It’s a natural question to wonder this time of year. The date when Easter falls is calculated by some tricky numerical rules. These come from the desire to make Easter an early-spring (in the Northern hemisphere) holiday, while tying it to the date of Passover, as worked out by people who did not know the exact rules by which the Jewish calendar worked. The result is that some dates are more likely than others to be Easter.

And for the last of this year’s (planned) exhumations from my archives? It’s a piece from summer 2017: Zeta Function. As will happen in mathematics, there are many zeta functions. But there’s also one special one that people find endlessly interesting, and that’s what we mean if we say “the zeta function”. It, of course, goes back to Bernhard Riemann.

Also a cute note I saw going around. If you cut off the century years then the date today — the 16th day of the 12th month of the 20th year of the century — you get a rare Pythagorean triplet. and after a moment we notice that’s the famous 3-4-5 Pythagorean triplet all over again. If you miss it, well, that’s all right. There’ll be another along in July of 2025, and one after that in October of 2026.

Today (the 26th of November) is the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States. The holiday’s set, by law since 1941, to the fourth Thursday in November. (Before then it was customarily the last Thursday in November, but set by Presidential declaration. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt set the holiday to the third Thursday in November, to extend the 1939 and 1940 Christmas-shopping seasons — a decision Republican Alf Landon characterized as Hitlerian — the fourth Thursday was encoded in law.)

Any know-it-all will tell you, though, how the 13th of the month is very slightly more likely to be a Friday than any other day of the week. This is because the Gregorian calendar has that peculiar century-year leap day rule. It throws off the regular progression of the dates through the week. It takes 400 years for the calendar to start repeating itself. How does this affect the fourth Thursday of November? (A month which, this year, did have a Friday the 13th.)

It turns out, it changes things in subtle ways. Thanksgiving, by the current rule, can be any date between the 22nd and 28th; it’s most likely to be any of the 22nd, 24th, or 26th. (This implies that the 13th of November is equally likely to be a Friday, Wednesday, or Monday, a result that surprises me too.) So here’s how often which date is Thanksgiving. This if we pretend the current United States definition of Thanksgiving will be in force for 400 years unchanged:

Dina Yagodich suggested today’s A-to-Z topic. I thought a quick little biography piece would be a nice change of pace. I discovered things were more interesting than that.

Fibonacci.

I realized preparing for this that I have never read a biography of Fibonacci. This is hardly unique to Fibonacci. Mathematicians buy into the legend that mathematics is independent of human creation. So the people who describe it are of lower importance. They learn a handful of romantic tales or good stories. In this way they are much like humans. I know at least a loose sketch of many mathematicians. But Fibonacci is a hard one for biography. Here, I draw heavily on the book Fibonacci, his numbers and his rabbits, by Andriy Drozdyuk and Denys Drozdyuk.

We know, for example, that Fibonacci lived until at least 1240. This because in 1240 Pisa awarded him an annual salary in recognition of his public service. We think he was born around 1170, and died … sometime after 1240. This seems like a dismal historical record. But, for the time, for a person of slight political or military importance? That’s about as good as we could hope for. It is hard to appreciate how much documentation we have of lives now, and how recent a phenomenon that is.

Even a fact like “he was alive in the year 1240” evaporates under study. Italian cities, then as now, based the year on the time since the notional birth of Christ. Pisa, as was common, used the notional conception of Christ, on the 25th of March, as the new year. But we have a problem of standards. Should we count the year as the number of full years since the notional conception of Christ? Or as the number of full and partial years since that important 25th of March?

If the question seems confusing and perhaps angering let me try to clarify. Would you say that the notional birth of Christ that first 25th of December of the Christian Era happened in the year zero or in the year one? (Pretend there was a year zero. You already pretend there was a year one AD.) Pisa of Leonardo’s time would have said the year one. Florence would have said the year zero, if they knew of “zero”. Florence matters because when Florence took over Pisa, they changed Pisa’s dating system. Sometime later Pisa changed back. And back again. Historians writing, aware of the Pisan 1240 on the document, may have corrected it to the Florence-style 1241. Or, aware of the change of the calendar and not aware that their source already accounted for it, redated it 1242. Or tried to re-correct it back and made things worse.

This is not a problem unique to Leonardo. Different parts of Europe, at the time, had different notions for the year count. Some also had different notions for what New Year’s Day would be. There were many challenges to long-distance travel and commerce in the time. Not the least is that the same sun might shine on at least three different years at once.

We call him Fibonacci. Did he? The question defies a quick answer. His given name was Leonardo, and he came from Pisa, so a reliable way to address him would have “Leonardo of Pisa”, albeit in Italian. He was born into the Bonacci family. He did in some manuscripts describe himself as “Leonardo filio Bonacci Pisano”, give or take a few letters. My understanding is you can get a good fun quarrel going among scholars of this era by asking whether “Filio Bonacci” would mean “the son of Bonacci” or “of the family Bonacci”. Either is as good for us. It’s tempting to imagine the “Filio” being shrunk to “Fi” and the two words smashed together. But that doesn’t quite say that Leonardo did that smashing together.

Nor, exactly, when it did happen. We see “Fibonacci” used in mathematical works in the 19th century, followed shortly by attempts to explain what it means. We know of a 1506 manuscript identifying Leonardo as Fibonacci. But there remains a lot of unexplored territory.

If one knows one thing about Fibonacci though, one knows about the rabbits. They give birth to more rabbits and to the Fibonacci Sequence. More on that to come. If one knows two things about Fibonacci, the other is about his introducing Arabic numerals to western mathematics. I’ve written of this before. And the subject is … more ambiguous, again.

Most of what we “know” of Fibonacci’s life is some words he wrote to explain why he was writing his bigger works. If we trust he was not creating a pleasant story for the sake of engaging readers, then we can finally say something. (If one knows three things about Fibonacci, and then five things, and then eight, one is making a joke.)

Fibonacci’s father was, in the 1290s, posted to Bejaia, a port city on the Algerian coast. The father did something for Pisa’s duana there. And what is a duana? … Again, certainty evaporates. We have settled on saying it’s a customs house, and suppose our readers know what goes on in a customs house. The duana had something to do with clearing trade through the port. His father’s post was as a scribe. He was likely responsible for collecting duties and registering accounts and keeping books and all that. We don’t know how long Fibonacci spent there. “Some days”, during which he alleges he learned the digits 1 through 9. And after that, travelling around the Mediterranean, he saw why this system was good, and useful. He wrote books to explain it all and convince Europe that while Roman numerals were great, Arabic numerals were more practical.

It is always dangerous to write about “the first” person to do anything. Except for Yuri Gagarin, Alexei Leonov, and Neil Armstrong, “the first” to do anything dissolves into ambiguity. Gerbert, who would become Pope Sylvester II, described Arabic numerals (other than zero) by the end of the 10th century. He added in how this system along with the abacus made computation easier. Arabic numerals appear in the Codex Conciliorum Albeldensis seu Vigilanus, written in 976 AD in Spain. And it is not as though Fibonacci was the first European to travel to a land with Arabic numerals, or the first perceptive enough to see their value.

Allow that, though. Every invention has precursors, some so close that it takes great thinking to come up with a reason to ignore them. There must be some credit given to the person who gathers an idea into a coherent, well-explained whole. And with Fibonacci, and his famous manuscript of 1202, the Liber Abaci, we have … more frustration.

It’s not that Liber Abaci does not exist, or that it does not have what we credit it for having. We don’t have any copies of the 1202 edition, but we do have a 1228 manuscript, at least, and that starts out with the Arabic numeral system. And why this system is so good, and how to use it. It should convince anyone who reads it.

If anyone read it. We know of about fifteen manuscripts of Liber Abaci, only two of them reasonably complete. This seems sparse even for manuscripts in the days they had to be hand-copied. This until you learn that Baldassarre Boncompagni published the first known printed version in 1857. In print, in Italian, it took up 459 pages of text. Its first English translation, published by Laurence E Sigler in 2002(!) takes up 636 pages (!!). Suddenly it’s amazing that as many as two complete manuscripts survive. (Wikipedia claims three complete versions from the 13th and 14th centuries exist. And says there are about nineteen partial manuscripts with another nine incomplete copies. I do not explain this discrepancy.)

So perhaps only a handful of people read Fibonacci. Ah, but if they were the right people? He could have been a mathematical Velvet Underground, read by a hundred people, each of whom founded a new mathematics.

This is not to say Fibonacci copied any of these (and more) Indian mathematicians. The world is large and manuscripts are hard to read. The sequence can be re-invented by anyone bored in the right way. Ah, but think of those who learned of the sequence and used it later on, following Fibonacci’s lead. For example, in 1611 Johannes Kepler wrote a piece that described Fibonacci’s sequence. But that does not name Fibonacci. He mentions other mathematicians, ancient and contemporary. The easiest supposition is he did not know he was writing something already seen. In 1844, Gabriel Lamé used Fibonacci numbers in studying algorithm complexity. He did not name Fibonacci either, though. (Lamé is famous today for making some progress on Fermat’s last theorem. He’s renowned for work in differential equations and on ellipse-like curves. If you have thought what a neat weird shape the equation can describe you have tread in Lamé’s path.)

Things picked up for Fibonacci’s reputation in 1876, thanks to Édouard Lucas. (Lucas is notable for other things. Normal people might find interesting that he proved by hand the number was prime. This seems to be the largest prime number ever proven by hand. He also created the Tower of Hanoi problem.) In January of 1876, Lucas wrote about the Fibonacci sequence, describing it as “the series of Lamé”. By May, though in writing about prime numbers, he has read Boncompagni’s publications. He says how this thing “commonly known as the sequence of Lamé was first presented by Fibonacci”.

