Since I took the Pi Day comics ahead of their normal sequence on Sunday, it’s time I got back to the rest of the week. There weren’t any mathematically-themed comics worth mentioning from last Friday or Saturday, so I’m spending the latter part of this week covering stuff published before Pi Day. It’s got me slightly out of joint. It’ll all be better soon.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week. That’s nice to have. It’s built on the concept of story problems. That there should be “stories” behind a problem makes sense. Most actual mathematics, even among mathematicians, is done because we want to know a thing. Acting on a want is a story. Wanting to know a thing justifies the work of doing this calculation. And real mathematics work involves looking at some thing, full of the messiness of the real world, and extracting from it mathematics. This would be the question to solve, the operations to do, the numbers (or shapes or connections or whatever) to use. We surely learn how to do that by doing simple examples. The kid — not Wavehead, for a change — points out a common problem here. There’s often not much of a story to a story problem. That is, where we don’t just want something, but someone else wants something too.
Parker and Hart’s The Wizard of Id for the 11th is a riff on the “when do you use algebra in real life” snark. Well, no one disputes that there are fields which depend on advanced mathematics. The snark comes in from supposing that a thing is worth learning only if it’s regularly “useful”.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 12th has Joe stalling class to speak to “the guy who invented zero”. I really like this strip since it’s one of those cute little wordplay jokes that also raises a legitimate point. Zero is this fantastic idea and it’s hard to imagine mathematics as we know it without the concept. Of course, we could say the same thing about trying to do mathematics without the concept of, say, “twelve”.
We don’t know who’s “the guy” who invented zero. It’s probably not all a single person, though, or even a single group of people. There are several threads of thought which merged together to zero. One is the notion of emptiness, the absense of a measurable thing. That probably occurred to whoever was the first person to notice a thing wasn’t where it was expected. Another part is the notion of zero as a number, something you could add to or subtract from a conventional number. That is, there’s this concept of “having nothing”, yes. But can you add “nothing” to a pile of things? And represent that using the addition we do with numbers? Sure, but that’s because we’re so comfortable with the idea of zero that we don’t ponder whether “2 + 1” and “2 + 0” are expressing similar ideas. You’ll occasionally see people asking web forums whether zero is really a number, often without getting much sympathy for their confusion. I admit I have to think hard to not let long reflex stop me wondering what I mean by a number and why zero should be one.
And then there’s zero, the symbol. As in having a representation, almost always a circle, to mean “there is a zero here”. We don’t know who wrote the first of that. The oldest instance of it that we know of dates to the year 683, and was written in what’s now Cambodia. It’s in a stone carving that seems to be some kind of bill of sale. I’m not aware whether there’s any indication from that who the zero was written for, or who wrote it, though. And there’s no reason to think that’s the first time zero was represented with a symbol. It’s the earliest we know about.
Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 12th has some talk about numbers, and favorite numbers. Lemont claims to have had 8 as his favorite number because its shape, rotated, is that of the infinity symbol. C-Dog disputes Lemont’s recollection of his motives. Which is fair enough; it’s hard to remember what motivated you that long ago. What people mostly do is think of a reason that they, today, would have done that, in the past.
The ∞ symbol as we know it is credited to John Wallis, one of that bunch of 17th-century English mathematicians. He did a good bit of substantial work, in fields like conic sections and physics and whatnot. But he was also one of those people good at coming up with notation. He developed what’s now the standard notation for raising a number to a power, that stuff, and showed how to define raising a number to a rational-number power. Bunch of other things. He also seems to be the person who gave the name “continued fraction” to that concept.
Wallis never explained why he picked ∞ as a shape, of all the symbols one could draw, for this concept. There’s speculation he might have been varying the Roman numeral for 1,000, which we’ve simplified to M but which had been rendered as (|) or () and I can see that. (Well, really more of a C and a mirror-reflected C rather than parentheses, but I don’t have the typesetting skills to render that.) Conflating “a thousand” with “many” or “infinitely many” has a good heritage. We do the same thing when we talk about something having millions of parts or costing trillions of dollars or such. But, Wallis never explained (so far as we’re aware), so all this has to be considered speculation and maybe mnemonic helps to remembering the symbol.
Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City for the 12th is another story problem joke. Curiously the joke seems to be simply that the father gets confused following the convolutions of the story. The specific story problem circles around the “participation awards are the WORST” attitude that newspaper comics are surprisingly prone to. I think the LaBans just wanted the story problem to be long and seem tedious enough that our eyes glazed over. Anyway you could not pay me to read whatever the comments on this comic are. Sorry not sorry.
I figure to have one more Reading the Comics post this week. When that’s posted it should be available at this link. Thanks for being here.