blog Carnival the last week in September. Have you run across something mathematical that was educational, or informative, or playful, or just made you glad to know about? Please share it with me, and we can share it with the world. It can be for any level of mathematical background knowledge. Thank you.
Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean vintage rerun for the 10th is part of an early storyline of Funky attempting to tutor football jock Bull Bushka. Mathematics — geometry, particularly — gets called on as a subject Bull struggles to understand. Geometry’s also well-suited for the joke because it has visual appeal, in a way that English or History wouldn’t. And, you know, I’ll take “pretty” as a first impression to geometry. There are a lot of diagrams whose beauty is obvious even if their reasons or points or importance are obscure.
Dan Collins’s Looks Good on Paper for the 10th is about everyone’s favorite non-orientable surface. The first time this strip appeared I noted that the road as presented isn’t a Möbius strip. The opossums and the car are on different surfaces. Unless there’s a very sudden ‘twist’ in the road in the part obscured from the viewer, anyway. If I’d drawn this in class I would try to save face by saying that’s where the ‘twist’ is, but none of my students would be convinced. But we’d like to have it that the car would, if it kept driving, go over all the pavement.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff for the 10th is a joke about story problems. The setup suggests that there’s enough information in what Jeff has to say about the cop’s age to work out what it must be. Mutt isn’t crazy to suppose there is some solution possible. The point of this kind of challenge is realizing there are constraints on possible ages which are not explicit in the original statements. But in this case there’s just nothing. We would call the cop’s age “underdetermined”. The information we have allows for many different answers. We’d like to have just enough information to rule out all but one of them.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 11th is here by popular request. Jughead hopes that a complicated process of dubious relevance will make his report card look not so bad. Loweezey makes a New Math joke about it. This serves as a shocking reminder that, as most comic strip characters are fixed in age, my cohort is now older than Snuffy and Loweezey Smith. At least is plausibly older than them.
Anyway it’s also a nice example of the lasting cultural reference of the New Math. It might not have lasted long as an attempt to teach mathematics in ways more like mathematicians do. But it’s still, nearly fifty years on, got an unshakable and overblown reputation for turning mathematics into doubletalk and impossibly complicated rules. I imagine it’s the name; “New Math” is a nice, short, punchy name. But the name also looks like what you’d give something that was being ruined, under the guise of improvement. It looks like that terrible moment of something familiar being ruined even if you don’t know that the New Math was an educational reform movement. Common Core’s done well in attracting a reputation for doing problems the complicated way. But I don’t think its name is going to have the cultural legacy of the New Math.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is another kid-resisting-the-problem joke. Wavehead’s obfuscation does hit on something that I have wondered, though. When we describe things, we aren’t just saying what we think of them. We’re describing what we think our audience should think of them. This struck me back around 1990 when I observed to a friend that then-current jokes about how hard VCRs were to use failed for me. Everyone in my family, after all, had no trouble at all setting the VCR to record something. My friend pointed out that I talked about setting the VCR. Other people talk about programming the VCR. Setting is what you do to clocks and to pots on a stove and little things like that; an obviously easy chore. Programming is what you do to a computer, an arcane process filled with poor documentation and mysterious problems. We framed our thinking about the task as a simple, accessible thing, and we all found it simple and accessible. Mathematics does tend to look at “problems”, and we do, especially in teaching, look at “finding solutions”. Finding solutions sounds nice and positive. But then we just go back to new problems. And the most interesting problems don’t have solutions, at least not ones that we know about. What’s enjoyable about facing these new problems?
Now I’ve finally had the time to deal with the rest of last week’s comics. I’ve rarely been so glad that Comic Strip Master Command has taken it easy on me for this week.
Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2am for the 20th is about a common daydream, that of soap bubbles of weird shapes. There’s fun mathematics to do with soap bubbles. Most of these fall into the “calculus of variations”, which is good at finding minimums and maximums. The minimum here is a surface with zero mean curvature that satisfies particular boundaries. In soap bubble problems the boundaries have a convenient physical interpretation. They’re the wire frames you dunk into soap film, and pull out again, to see what happens. There’s less that’s proven about soap bubbles than you might think. For example: we know that two bubbles of the same size will join on a flat common surface. Do three bubbles? They seem to, when you try blowing bubbles and fitting them together. But this falls short of mathematical rigor.
Parker and Hart’s Wizard of Id Classics for the 21st is a joke about the ignorance of students. Of course they don’t know basic arithmetic. Curious thing about the strip is that you can read it as an indictment of the school system, failing to help students learn basic stuff. Or you can read it as an indictment of students, refusing the hard work of learning while demanding a place in politics. Given the 1968 publication date I have a suspicion which was more likely intended. But it’s hard to tell; 1968 was a long time ago. And sometimes it’s just so easy to crack an insult there’s no guessing what it’s supposed to mean.
Gene Mora’s Graffiti for the 22nd mentions what’s probably the most famous equation after that thing with two times two in it. It does cry out something which seems true, that was there before Albert Einstein noticed it. It does get at one of those questions that, I say without knowledge, is probably less core to philosophers of mathematics than the non-expert would think. But are mathematical truths discovered or invented? There seems to be a good argument that mathematical truths are discovered. If something follows by deductive logic from the axioms of the field, and the assumptions that go into a question, then … what’s there to invent? Anyone following the same deductive rules, and using the same axioms and assumptions, would agree on the thing discovered. Invention seems like something that reflects an inventor.