And Fibonacci caught Lucas’s imagination. Lucas shared, particularly, the phrasing of this sequence as something in the reproduction of rabbits. This captured mathematicians’, and then people’s imaginations. It’s akin to Émile Borel’s room of a million typing monkeys. By the end of the 19th century Leonardo of Pisa had both a name and fame.

We can still ask why. The proximate cause is Édouard Lucas, impressed (I trust) by Boncompagni’s editions of Fibonacci’s work. Why did Baldassarre Boncompagni think it important to publish editions of Fibonacci? Well, he was interested in the history of science. He edited the first Italian journal dedicated to the history of mathematics. He may have understood that Fibonacci was, if not an important mathematician, at least one who had interesting things to write. Boncompagni’s edition of Liber Abaci came out in 1857. By 1859 the state of Tuscany voted to erect a statue.

So I speculate, without confirming that at least some of Fibonacci’s good name in the 19th century was a reflection of Italian unification. The search for great scholars whose intellectual achievements could reflect well on a nation trying to build itself.

And so we have bundles of ironies. Fibonacci did write impressive works of great mathematical insight. And he was recognized at the time for that work. The things he wrote about Arabic numerals were correct. His recommendation to use them was taken, but by people who did not read his advice. After centuries of obscurity he got some notice. And a problem he did not create nor particularly advance brought him a fame that’s lasted a century and a half now, and looks likely to continue.

I am always amazed to learn there are people not interested in history.

The 22nd of March is the least probable date for Easter. That date was last Easter in 1818, and will next be Easter in 2285. The 12th of April, though? That’s one of the most likely dates for Easter. To say what is “the” most probable date for Easter requires some thought. First, what it means to talk about the chance of an algorithmically defined quantity. Second, what it means to look at Easter. The holiday is intended to happen early in the European spring. But the start of European spring is moving through the calendar. Someday we will abandon the Gregorian calendar, or radically change the calculation of Easter. This makes it harder to say how often each possible date turns up. But we can make some rough answers.

The 15th of April is the most probable date for Easter, if we look at a 532-year span. (There are astronomical reasons to look at 532 years.) If we look at a more limited stretch, 1925 to 2100, on the assumption that that’s the maximum spread of dates that anyone alive today can be expected to see, then we have ten dates equally common, the 12th of April among them.

Anyone hoping for an answer besides the 29th of February either suspects I’m doing some clickbait thing, maybe talking about that time Sweden didn’t quite make the transition from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, or realizes I’m talking about days of the week. Are 29ths of February more likely to be a Sunday, a Monday, what?

The reason this is a question at all is that the Gregorian calendar has this very slight, but real, bias. Some days of the week are more likely for a year to start on than other days are. This gives us the phenomenon where the 13th of months are slightly more likely to be Fridays than any other day of the week. Here “likely” reflects that, if we do not know a specific month and year, then we can’t say which of the seven days the calendar’s rules give us for the date of the 13th.

Or, for that matter, if we don’t know which leap year we’re thinking of. There are 97 of them every 400 years. Since 97 things can’t be uniformly spread across the seven days of the week, how are they spread?

This is what computers are for. You’ve seen me do this for the date of Easter and for the date of (US) Thanksgiving. Using the ‘weekday’ function in Octave (a Matlab clone) I checked. In any 400-year span of the Gregorian calendar — and the calendar recycles every 400 years, so that’s as much as we need — we will see this distribution:

Leap Day will be a

this many times

Sunday

13

Monday

15

Tuesday

13

Wednesday

15

Thursday

13

Friday

14

Saturday

14

in 400 years

Through to 2100, though, the calendar is going to follow a 28-year period. So this will be the last Saturday leap day until 2048. The next several ones will be Thursday, Tuesday, Sunday, Friday, Wednesday, and Monday.

Last week was another light week of work from Comic Strip Master Command. One could fairly argue that nothing is worth my attention. Except … one comic strip got onto the calendar. And that, my friends, is demanding I pay attention. Because the comic strip got multiple things wrong. And then the comments on GoComics got it more wrong. Got things wrong to the point that I could not be sure people weren’t trolling each other. I know how nerds work. They do this. It’s not pretty. So since I have the responsibility to correct strangers online I’ll focus a bit on that.

Robb Armstrong’s JumpStart for the 13th starts off all right. The early Roman calendar had ten months, December the tenth of them. This was a calendar that didn’t try to cover the whole year. It just started in spring and ran into early winter and that was it. This may seem baffling to us moderns, but it is, I promise you, the least confusing aspect of the Roman calendar. This may seem less strange if you think of the Roman calendar as like a sports team’s calendar, or a playhouse’s schedule of shows, or a timeline for a particular complicated event. There are just some fallow months that don’t need mention.

Things go wrong with Rob’s claim that December will have five Saturdays, five Sundays, and five Mondays. December 2019 will have no such thing. It has four Saturdays. There are five Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays. From Crunchy’s response it sounds like Joe’s run across some Internet Dubious Science Folklore. You know, where you see a claim that (like) Saturn will be larger in the sky than anytime since the glaciers receded or something. And as you’d expect, it’s gotten a bit out of date. December 2018 had five Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays. So did December 2012. And December 2007.

And as this shows, that’s not a rare thing. Any month with 31 days will have five of some three days in the week. August 2019, for example, has five Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays. October 2019 will have five Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays. This we can show by the pigeonhole principle. And there are seven months each with 31 days in every year.

It’s not every year that has some month with five Saturdays, Sundays, and Mondays in it. 2024 will not, for example. But a lot of years do. I’m not sure why December gets singled out for attention here. From the setup about December having long ago been the tenth month, I guess it’s some attempt to link the fives of the weekend days to the ten of the month number. But we get this kind of December about every five or six years.

This 823 years stuff, now that’s just gibberish. The Gregorian calendar has its wonders and mysteries yes. None of them have anything to do with 823 years. Here, people in the comments got really bad at explaining what was going on.

So. There are fourteen different … let me call them year plans, available to the Gregorian calendar. January can start on a Sunday when it is a leap year. Or January can start on a Sunday when it is not a leap year. January can start on a Monday when it is a leap year. January can start on a Monday when it is not a leap year. And so on. So there are fourteen possible arrangements of the twelve months of the year, what days of the week the twentieth of January and the thirtieth of December can occur on. The incautious might think this means there’s a period of fourteen years in the calendar. This comes from misapplying the pigeonhole principle.

Here’s the trouble. January 2019 started on a Tuesday. This implies that January 2020 starts on a Wednesday. January 2025 also starts on a Wednesday. But January 2024 starts on a Monday. You start to see the pattern. If this is not a leap year, the next year starts one day of the week later than this one. If this is a leap year, the next year starts two days of the week later. This is all a slightly annoying pattern, but it means that, typically, it takes 28 years to get back where you started. January 2019 started on Tuesday; January 2020 on Wednesday, and January 2021 on Friday. the same will hold for January 2047 and 2048 and 2049. There are other successive years that will start on Tuesday and Wednesday and Friday before that.

Except.

The important difference between the Julian and the Gregorian calendars is century years. 1900. 2000. 2100. These are all leap years by the Julian calendar reckoning. Most of them are not, by the Gregorian. Only century years divisible by 400 are. 2000 was a leap year; 2400 will be. 1900 was not; 2100 will not be, by the Gregorian scheme.

These exceptions to the leap-year-every-four-years pattern mess things up. The 28-year-period does not work if it stretches across a non-leap-year century year. By the way, if you have a friend who’s a programmer who has to deal with calendars? That friend hates being a programmer who has to deal with calendars.

There is still a period. It’s just a longer period. Happily the Gregorian calendar has a period of 400 years. The whole sequence of year patterns from 2000 through 2019 will reappear, 2400 through 2419. 2800 through 2819. 3200 through 3219.

(Whether they were also the year patterns for 1600 through 1619 depends on where you are. Countries which adopted the Gregorian calendar promptly? Yes. Countries which held out against it, such as Turkey or the United Kingdom? No. Other places? Other, possibly quite complicated, stories. If you ask your computer for the 1619 calendar it may well look nothing like 2019’s, and that’s because it is showing the Julian rather than Gregorian calendar.)

Except.

This is all in reference to the days of the week. The date of Easter, and all of the movable holidays tied to Easter, is on a completely different cycle. Easter is set by … oh, dear. Well, it’s supposed to be a simple enough idea: the Sunday after the first spring full moon. It uses a notional moon that’s less difficult to predict than the real one. It’s still a bit of a mess. The date of Easter is periodic again, yes. But the period is crazy long. It would take 5,700,000 years to complete its cycle on the Gregorian calendar. It never will. Never try to predict Easter. It won’t go well. Don’t believe anything amazing you read about Easter online.

Michael Jantze’s The Norm (Classics) for the 15th is much less trouble. It uses some mathematics to represent things being easy and things being hard. Easy’s represented with arithmetic. Hard is represented with the calculations of quantum mechanics. Which, oddly, look very much like arithmetic. even has fewer symbols than has. But the symbols mean different abstract things. In a quantum mechanics context, ‘A’ and ‘B’ represent — well, possibly matrices. More likely operators. Operators work a lot like functions and I’m going to skip discussing the ways they don’t. Multiplying operators together — B times A, here — works by using the range of one function as the domain of the other. Like, imagine ‘B’ means ‘take the square of’ and ‘A’ means ‘take the sine of’. Then ‘BA’ would mean ‘take the square of the sine of’ (something). The fun part is the ‘AB’ would mean ‘take the sine of the square of’ (something). Which is fun because most of the time, those won’t have the same value. We accept that, mathematically. It turns out to work well for some quantum mechanics properties, even though it doesn’t work like regular arithmetic. So holds complexity, or at least strangeness, in its few symbols.

