Comic Strip Master Command decided this would be a light week, with about six comic strips worth discussing. I’ll go into four of them here, and in a day or two wrap up the remainder. There were several strips that didn’t quite rate discussion, and I’ll share those too. I never can be sure what strips will be best taped to someone’s office door.
But I got to another thought. We’re surprised to see lines in nature. We know what lines are, and understand properties of them pretty well. Even if we don’t specialize in geometry we can understand how we expect them to work. I don’t know how much of this is a cultural artifact: in the western mathematics tradition lines and polygons and circles are taught a lot, and from an early age. My impression is that enough different cultures have similar enough geometries, though. (Are there any societies that don’t seem aware of the Pythagorean Theorem?) So what is it that has got so many people making perfect lines and circles and triangles and squares out of crooked timbers?
Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 13th is a lottery joke. Also, really, an accounting joke. Most of the players of a lottery will not win, of course. Nearly none of them will win more than they’ve paid into the lottery. If they didn’t, there would be an official inquiry. So, yes, nearly all people, even those who win money at the lottery, would have had more money if they skipped playing altogether.
Where it becomes an accounting question is how much did Broom Hilda expect to have when the week was through? If she planned to spend $20 on lottery tickets, and got exactly that? It seems snobbish to me to say that’s a dumber way to spend twenty bucks than, say, buying twenty bucks worth of magazines that you’ll throw away in a month would be. Or having dinner at a fast-casual place. Or anything else that you like doing even though it won’t leave you, in the long run, any better off. Has she come out ahead? That depends where she figures she should be.
Eric the Circle for the 13th, this one by Alabama_Al, is a plane- and solid-geometry joke. This gets it a bit more solidly on-topic than usual. But it’s still a strip focused on the connotations of mathematically-connected terms. There’s the metaphorical use of the ‘plane’ as in the thing people perceive as reality. There’s conflation between the idea of a ‘higher plane’ and ‘higher dimensions’. Also somewhere in here is the idea that ‘higher’ and ‘more’ dimensions of space are the same thing. ‘Transcendental’ here is used in the common English sense of surpassing something. ‘Transcendental’ has a mathematical definition too. That one relates to polynomials, because everything in mathematics is about polynomials. And, of course, one of the two numbers we know to be transcendental, and that people have any reason to care about, is π, which turns up all over circles.
Larry Wright’s Motley for the 13th riffs on the form of a story problem. Joey’s mother does ask something that seems like a plausible addition problem. I’m a bit surprised he hadn’t counted all the day’s cookies already, but perhaps he doesn’t dwell on past snacks.
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.
Comic Strip Master Command sent a nice little flood of comics this week, probably to make sure that I transitioned from the A To Z project to normal activity without feeling too lost. I’m going to cut the strips not quite in half because I’m always delighted when I can make a post that’s just a single day’s mathematically-themed comics. Last Sunday, the 24th of September, was such a busy day. I’m cheating a little on what counts as noteworthy enough to talk about here. But people like comic strips, and good on them for liking them.
Norm Feuti’s Gil for the 24th sees Gil discover and try to apply some higher mathematics. There’s probably a good discussion about what we mean by division to explain why Gil’s experiment didn’t pan out. I would pin it down to eliding the difference between “dividing in half” and “dividing by a half”, which is a hard one. Terms that seem almost alike but mean such different things are probably the hardest part of mathematics.
Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda looks like my padding. But the last panel of the middle row gets my eye. The squirrels talk about how on the equinox night and day “can never be of identical length, due to the angular size of the sun and atmospheric refraction”. This is true enough for the equinox. While any spot on the Earth might see twelve hours facing the sun and twelve hours facing away, the fact the sun isn’t a point, and that the atmosphere carries light around to the “dark” side of the planet, means daylight lasts a little longer than night.
Ah, but. This gets my mathematical modelling interest going. Because it is true that, at least away from the equator, there’s times of year that day is way shorter than night. And there’s times of year that day is way longer than night. Shouldn’t there be some time in the middle when day is exactly equal to night?
