I can clear out all last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips in one move, it looks like. There were a fair number of strips; it’s just they mostly mention mathematics in passing.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 23rd — a new strip; it’s still in original production for Sundays — has Jason asking his older sister to double-check a mathematics problem. Double-checking work is reliably useful, as proof against mistakes both stupid and subtle. But that’s true of any field.
Jim Unger’s Herman for the 23rd has a parent complaining about the weird New Math. The strip is a rerun and I don’t know from when; it hardly matters. The New Math has been a whipping boy for mathematics education since about ten minutes after its creation. And the complaint attaches to every bit of mathematics education reform ever. I am sympathetic to parents, who don’t see why their children should be the test subjects for a new pedagogy. And who don’t want to re-learn mathematics in order to understand what their children are doing. But, still, let someone know you were a mathematics major and they will tell you how much they didn’t understand or like mathematics in school. It’s hard to see why not try teaching it differently.
(If you do go out pretending to be a mathematics major, don’t worry. If someone challenges you on a thing, cite “Euler’s Theorem”, and you’ll have said something on point. And I’ll cover for you.)
Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language for the 25th has a father trying to explain the vastness of Big Numbers to their kid. Past a certain point none of us really know how big a thing is. We can talk about 300 sextillion stars, or anything else, and reason can tell us things about that number. But do we understand it? Like, can we visualize that many stars the way we can imagine twelve stars? This gets us into the philosophy of mathematics pretty soundly. 300 sextillion is no more imaginary than four is, but I know I feel more confident in my understanding of four. How does that make sense? And can you explain that to your kid?
Vic Lee’s Pardon my Planet for the 28th has an appearance by Albert Einstein. And a blackboard full of symbols. The symbols I can make out are more chemistry than mathematics, but they do exist just to serve as decoration.
So way back about fifty years ago, when pop science started to seriously explain how computers worked, and when the New Math fad underscored how much mathematics is an arbitrary cultural choice, the existence of number bases other than ten got some publicity. This offered the chance for a couple of jokes, or at least things which read to pop-science-fans as jokes. For example, playing on a typographical coincidence between how some numbers are represented in octal (base eight) and decimal (base ten), we could put forth this: for computer programmers Halloween is basically another Christmas. After all, 31 OCT = 25 DEC. It’s not much of a joke, but how much of a joke could you possibly make from “writing numbers in different bases”? Anyway, Isaac Asimov was able to make a short mystery out of it.
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 21st is part of a sequence with Agnes having found some manner of tablet computer. Automatic calculation has always been a problem in teaching arithmetic. A computer’s always able to do more calculations, more accurately, than a person is; so, whey do people need to learn anything about how to calculate? The excuse that we might not always have a calculator was at least a little tenable up to about fifteen years ago. Now it’d take a massive breakdown in society for computing devices not to be pretty well available. This would probably take long enough for us to brush up on long division.
It’s more defensible to say that people need to be able to say whether an answer is plausible. If we don’t have any expectations for the answer, we don’t know whether we’ve gone off and calculated a wrong thing. This is a bit more convincing. We should have some idea whether 25, 2500, or 25 million is the more likely answer. That won’t help us spot whether we made a mistake and got 27 instead of 25, though. It does seem reasonable to say that we can’t appreciate mathematics, so much of which is studying patterns and structures, without practicing. And arithmetic offers great patterns and structures, while still being about things that we find familiar and useful. So that’s likely to stay around.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 21st is a student-subverting-the-blackboard-problem joke. Jughaid’s put the arithmetic problems into terms of what he finds most interesting. To me, it seems like if this is helping him get comfortable with the calculations, let him. If he does this kind of problem often enough, he’ll get good at it and let the false work of going through sports problems fade away.
Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 21st sees Pig working through a simple Retirement Calculator. He appreciates the mathematics being easy. A realistic model would have wrinkles to it. For example, the retirement savings would presumably be returning interest, from investments or from simple deposit accounts. Working out how much one gets from that, combined with possibly spending down the principal, can be involved. But a rough model doesn’t need this sort of detailed complication. It can be pretty simple, and still give you some guidance to what a real answer should look like.
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze for the 21st is a joke about how guys assuming that stuff they like is inherently interesting to other people. In this case, it’s hexadecimal arithmetic. That’s at least got the slight appeal that we’ve settled on using a couple of letters as numerals for it, so that wordplay and word-like play is easier than it is in base ten.
And this wraps up a string of comic strips all with some mathematical theme that all posted on the same day. I grant none of these get very deep into mathematical topics; that’s all right. There’ll be some more next week in a post at this link. Thank you.
