Have a special one today. I’ve been reading a compilation of Crockett Johnson’s 1940s comic Barnaby. The title character, an almost too gentle child, follows his fairy godfather Mr O’Malley into various shenanigans. Many (the best ones, I’d say) involve the magical world. The steady complication is that Mr O’Malley boasts abilities beyond his demonstrated competence. (Although most of the magic characters are shown to be not all that good at their business.) It’s a gentle strip and everything works out all right, if farcically.
This particular strip comes from a late 1948 storyline. Mr O’Malley’s gone missing, coincidentally to a fairy cop come to arrest the pixie, who is a con artist at heart. So this sees the entry of Atlas, the Mental Giant, who’s got some pleasant gimmicks. One of them is his requiring mnemonics built on mathematical formulas to work out names. And this is a charming one, with a great little puzzle: how do you get A-T-L-A-S out of the formula Atlas has remembered?
I’m sorry the solution requires a bit of abusing notation, so please forgive it. But it’s a fun puzzle, especially as the joke would not be funnier if the formula didn’t work. I’m always impressed when a comic strip goes to that extra effort.
It was a busy week at Comic Strip Master Command last week, since they wanted to be sure I was overloaded ahead of the start of the Summer 2017 A To Z project. So here’s the couple of comics I didn’t have time to review on Sunday.
Mort (“Addison”) Walker’s Boner’s Ark for the 7th of September, 1971 was rerun the 27th of July. It mentions mathematics but just as a class someone might need more work on. Could be anything, but mathematics has the connotations of something everybody struggles with, and in an American comic strip needs only four letters to write. Most economical use of word balloon space.
Neil Kohney’s The Other End for the 28th also mentions mathematics without having any real mathematics content. Barry tries to make the argument that mathematics has a timeless and universal quality that makes for good aesthetic value. I support this principle. Art has many roles. One is to make us see things which are true which are not about ourselves. This mathematics does. Whether it’s something as instantly accessible as, say, RobertLovesPi‘s illustrations of geometrical structures, or something as involved as the five-color map theorem mathematics gives us something. This isn’t any excuse to slum, though.
Rob Harrell’s Big Top rerun for the 29th features a word problem. It’s cast in terms of what a lion might find interesting. Cultural expectations are inseparable from the mathematics we do, however much we might find universal truths about them. Word problems make the cultural biases more explicit, though. Also, note that Harrell shows an important lesson for artists in the final panel: whenever possible, draw animals wearing glasses.
Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse for the 29th is another sheep-counting joke. As Samson will often do this includes different representations of numbers before it all turns to chaos in the end. This is why some of us can’t sleep.
I know, it’s impolitic for me to say something like my title. But I noticed a particular rerun in this set of mathematically-themed comics. And it left me wondering if I should drop that from my daily routine. There are strips I read more out of a fear of missing out than anything else. Most of them are in perpetual reruns, though some of them are so delightful I wouldn’t dare drop them. (Here I mean Cul de Sac and Peanuts.) An individual comic takes typically little time to read, but add that up and it does take a while, especially on vacation or the like. I won’t actually change anything; I’m too stubborn in lazy ways for that. But it crosses my mind.
Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life for the 14th is what set me off. Lachowski’s rerun this before, and I’ve mentioned it before, back in March of 2015 and back in November 2012. Given this I wonder if there’s a late-2013 or early-2014 reuse of the strip I failed to note around here. Or just missed, possibly because I was on vacation.
Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship reprint for the 14th gives me the title for this edition. It uses symbols and diagrams of mathematics for their graphical artistry, the sort of thing I’m surprised doesn’t get done more. Back in college the creative-writing-and-arts editor for the unread leftist weekly asked me to do a page of physics calculations as an aesthetic composition and I was glad to do it. Good notation has a beauty to it; I wonder if people would like mathematics more if they got to spend time at play with its shapes.