But it’s hard to shake the feeling that there is invention going on. Anyone developing new mathematics decides what things seem like useful axioms. She decides that some bundle of properties is interesting enough to have a name. She decides that some consequences of these properties are so interesting as to be named theorems. Maybe even the Fundamental Theorem of the field. And there was the decision that this is a field with a question interesting enough to study. I’m not convinced that isn’t invention.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 23rd sees Wavehead — waaait a minute. That’s not Wavehead! This throws everything off. Well, it’s using mathematics as the subject that Not-Wavehead is trying to avoid. And it’s not using arithmetic as the subject easiest to draw on the board. It needs some kind of ascending progression to make waiting for some threshold make sense. Numbers rising that way makes sense.
That birds will fly in V-formation has long captured people’s imaginations. We’re pretty confident we know why they do it. The wake of one bird’s flight can make it easier for another bird to stay aloft. This is especially good for migrating birds. The fluid-dynamic calculations of this are hard to do, but any fluid-dynamic calculations are hard to do. Verifying the work was also hard, but could be done. I found and promptly lost an article about how heartbeat monitors were attached to a particular flock of birds whose migration path was well-known, so the sensors could be checked and data from them gathered several times over. (Birds take turns as the lead bird, the one that gets no lift from anyone else’s efforts.)
So far as I’m aware there’s still some mystery as to how they do it. That is, how they know to form this V-formation. A particularly promising line of study in the 80s and 90s was to look at these as self-organizing structures. This would have each bird just trying to pay attention to what made sense for itself, where to fly relative to its nearest-neighbor birds. And these simple rules created, when applied to the whole flock, that V pattern. I do not know whether this reflects current thinking about bird formations. I do know that the search for simple rules that produce rich, complicated patterns goes on. Centuries of mathematics, physics, and to an extent chemistry have primed us to expect that everything is the well-developed result of simple components.
I apologize for the ragged nature of this entry, but I’ve had a ragged sort of week and it’s all I can do to keep up. Alert calendar-watchers might have figured out I would have rather had this posted on Thursday or Friday, but I couldn’t make that work. I’m trying. Thanks for your patience.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 17th feeds rumors that I just reflexively include Mark Anderson’s Andertoons in these posts whenever I see one. But it features the name of something dear to me, so that’s worthwhile. And I love etymology, although not enough to actually learn anything substantive about it. I just enjoy trivia about where some words come from, and sometimes how they change over time. (The average English word meant the exact opposite thing about two hundred years ago, and it meant something hilariously unrelated two centuries before that.)
So I’m not sure how real word-studyers would regard the “geo” in “geometry”. The word is more or less Ancient Greek, given a bit of age and worn down into common English forms. It’s fair enough to describe it as originally meaning “land survey” or “land measure”. This might seem eccentric. But much of the early use of geometry was to figure out where things were, and how far they were from each other. It seems likely the earliest uses, for example, of the Pythagorean Theorem dealt with how to draw right angles on the surface of the Earth. And how to draw boundaries. The Greek fascination with compass-and-straightedge construction — work done without a ruler, so that you know distance only as a thing relative to other things in your figure — obscures how much of the field is about measurement.
Brett Koth’s Diamond Lil for the 17th is another geometry joke, and a much clearer one. And if there’s one thing we can say about parallel lines it’s that they don’t meet. There are some corners of geometry in which it’s convenient to say they “meet at infinity”, that is, they intersect at some point an infinite distance away. I don’t recommend bringing this up in casual conversation. I’m not sure I wanted to bring it up here.
The other half of last week’s mathematically-themed comics were on familiar old themes. I’ll see what I can do with them anyway.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 9th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. I’m curious why the Middletons would need multiple division symbols, but I suppose that’s their business. It does play on the idea that “division” and “splitting up” are the same thing. And that fits the normal use of these words. We’re used to thinking, say, of dividing a desired thing between several parties. While that’s probably all right in introducing the idea, I do understand why someone would get very confused when they first divide by one-half or one-third or any number between zero and one. And then negative numbers make things even more confusing.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 9th is the anthropomorphic geometric figures joke for the week. I think I can wrangle a way by which Circle’s question has deeper mathematical context. Mathematicians use the idea of “space” a lot. The use is inspired by how, you know, the geometry of a room works. Euclidean space, in the trade. A Euclidean space is a collection of points that obey a couple simple rules. You can take two points and add them, and get something in the space. You can take any scalar and multiply it by any point and get a point in the space. A scalar is something that acts like a real number. For example, real numbers. Maybe complex numbers, if you’re feeling wild.
A Euclidean space can be two-dimensional. This is the geometry of stuff you draw on paper. It can be three-dimensional. This is the geometry of stuff in the real world, or stuff you draw on paper with shading. It can be four-dimensional. This is the geometry of stuff you draw on paper with big blobby lines around it. Each of these is an equally good space, though, as legitimate and as real as any other. Context usually puts an implicit “three dimensional” before most uses of the word “space”. But it’s not required to be there. There’s many kinds of spaces out there.
And “space” describes stuff that doesn’t look anything like rooms or table tops or sheets of paper. These are spaces built of things like functions, or of sets of things, or of ways to manipulate things. Spaces built of the ways you can subdivide the integers. The details vary. But there’s something in common in all these ideas that communicates.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. I think we’ve all seen this joke go across our social media feed and it’s reassuring to know Mark Anderson has social media too. We do talk about solving for x, using the language of describing how we help someone get past a problem. I wonder if people might like this kind of algebra more if we talked more about finding out what values ‘x’ could have that make the equation true. Well, it won’t stop people feeling they don’t like the mathematics they learned in school. But it might help people feel like they know why they’re doing it.