And so the Reading the Comics posts have returned to Sunday after a month in exile to Tuesdays. I’m curious whether Sunday is actually the best day to post my signature series of essays, since everybody is usually doing stuff on the weekends. Tuesdays more people are at work and looking for other things to think about. But at least for the duration of the A to Z series there’s not a good time to schedule them besides Sundays. So Sundays it is and I’ll possibly think things over again in December, if all goes well.
Ralph Hagen’s The Barn for the 27th poses a question that’s ridiculous when you look at it. Why should being twenty times as old as your newborn (sic) when you’re twenty years old imply you’d be twenty times as old as the newborn when you’re sixty? Age increases linearly. The ratios between ages, though, those decrease, in a ratio asymptotically approaching 1. So as far as that goes, this strip isn’t much of anything.
But I do like how it captures the way a mathematics puzzle can come from nowhere. Often interesting ones seem to generate themselves. You notice a pattern and wonder whether it reaches some interesting point. If you convince yourself it does, you wonder when it does. If it does not, you wonder why it can’t. This is the fun sort of mathematics, and you create it by looking at the two separate tile patterns in the kitchen or, as here, thinking about the ages of parent and child. Anything that catches the imagination of a bored mind. It’s fun being there.
Rory (the sheep) makes a common enough slip. Saying a twenty-year-old with a newborn is twenty times as old as the newborn is, implicitly, saying the newborn is one year old. This kind of error is so common it’s got a folksy name, the “fencepost error”. It has a more respectable name, for its LinkedIn profile, the “off-by-one error”. But you see the problem. Say that your birthday is the 1st of September. How many times were you alive on the 1st of September by the time you’re ten years old? Eleven times, the first one being the one you were born on, with one more counted up each year you’d lived. This was probably more clear before I explained it.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 27th has Mis Prunelly complimenting Jughaid’s creativity, but not wanting it in arithmetic. There is creativity in mathematics. And there is great value in calculating something in an original way. There’s value in calculating things wrong, too, if it’s an approximate calculation. Knowing whether your answer is nearer 10 or 20 is of some value, and it might be all that you in fact want. That’s being wrong in a productive way, though.
Harry Bliss and Steve Martin’s Bliss for the 27th uses a string of mathematical symbols as emblem of genius. Most of the symbols look just near enough meaningful that I wonder if Bliss and Martin got a mathematician friend of theirs to give them some scraps. Why I say mathematician rather than, say, physicist is because some of the lines look more mathematician than physicist.
The most distinctive one, to me, is right above Dumbo’s pencil and trunk there: . This is the kind of equation you’ll see all the time in group theory. It’s an important field of mathematics, the one studying sets that work like arithmetic does. This starts with groups, which have a set of things and a binary operation between those things. Think of it as either addition or multiplication. You notice that already looks like multiplication. ‘g’ and ‘h’ serve, for group theory, the roles that ‘x’ and ‘y’ do in (high school) algebra. ‘x’ and ‘y’ mean some number, whose value we might or might not care about. Similarly, ‘g’ and ‘h’ are some elements, things in the set for our group. We might or might not care which ones they are. means the identity element, the thing which won’t change the value of the other partner in an operation. The thing that works like zero for addition, or like one for multiplication. And means the inverse of : the thing which, added (or multiplied) to gives us the identity element. So if we were talking addition and were 5, then would be -5. This might not sound like very much, but we can make it complicated.
Also distinctive to me: that first line. I’m not perfectly sure I’m transcribing this right. But it looks a good deal to me like the binomial distribution. This is the probability of seeing something happen k times, if you give it n chances to happen, and every chance has the same probability p of it happening. The formula isn’t quite right. It’s missing a power on the (1 – p) term at the end. But it’s wrong in ways that make sense for the need to draw something legible.
Just under Dumbo’s pencil, too, is a line that I had to look up how to render in WordPress’s LaTeX. It’s the one about . The union symbol, the U there, speaks of set theory. It means to form a new set, one that has all the elements in the set called X or the set called Y or both. The straight vertical lines flanking these set names or descriptions are how we describe taking the norm, finding the size, of a set. This is ordinarily how many things are inside the set. If the sets X and Y have no elements in common, then the size of the union of X and Y will be the size of the set X plus the size of the set Y.
There’s other lines that come near making sense. The line about has the form of the “mapping” way to define a function. I just don’t understand what the rule here means. The final line, , first … well, this sort of e-raised-to-the-minus-something-squared form turns up all the time. But second, to end a bit of work with an exclamation point really captures the surprise and joy of having reached a goal. Mathematicians take delight in their work, like you’d expect.