The easy argument for is built on the Intermediate Value Theorem. Let me define a function, with domain each of the days of the year. The range is real numbers. It’s defined to be the length of day minus the length of night. Let me say it’s in minutes, but it doesn’t change things if you argue that it’s seconds, or milliseconds, or hours, if you keep parts of hours in also. So, like, 12.015 hours or something. At the height of winter, this function is definitely negative; night is longer than day. At the height of summer, this function is definitely positive; night is shorter than day. So therefore there must be some time, between the height of winter and the height of summer, when the function is zero. And therefore there must be some day, even if it isn’t the equinox, when night and day are the same length
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered features an old-fashioned adding machine being used to drown an audience in calculations. Which makes for a curious pairing with …
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot, and its representation of “math hipsters”. I hate to encourage Jason or Marcus in being deliberately difficult. But there are arguments to make for avoiding digital calculators in favor of old-fashioned — let’s call them analog — calculators. One is that people understand tactile operations better, or at least sooner, than they do digital ones. The slide rule changes multiplication and division into combining or removing lengths of things, and we probably have an instinctive understanding of lengths. So this should train people into anticipating what a result is likely to be. This encourages sanity checks, verifying that an answer could plausibly be right. And since a calculation takes effort, it encourages people to think out how to arrange the calculation to require less work. This should make it less vulnerable to accidents.
I suspect that many of these benefits are what you get in the ideal case, though. Slide rules, and abacuses, are no less vulnerable to accidents than anything else is. And if you are skilled enough with the abacus you have no trouble multiplying 18 by 7, you probably would not find multiplying 17 by 8 any harder, and wouldn’t notice if you mistook one for the other.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz asserts that numbers are cool but the real insight is comparisons. And we can argue that comparisons are more basic than numbers. We can talk about one thing being bigger than another even if we don’t have a precise idea of numbers, or how to measure them. See every mathematics blog introducing the idea of different sizes of infinity.
Bill Whitehead’s Free Range features Albert Einstein, universal symbol for really deep thinking about mathematics and physics and stuff. And even a blackboard full of equations for the title panel. I’m not sure whether the joke is a simple absent-minded-professor joke, or whether it’s a relabelled joke about Werner Heisenberg. Absent-minded-professor jokes are not mathematical enough for me, so let me point once again to American Cornball. They’re the first subject in Christopher Miller’s encyclopedia of comic topics. So I’ll carry on as if the Werner Heisenberg joke were the one meant.
Heisenberg is famous, outside World War II history, for the Uncertainty Principle. This is one of the core parts of quantum mechanics, under which there’s a limit to how precisely one can know both the position and momentum of a thing. To identify, with absolutely zero error, where something is requires losing all information about what its momentum might be, and vice-versa. You see the application of this to a traffic cop’s question about knowing how fast someone was going. This makes some neat mathematics because all the information about something is bundled up in a quantity called the Psi function. To make a measurement is to modify the Psi function by having an “operator” work on it. An operator is what we call a function that has domains and ranges of other functions. To measure both position and momentum is equivalent to working on Psi with one operator and then another. But these operators don’t commute. You get different results in measuring momentum and then position than you do measuring position and then momentum. And so we can’t know both of these with infinite precision.
There are pairs of operators that do commute. They’re not necessarily ones we care about, though. Like, the total energy commutes with the square of the angular momentum. So, you know, if you need to measure with infinite precision the energy and the angular momentum of something you can do it. If you had measuring tools that were perfect. You don’t, but you could imagine having them, and in that case, good. Underlying physics wouldn’t spoil your work.
Probably the panel was an absent-minded professor joke.
So this past week saw a lot of comic strips with some mathematical connection put forth. There were enough just for the 26th that I probably could have done an essay with exclusively those comics. So it’s another split-week edition, which suits me fine as I need to balance some of my writing loads the next couple weeks for convenience (mine).
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 25th of June is fun as the comic strip almost always is. And it’s even about estimation, one of the things mathematicians do way more than non-mathematicians expect. Mathematics has a reputation for precision, when in my experience it’s much more about understanding and controlling error methods. Even in analysis, the study of why calculus works, the typical proof amounts to showing that the difference between what you want to prove and what you can prove is smaller than your tolerance for an error. So: how do we go about estimating something difficult, like, the number of stars? If it’s true that nobody really knows, how do we know there are some wrong answers? And the underlying answer is that we always know some things, and those let us rule out answers that are obviously low or obviously high. We can make progress.
Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 25th is about one explanation given for why time keeps seeming to pass faster as one age. This is a mathematical explanation, built on the idea that the same linear unit of time is a greater proportion of a young person’s lifestyle so of course it seems to take longer. This is probably partly true. Most of our senses work by a sense of proportion: it’s easy to tell a one-kilogram from a two-kilogram weight by holding them, and easy to tell a five-kilogram from a ten-kilogram weight, but harder to tell a five from a six-kilogram weight.
As ever, though, I’m skeptical that anything really is that simple. My biggest doubt is that it seems to me time flies when we haven’t got stories to tell about our days, when they’re all more or less the same. When we’re doing new or exciting or unusual things we remember more of the days and more about the days. A kid has an easy time finding new things, and exciting or unusual things. Broom Hilda, at something like 1500-plus years old and really a dour, unsociable person, doesn’t do so much that isn’t just like she’s done before. Wouldn’t that be an influence? And I doubt that’s a complete explanation either. Real things are more complicated than that yet.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 26th is about how you get good at arithmetic. I suspect there’s two natural paths; you either find it really interesting in your own right, or you do it often enough you want to find ways to do it quicker. Marla shows the signs of learning to do arithmetic quickly because she does it a lot: turning “30 percent off” into “subtract ten percent three times over” is definitely the easy way to go. The alternative is multiplying by seven and dividing by ten and you don’t want to multiply by seven unless the problem gives a good reason why you should. And I certainly don’t fault the customer not knowing offhand what 30 percent off $25 would be. Why would she be in practice doing this sort of problem?
Johnny Hart’s Back To B.C. for the 26th reruns the comic from the 30th of December, 1959. In it … uh … one of the cavemen guys has found his calendar for the next year has too many days. (Think about what 1960 was.) It’s a common problem. Every calendar people have developed has too few or too many days, as the Earth’s daily rotations on its axis and annual revolution around the sun aren’t perfectly synchronized. We handle this in many different ways. Some calendars worry little about tracking solar time and just follow the moon. Some calendars would run deliberately short and leave a little stretch of un-named time before the new year started; the ancient Roman calendar, before the addition of February and January, is famous in calendar-enthusiast circles for this. We’ve now settled on a calendar which will let the nominal seasons and the actual seasons drift out of synch slowly enough that periodic changes in the Earth’s orbit will dominate the problem before the error between actual-year and calendar-year length will matter. That’s a pretty good sort of error control.
8,978,432 is not anywhere near the number of days that would be taken between 4,000 BC and the present day. It’s not a joke about Bishop Ussher’s famous research into the time it would take to fit all the Biblically recorded events into history. The time is something like 24,600 years ago, a choice which intrigues me. It would make fair sense to declare, what the heck, they lived 25,000 years ago and use that as the nominal date for the comic strip. 24,600 is a weird number of years. Since it doesn’t seem to be meaningful I suppose Hart went, simply enough, with a number that was funny just for being riotously large.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 26th places itself on my Grand Avenue warning board. There’s plenty of time for things to go a different way but right now it’s set up for a toxic little presentation of mathematics. Heart, after being grounded, was caught sneaking out to a slumber party and now her mother is sending her to two weeks of Math Camp. I’m supposing, from Tatulli’s general attitude about how stuff happens in Heart and in Lio that Math Camp will not be a horrible, penal experience. But it’s still ominous talk and I’m watching.
Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer story for the 26th is part of the strip’s rerun on GoComics. (Many comic strips that have ended their run go into eternal loops on GoComics.) This is one of the strips with mathematical content. The spatial dimension of a thing implies relationships between the volume (area, hypervolume, whatever) of a thing and its characteristic linear measure, its diameter or radius or side length. It can be disappointing.