There were some more comic strips which just mentioned mathematics in passing.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers rerun for the 11th has a blackboard of mathematics used to represent deep thinking. Also, it I think, the colorist didn’t realize that they were standing in front of a blackboard. You can see mathematicians doing work in several colors, either to convey information in shorthand or because they had several colors of chalk. Not this way, though.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 16th mentions “being good at math” as something to respect cows for. The comic’s just this past week started over from its beginning. If you’re interested in deeply weird and long-since cancelled comics this is as good a chance to jump on as you can get.

That’s the mathematically-themed comic strips for last week. All my Reading the Comics essays should be at this link. I’ve traditionally run at least one essay a week on Sunday. But recently that’s moved to Tuesday for no truly compelling reason. That seems like it’s working for me, though. I may stick with it. If you do have an opinion about Sunday versus Tuesday please let me know.

Don’t let me know on Twitter. I continue to have this problem where Twitter won’t load on Safari. I don’t know why. I’m this close to trying it out on a different web browser.

And, again, I’m planning a fresh A To Z sequence. It’s never to early to think of mathematics topics that I might explain. I should probably have already started writing some. But you’ll know the official announcement when it comes. It’ll have art and everything.

It’s a new year. That doesn’t mean I’m not going to keep up some of my old habits. One of them is reading the comics for the mathematics bits. For example …

Johnny Hart’s Back To BC for the 30th presents some curious use of mathematics. At least the grammar of mathematics. It’s a bunch of statements that are supposed to, taken together, overload … I’m going to say BC’s … brain. (I’m shaky on which of the characters is Peter and which is BC. Their difference in hair isn’t much of a visual hook.) Certainly mathematics inspires that feeling that one’s overloaded one’s brain. The long strings of reasoning and (ideally) precise definitions are hard to consider. And the proofs mathematicians find the most fun are, often, built cleverly. That is, going about their business demonstrating things that don’t seem relevant, and at the end tying them together. It’s hard to think.

But then … Peter … isn’t giving a real mathematical argument. He’s giving nonsense. And obvious nonsense, rather than nonsense because the writer wanted something that sounded complicated without caring what was said. Talking about a “four-sided triangle” or a “rectangular circle” has to be Peter trying to mess with BC’s head. Confidently-spoken nonsense can sound as if it’s deeper wisdom than the listener has. Which, fair enough: how can you tell whether an argument is nonsense or just cleverer than you are? Consider the kind of mathematics proof I mentioned above, where the structure might almost be a shaggy dog joke. If you can’t follow the logic, is it because the argument is wrong or because you haven’t worked out why it is right?

I believe that … Peter … is just giving nonsense and trusting that … BC … won’t know the difference, but will wear himself out trying to understand. Pranks.

Tim Lachowski’s Get A Life for the 31st just has some talk about percentages and depreciation and such. It’s meant to be funny that we might think of a brain depreciating, as if anatomy could use the same language as finance. Still, one of the virtues of statistics is the ability to understand a complicated reality with some manageable set of numbers. If we accept the convention that some number can represent the value of a business, why not the convention that some number could represent the health of a brain? So, it’s silly, but I can imagine a non-silly framing for it.

Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 1st is about calendars. The history of calendars is tied up with mathematics in deep and sometimes peculiar ways. One might imagine that a simple ever-increasing index from some convenient reference starting time would do. And somehow that doesn’t. Also, the deeper you go into calendars the more you wonder if anyone involved in the project knew how to count. If you ever need to feel your head snapping, try following closely just how the ancient Roman calendar worked. Especially from the era when they would occasionally just drop an extra month in to the late-middle of February.

The Julian and Gregorian calendars have a year number that got assigned proleptically, that is, with the year 1 given to a set of dates that nobody present at the time called the year 1. Which seems fair enough; not many people in the year 1 had any idea that something noteworthy was under way. Calendar epochs dated to more clear events, like the reign of a new emperor or the revolution that took care of that whole emperor problem, will more reliably start with people aware of the new numbers. Proleptic dating has some neat side effects, though. If you ever need to not impress someone, you can point out that the dates from the 1st of March, 200 to the 28th of February, 300 both the Julian and the Gregorian calendar dates exactly matched.

Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 2nd is a dad joke about mathematics. And uses fractions as emblematic of mathematics, fairly enough. Introducing them and working with them are the sorts of thing that frustrate and confuse. I notice also the appearance of “37” here. Christopher Miller’s fascinating American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny identifies 37 as the current “funniest number”, displacing the early 20th century’s preferred 23 (as in skidoo). Among other things, odd numbers have a connotation of seeming more random than even numbers; ask someone to pick a whole number from 1 to 50 and you’ll see 37’s and 33’s more than you’ll see, oh, 48’s. Why? Good question. It’s among the mysteries of psychology. There’s likely no really deep reason. Maybe a sense that odd numbers are, well, odd as in peculiar, and that a bunch of peculiarities will be funny. Now let’s watch the next decade make a food of me and decide the funniest number is 64.

I’m glad to be back on schedule publishing Reading the Comics posts. I should have another one this week. It’ll be at this link when it’s ready. Thanks for reading.

Here is a surprising thought for the next time you consider remodeling the kitchen. It’s common to tile the floor. Perhaps some of the walls behind the counter. What patterns could you use? And there are infinitely many possibilities. You might leap ahead of me and say, yes, but they’re all boring. A tile that’s eight inches square is different from one that’s twelve inches square and different from one that’s 12.01 inches square. Fine. Let’s allow that all square tiles are “really” the same pattern. The only difference between a square two feet on a side and a square half an inch on a side is how much grout you have to deal with. There are still infinitely many possibilities.

You might still suspect me of being boring. Sure, there’s a rectangular tile that’s, say, six inches by eight inches. And one that’s six inches by nine inches. Six inches by ten inches. Six inches by one millimeter. Yes, I’m technically right. But I’m not interested in that. Let’s allow that all rectangular tiles are “really” the same pattern. So we have “squares” and “rectangles”. There are still infinitely many tile possibilities.

Let me shorten the discussion here. Draw a quadrilateral. One that doesn’t intersect itself. That is, there’s four corners, four lines, and there’s no X crossings. If you have that, then you have a tiling. Get enough of these tiles and arrange them correctly and you can cover the plane. Or the kitchen floor, if you have a level floor. It might not be obvious how to do it. You might have to rotate alternating tiles, or set them in what seem like weird offsets. But you can do it. You’ll need someone to make the tiles for you, if you pick some weird pattern. I hope I live long enough to see it become part of the dubious kitchen package on junk home-renovation shows.

Let me broaden the discussion here. What do I mean by a tiling if I’m allowing any four-sided figure to be a tile? We start with a surface. Usually the plane, a flat surface stretching out infinitely far in two dimensions. The kitchen floor, or any other mere mortal surface, approximates this. But the floor stops at some point. That’s all right. The ideas we develop for the plane work all right for the kitchen. There’s some weird effects for the tiles that get too near the edges of the room. We don’t need to worry about them here. The tiles are some collection of open sets. No two tiles overlap. The tiles, plus their boundaries, cover the whole plane. That is, every point on the plane is either inside exactly one of the open sets, or it’s on the boundary between one (or more) sets.

There isn’t a requirement that all these sets have the same shape. We usually do, and will limit our tiles to one or two shapes endlessly repeated. It seems to appeal to our aesthetics and our installation budget. Using a single pattern allows us to cover the plane with triangles. Any triangle will do. Similarly any quadrilateral will do. For convex pentagonal tiles — here things get weird. There are fourteen known families of pentagons that tile the plane. Each member of the family looks about the same, but there’s some room for variation in the sides. Plus there’s one more special case that can tile the plane, but only that one shape, with no variation allowed. We don’t know if there’s a sixteenth pattern. But then until 2015 we didn’t know there was a 15th, and that was the first pattern found in thirty years. Might be an opening for someone with a good eye for doodling.

There are also exciting opportunities in convex hexagons. Anyone who plays strategy games knows a regular hexagon will tile the plane. (Regular hexagonal tilings fit a certain kind of strategy game well. Particularly they imply an equal distance between the centers of any adjacent tiles. Square and triangular tiles don’t guarantee that. This can imply better balance for territory-based games.) Irregular hexagons will, too. There are three known families of irregular hexagons that tile the plane. You can treat the regular hexagon as a special case of any of these three families. No one knows if there’s a fourth family. Ready your notepad at the next overlong, agenda-less meeting.

There aren’t tilings for identical convex heptagons, figures with seven sides. Nor eight, nor nine, nor any higher figure. You can cover them if you have non-convex figures. See any Tetris game where you keep getting the ‘s’ or ‘t’ shapes. And you can cover them if you use several shapes.

There’s some guidance if you want to create your own periodic tilings. I see it called the Conway Criterion. I don’t know the field well enough to say whether that is a common term. It could be something one mathematics popularizer thought of and that other popularizers imitated. (I don’t find “Conway Criterion” on the Mathworld glossary, but that isn’t definitive.) Suppose your polygon satisfies a couple of rules about the shapes of the edges. The rules are given in that link earlier this paragraph. If your shape does, then it’ll be able to tile the plane. If you don’t satisfy the rules, don’t despair! It might yet. The Conway Criterion tells you when some shape will tile the plane. It won’t tell you that something won’t.