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 14th name-checks the New Math. The New Math was this attempt to reform mathematics in the 1970s. It was great for me, and my love remembers only liking or understanding mathematics while in New Math-guided classes. But it was an attempt at educational reform that didn’t promise that people at the cash registers would make change fast enough, and so was doomed to failure. (I am being reductive here. Much about the development of New Math went wrong, and it’s unfair to blame it all on the resistance of parents to new teaching methods. But educational reform always crashes hard against parents’ reasonable question, “Why should my child be your test case?”)
Many of the New Math ideas grew out of the work of Nicholas Bourbaki, and the attempt to explain mathematics on completely rigorous logical foundations, as free from intuition as possible to get. That sounds like an odd thing to do; intuition is a guide to useful ways to spend one’s time and energy. But that supposes the intuition is good.
Much of late 19th and early 20th century mathematics was spent discovering cases in which intuitive understandings of things were wrong. Deterministic systems can be unpredictable. A curve can be continuous at a single point and nowhere else in space. Infinitely large sets can be bigger or smaller than other sets. A line can wriggle around so much that it has a volume, it fills space. In that context wanting to ditch intuition as a once-useful but now-unreliable guide is not a bad idea.
I like the New Math. I suppose we always like the way we first learned things. But I still think it’s got a healthy focus. The idea that mathematics is built on rules we agree to use, and that we are free to change if we find they’re not doing things we need, is true. It’s one easy to forget considering mathematics’ primary job, which has always been making trade, accounting, and record-keeping go smoothly. Changing those systems are perilous. But we should know something about how to pick tools to use.
Zoe Piel’s At The Zoo for the 15th uses the blackboard-full-of-mathematics image to suggest deep thinking. (Toby the lion’s infatuated with the vet, which is why he’s thinking how to get her to visit again.) Really there’s a bunch of iconic cartoon images of deep thinking, including a mid-century-esque big-tin-box computer with reel-to-reel memory tape. Modern computers are vastly more powerful than that sort of 50s/60s contraption, but they’re worthless artistically if you want to suggest any deep thinking going on. You need stuff with moving parts for that, even in a still image.
Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classics for the 16th originally ran the 21st of May, 1993. And it comes back to a practical use for mathematics and the sort of thing we do need to know how to calculate. It also uses the image of mathematics as obscurant nonsense.
Great 12th-century English historian William of Malmesbury was no fan of maths. He called it 'dangerous Saracen magic'. @holland_tom
That tweet’s interesting in itself, although one of the respondents wonders if William meant astrology, often called “mathematics” at the time. That would be a fairer thing to call magic. But it would be only a century after William of Malmesbury’s death that Arabic numerals would become familiar in Europe. They would bring suspicions that merchants and moneylenders were trying to cheat their customers, by using these exotic specialist notations with unrecognizable rules, instead of the traditional and easy-to-follow Roman numerals. If this particular set of mathematics comics were mostly reruns, that’s all right; sometimes life is like that.
Comic Strip Master Command slowed down the pace at which the newspaper comics were to talk mathematical subjects. All right, that’s their prerogative. But it leaves me here, at Thursday, with slightly too few comics for my tastes. On the other hand, if I don’t run with what I have, I might not have anything to post for the 31st of March, and it would be a shame to go this whole month with something posted every day only to spoil it on the 31st. This is a pretty juvenile reason to do a thing, so here we are. Enjoy, please.
Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 25th of March is a students-grumbling joke. I’m not sure what to make of the argument “arithmetic might be education, but that algebra stuff is indoctrination”. I imagine it reflects the feeling that the rules of arithmetic are all these nice straightforward things, and then algebra’s rules seem a bewildering set of near-gibberish. I can understand people looking at the quadratic formula, being told it has something to do with parabolas and an axis, throwing up their hands, and declaring it all this crazy game they’ll never play.
What people are forgetting in this is that everything sounds like this crazy gibberish game at first. The confusion you felt when first trying to factor a quadratic polynomial? It’s the same confusion you felt when first doing long division. And when you first multiplied a three-digit by a two-digit number. And when you had to subtract with borrowing. It’s also the same confusion you have when you first hear the first European settlement of Manhattan was driven by the Netherlands’ war for independence from Spain. Learning is changing the baffling confusion of life into an understandable pattern.