Nicholas Gurewitch’s Perry Bible Fellowship for the 26th is a repeat of one I get on my mathematics Twitter friends now and then. Should warn, it’s kind of racy content, at least as far as my usual recommendations here go. It’s also a little baffling because while the reveal of the unclad woman is funny … what, exactly, does it mean? The symbols don’t mean anything; they’re just what fits graphically. I think the strip is getting at Dr Loring not being able to see even a woman presenting herself for sex as anything but mathematics. I guess that’s funny, but it seems like the idea isn’t quite fully developed.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal Again for the 26th has a mathematician snort about plotting a giraffe logarithmically. This is all about representations of figures. When we plot something we usually start with a linear graph: a couple of axes perpendicular to one another. A unit of movement in the direction of any of those axes represents a constant difference in whatever that axis measures. Something growing ten units larger, say. That’s fine for many purposes. But we may want to measure something that changes by a power law, or that grows (or shrinks) exponentially. Or something that has some region where it’s small and some region where it’s huge. Then we might switch to a logarithmic plot. Here the same difference in space along the axis represents a change that’s constant in proportion: something growing ten times as large, say. The effective result is to squash a shape down, making the higher points more nearly flat.
And to completely smother Weinersmith’s fine enough joke: I would call that plot semilogarithmically. I’d use a linear scale for the horizontal axis, the gazelle or giraffe head-to-tail. But I’d use a logarithmic scale for the vertical axis, ears-to-hooves. So, linear in one direction, logarithmic in the other. I’d be more inclined to use “logarithmic” plots to mean logarithms in both the horizontal and the vertical axes. Those are useful plots for turning up power laws, like the relationship between a planet’s orbital radius and the length of its year. Relationships like that turn into straight lines when both axes are logarithmically spaced. But I might also describe that as a “log-log plot” in the hopes of avoiding confusion.
Comic Strip Master Command apparently really is ordering strips to finish their mathematics jokes before the summer vacation sets in, based on how many we’ve gotten in the past week. I confess this set doesn’t give me so much to write about; it’s more a set of mathematics things getting name-dropped. And there’s always something, isn’t there?
Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (June 17) showcases a particularly severe form of math anxiety. I’m sympathetic to people who’re afraid of mathematics, naturally; it’s rotten being denied a big and wonderful and beautiful part of human ingenuity. I don’t know where math anxiety comes from, although I’d imagine a lot of it comes from that mix of doing something you aren’t quite sure you’re doing correctly and being hit too severely with a sense of rejection in the case that you did it wrong. I’d like to think that recreational mathematics puzzles would help overcome that, but I have no evidence that it does, just my hunch that getting to play with numbers and pictures and logic puzzles is good for you.
Russell Myers’ Broom Hilda (June 18) taunts the schoolkid Nerwin with the way we “used to do math with our brains instead of calculators”. One hesitates to know too much about the continuity of Broom Hilda, but I believe she’s over a thousand years old and so when she was Nerwin’s age they didn’t even have Arabic numerals just yet. I’ll assume there’s some way she’d have been in school then. (Also, given how long Broom Hilda‘s been running Nerwin did used to be in classes that did mathematics without calculators.)
Tom Batiuk and Chuck Ayers’ Crankshaft (June 20) spent a couple days this week explaining how he just counts on fingers to do his arithmetic. It’s a curious echo of the storyline several years ago revealing Crankshaft suffered from Backstory Illiteracy, in which we suddenly learned he had gone all his life without knowing how to read. I hesitate to agree with him but, yeah, there’s no shame in counting on your fingers if that does all the mathematics you need to do and you get the answers you want reliably. I don’t know what his long division thing is; if it weren’t for Tom Batiuk writing the comic strip I’d call it whimsy.
Keith Knight’s The Knight Life carried on with the story of the personal statistician this week. I think the entry from the 20th is most representative. It’s fine, and fun, to gather all kinds of data about whatever you encounter, but if you aren’t going to study the data and then act on its advice you’re wasting your time. The personal statistician ends up quitting the job.
Steve McGarry’s kid-activity feature KidTown (June 22) promotes the idea of numbers as a thing to notice in the newspapers, and includes a couple of activities, one featuring a maze to be navigated by way of multiples of seven. It also has one of those math tricks where you let someone else pick a number, give him a set of mathematical operations to do, and then you can tell them what the result is. It seems to me working out why that scheme works is a good bit of practice for someone learning algebra, and developing your own mathematics trick that works along this line is further good practice.