(The name “Conway” may nag at you as familiar from somewhere. This criterion is named for John H Conway, who’s famous for a bunch of work in knot theory, group theory, and coding theory. And in popular mathematics for the “Game of Life”. This is a set of rules on a grid of numbers. The rules say how to calculate a new grid, based on this first one. Iterating them, creating grid after grid, can make patterns that seem far too complicated to be implicit in the simple rules. Conway also developed an algorithm to calculate the day of the week, in the Gregorian calendar. It is difficult to explain to the non-calendar fan how great this sort of thing is.)

This has all gotten to periodic tilings. That is, these patterns might be complicated. But if need be, we could get them printed on a nice square tile and cover the floor with that. Almost as beautiful and much easier to install. Are there tilings that aren’t periodic? Aperiodic tilings?

Well, sure. Easily. Take a bunch of tiles with a right angle, and two 45-degree angles. Put any two together and you have a square. So you’re “really” tiling squares that happen to be made up of a pair of triangles. Each pair, toss a coin to decide whether you put the diagonal as a forward or backward slash. Done. That’s not a periodic tiling. Not unless you had a weird run of luck on your coin tosses.

All right, but is that just a technicality? We could have easily installed this periodically and we just added some chaos to make it “not work”. Can we use a finite number of different kinds of tiles, and have it be aperiodic however much we try to make it periodic? And through about 1966 mathematicians would have mostly guessed that no, you couldn’t. If you had a set of tiles that would cover the plane aperiodically, there was also some way to do it periodically.

And then in 1966 came a surprising result. No, not Penrose tiles. I know you want me there. I’ll get there. Not there yet though. In 1966 Robert Berger — who also attended Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, thank you — discovered such a tiling. It’s aperiodic, and it can’t be made periodic. Why do we know Penrose Tiles rather than Berger Tiles? Couple reasons, including that Berger has to use 20,426 distinct tile shapes. In 1971 Raphael M Robinson simplified matters a bit and got that down to six shapes. Roger Penrose in 1974 squeezed the set down to two, although by adding some rules about what edges may and may not touch one another. (You can turn this into a pure edges thing by putting notches into the shapes.) That really caught the public imagination. It’s got simplicity and accessibility to combine with beauty. Aperiodic tiles seem to relate to “quasicrystals”, which are what the name suggests and do happen in some materials. And they’ve got beauty. Aperiodic tiling embraces our need to have not too much order in our order.

I’ve discussed, in all this, tiling the plane. It’s an easy surface to think about and a popular one. But we can form tiling questions about other shapes. Cylinders, spheres, and toruses seem like they should have good tiling questions available. And we can imagine “tiling” stuff in more dimensions too. If we can fill a volume with cubes, or rectangles, it’s natural to wonder what other shapes we can fill it with. My impression is that fewer definite answers are known about the tiling of three- and four- and higher-dimensional space. Possibly because it’s harder to sketch out ideas and test them. Possibly because the spaces are that much stranger. I would be glad to hear more.

There were a good number of mathematically-themed comic strips in the syndicated comics last week. Those from the first part of the week gave me topics I could really sink my rhetorical teeth into, too. So I’m going to lop those off into the first essay for last week and circle around to the other comics later on.

Jef Mallett’s Frazz started a week of calendar talk on the 31st of December. I’ve usually counted that as mathematical enough to mention here. The 1st of January as we know it derives, as best I can figure, from the 1st of January as Julius Caesar established for 45 BCE. This was the first Roman calendar to run basically automatically. Its length was quite close to the solar year’s length. It had leap days added according to a rule that should have been easy enough to understand (one day every fourth year). Before then the Roman calendar year was far enough off the solar year that they had to be kept in synch by interventions. Mostly, by that time, adding a short extra month to put things more nearly right. This had gotten all confusingly messed up and Caesar took the chance to set things right, running 46 BCE to 445 days long.

But why 445 and not, say, 443 or 457? And I find on research that my recollection might not be right. That is, I recall that the plan was to set the 1st of January, Reformed, to the first new moon after the winter solstice. A choice that makes sense only for that one year, but, where to set the 1st is literally arbitrary. While that apparently passes astronomical muster (the new moon as seen from Rome then would be just after midnight the 2nd of January, but hitting the night of 1/2 January is good enough), there’s apparently dispute about whether that was the objective. It might have been to set the winter solstice to the 25th of December. Or it might have been that the extra days matched neatly the length of two intercalated months that by rights should have gone into earlier years. It’s a good reminder of the difficulty of reading motivation.

Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 1st of January, 2018, continues his story about the mad scientist from the Fleischer studios’ first Superman cartoon, back in 1941. In this panel he’s describing how he realized, over the course of his long prison sentence, that his intelligence was fading with age. He uses the ability to do arithmetic in his head as proof of that. These types never try naming, like, rulers of the Byzantine Empire. Anyway, to calculate the cube root of 50,653 in his head? As he used to be able to do? … guh. It’s not the sort of mental arithmetic that I find fun.

But I could think of a couple ways to do it. The one I’d use is based on a technique called Newton-Raphson iteration that can often be used to find where a function’s value is zero. Raphson here is Joseph Raphson, a late 17th century English mathematician known for the Newton-Raphson method. Newton is that falling-apples fellow. It’s an iterative scheme because you start with a guess about what the answer would be, and do calculations to make the answer better. I don’t say this is the best method, but it’s the one that demands me remember the least stuff to re-generate the algorithm. And it’ll work for any positive number ‘A’ and any root, to the ‘n’-th power.

So you want the n-th root of ‘A’. Start with your current guess about what this root is. (If you have no idea, try ‘1’ or ‘A’.) Call that guess ‘x’. Then work out this number:

Ta-da! You have, probably, now a better guess of the n-th root of ‘A’. If you want a better guess yet, take the result you just got and call that ‘x’, and go back calculating that again. Stop when you feel like your answer is good enough. This is going to be tedious but, hey, if you’re serving a prison term of the length of US copyright you’ve got time. (It’s possible with this sort of iterator to get a worse approximation, although I don’t think that happens with n-th root process. Most of the time, a couple more iterations will get you back on track.)

But that’s work. Can we think instead? Now, most n-th roots of whole numbers aren’t going to be whole numbers. Most integers aren’t perfect powers of some other integer. If you think 50,653 is a perfect cube of something, though, you can say some things about it. For one, it’s going to have to be a two-digit number. 10^{3} is 1,000; 100^{3} is 1,000,000. The second digit has to be a 7. 7^{3} is 343. The cube of any number ending in 7 has to end in 3. There’s not another number from 1 to 9 with a cube that ends in 3. That’s one of those things you learn from playing with arithmetic. (A number ending in 1 cubes to something ending in 1. A number ending in 2 cubes to something ending in 8. And so on.)

So the cube root has to be one of 17, 27, 37, 47, 57, 67, 77, 87, or 97. Again, if 50,653 is a perfect cube. And we can do better than saying it’s merely one of those nine possibilities. 40 times 40 times 40 is 64,000. This means, first, that 47 and up are definitely too large. But it also means that 40 is just a little more than the cube root of 50,653. So, if 50,653 is a perfect cube, then it’s most likely going to be the cube of 37.

Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes rerun for the 2nd is a great sequence of Hobbes explaining arithmetic to Calvin. There is nothing which could be added to Hobbes’s explanation of 3 + 8 which would make it better. I will modify Hobbes’s explanation of what the numerator. It’s ridiculous to think it’s Latin for “number eighter”. The reality is possibly more ridiculous, as it means “a numberer”. Apparently it derives from “numeratus”, meaning, “to number”. The “denominator” comes from “de nomen”, as in “name”. So, you know, “the thing that’s named”. Which does show the terms mean something. A poet could turn “numerator over denominator” into “the number of parts of the thing we name”, or something near enough that.

Hobbes continues the next day, introducing Calvin to imaginary numbers. The term “imaginary numbers” tells us their history: they looked, when first noticed in formulas for finding roots of third- and fourth-degree polynomials, like obvious nonsense. But if you carry on, following the rules as best you can, that nonsense would often shake out and you’d get back to normal numbers again. And as generations of mathematicians grew up realizing these acted like numbers we started to ask: well, how is an imaginary number any less real than, oh, the square root of six?

Hobbes’s particular examples of imaginary numbers — “eleventenn” and “thirty-twelve” — are great-sounding compositions. They put me in mind, as many of Watterson’s best words do, of a 1960s Peanuts in which Charlie Brown is trying to help Sally practice arithmetic. (I can’t find it online, as that meme with edited text about Sally Brown and the sixty grapefruits confounds my web searches.) She offers suggestions like “eleventy-Q” and asks if she’s close, which Charlie Brown admits is hard to say.

And finally, James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 3rd just mentions mathematics as the subject that Rusty Trail is going to have to do some work on instead of allowing the experience of a family trip to Mexico to count. This is of extremely marginal relevance, but it lets me include a picture of a comic strip, and I always like getting to do that.

I thought I had written this up. Which is good because I didn’t want to spend the energy redoing these calculations.

The date of Thanksgiving, as observed in the United States, is that it’s the fourth Thursday of November. So it might happen anytime from the 22nd through the 28th. But because of the quirks of the Gregorian calendar, it can happen that a particular date, like the 23rd of November, is more or less likely to be a Thursday than some other day of the week.