Maria Scrivan’s Half Full for the 29th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. A variation of it ran back in June 2018. I hate that this time I noticed that on the right, the cubelet — with white on top, red on the lower left, and green on the lower right — is inconsistent with the ordered cube. The corresponding cubelet there has blue on top, red on the lower left, and green on the lower right. Well, maybe the cube on the right had its color stickers applied differently. This is a little thing. But it’s close to a problem that turns up all the time in representing geometry. It’s easy to say you have, say, axes going in the x, y, and z directions. But which direction is x? Which is y? Which is z? You can lay all three out so every pair makes a right angle. Whatever way you lay them out will turn out to be, up to a rotation, one of two patterns. Let’s say the x axis points east, and the y axis points north. Then the z axis can point up. Or it can point down. You can pick which one makes sense for your problem. The two choices are mirror images of the other. You get primed to notice this when you do mathematical physics. The Rubik’s Cube on the left is just this kind of representation, with (let’s say) the red face pointing in the x direction, the green face pointing in the y direction, and the blue pointing in the z direction. Which is a lot of thought to put into what was an arbitrary choice, as I’m sure the cartoonist (or whoever did the coloring) just wanted a cube that looked attractive.
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 27th uses arithmetic as an economical way to demonstrate intelligence. At least, the ability to do arithmetic is used as proof of intelligence. Which shouldn’t surprise. The conventional appreciation for Ernie Bushmiller is of his skill at efficiently communicating the ideas needed for a joke. That said, it’s a bit surprising Sluggo asks the dog “six times six divided by two”; if it were just showing any ability at arithmetic “one plus one” or “two plus two” would do. But “six times six divided by two” has the advantage of being a bit complicated. That is, it’s reasonable Sluggo wouldn’t know it right away, and would see it as something only the brainiest would. But it’s not so complicated that Sluggo wouldn’t plausibly know the question.
Eric the Circle for the 28th, this one by AusAGirl, uses “Non-Euclidean” as a way to express weirdness in shape. My first impulse was to say that this wouldn’t really be a non-Euclidean circle. A non-Euclidean geometry has space that’s different from what we’re approximating with sheets of paper or with boxes put in a room. There are some that are familiar, or roughly familiar, such as the geometry of the surface of a planet. But you can draw circles on the surface of a globe. They don’t look like this mooshy T-circle. They look like … circles. Their weirdness comes in other ways, like how the circumference is not π times the diameter.
On reflection, I’m being too harsh. What makes a space non-Euclidean is … well, many things. One that’s easy to understand is to imagine that the space uses some novel definition for the distance between points. Distance is a great idea. It turns out to be useful, in geometry and in analysis, to use a flexible idea of of what distance is. We can define the distance between things in ways that look just like the Euclidean idea of distance. Or we can define it in other, weirder ways. We can, whatever the distance, define a “circle” as the set of points that are all exactly some distance from a chosen center point. And the appearance of those “circles” can differ.
There are literally infinitely many possible distance functions. But there is a family of them which we use all the time. And the “circles” in those look like … well, at the most extreme, they look like squares. Others will look like rounded squares, or like slightly diamond-shaped circles. I don’t know of any distance function that’s useful that would give us a circle like this picture of Eric. But there surely is one that exists and that’s enough for the joke to be certified factually correct. And that is what’s truly important in a comic strip.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 29th is the Venn Diagram joke for the week. Formally, you have to read this diagram charitably for it to parse. If we take the “what” that Maeve says, or doesn’t say, to be particular sentences, then the intersection has to be empty. You can’t both say and not-say a sentence. But it seems to me that any conversation of importance has the things which we choose to say and the things which we choose not to say. And it is so difficult to get the blend of things said and things unsaid correct. And I realize that the last time Between Friends came up here I was similarly defending the comic’s Venn Diagram use. I’m a sympathetic reader, at least to most comic strips.
And that was the conclusion of comic strips through the 29th of June which mentioned mathematics enough for me to write much about. There were a couple other comics that brought up something or other, though. Wulff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo for the 27th of June has a Rubik’s Cube joke. The traditional Rubik’s Cube has three rows, columns, and layers of cubes. But there’s no reason there can’t be more rows and columns and layers. Back in the 80s there were enough four-by-four-by-four cubes sold that I even had one. Wikipedia tells me the officially licensed cubes have gotten only up to five-by-five-by-five. But that there was a 17-by-17-by-17 cube sold, with prototypes for 22-by-22-by-22 and 33-by-33-by-33 cubes. This seems to me like a great many stickers to peel off and reattach.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 18th is an anthropomorphic numerals joke. It’s part of Holbrook’s style to draw metaphors as literal happenings. It’s also a variation on a joke Holbrook used just last month, depicting then the phrase “accepting his numbers”. What I said about “accepting numbers” transfers over naturally to “trusting numbers”. It’s not that a number itself means anything. It’s that numbers are used to represent some narrative. If we can’t believe the narrative, we don’t believe the numbers. And the numbers used to represent something can give us reasons to trust, or reject, a narrative.
