As though to reinforce how nothing was basically wrong, Comic Strip Master Command sent a normal number of mathematically themed comics around this past week. They bunched the strips up in the first half of the week, but that will happen. It was a fun set of strips in any event.
Rob Harrell’s Adam @ Home for the 11th tells of a teacher explaining division through violent means. I’m all for visualization tools and if we are going to use them, the more dramatic the better. But I suspect Mrs Clark’s students will end up confused about what exactly they’ve learned. If a doll is torn into five parts, is that communicating that one divided by five is five? If the students were supposed to identify the mass of the parts of the torn-up dolls as the result of dividing one by five, was that made clear to them? Maybe it was. But there’s always the risk in a dramatic presentation that the audience will misunderstand the point. The showier the drama the greater the risk, it seems to me. But I did only get the demonstration secondhand; who knows how well it was done?
Greg Cravens’ The Buckets for the 11th has the kid, Toby, struggling to turn a shirt backwards and inside-out without taking it off. As the commenters note this is the sort of problem we get into all the time in topology. The field is about what can we say about shapes when we don’t worry about distance? If all we know about a shape is the ways it’s connected, the number of holes it has, whether we can distinguish one side from another, what else can we conclude? I believe Gocomics.com commenter Mike is right: take one hand out the bottom of the shirt and slide it into the other sleeve from the outside end, and proceed from there. But I have not tried it myself. I haven’t yet started wearing long-sleeve shirts for the season.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 11th — a new strip — does a story problem featuring pizzas cut into some improbable numbers of slices. I don’t say it’s unrealistic someone might get this homework problem. Just that the story writer should really ask whether they’ve ever seen a pizza cut into sevenths. I have a faint memory of being served a pizza cut into tenths by same daft pizza shop, which implies fifths is at least possible. Sevenths I refuse, though.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 12th plays on the show-your-work directive many mathematics assignments carry. I like Heart’s showiness. But the point of showing your work is because nobody cares what (say) 224 divided by 14 is. What’s worth teaching is the ability to recognize what approaches are likely to solve what problems. What’s tested is whether someone can identify a way to solve the problem that’s likely to succeed, and whether that can be carried out successfully. This is why it’s always a good idea, if you are stumped on a problem, to write out how you think this problem should be solved. Writing out what you mean to do can clarify the steps you should take. And it can guide your instructor to whether you’re misunderstanding something fundamental, or whether you just missed something small, or whether you just had a bad day.
Norm Feuti’s Gil for the 12th, another rerun, has another fanciful depiction of showing your work. The teacher’s got a fair complaint in the note. We moved away from tally marks as a way to denote numbers for reasons. Twelve depictions of apples are harder to read than the number 12. And they’re terrible if we need to depict numbers like one-half or one-third. Might be an interesting side lesson in that.
Brian Basset’s Red and Rover for the 14th is a rerun and one I’ve mentioned in these parts before. I understand Red getting fired up to be an animator by the movie. It’s been a while since I watched Donald Duck in Mathmagic Land but my recollection is that while it was breathtaking and visually inventive it didn’t really get at mathematics. I mean, not at noticing interesting little oddities and working out whether they might be true always, or sometimes, or almost never. There is a lot of play in mathematics, especially in the exciting early stages where one looks for a thing to prove. But it’s also in seeing how an ingenious method lets you get just what you wanted to know. I don’t know that the short demonstrates enough of that.
Bud Blake’s Tiger rerun for the 15th gives Punkinhead the chance to ask a question. And it’s a great question. I’m not sure what I’d say arithmetic is, not if I’m going to be careful. Offhand I’d say arithmetic is a set of rules we apply to a set of things we call numbers. The rules are mostly about how we can take two numbers and a rule and replace them with a single number. And these turn out to correspond uncannily well with the sorts of things we do with counting, combining, separating, and doing some other stuff with real-world objects. That it’s so useful is why, I believe, arithmetic and geometry were the first mathematics humans learned. But much of geometry we can see. We can look at objects and see how they fit together. Arithmetic we have to infer from the way the stuff we like to count works. And that’s probably why it’s harder to do when we start school.
What’s not good about that as an answer is that it actually applies to a lot of mathematical constructs, including those crazy exotic ones you sometimes see in science press. You know, the ones where there’s this impossibly complicated tangle with ribbons of every color and a headline about “It’s Revolutionary. It’s 46-Dimensional. It’s Breaking The Rules Of Geometry. Is It The Shape That Finally Quantizes Gravity?” or something like that. Well, describe a thing vaguely and it’ll match a lot of other things. But also when we look to new mathematical structures, we tend to look for things that resemble arithmetic. Group theory, for example, is one of the cornerstones of modern mathematical thought. It’s built around having a set of things on which we can do something that looks like addition. So it shouldn’t be a surprise that many groups have a passing resemblance to arithmetic. Mathematics may produce universal truths. But the ones we see are also ones we are readied to see by our common experience. Arithmetic is part of that common experience.
Also Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 14th I think doesn’t really belong here. It’s just got a cameo appearance by the concept of mathematics. Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 17th similarly just mentions the subject. But I did want to reassure any readers worried after last week that Pierce recovered fine. Also that, you know, for not having a stomach for mathematics he’s doing well carrying on. Discipline will carry one far.