Which is not to deny that we could do a better job motivating stuff. You have no idea how many drafts of the Dedekind Domain essay I threw out because there were just too many words describing conditions and not why any of them mattered. I’m lazy; I don’t like scrapping that much text. And I’m still not quite happy with Normal Groups.
Jeff Mallet’s Frazz for the 27th is an easier joke to explain. It’s also one whose appeal I really understand. There is a compelling beauty to the notation and the symbols of higher mathematics. I remember when a kid I peered at one of my parents’ calculus textbooks. The reference page of common integrals was enchanting. It wasn’t the only thing that drove me towards mathematics. But the aesthetic beauty is there.
And it’s not just mathematicians and mathematics-based fields that see it. The arts editor for my undergraduate school’s unread leftist weekly newspaper asked me to work out a problem, any problem, to include as graphic arts. I was happy to. (I was the managing editor for the paper at the time.) I even had a great problem, from the final exam in my freshman Classical Mechanics course. The problem was to derive the equivalent of Kepler’s Laws of Motion with a different force law. Instead of the inverse-square attraction of gravity we used the exponential-decay-style interactions of the weak force. It was a brilliant exam question, frankly, and made for a page of symbols that maybe nobody understood but that I’ll bet everyone thought pretty.
John Forgetta and L A Rose’s The Meaning of Lila for the 27th is probably a rerun. The strip mostly is, although a few new or updated comics are fit into the rotation. It’s an example of a census joke, in which you classify away the whole population of the world. I remember first seeing it, as a kid, in a church bulletin. That one worked out how the entire working population of the United States was actually only two people and that’s why you’re always so tired. You could probably use the logic of this sort of joke to teach Venn diagrams. The logic that produces a funny low count relies on counting people several times, once for each of many categories they might fit in.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 30th made me giggle. I suppose there’s an essay to be written about whether we need mathematics, and what we need it for. But wouldn’t that just take away from the fun of it?
I honestly don’t intend this blog to become nothing but talk about the comic strips, but then something like this Sunday happens where Comic Strip Master Command decided to send out math joke priority orders and what am I to do? And here I had a wonderful bit about the natural logarithm of 2 that I meant to start writing sometime soon. Anyway, for whatever reason, there’s a lot of punning going on this time around; I don’t pretend to explain that.
Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby (September 25) puns off of a “meth lab explosion” in a joke that I’ve seen passed around Twitter and the like but not in a comic strip, possibly because I don’t tend to read web comics until they get absorbed into the Gocomics.com collective.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (September 27) mentions Lagrange points. These are mathematically (and physically) very interesting because they come about from what might be the first interesting physics problem. If you have two objects in the universe, attracting one another gravitationally, then you can describe their behavior perfectly and using just freshman or even high school calculus. For that matter, describing their behavior is practically what Isaac Newton invented his calculus to do.
Add in a third body, though, and you’ve suddenly created a problem that just can’t be done by freshman calculus, or really, done perfectly by anything but really exotic methods. You’re left with approximations, analytic or numerical. (Karl Fritiof Sundman proved in 1912 that one could create an infinite series solution, but it’s not a usable solution. To get a desired accuracy requires so many terms and so much calculation that you’re better off not using it. This almost sounds like the classical joke about mathematicians, coming up with solutions that are perfect but unusable. It is the most extreme case of a possible-but-not-practical solution I’m aware of, if stories I’ve heard about its convergence rate are accurate. I haven’t tried to follow the technique myself.)
But just because you can’t solve every problem of a type doesn’t mean you can’t solve some of them, and the ones you do solve might be useful anyway. Joseph-Louis Lagrange did that, studying the problem of one large body — like a sun, or a planet — and one middle-sized body — a planet, or a moon — and one tiny body — like an asteroid, or a satellite. If the middle-sized body is orbiting the large body in a nice circular orbit, then, there are five special points, dubbed the Lagrange points. A satellite that’s at one of those points (with the right speed) will keep on orbiting at the same rotational speed that the middle body takes around the large body; that is, the system will turn as if the large, middle, and tiny bodies were fixed in place, relative to each other.