So here’s the results of what days are most and least likely to be Thanksgiving. It turns out the 23rd, this year’s candidate, is tied for the rarest of Thanksgiving days. It’s not that rare, in comparison. It happens only two fewer times every 400 years than do Thanksgivings on the 22nd of November, the (tied) most common day.

It was again a week just busy enough that I’m comfortable splitting the Reading The Comments thread into two pieces. It’s also a week that made me think about cake. So, I’m happy with the way last week shaped up, as far as comic strips go. Other stuff could have used a lot of work Let’s read.

Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal rerun for the 13th depicts “teaching the kids math” by having them divide up a cake fairly. I accept this as a viable way to make kids interested in the problem. Cake-slicing problems are a corner of game theory as it addresses questions we always find interesting. How can a resource be fairly divided? How can it be divided if there is not a trusted authority? How can it be divided if the parties do not trust one another? Why do we not have more cake? The kids seem to be trying to divide the cake by volume, which could be fair. If the cake slice is a small enough wedge they can likely get near enough a perfect split by ordinary measures. If it’s a bigger wedge they’d need calculus to get the answer perfect. It’ll be well-approximated by solids of revolution. But they likely don’t need perfection.

This is assuming the value of the icing side is not held in greater esteem than the bare-cake sides. This is not how I would value the parts of the cake. They’ll need to work something out about that, too.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 13th features a bit of numerical wizardry. That the dates in a three-by-three block in a calendar will add up to nine times the centered date. Why this works is good for a bit of practice in simplifying algebraic expressions. The stunt will be more impressive if you can multiply by nine in your head. I’d do that by taking ten times the given date and then subtracting the original date. I won’t say I’m fond of the idea of subtracting 23 from 230, or 17 from 170. But a skilled performer could do something interesting while trying to do this subtraction. (And if you practice the trick you can get the hang of the … fifteen? … different possible answers.)

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot rerun for the 14th mentions mathematics. Young nerd Jason’s trying to get back into hand-raising form. Arithmetic has considerable advantages as a thing to practice answering teachers. The questions have clear, definitely right answers, that can be worked out or memorized ahead of time, and can be asked in under half a panel’s word balloon space. I deduce the strip first ran the 21st of August, 2006, although that image seems to be broken.

Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 14th suggests changes in the definition of the mile and the gallon to effortlessly improve the fuel economy of cars. As befits Allison’s Dadaist inclinations the numbers don’t work out. As it is, if you defined a New Mile of 7,290 feet (and didn’t change what a foot was) and a New Gallon of 192 fluid ounces (and didn’t change what an old fluid ounce was) then a 20 old-miles-per-old-gallon car would come out to about 21.7 new-miles-per-new-gallon. Commenter Del_Grande points out that if the New Mile were 3,960 feet then the calculation would work out. This inspires in me curiosity. Did Allison figure out the numbers that would work and then make a mistake in the final art? Or did he pick funny-looking numbers and not worry about whether they made sense? No way to tell from here, I suppose. (Allison doesn’t mention ways to get in touch on the comic’s About page and I’ve only got the weakest links into the professional cartoon community.)

Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 15th mentions long division as the stuff of nightmares. So it is. I guess MathWorld and Wikipedia endorse calling 128 divided by 4 long division, although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. This may be idiosyncratic; I’d thought of long division as where the divisor is two or more digits. A three-digit number divided by a one-digit one doesn’t seem long to me. I’d just think that was division. I’m curious what readers’ experiences have been.

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.

Mac and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute for the 25th features a form-a-square puzzle using some triangles. Mathematics? Well, logic anyway. Also a good reminder about open-mindedness when you’re attempting to construct something.

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.

If I’d started pondering the question a week earlier I’d have a nice timely post. Too bad. Shouldn’t wait nearly a year to use this one, though.

My love and I got talking about early and late Easters. We know that we’re all but certainly not going to be alive to see the earliest possible Easter, at least not unless the rule for setting the date of Easter changes. Easter can be as early as the 22nd of March or as late as the 25th of April. Nobody presently alive has seen a 22nd of March Easter; the last one was in 1818. Nobody presently alive will; the next will be 2285. The last time Easter was its latest date was 1943; the next time will be 2038. I know people who’ve seen the one in 1943 and hope to make it at least through 2038.

But that invites the question: what dates are most likely to be Easter? What ones are least? In a sense the question is nonsense. The rules establishing Easter and the Gregorian calendar are known. To speak of the “chance” of a particular day being Easter is like asking the probability that Grover Cleveland was president of the United States in 1894. Technically there’s a probability distribution there. But it’s different in some way from asking the chance of rolling at least a nine on a pair of dice.

But as with the question about what day is most likely to be Thanksgiving we can make the question sensible. We have to take the question to mean “given a month and day, and no information about what year it is, what is the chance that this as Easter?” (I’m still not quite happy with that formulation. I’d be open to a more careful phrasing, if someone’s got one.)

When we’ve got that, though, we can tackle the problem. We could do as I did for working out what days are most likely to be Thanksgiving. Run through all the possible configurations of the calendar, tally how often each of the days in the range is Easter, and see what comes up most often. There’s a hassle here. Working out the date of Easter follows a rule, yes. The rule is that it’s the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox. There are wrinkles, mostly because the Moon is complicated. A notional Moon that’s a little more predictable gets used instead. There are algorithms you can use to work out when Easter is. They all look like some kind of trick being used to put something over on you. No matter. They seem to work, as far as we know. I found some Matlab code that uses the Easter-computing routine that Karl Friedrich Gauss developed and that’ll do.

Problem. The Moon and the Earth follow cycles around the sun, yes. Wait long enough and the positions of the Earth and Moon and Sun. This takes 532 years and is known as the Paschal Cycle. In the Julian calendar Easter this year is the same date it was in the year 1485, and the same it will be in 2549. It’s no particular problem to set a computer program to run a calculation, even a tedious one, 532 times. But it’s not meaningful like that either.

The problem is the Julian calendar repeats itself every 28 years, which fits nicely with the Paschal Cycle. The Gregorian calendar, with different rules about how to handle century years like 1900 and 2100, repeats itself only every 400 years. So it takes much longer to complete the cycle and get Earth, Moon, and calendar date back to the same position. To fully account for all the related cycles would take 5,700,000 years, estimates Duncan Steel in Marking Time: The Epic Quest To Invent The Perfect Calendar.

Write code to calculate Easter on a range of years and you can do that, of course. It’s no harder to calculate the dates of Easter for six million years than it is for six hundred years. It just takes longer to finish. The problem is that it is meaningless to do so. Over the course of a mere(!) 26,000 years the precession of the Earth’s axes will change the times of the seasons completely. If we still use the Gregorian calendar there will be a time that late September is the start of the Northern Hemisphere’s spring, and another time that early February is the heart of the Canadian summer. Within five thousand years we will have to change the calendar, change the rule for computing Easter, or change the idea of it as happening in Europe’s early spring. To calculate a date for Easter of the year 5,002,017 is to waste energy.

We probably don’t need it anyway, though. The differences between any blocks of 532 years are, I’m going to guess, minor things. I would be surprised if the frequency of any date’s appearance changed more than a quarter of a percent. That might scramble the rankings of dates if we have several nearly-as-common dates, but it won’t be much.

So let me do that. Here’s a table of how often each particular calendar date appears as Easter from the years 2000 to 5000, inclusive. And I don’t believe that by the year we would call 5000 we’ll still have the same calendar and Easter and expectations of Easter all together, so I’m comfortable overlooking that. Indeed, I expect we’ll have some different calendar or Easter or expectation of Easter by the year 4985 at the latest.

For this enormous date range, though, here’s the frequency of Easters on each possible date:

Date

Number Of Occurrences, 2000 – 5000

Probability Of Occurence

22 March

12

0.400%

23 March

17

0.566%

24 March

41

1.366%

25 March

74

2.466%

26 March

75

2.499%

27 March

68

2.266%

28 March

90

2.999%

29 March

110

3.665%

30 March

114

3.799%

31 March

99

3.299%

1 April

87

2.899%

2 April

83

2.766%

3 April

106

3.532%

4 April

112

3.732%

5 April

110

3.665%

6 April

92

3.066%

7 April

86

2.866%

8 April

98

3.266%

9 April

112

3.732%

10 April

114

3.799%

11 April

96

3.199%

12 April

88

2.932%

13 April

90

2.999%

14 April

108

3.599%

15 April

117

3.899%

16 April

104

3.466%

17 April

90

2.999%

18 April

93

3.099%

19 April

114

3.799%

20 April

116

3.865%

21 April

93

3.099%

22 April

60

1.999%

23 April

46

1.533%

24 April

57

1.899%

25 April

29

0.966%

If I haven’t missed anything, this indicates that the 15th of April is the most likely date for Easter, with the 20th close behind and the 10th and 14th hardly rare. The least probable date is the 22nd of March, with the 23rd of March and the 25th of April almost as unlikely.

