Reading the Comics, September 10, 2016: Finishing The First Week Of School Edition

I understand in places in the United States last week wasn’t the first week of school. It was the second or third or even worse. These places are crazy, in that they do things differently from the way my elementary school did it. So, now, here’s the other half of last week’s comics.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal presented the 8th is a little freak-out about existence. Mathematicians rely on the word “exists”. We suppose things to exist. We draw conclusions about other things that do exist or do not exist. And these things that exist are not things that exist. It’s a bit heady to realize nobody can point to, or trap in a box, or even draw a line around “3”. We can at best talk about stuff that expresses some property of three-ness. We talk about things like “triangles” and we even draw and use representations of them. But those drawings we make aren’t Triangles, the thing mathematicians mean by the concept. They’re at best cartoons, little training wheels to help us get the idea down. Here I regret that as an undergraudate I didn’t take philosophy courses that challenged me. It seems certain to me mathematicians are using some notion of the Platonic Ideal when we speak of things “existing”. But what does that mean, to a mathematician, to a philosopher, and to the person who needs an attractive tile pattern on the floor?

Cathy Thorne’s Everyday People Cartoons for the 9th is about another bit of the philosophy of mathematics. What are the chances of something that did happen? What does it mean to talk about the chance of something happening? When introducing probability mathematicians like to set it up as “imagine this experiment, which has a bunch of possible outcomes. One of them will happen and the other possibilities will not” and we go on to define a probability from that. That seems reasonable, perhaps because we’re accepting ignorance. We may know (say) that a coin toss is, in principle, perfectly deterministic. If we knew exactly how the coin is made. If we knew exactly how it is tossed. If we knew exactly how the air currents would move during its fall. If we knew exactly what the surface it might bounce off before coming to rest is like. Instead we pretend all this knowable stuff is not, and call the result unpredictability.

But about events in the past? We can imagine them coming out differently. But the imagination crashes hard when we try to say why they would. If we gave the exact same coin the exact same toss in the exact same circumstances how could it land on anything but the exact same face? In which case how can there have been any outcome other than what did happen? Yes, I know, someone wants to rush in and say “Quantum!” Say back to that person, “waveform collapse” and wait for a clear explanation of what exactly that is. There are things we understand poorly about the transition between the future and the past. The language of probability is a reminder of this.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 10th uses the classic story-problem setup of a train leaving the station. It does make me wonder how far back this story setup goes, and what they did before trains were common. Horse-drawn carriages leaving stations, I suppose, or maybe ships at sea. I quite like the teaser joke in the first panel more.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am rerun for the 10th is an Einstein The Genius comic. It felt familiar to me, but I don’t seem to have included it in previous Reading The Comics posts. Perhaps I noticed it some week that I figured a mere appearance of Einstein didn’t rate inclusion. Randolph certainly fell asleep while reading about mathematics, though.

It’s popular to tell tales of Einstein not being a very good student, and of not being that good in mathematics. It’s easy to see why. We’d all like to feel a little more like a superlative mind such as that. And Einstein worked hard to develop an image of being accessible and personable. It fits with the charming absent-minded professor image everybody but forgetful professors loves. It feels dramatically right that Einstein should struggle with arithmetic like so many of us do. It’s nonsense, though. When Einstein struggled with mathematics, it was on the edge of known mathematics. He needed advice and consultations for the non-Euclidean geometries core to general relativity? Who doesn’t? I can barely make my way through the basic notation.

Anyway, it’s pleasant to see Toles holding up Einstein for his amazing mathematical prowess. It was a true thing.

Reading the Comics, June 26, 2015: June 23, 2016 Plus Golden Lizards Edition

And now for the huge pile of comic strips that had some mathematics-related content on the 23rd of June. I admit some of them are just using mathematics as a stand-in for “something really smart people do”. But first, another moment with the Magic Realism Bot:

So, you know, watch the lizards and all.

Tom Batiuk’s Funky Winkerbean name-drops E = mc2 as the sort of thing people respect. If the strip seems a little baffling then you should know that Mason’s last name is Jarr. He was originally introduced as a minor player in a storyline that wasn’t about him, so the name just had to exist. But since then Tom Batiuk’s decided he likes the fellow and promoted him to major-player status. And maybe Batiuk regrets having a major character with a self-consciously Funny Name, which is an odd thing considering he named his long-running comic strip for original lead character Funky Winkerbean.

Charlie Podrebarac’s CowTown depicts the harsh realities of Math Camp. I assume they’re the realities. I never went to one myself. And while I was on the Physics Team in high school I didn’t make it over to the competitive mathematics squad. Yes, I noticed that the not-a-numbers-person Jim Smith can’t come up with anything other than the null symbol, representing nothing, not even zero. I like that touch.

Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics rerun is about Richard Feynman, the great physicist whose classic memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think? is hundreds of pages of stories about how awesome he was. Anyway, the story goes that Feynman noticed one of the sequences of digits in π and thought of the joke which T-Rex shares here.