Eric the Circle for the 18th I can dub an anthropomorphic geometry joke for the week. At least it brings up one of the handful of geometry facts that people remember outside school. The relationship between the circumference and the diameter (or radius, if you rather) of a circle has been known just forever. It has the advantage of going through π, supporting and being supported by that celebrity number. … I’m not quite sure about the logic of this joke, though. My experience is that guys at least are fairly good about knowing their waist size (if you don’t know, it’s 38, although a 40 can feel so comfortable, and they’re sure they can wear a 36). Radius is a harder thing to keep in mind. But maybe it’s different for circles.
Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 19th is a student-and-teacher problem. One thing is that Nerwin’s not wrong. It’s just that simply saying something true isn’t enough. We want to say things that are true and interesting.
But “you add two numbers and get a number” can be interesting. It depends on context. For example, in group theory, we will start by describing groups as a collection of things and an operation which works like addition. What does it mean to work like addition? Here, it means if you add two things from the collection, you get something from the collection. The collection of things is “closed” under your operation. And mathematical operations defined this abstractly — or defined this vaguely, if you don’t like the way it goes — can be great. We’re introduced to vectors, for example, as “ordered sets of numbers”. And that definition works all right. But when you start thinking of them instead as “things you can add to vectors and get other vectors out” you gain new power. You can use the mechanism developed for ordered sets of numbers to describe many things, including matrices and functions and shapes. But when we do that we’re saying things about how addition works, rather than what this particular addition is.
You know, on reflection, I’m not sure that Eric the Circle was more worthy of discussion than that Barney Google was. Hm.
For today’s entry, Iva Sallay, of Find The Factors, gave me an irresistible topic. I did not resist.
What’s purple and commutes?
An Abelian grape.
Whatever else you say about mathematics we are human. We tell jokes. I will tell some here. You may not understand the words in them. That’s all right. From the Abelian grape there, you gather this is some manner of wordplay. A pun, particularly. It’s built on a technical term. “Abelian groups” come from (not high school) Algebra. In an Abelian group, the group multiplication commutes. That is, if ‘a’ and ‘b’ are any things in the group, then their product “ab” is the same as “ba’. That is, the group works like ordinary addition on numbers does. We say “Abelian” in honor of Niels Henrik Abel, who taught us some fascinating stuff about polynomials. Puns are a common kind of humor. So common, they’re almost base. Even a good pun earns less laughter than groans.
But mathematicians make many puns. A typical page of mathematics jokes has a whole section of puns. “What’s yellow and equivalent to the Axiom of Choice? Zorn’s Lemon.” “What’s nonorientable and lives in the sea?” “Möbius Dick.” “One day Jesus said to his disciples, `The Kingdom of Heaven is like 3x2 + 8x – 9′. Thomas looked very confused and asked peter, `What does the teacher mean?’ Peter replied, `Don’t worry. It’s just another one of his parabolas’.” And there are many jokes built on how it is impossible to tell the difference between the sounds of “π” and “pie”.
It shouldn’t surprise that mathematicians make so many puns. Mathematics trains people to know definitions. To think about precisely what we mean. Puns ignore definitions. They build nonsense out of the ways that sounds interact. Mathematicians practice how to make things interact, even if they don’t know or care what the underlying things are. If you’ve gotten used to proving things about , without knowing what ‘a’ or ‘b’ are, it’s difficult to avoid turning “poles on the half-plane” (which matters in some mathematical physics) to a story about Polish people on an aircraft.
If there’s a flaw to this kind of humor it’s that these jokes may sound juvenile. One of the first things that strikes kids as funny is that a thing might have several meanings. Or might sound like another thing. “Why do mathematicians like parks? Because of all the natural logs!”
Jokes can be built tightly around definitions. “What do you get if you cross a mosquito with a mountain climber? Nothing; you can’t cross a vector with a scalar.” “There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary mathematics and those who don’t.” “Life is complex; it has real and imaginary parts.”