And since the date range does affect the results, here’s a smaller sampling, one closer fit to the dates of anyone alive to read this as I publish. For the years 1925 through 2100 the appearance of each Easter date are:

Date

Number Of Occurrences, 1925 – 2100

Probability Of Occurence

22 March

0

0.000%

23 March

1

0.568%

24 March

1

0.568%

25 March

3

1.705%

26 March

6

3.409%

27 March

3

1.705%

28 March

5

2.841%

29 March

6

3.409%

30 March

7

3.977%

31 March

7

3.977%

1 April

6

3.409%

2 April

4

2.273%

3 April

6

3.409%

4 April

6

3.409%

5 April

7

3.977%

6 April

7

3.977%

7 April

4

2.273%

8 April

4

2.273%

9 April

6

3.409%

10 April

7

3.977%

11 April

7

3.977%

12 April

7

3.977%

13 April

4

2.273%

14 April

6

3.409%

15 April

7

3.977%

16 April

6

3.409%

17 April

7

3.977%

18 April

6

3.409%

19 April

6

3.409%

20 April

6

3.409%

21 April

7

3.977%

22 April

5

2.841%

23 April

2

1.136%

24 April

2

1.136%

25 April

2

1.136%

If we take this as the “working lifespan” of our common experience then the 22nd of March is the least likely Easter we’ll see, as we never do. The 23rd and 24th are the next least likely Easter. There’s a ten-way tie for the most common date of Easter, if I haven’t missed one or more. But the 30th and 31st of March, and the 5th, 6th, 10th, 11th, 12th, 15th, 17th, and 21st of April each turn up seven times in this range.

The Julian calendar Easter dates are different and perhaps I’ll look at that sometime.

September 1999 was a heck of a month you maybe remember. There that all that excitement of the Moon being blasted out of orbit thanks to the nuclear waste pile up there getting tipped over or something. And that was just as we were getting over the final new episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000‘s first airing. That episode was number 1003, Merlin’s Shop of Mystical Wonders, which aired a month after the season finale because of one of those broadcast rights tangles that the show always suffered through.

Time moves on, and strange things happen, and show co-creator and first host Joel Hodgson got together a Kickstarter and a Netflix deal. The show’s Season Eleven is supposed to air starting the 14th of April, this year. The natural question: how long will we go, then, between new episodes of Mystery Science Theater 3000? Or more generally, how do you work out how long it is between two dates?

The answer is dear Lord under no circumstances try to work this out yourself. I’m sorry to be so firm. But the Gregorian calendar grew out of a bunch of different weird influences. It’s just hard to keep track of all the different 31- and 30-day months between two events. And then February is all sorts of extra complications. It’s especially tricky if the interval spans a century year, like 2000, since the majority of those are not leap years, except that the one century year I’m likely to experience was. And then if your interval happens to cross the time the local region switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar —

So my answer is don’t ever try to work this out yourself. Never. Just refuse the problem if you’re given it. If you’re a consultant charge an extra hundred dollars for even hearing the problem.

All right, but what if you really absolutely must know for some reason? I only know one good answer. Convert the start and the end dates of your interval into Julian Dates and subtract one from the other. I mean subtract the smaller number from the larger. Julian Dates are one of those extremely minor points of calendar use. They track the number of days elapsed since noon, Universal Time, on the Julian-calendar date we call the 1st of January, 4713 BC. The scheme, for years, was set up in 1583 by Joseph Justus Scalinger, calendar reformer, who wanted for convenience an index year so far back that every historically known event would have a positive number. In the 19th century the astronomer John Herschel expanded it to date-counting.

Scalinger picked the year from the convergence of a couple of convenient calendar cycles about how the sun and moon move as well as the 15-year indiction cycle that the Roman Empire used for tax matters (and that left an impression on European nations). His reasons don’t much matter to us. The specific choice means we’re not quite three-fifths of the way through the days in the 2,400,000’s. So it’s not rare to modify the Julian Date by subtracting 2,400,000 from it. The date starts from noon because astronomers used to start their new day at noon, which was more convenient for logging a whole night’s observations. Since astronomers started taking pictures of stuff and looking at them later they’ve switched to the new day starting at midnight like everybody else, but you know what it’s like changing an old system.

This summons the problem: so how do I know many dates passed between whatever day I’m interested in and the Julian Calendar 1st of January, 4713 BC? Yes, there’s a formula. No, don’t try to use it. Let the fine people at the United States Naval Observatory do the work for you. They know what they’re doing and they’ve had this calculator up for a very long time without any appreciable scandal accruing to it. The system asks you for a time of day, because the Julian Date increases as the day goes on. You can just make something up if the time doesn’t matter. I normally leave it on midnight myself.

So. The last episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000 to debut, on the 12th of September, 1999, did so on Julian Date 2,451,433. (Well, at 9 am Eastern that day, but nobody cares about that fine grain a detail.) The new season’s to debut on Netflix the 14th of April, 2017, which will be Julian Date 2,457,857. (I have no idea if there’s a set hour or if it’ll just become available at 12:01 am in whatever time zone Netflix Master Command’s servers are in.) That’s a difference of 6,424 days. You’re on your own in arguing about whether that means it was 6,424 or 6,423 days between new episodes.

If you do take anything away from this, though, please let it be the warning: never try to work out the interval between dates yourself.

So my question from last Thursday nagged at my mind. And I learned that Octave (a Matlab clone that’s rather cheaper) has a function that calculates the day of the week for any given day. And I spent longer than I would have expected fiddling with the formatting to get what I wanted to know.

It turns out there are some days in November more likely to be the fourth Thursday than others are. (This is the current standard for Thanksgiving Day in the United States.) And as I’d suspected without being able to prove, this doesn’t quite match the breakdown of which months are more likely to have Friday the 13ths. That is, it’s more likely that an arbitrarily selected month will start on Sunday than any other day of the week. It’s least likely that an arbitrarily selected month will start on a Saturday or Monday. The difference is extremely tiny; there are only four more Sunday-starting months than there are Monday-starting months over the course of 400 years.

But an arbitrary month is different from an arbitrary November. It turns out Novembers are most likely to start on a Sunday, Tuesday, or Thursday. And that makes the 26th, 24th, and 22nd the most likely days to be Thanksgiving. The 23rd and 25th are the least likely days to be Thanksgiving. Here’s the full roster, if I haven’t made any serious mistakes with it:

November

Will Be Thanksgiving

22

58

23

56

24

58

25

56

26

58

27

57

28

57

times in 400 years

I don’t pretend there’s any significance to this. But it is another of those interesting quirks of probability. What you would say the probability is of a month starting on the 1st — equivalently, of having a Friday the 13th, or a Fourth Thursday of the Month that’s the 26th — depends on how much you know about the month. If you know only that it’s a month on the Gregorian calendar it’s one thing (specifically, it’s 688/4800, or about 0.14333). If you know only that it’s a November than it’s another (58/400, or 0.145). If you know only that it’s a month in 2016 then it’s another yet (1/12, or about 0.08333). If you know that it’s November 2016 then the probability is 0. Information does strange things to probability questions.

It’s well-known, at least in calendar-appreciation circles, that the 13th of a month is more likely to be Friday than any other day of the week. That’s on the Gregorian calendar, which has some funny rules about whether a century year — 1900, 2000, 2100 — will be a leap year. Three of them aren’t in every four centuries. The result is the pattern of dates on the calendar is locked into this 400-year cycle, instead of the 28-year cycle you might imagine. And this makes some days of the week more likely for some dates than they otherwise might be.

This got me wondering. Does the 13th being slightly more likely imply that the United States Thanksgiving is more likely to be on the 26th of the month? The current rule is that Thanksgiving is the fourth Thursday of November. We’ll pretend that’s an unalterable fact of nature for the sake of having a problem we can solve. So if the 13th is more likely to be a Friday than any other day of the week, isn’t the 26th more likely to be a Thursday than any other day of the week?

And that’s so, but I’m not quite certain yet. What’s got me pondering this in the shower is that the 13th is more likely a Friday for an arbitrary month. That is, if I think of a month and don’t tell you anything about what it is, all we can say is it chance of the 13th being a Friday is such-and-such. But if I pick a particular month — say, November 2017 — things are different. The chance the 13th of November, 2017 is a Friday is zero. So the chance the 26th of December, 2017 is a Thursday is zero. Our calendar system sets rules. We’ll pretend that’s an unalterable fact of nature for the sake of having a problem we can solve, too.

So: does knowing that I am thinking of November, rather than a completely unknown month, change the probabilities? And I don’t know. My gut says “it’s plausible the dates of Novembers are different from the dates of arbitrary months”. I don’t know a way to argue this purely logically, though. It might have to be tested by going through 400 years of calendars and counting when the fourth Thursdays are. (The problem isn’t so tedious as that. There’s formulas computers are good at which can do this pretty well.)

But I would like to know if it can be argued there’s a difference, or that there isn’t.

I can’t think of any particular thematic link through the past week’s mathematical comic strips. This happens sometimes. I’ll make do. They’re all Gocomics.com strips this time around, too, so I haven’t included the strips. The URLs ought to be reasonably stable.

J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts (August 23) is a cute illustration of the first, second, third, and fourth dimensions. The wall-of-text might be a bit off-putting, especially the last panel. It’s worth the reading. Indeed, you almost don’t need the cartoon if you read the text.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am (August 24) is an explanation of pie charts. This might be the best stilly joke of the week. I may just be an easy touch for a pie-in-the-face.

Charlie Podrebarac’s Cow Town (August 26) is about the first day of mathematics camp. It’s also every graduate students’ thesis defense anxiety dream. The zero with a slash through it popping out of Jim Smith’s mouth is known as the null sign. That comes to us from set theory, where it describes “a set that has no elements”. Null sets have many interesting properties considering they haven’t got any things. And that’s important for set theory. The symbol was introduced to mathematics in 1939 by Nicholas Bourbaki, the renowned mathematician who never existed. He was important to the course of 20th century mathematics.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (August 26) talks of a Akira Haraguchi. If we believe this, then, in 2006 he recited 111,700 digits of pi from memory. It’s an impressive stunt and one that makes me wonder who did the checking that he got them all right. The fact-checkers never get their names in Graziano’s Ripley’s.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark (August 27, rerun from 1987) mentions Monty Hall. This is worth mentioning in these parts mostly as a matter of courtesy. The Monty Hall Problem is a fine and imagination-catching probability question. It represents a scenario that never happened on the game show Let’s Make A Deal, though.

Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused (August 28) is a word problem joke. I do wonder if the presence of battery percentage indicators on electronic devices has helped people get a better feeling for percentages. I suppose only vaguely. The devices can be too strangely nonlinear to relate percentages of charge to anything like device lifespan. I’m thinking here of my cell phone, which will sit in my messenger bag for three weeks dropping slowly from 100% to 50%, and then die for want of electrons after thirty minutes of talking with my father. I imagine you have similar experiences, not necessarily with my father.

Well, I thought it’d be unlikely to get too many more mathematics comics before the end of the year, but Comic Strip Master Command apparently sent out orders to clear out the backlog before the new calendar year starts. I think Dark Side of the Horse is my favorite of the strips, blending a good joke with appealing artwork, although The Buckets gives me the most to talk about.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets (December 28) is about what might seem only loosely a mathematical topic: that the calendar is really a pretty screwy creation. And it is, as anyone who’s tried to program a computer to show dates has realized. The core problem, I suppose, is that the calendar tries to meet several goals simultaneously: it’s supposed to use our 24-hour days to keep track of the astronomical year, which is an approximation to the cycle of seasons of the year, and there’s not a whole number of days in a year. It’s also supposed to be used to track short-term events (weeks) and medium-term events (months and seasons). The number of days that best approximate the year, 365 and 366, aren’t numbers that lend themselves to many useful arrangements. The months try to divide that 365 or 366 reasonably uniformly, with historial artifacts that can be traced back to the Roman calendar was just an unspeakable mess; and, something rarely appreciated, the calendar also has to make sure that the date of Easter is something reasonable. And, of course, any reforming of the calendar has to be done with the agreement of a wide swath of the world simultaneously. Given all these constraints it’s probably remarkable that it’s only as messed up as it is.

To the best of my knowledge, January starts the New Year because Tarquin Priscus, King of Rome from 616 – 579 BC, found that convenient after he did some calendar-rejiggering (particularly, swapping the order of February and January), though I don’t know why he thought that particularly convenient. New Years have appeared all over the calendar year, though, with the start of January, the start of September, Christmas Day, and the 25th of March being popular options, and if you think it’s messed up to have a new year start midweek, think about having a new year start in the middle of late March. It all could be worse.

I’ve got enough comics to do a mathematics-comics roundup post again, but none of them are the King Features or Creators or other miscellaneous sources that demand they be included here in pictures. I could wait a little over three hours and give the King Features Syndicate comics another chance to say anything on point, or I could shrug and go with what I’ve got. It’s a tough call. Ah, what the heck; besides, it’s been over a week since I did the last one of these.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot (December 7) bids to get posted on mathematics teachers’ walls with a bit of play on two common uses of the term “degree”. It’s also natural to wonder why the same word “degree” should be used to represent the units of temperature and the size of an angle, to the point that they even use the same symbol of a tiny circle elevated from the baseline as a shorthand representation. As best I can make out, the use of the word degree traces back to Old French, and “degré”, meaning a step, as in a stair. In Middle English this got expanded to the notion of one of a hierarchy of steps, and if you consider the temperature of a thing, or the width of an angle, as something that can be grown or shrunk then … I’m left wondering if the Middle English folks who extended “degree” to temperatures and angles thought there were discrete steps by which either quantity could change.

As for the little degree symbol, Florian Cajori notes in A History Of Mathematical Notations that while the symbol (and the ‘ and ” for minutes and seconds) can be found in Ptolemy (!), in describing Babylonian sexagesimal fractions, this doesn’t directly lead to the modern symbols. Medieval manuscripts and early printed books would use abbreviations of Latin words describing what the numbers represented. Cajori rates as the first modern appearance of the degree symbol an appendix, composed by one Jacques Peletier, to the 1569 edition of the text Arithmeticae practicae methods facilis by Gemma Frisius (you remember him; the guy who made triangulation into something that could be used for surveying territories). Peletier was describing astronomical fractions, and used the symbol to denote that the thing before it was a whole number. By 1571 Erasmus Reinhold (whom you remember from working out the “Prutenic Tables”, updated astronomical charts that helped convince people of the use of the Copernican model of the solar system and advance the cause of calendar reform) was using the little circle to represent degrees, and Tycho Brahe followed his example, and soon … well, it took a century or so of competing symbols, including “Grad” or “Gr” or “G” to represent degree, but the little circle eventually won out. (Assume the story is more complicated than this. It always is.)

Mark Litzer’s Joe Vanilla (December 7) uses a panel of calculus to suggest something particularly deep or intellectually challenging. As it happens, the problem isn’t quite defined well enough to solve, but if you make a reasonable assumption about what’s meant, then it becomes easy to say: this expression is “some infinitely large number”. Here’s why.

The numerator is the integral . You can think of the integral of a positive-valued expression as the area underneath that expression and between the lines marked by, on the left, (the number on the bottom of the integral sign), and on the right, (the number on the top of the integral sign). (You know that it’s x because the integral symbol ends with “dx”; if it ended “dy” then the integral would tell you the left and the right bounds for the variable y instead.) Now, is a number that depends on x, yes, but which is never smaller than (about 23.14) nor bigger than (about 24.14). So the area underneath this expression has to be at least as big as the area within a rectangle that’s got a bottom edge at y = 0, a top edge at y = 23, a left edge at x = 0, and a right edge at x infinitely far off to the right. That rectangle’s got an infinitely large area. The area underneath this expression has to be no smaller than that.

Just because the numerator’s infinitely large doesn’t mean that the fraction is, though. It’s imaginable that the denominator is also infinitely large, and more wondrously, is large in a way that makes the ratio some more familiar number like “3”. Spoiler: it isn’t.

Actually, as it is, the denominator isn’t quite much of anything. It’s a summation; that’s what the capital sigma designates there. By convention, the summation symbol means to evaluate whatever expression there is to the right of it — in this case, it’s — for each of a series of values of some index variable. That variable is normally identified underneath the sigma, with a line such as x = 1, and (again by convention) for x = 2, x = 3, x = 4, and so on, until x equals whatever the number on top of the sigma is. In this case, the bottom doesn’t actually say what the index should be, although since “x” is the only thing that makes sense as a variable within the expression — “cos” means the cosine function, and “e” means the number that’s about 2.71828 unless it’s otherwise made explicit — we can suppose that this is a normal bit of shorthand like you use when context is clear.

With that assumption about what’s meant, then, we know the denominator is whatever number is represented by (and 1/e is about 0.368). That’s a number about 16.549, which falls short of being infinitely large by an infinitely large amount.

So, the original fraction shown represents an infinitely large number.

Mark Tatulli’s Lio (December 7) is another “anthropomorphic numbers” genre comic, and since it’s Lio the numbers naturally act a bit mischievously.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn (December 7, I suppose technically a rerun) only has a bit of mathematical content, as it’s really playing more on short- and long-term memories. Normal people, it seems, have a buffer of something around eight numbers that they can remember without losing track of them, and it’s surprisingly easy to overload that. I recall reading, I think in Joseph T Hallinan’s Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things In Seconds, And Are All Pretty Sure We are Way Above Average, and don’t think I’m not aware of how funny it would be if I were getting this source wrong, that it’s possible to cheat a little bit on the size of one’s number-buffer.

Hallinan (?) gave the example of a runner who was able to remember strings of dozens of numbers, well past the norm, but apparently by the trick of parsing numbers into plausible running times. That is, the person would remember “834126120820” perfectly because it could be expressed as four numbers, “8:34, 1:26, 1:20, 8:20”, that might be credible running times for something or other and the runner was used to remembering such times. Supporting the idea that this trick was based on turning a lot of digits into a few small numbers was that the runner would be lost if the digits could not be parsed into a meaningful time, like, “489162693077”. So, in short, people are really weird in how they remember and don’t remember things.

Harley Schwadron’s 9 to 5 (December 8) is a “reluctant student” question who, in the tradition of kids in comic strips, tosses out the word “app” in the hopes of upgrading the action into a joke. I’m sympathetic to the kid not wanting to do long division. In arithmetic the way I was taught it, this was the first kind of problem where you pretty much had to approximate and make a guess what the answer might be and improve your guess from that starting point, and that’s a terrifying thing when, up to that point, arithmetic has been a series of predictable, discrete, universally applicable rules not requiring you to make a guess. It feels wasteful of effort to work out, say, what seven times your divisor is when it turns out it’ll go into the dividend eight times. I am glad that teaching approaches to arithmetic seem to be turning towards “make approximate or estimated answers, and try to improve those” as a general rule, since often taking your best guess and then improving it is the best way to get a good answer, not just in long division, and the less terrifying that move is, the better.

Justin Boyd’s Invisible Bread (December 12) reveals the joy and the potential menace of charts and graphs. It’s a reassuring red dot at the end of this graph of relevant-graph-probabilities.

Several comics chose to mention the coincidence of the 13th of December being (in the United States standard for shorthand dating) 12-13-14. Chip Sansom’s The Born Loser does the joke about how yes, this sequence won’t recur in (most of our) lives, but neither will any other. Stuart Carlson and Jerry Resler’s Gray Matters takes a little imprecision in calling it “the last date this century to have a consecutive pattern”, something the Grays, if the strip is still running, will realize on 1/2/34 at the latest. And Francesco Marciuliano’s Medium Large uses the neat pattern of the dates as a dip into numerology and the kinds of manias that staring too closely into neat patterns can encourage.