Two of these spots, dubbed numbers 4 and 5, are stable: if your tiny body is not quite in the right location that’s all right, because it’ll stay nearby, much in the same way that if you roll a ball into a pit it’ll stay in the pit. But three of these spots, numbers 1, 2, and 3, are unstable: if your tiny body is not quite on those spots, it’ll fall away, in much the same way if you set a ball on the peak of the roof it’ll roll off one way or another.
When Lagrange noticed these points there wasn’t any particular reason to think of them as anything but a neat mathematical construct. But the points do exist, and they can be stable even if the medium body doesn’t have a perfectly circular orbit, or even if there are other planets in the universe, which throws off the nice simple calculations yet. Something like 1700 asteroids are known to exist in the number 4 and 5 Lagrange points for the Sun and Jupiter, and there are a handful known for Saturn and Neptune, and apparently at least five known for Mars. For Earth apparently there’s just the one known to exist, catchily named 2010 TK7, discovered in October 2010, although I’d be surprised if that were the only one. They’re just small.
Elliot Caplin and John Cullen Murphy’s Big Ben Bolt (September 28, originally run August 23, 1953) has been on the Sunday strips now running a tale about a mathematics professor, Peter Peddle, who’s threatening to revolutionize Big Ben Bolt’s boxing world by reducing it to mathematical abstraction; past Sunday strips have even shown the rather stereotypically meek-looking professor overwhelming much larger boxers. The mathematics described here is nonsense, of course, but it’d be asking a bit of the comic strip writers to have a plausible mathematical description of the perfect boxer, after all.
But it’s hard for me anyway to not notice that the professor’s approach is really hard to gainsay. The past generation of baseball, particularly, has been revolutionized by a very mathematical, very rigorous bit of study, looking at questions like how many pitches can a pitcher actually throw before he loses control, and where a batter is likely to hit based on past performance (of this batter and of batters in general), and how likely is this player to have a better or a worse season if he’s signed on for another year, and how likely is it he’ll have a better enough season than some cheaper or more promising player? Baseball is extremely well structured to ask these kinds of questions, with football almost as good for it — else there wouldn’t be fantasy football leagues — and while I am ignorant of modern boxing, I would be surprised if a lot of modern boxing strategy weren’t being studied in Professor Peddle’s spirit.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (September 28) (and not a rerun; the strip is new runs on Sundays) jumps on the Internet Instructional Video bandwagon that I’m sure exists somewhere, with child prodigy Jason Fox having the idea that he could make mathematics instruction popular enough to earn millions of dollars. His instincts are probably right, too: instructional videos that feature someone who looks cheerful and to be having fun and maybe a little crazy — well, let’s say eccentric — are probably the ones that will be most watched, at least. It’s fun to see people who are enjoying themselves, and the odder they act the better up to a point. I kind of hate to point out, though, that Jason Fox in the comic strip is supposed to be ten years old, implying that (this year, anyway) he was born nine years after Bob Ross died. I know that nothing ever really goes away anymore, but, would this be a pop culture reference that makes sense to Jason?
Jef Mallet’s Frazz (September 28) wonders about why trains show up so often in story problems. I’m not sure that they do, actually — haven’t planes and cars taken their place here, too? — although the reasons aren’t that obscure. Questions about the distance between things changing over time let you test a good bit of arithmetic and algebra while being naturally about stuff it’s reasonable to imagine wanting to know. What more does the homework-assigner want?
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (September 28) pops back up again with the prospect of blowing one’s mind, and it is legitimately one of those amazing things, that . It is a remarkable relationship between a string of numbers each of which are mind-blowing in their ways — negative 1, and pi, and the base of the natural logarithms e, and dear old i (which, multiplied by itself, is equal to negative 1) — and here they are all bundled together in one, quite true, relationship. I do have to wonder, though, whether anyone who would in a social situation like this understand being told “e raised to the i times pi power equals negative one”, without the framing of “we’re talking now about exponentials raised to imaginary powers”, wouldn’t have already encountered this and had some of the mind-blowing potential worn off.