There are more sophisticated jokes. Many of them are self-deprecating. “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” “An introvert mathematician looks at her shoes while talking to you. An extrovert mathematician looks at your shoes.” “A mathematics professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep”. “Two people are adrift in a hot air balloon. Finally they see someone and shout down, `Where are we?’ The person looks up, and studies them, watching the balloon drift away. Finally, when they are barely in shouting range, the person on the ground shouts back, `You are in a balloon!’ The first passenger curses their luck at running across a mathematician. `How do you know that was a mathematician?’ `Because her answer took a long time, was perfectly correct, and absolutely useless!”’ These have the form of being about mathematicians. But they’re not really. It would be the same joke to say “a poet is a device for turning coffee into couplets”, the sleep-talker anyone who teachers, or have the hot-air balloonists discover a lawyer or a consultant.
Some of these jokes get more specific, with mathematics harder to extract from the story. The tale of the nervous flyer who, before going to the conference, sends a postcard that she has a proof of the Riemann hypothesis. She arrives and admits she has no such thing, of course. But she sends that word ahead of every conference. She knows if she died in a plane crash after that, she’d be famous forever, and God would never give her that. (I wonder if Ian Randal Strock’s little joke of a story about Pierre de Fermat was an adaptation of this joke.) You could recast the joke for physicists uniting gravity and quantum mechanics. But I can’t imagine a way to make this joke about an ISO 9000 consultant.
A dairy farmer knew he could be milking his cows better. He could surely get more milk, and faster, if only the operations of his farm were arranged better. So he hired a mathematician to find the optimal way to configure everything. The mathematician toured every part of the pastures, the milking barn, the cows, everything relevant. And then the mathematician set to work devising a plan for the most efficient possible cow-milking operation. The mathematician declared, “First, assume a spherical cow.”
This joke is very mathematical. I know of no important results actually based on spherical cows. But the attitude that tries to make spheres of cows comes from observing mathematicians. To describe any real-world process is to make a model of that thing. A model is a simplification of the real thing. You suppose that things behave more predictably than the real thing. You trust the error made by this supposition is small enough for your needs. A cow is complicated, all those pointy ends and weird contours. A sphere is easy. And, besides, cows are funny. “Spherical cow” is a funny string of sounds, at least in English.
The spherical cows approach parodying the work mathematicians do. Many mathematical jokes are burlesques of deductive logic. Or not even burlesques. Charles Dodgson, known to humans as Lewis Carroll, wrote this in Symbolic Logic:
“No one, who means to go by the train and cannot get a conveyance, and has not enough time to walk to the station, can do without running;
This party of tourists mean to go by the train and cannot get a conveyance, but they have plenty of time to walk to the station.
∴ This party of tourists need not run.”
[ Here is another opportunity, gentle Reader, for playing a trick on your innocent friend. Put the proposed Syllogism before him, and ask him what he thinks of the Conclusion.
He will reply “Why, it’s perfectly correct, of course! And if your precious Logic-book tells you it isn’t, don’t believe it! You don’t mean to tell me those tourists need to run? If I were one of them, and knew the Premises to be true, I should be quite clear that I needn’t run — and I should walk!”
And you will reply “But suppose there was a mad bull behind you?”
And then your innocent friend will say “Hum! Ha! I must think that over a bit!” ]
The punch line is diffused by the text being so educational. And by being written in the 19th century, when it was bad form to excise any word from any writing. But you can recognize the joke, and why it should be a joke.
Not every mathematical-reasoning joke features some manner of cattle. Some are legitimate:
Claim. There are no uninteresting whole numbers.
Proof. Suppose there is a smalled uninteresting whole number. Call it N. That N is uninteresting is an interesting fact. Therefore N is not an uninteresting whole number.
Three mathematicians step up to the bar. The bartender asks, “you all want a beer?” The first mathematician says, “I don’t know.” The second mathematician says, “I don’t know.” The third says, “Yes”.
Some mock reasoning uses nonsense methods to get a true conclusion. It’s the fun of watching Mister Magoo walk unharmed through a construction site to find the department store exchange counter:
Venn Diagrams are not by themselves jokes (most of the time). But they are a great structure for jokes. And easy to draw, which is great for us who want to be funny but don’t feel sure about their drafting abilities.
And then there are personality jokes. Mathematics encourages people to think obsessively. Obsessive people are often funny people. Alexander Grothendieck was one of the candidates for “greatest 20th century mathematician”. His reputation is that he worked so well on abstract problems that he was incompetent at practical ones. The story goes that he was demonstrating something about prime numbers and his audience begged him to speak about a specific number, that they could follow an example. And that he grumbled a bit and, finally, said, “57”. It’s not a prime number. But if you speak of “Grothendieck’s prime”, many will recognize what you mean, and grin.