I’ve got enough mathematics comics for another roundup, and this time, the subjects give me reason to dip into ancient days: one to the most famous, among mathematicians and astronomers anyway, of Greek shipwrecks, and another to some point in the midst of winter nearly seven thousand years ago.

Eric the Circle (November 15) returns “Griffinetsabine” to the writer’s role and gives another “Shape Single’s Bar” scene. I’m amused by Eric appearing with his ex: x is practically the icon denoting “this is an algebraic expression”, while geometry … well, circles are good for denoting that, although I suspect that triangles or maybe parallelograms are the ways to denote “this is a geometric expression”. Maybe it’s the little symbol for a right angle.

Jim Meddick’s Monty (November 17) presents Monty trying to work out just how many days there are to Christmas. This is a problem fraught with difficulties, starting with the obvious: does “today” count as a shopping day until Christmas? That is, if it were the 24th, would you say there are zero or one shopping days left? Also, is there even a difference between a “shopping day” and a “day” anymore now that nobody shops downtown so it’s only the stores nobody cares about that close on Sundays? Sort all that out and there’s the perpetual problem in working out intervals between dates on the Gregorian calendar, which is that you have to be daft to try working out intervals between dates on the Gregorian calendar. The only worse thing is trying to work out the intervals between Easters on it. My own habit for this kind of problem is to use the United States Navy’s Julian Date conversion page. The Julian date is a straight serial number, counting the number of days that have elapsed since noon Universal Time at what’s called the 1st of January, 4713 BCE, on the proleptic Julian calendar (“proleptic” because nobody around at the time was using, or even imagined, the calendar, but we can project back to what date that would have been), a year picked because it’s the start of several astronomical cycles, and it’s way before any specific recordable dates in human history, so any day you might have to particularly deal with has a positive number. Of course, to do this, we’re transforming the problem of “counting the number of days between two dates” to “counting the number of days between a date and January 1, 4713 BCE, twice”, but the advantage of that is, the United States Navy (and other people) have worked out how to do that and we can use their work.

Bill Hind’s kids-sports comic Cleats (November 19, rerun) presents Michael offering basketball advice that verges into logic and set theory problems: making the ball not go to a place outside the net is equivalent to making the ball go inside the net (if we decide that the edge of the net counts as either inside or outside the net, at least), and depending on the problem we want to solve, it might be more convenient to think about putting the ball into the net, or not putting the ball outside the net. We see this, in logic, in a set of relations called De Morgan’s Laws (named for Augustus De Morgan, who put these ideas in modern mathematical form), which describe what kinds of descriptions — “something is outside both sets A and B at one” or “something is not inside set A or set B”, or so on — represent the same relationship between the thing and the sets.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (November 19) is set in the classic caveman era, with prehistoric Frank and Ernest and someone else discovering mathematics and working out whether a negative number times a negative number might be positive. It’s not obvious right away that they should, as you realize when you try teaching someone the multiplication rules including negative numbers, and it’s worth pointing out, a negative times a negative equals a positive because that’s the way we, the users of mathematics, have chosen to define negative numbers and multiplication. We could, in principle, have decided that a negative times a negative should give us a negative number. This would be a different “multiplication” (or a different “negative”) than we use, but as long as we had logically self-consistent rules we could do that. We don’t, because it turns out negative-times-negative-is-positive is convenient for problems we like to do. Mathematics may be universal — something following the same rules we do has to get the same results we do — but it’s also something of a construct, and the multiplication of negative numbers is a signal of that.

Mickey Mouse (November 20, rerun) — I don’t know who wrote or draw this, but Walt Disney’s name was plastered onto it — sees messages appearing in alphabet soup. In one sense, such messages are inevitable: jumble and swirl letters around and eventually, surely, any message there are enough letters for will appear. This is very similar to the problem of infinite monkeys at typewriters, although with the special constraint that if, say, the bowl has only two letters “L”, it’s impossible to get the word “parallel”, unless one of the I’s is doing an impersonation. Here, Goofy has the message “buried treasure in back yard” appear in his soup; assuming those are all the letters in his soup then there’s something like 44,881,973,505,008,615,424 different arrangements of letters that could come up. There are several legitimate messages you could make out of that (“treasure buried in back yard”, “in back yard buried treasure”), not to mention shorter messages that don’t use all those letters (“run back”), but I think it’s safe to say the number of possible sentences that make sense are pretty few and it’s remarkable to get something like that. Maybe the cook was trying to tell Goofy something after all.

Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen’s Betty (November 20) mentions the Antikythera Mechanism, one of the most famous analog computers out there, and that’s close enough to pure mathematics for me to feel comfortable including it here. The machine was found in April 1900, in ancient shipwreck, and at first seemed to be just a strange lump of bronze and wood. By 1902 the archeologist Valerios Stais noticed a gear in the mechanism, but since it was believed the wreck far, far predated any gear mechanisms, the machine languished in that strange obscurity that a thing which can’t be explained sometimes suffers. The mechanism appears to be designed to be an astronomical computer, tracking the positions of the Sun and the Moon — tracking the actual moon rather than an approximate mean lunar motion — the rising and etting of some constellations, solar eclipses, several astronomical cycles, and even the Olympic Games. It’s an astounding mechanism, it’s mysterious: who made it? How? Are there others? What happened to them? How was the mechanical engineering needed for this developed, and what other projects did the people who created this also do? Any answers to these questions, if we ever know them, seem sure to be at least as amazing as the questions are.

The stream of mathematics-trivia tweets brought to my attention that the 12th of March, 1685 ^{[1]}, was the birthday of George Berkeley, who’d become the Bishop of Cloyne and be an important philosopher, and who’s gotten a bit of mathematical immortality for complaining about calculus. Granted everyone who takes it complains about calculus, but Berkeley had the good sorts of complaints, the ones that force people to think harder and more clearly about what they’re doing.

Berkeley — whose name I’m told by people I consider reliable was pronounced “barkley” — particularly protested the “fluxions” of calculus as it was practiced in the day in his 1734 tract The Analyst: Or A Discourse Addressed To An Infidel Mathematician, which as far as I know nobody I went to grad school with ever read either, so maybe you shouldn’t bother reading what I have to say about them.

Fluxions were meant to represent infinitesimally small quantities, which could be added to or subtracted from a number without changing the number, but which could be divided by one another to produce a meaningful answer. That’s a hard set of properties to quite rationalize — if you can add something to a number without changing the number, you’re adding zero; and if you’re dividing zero by zero you’re not doing division anymore — and yet calculus was doing just that. For example, if you want to find the slope of a curve at a single point on the curve you’d take the x- and y-coordinates of that point, and add an infinitesimally small number to the x-coordinate, and see how much the y-coordinate has to change to still be on the curve, and then divide those changes, which are too small to even be numbers, and get something out of it.

It works, at least if you’re doing the calculations right, and Berkeley supposed that it was the result of multiple logical errors cancelling one another out that they did work; but he termed these fluxions with spectacularly good phrasing “ghosts of departed quantities”, and it would take better than a century to put all his criticisms quite to rest. The result we know as differential calculus.

I should point out that it’s not as if mathematicians playing with their shiny new calculus tools were being irresponsible in using differentials and integrals despite Berkeley’s criticisms. Mathematical concepts work a good deal like inventions, in that it’s not clear what is really good about them until they’re used, and it’s not clear what has to be made better until there’s a body of experience working with them and seeing where the flaws. And Berkeley was hardly being unreasonable for insisting on logical rigor in mathematics.

^{[1]} Berkeley was born in Ireland. I have found it surprisingly hard to get a clear answer about when Ireland switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar, so I have no idea whether this birthdate is old style or new style, and for that matter whether the 1685 represents the civil year or the historical year. Perhaps it suffices to say that Berkeley was born sometime around this time of year, a long while ago.

I haven’t been able to avoid people on my Twitter feed pointing out today’s a Pythagorean Triple, if you write out the month and day as digits and only use the last two digits of the year. There aren’t many such days; if I haven’t missed one there’s only fourteen per century, and we’ve just burned through the tenth of them. But if you want to have a little fun you might try working out whether I’m correct, and when the next one is going to be.

I don’t know of an efficient way of doing this, the sort of thing where you set up a couple of equations and let your favorite version of Mathematica grind away a bit and spit out an array of dates. This seems like the sort of problem best done by working out sets of integers a, b, and c, where , and figure out what sets of those numbers can plausibly even be arranged as dates.

The more mysterious thing to me is that I don’t remember this being so much pointed out when we had the same Pythagorean Triple day in May, and not at all when we were really rich with them back nearly a decade ago. But I wasn’t on Twitter back then; maybe that’s the problem. I also haven’t seen people complaining that it’s a trivial thing not worth pointing out; it may be trivial, but if we aren’t going to enjoy pretty alignments of numbers, what are we supposed to do?

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day (September 12) tells the basic “not understanding fractions” joke. I suspect that Zakour and Roberts — who’re pretty well-steeped in nerd culture, as their panel strip Working Daze shows — were summoning one of those warmly familiar old jokes. Well, Sydney Harris got away with the same punch line; why not them?

Brett Koth’s Diamond Lil (September 14) also mentions fractions, but as an example of one of those inexplicably complicated mathematics things that’ll haunt you rather than be useful or interesting or even understandable. I choose not to be offended by this insult of my preferred profession and won’t even point out that Koth totally redrew the panel three times over so it’s not a static shot of immobile talking heads.