There are more outstanding, preposterous personalities. Paul Erdös was prolific, and a restless traveller. The stories go that he would show up at some poor mathematician’s door and stay with them several months. And then co-author a paper with the elevator operator. (Erdös is also credited as the originator of the “coffee into theorems” quip above.) John von Neumann was supposedly presented with this problem:
Two trains are on the same track, 60 miles apart, heading toward each other, each travelling 30 miles per hour. A fly travels 60 miles per hour, leaving one engine flying toward the other. When it reaches the other engine it turns around immediately and flies back to the other engine. This is repeated until the two trains crash. How far does the fly travel before the crash?
The first, hard way to do this is to realize how far the fly travels is a series. The fly starts at, let’s say, the left engine and flies to the right. Add to that the distance from the right to the left train now. Then left to the right again. Right to left. This is a bunch of calculations. Most people give up on that and realize the problem is easier. The trains will crash in one hour. The fly travels 60 miles per hour for an hour. It’ll fly 60 miles total. John von Neumann, say witnesses, had the answer instantly. He recognized the trick? “I summed the series.”
The personalities can be known more remotely, from a handful of facts about who they were or what they did. “Cantor did it diagonally.” Georg Cantor is famous for great thinking about infinitely large sets. His “diagonal proof” shows the set of real numbers must be larger than the set of rational numbers. “Fermat tried to do it in the margin but couldn’t fit it in.” “Galois did it on the night before.” (Évariste Galois wrote out important pieces of group theory the night before a duel. It went badly for him. French politics of the 1830s.) Every field has its celebrities. Mathematicians learn just enough about theirs to know a couple of jokes.
The jokes can attach to a generic mathematician personality. “How can you possibly visualize something that happens in a 12-dimensional space?” “Easy, first visualize it in an N-dimensional space, and then let N go to 12.” Three statisticians go hunting. They spot a deer. One shoots, missing it on the left. The second shoots, missing it on the right. The third leaps up, shouting, “We’ve hit it!” An engineer and a mathematician are sleeping in a hotel room when the fire alarm goes off. The engineer ties the bedsheets into a rope and shimmies out of the room. The mathematician looks at this, unties the bedsheets, sets them back on the bed, declares, “this is a problem already solved” and goes back to sleep. (Engineers and mathematicians pair up a lot in mathematics jokes. I assume in engineering jokes too, but that the engineers make wrong assumptions about who the joke is on. If there’s a third person in the party, she’s a physicist.)
Do I have a favorite mathematics joke? I suppose I must. There are jokes I like better than others, and there are — I assume — finitely many different mathematics jokes. So I must have a favorite. What is it? I don’t know. It must vary with the day and my mood and the last thing I thought about. I know a bit of doggerel keeps popping into my head, unbidden. Let me close by giving it to you.
Integral z-squared dz
From 1 to the cube root of 3
Times the cosine
Of three π over nine
Equals log of the cube root of e.
This may not strike you as very funny. I’m not sure it strikes me as very funny. But it keeps showing up, all the time. That has to add up.
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?
I do not know what’s possessed John Rose, cartoonist for Barney Google and Snuffy Smith — possibly the oldest syndicated comic strip not in perpetual reruns — to decide he needs to mess with my head. So far as I’m aware we haven’t ever even had any interactions. While I’ll own up to snarking about the comic strip here and there, I mean, the guy draws Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. He won’t attract the snark community of, say, Marmaduke, but he knew the job was dangerous when he took it. There’s lots of people who’ve said worse things about the comic than I ever have. He can’t be messing with them all.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal gets my attention again for the 10th. There is this famous quotation from Leopold Kronecker, one of the many 19th century German mathematicians who challenged, and set, our ideas of what mathematics is. In debates about what should count as a proof Kronecker said something translated in English to, “God created the integers, all else is the work of man”. He favored proofs that only used finite numbers, and only finitely many operations, and was skeptical of existence proofs. Those are ones that show something with desired properties must exist, without necessarily showing how to find it. Most mathematicians accept existence proofs. If you can show how to find that thing, that’s a constructive proof. Usually mathematicians like those better.
Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes From A Multiverse for the 11th is a fun, simple joke with some complex stuff behind it. It’s riffing on the kind of atheist who wants moral values to come from something in the STEM fields. So here’s a mathematical basis for some moral principles. There are, yes, ethical theories that have, or at least imply having, mathematics behind them. Utilitarianism at least supposes that ethical behavior can be described as measurable and computable quantities. Nobody actually does that except maybe to make video games more exciting. But it’s left with the idea that one could, and hope that this would lead to guidance that doesn’t go horribly wrong.
Greg Evans and Karen Evans’s Luann for the 13th uses mathematics to try building up the villainy of one of the strip’s designated villains. Ann Eiffel, there, uses a heap of arithmetic to make her lingerie sale sound better. This isn’t simply a riff on people not wanting to do arithmetic, although I understand people not wanding to work out what five percent of a purchase of over $200 is. There’s a good deal of weird psychology in getting people to buy things. Merely naming a number, for example, gets people to “anchor” their expectations to it. To speak of a free gift worth $75 makes any purchase below $75 seem more economical. To speak of a chance to win $1,000 prepares people to think they’ve got a thousand dollars coming in, and that they can safely spend under that. It’s amazing stuff to learn about, and it isn’t all built on people being too lazy to figure out what five percent off of $220 would be.
T Lewis and Michael Fry’s Over the Hedge for the 13th uses &infty; along the way to making nonsense out of ice-skating judging. It’s a good way to make a hash of a rating system. Most anything done with infinitely large numbers or infinitely large sets challenges one’s intuition at least. This is part of what Leopold Kronecker was talking about.
Are … are [ the Smiths’ next-door neighbor Elviney and Jughaid’s teacher Miss Prunelly ] the same character, just wearing different glasses? I’ve been reading this comic strip for like forty years and I’ve never noticed this before.
Really. Apart from their accessories the characters are the same.
And then, published by John Rose today, the 3rd of January, 2018:
October paid less attention to my mathematics blog than did September. I expected that. I published rather fewer pieces in October as the A To Z project had finished. And there’s some extent to which publishing anything is valuable in getting readership. How important I don’t know. I’ve never tried testing the relationship between how many readers I get and how many articles I post. I imagine the number of confounding factors would make their relationship vague. But I could run it anyway, as an example of how to do that kind of calculation.
It also makes me wonder whether republishing older essays is worthwhile. Or at least posting links to older content. I worry about boring longtime readers, although I’m not sure how many of those I even have. And it happens two of my most popular essays this month were fairly old bits of writing. I like to list the top five around here, but there was a three-way tie for fifth place. Big in October were:
That “here’s a thing I read” also seems to be a reliably popular post suggests maybe I need to do a weekly post about just other mathematics stuff I’d read.
Hong Kong SAR China
St. Kitts and Nevis
United Arab Emirates
I make that out to be 51 countries sending me readers at all, down from September’s 65. There were 13 single-reader countries, down from September’s 20. Belgium, Bulgaria, and New Zealand were single-reader countries for two months in a row, and no country’s on a three-month single-reader streak. “European Union” is back after a month’s absence. I’m still surprised by the number of readers from the Philippines I’ve drawn two months in a row now.
All together there were 1,069 page views from 614 unique visitors in October. That’s down from 1,232 page views and 672 unique visitors in September, and an up-and-down split from the 1,030 page views from 680 unique visitors in August. In August there were 21 posts here, in September 20, and in October 13. I kind of get the feeling people like me, but only a certain amount of me, and then they drift off.
The number of ‘likes’ went back to cratering, down to 64 over the month of October. There’d been 98 in September and 147 in August. The number of comments fell too, to a meager 12 from September’s 42 and August’s 46. The A To Z format definitely looks more inviting and welcoming to commenters, I have to conclude.
October finished out with my page here having collected 54,336 total page views from some 25,288 admitted unique visitors. I believe there were a few more visitors but some of them were copying.
Insights says that the most popular day for page views was Monday, which drew 18 percent of page views, down just a bit from September’s 20 percent. In a major upset 6 pm was not the most popular hour for readers, though. 7 pm was, when 8 percent of page views came in. I’m not sure how that happened; 6 pm is when I set most stuff to post and readers seem to follow. Maybe it’s a Daylight Saving Time issue. Oh, come to think of it, this is one of the few weeks that Greenwich Time and Eastern Time aren’t in Daylight-Saving/Summer-Time synch, isn’t it? I started out with this as a joke but perhaps that’s really going on. (No, I guess not. 12:00 am is still my most popular hour on my humor blog.) Anyway, I’m figuring to skip future mentions of what Insights tells me about popular days or hours. I can’t figure how they’re indicating anything more than “I’m about equally popular-ish any hour of any day of the week”.
WordPress says I’m starting November with 709 WordPress.com followers, which is down from September’s 717. Well, I’m sure all 709 of them are live, active accounts from people who’ve used them more recently than three years ago when they posted twice. If you’d like to follow my mathematical chats here you can add it to your reader. Go to the upper right corner of this page and click the ‘Follow NebusResearch’ button. If you’d rather get things by e-mail, there should be a ‘Follow Blog Via E-Mail’ button there too. And if that’s all fine enough but you’d like to see me limited to about 22 words at a time, try out @Nebusj on Twitter. Thanks.
It was an ordinary enough week when I realized I wasn’t sure about the name of the schoolmarm in Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. So I looked it up on Comics Kingdom’s official cast page for John Rose’s comic strip. And then I realized something about the Smiths’ next-door neighbor Elviney and Jughaid’s teacher Miss Prunelly:
Are … are they the same character, just wearing different glasses? I’ve been reading this comic strip for like forty years and I’ve never noticed this before. I’ve also never heard any of you all joking about this, by the way, so I stand by my argument that if they’re prominent enough then, yes, glasses could be an adequate disguise for Superman. Anyway, I’m startled. (Are they sisters? Cousins? But wouldn’t that make mention on the cast page? There are missing pieces here.)
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute feature for the 10th sneaks in here yet again with a magic trick based in arithmetic. Here, they use what’s got to be some Magic Square-based technology for a card trick. This probably could be put to use with other arrangements of numbers, but cards have the advantage of being stuff a magician is likely to have around and that are expected to do something weird.
Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains for the 13th is an Albert Einstein Needing Help panel. It’s got your blackboard full of symbols, not one of which is the famous E = mc2 equation. But given the setup it couldn’t feature that equation, not and be a correct joke.
John Rose’s Barney Google for the 14th does a little more work than necessary for its subtraction-explained-with-candy joke. I non-sarcastically appreciate Rose’s dodging the obvious joke in favor of a guy-is-stupid joke.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 14th is a kind of lying-with-statistics joke. That’s as much as it needs to be. Still, thought always should go into exactly how one presents data, especially visually. There are connotations to things. Just inverting an axis is dangerous stuff, though. The convention of matching an increase in number to moving up on the graph is so ingrained that it should be avoided only for enormous cause.
This joke also seems conceptually close, to me, to the jokes about the strangeness of how a “negative” medical test is so often the good news.
Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 15th is not about solitaire. But “solving” a game by simulating many gameplays and drawing strategic advice from that is a classic numerical mathematics trick. Whether a game is fun once it’s been solved so is up to you. And often in actual play, for a game with many options at each step, it’s impossible without a computer to know the best possible move. You could use simulations like this to develop general guidelines, and a couple rules that often pan out.
Won’t lie: I was hoping for a busy week. While Comic Strip Master Command did send a healthy number of mathematically-themed comic strips, I can’t say they were a particularly deep set. Most of what I have to say is that here’s a comic strip that mentions mathematics. Well, you’re reading me for that, aren’t you? Maybe. Tell me if you’re not. I’m curious.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 3rd made the most overtly mathematical joke for most of the week at Math Camp. The strip hasn’t got to anything really annoying yet; it’s mostly been average summer-camp jokes. I admit I’ve been distracted trying to figure out if the minor characters are Tatulli redrawing Peanuts characters in his style. I mean, doesn’t Dana (the freckled girl in the third panel, here) look at least a bit like Peppermint Patty? I’ve also seen a Possible Marcie and a Possible Shermy, who’s the Peanuts character people draw when they want an obscure Peanuts character who isn’t 5. (5 is the Boba Fett of the Peanuts character set: an extremely minor one-joke character used for a week in 1963 but who appeared very occasionally in the background until 1983. You can identify him by the ‘5’ on his shirt. He and his sisters 3 and 4 are the ones doing the weird head-sideways dance in A Charlie Brown Christmas.)
Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id Classics for the 4th reruns the Wizard of Id for the 7th of July, 1967. It’s your typical calculation-error problem, this about the forecasting of eclipses. I admit the forecasting of eclipses is one of those bits of mathematics I’ve never understood, but I’ve never tried to understand either. I’ve just taken for granted that the Moon’s movements are too much tedious work to really enlighten me and maybe I should reevaluate that. Understanding when the Moon or the Sun could be expected to disappear was a major concern for people doing mathematics for centuries.
John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 8th finally gives me a graphic to include this week. It’s about the joke you would expect from the topic of probability being mentioned. And, as might be expected, the comic strip doesn’t precisely accurately describe the state of the law. Any human endeavour has to deal with probabilities. They give us the ability to have reasonable certainty about the confusing and ambiguous information the world presents.
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 8th is another Albert Einstein mention. The bundle of symbols don’t mean much of anything, at least not as they’re presented, but of course superstar equation E = mc2 turns up. It could hardly not.