π is believed but not proved to be a “normal” number. This means several things. One is that any finite sequence of digits you like should appear in its representation, somewhere. Feynman and T-Rex look for the sequence ‘999999’, which sure enough happens less than eight hundred digits past the decimal point. Lucky stroke there. There’s no reason to suppose the sequence should be anywhere near the decimal point. There’s no reason to suppose the sequence has to be anywhere in the finite number of digits of π that humanity will ever know. (This is why Carl Sagan’s novel Contact, which has as a plot point the discovery of a message apparently encoded in the digits of π, is not building on a stupid idea. That any finite message exists somewhere is kind-of certain. That it’s findable is not.)

e, mentioned in the last panel, is similarly thought to be a normal number. It’s also not proved to be. We are able to say that nearly all numbers are normal. It’s in much the way we can say nearly all numbers are irrational. But it is hard to prove that any numbers are. I believe that the only numbers humans have proved to be normal are a handful of freaks created to show normal numbers exist. I don’t know of any number that’s interesting in its own right that’s also been shown to be normal. We just know that almost all numbers are.

But it is imaginable that π or e aren’t. They look like they’re normal, based on how their digits are arranged. It’s an open question and someone might make a name for herself by answering the question. It’s not an easy question, though.

Missy Meyer’s Holiday Doodles breaks the news to me the 23rd was SAT Math Day. I had no idea and I’m not sure what that even means. The doodle does use the classic “two trains leave Chicago” introduction, the “it was a dark and stormy night” of Boring High School Algebra word problems.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine is about everyone who does science and mathematics popularization, and what we worry someone’s going to reveal about us. Um. Except me, of course. I don’t do this at all.

Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots rerun is a nice little averages joke. It does highlight something which looks paradoxical, though. Typically if you look at the distributions of values of something that can be measured you get a bell cure, like Brilliant drew here. The value most likely to turn up — the mode, mathematicians say — is also the arithmetic mean. “The average”, is what everybody except mathematicians say. And even they say that most of the time. But almost nobody is at the average.

Looking at a drawing, Brilliant’s included, explains why. The exact average is a tiny slice of all the data, the “population”. Look at the area in Brilliant’s drawing underneath the curve that’s just the blocks underneath the upside-down fellow. Most of the area underneath the curve is away from that.

There’s a lot of results that are close to but not exactly at the arithmetic mean. Most of the results are going to be close to the arithmetic mean. Look at how many area there is under the curve and within four vertical lines of the upside-down fellow. That’s nearly everything. So we have this apparent contradiction: the most likely result is the average. But almost nothing is average. And yet almost everything is nearly average. This is why statisticians have their own departments, or get to make the mathematics department brand itself the Department of Mathematics and Statistics.

Reading the Comics, November 4, 2015: Gambling Edition

I don’t presume to guess why. But Comic Strip Master Command sent out orders one lead-time ago to have everybody do jokes that relate to gambling. We see the consequences here.

John Rose’s Barney Google and Snuffy Smith for the 2nd of November builds its joke on the idea that the mathematics of gambling is all anyone really needs. It’s a better-than-average crack about the usefulness of mathematics. It’s also truer than average. Much of how we make decisions is built on the expectation value, a core concept of probability. If we do this, what can we expect to gain or lose? If we do that instead, what would we expect? If we can place a value — even a loose, approximate value — on our time, our money, our experiences, we gain a new tool for making decisions.

Probability runs through the history of mathematics. That’s euphemistic. Gambling runs through the history of mathematics. Quite a bit of what we call probability derives from people who wanted to better understand games of chance, and to get an edge in the bets they might place. A question like “how many ways can three dice come up?” is a good homework problem today. It was once a subject of serious study and argument. We realize it’s still a good question when we wonder if the first die coming up 6, the second 3, and and third 1 is a different outcome from the first die coming up 3, the second 1, and the third 6.

Fully understanding the mathematics of gambling requires not just counting and not just fractions. It will bring us to algebra, to calculus, and to all the tools that let us understand thermodynamics and quantum mechanics. If that isn’t everything, that is a good rough approximation.

Scott Adams’s Dilbert Classic for the 2nd of November originally ran the 8th of September, 1992. It’s about a sadly common kind of nerd behavior, the desire to one-up one’s stories of programming hardship. In this one the generic guy — a different figure from Adams’s current model of generic guy — asserts he goes back to before binary numbers, even. I admit skepticism. Certainly you could list different numbers by making the same symbol often enough. We do that when we resort to tally marks. But we need some second symbol to note the end of a number. With tally marks we can do that with physical space. A computer’s memory, though? That needs something else.

Kevin Fagan’s Drabble began a story about the logic of buying a lottery ticket this week. (The story goes on several days past this.) This is another probability, that is gambling, problem. Large jackpots present a pretty good philosophical challenge. It’s possible the jackpot will be so large that the expected value of buying a ticket is positive. This would seem to imply you should buy a ticket. But your chance of winning will be, as ever, vanishingly small. One chance in 200 million or more. You will not win. This would seem to imply you should not buy a ticket. Both are hard arguments to refute. I admit that when the jackpot gets sufficiently large, I’ll buy one or two tickets. I don’t expect to win the \$200 million jackpot or anything like that, though. I’ll be content if I can secure a cozy little \$25,000 minor prize. But I might just get a long john doughnut instead.

Larry Wright’s Motley for the 2nd of November originally ran that day in 1987. It name-drops E = mc2 as shorthand for genius, the equation’s general role.

Doug Bratton’s Pop Culture Shock Therapy for the 3rd of November doesn’t mention E = mc2, but it is an Albert Einstein joke. It doesn’t build on the comforting but dubious legend of Einstein being a poor student. That’s an unusual direction.

Eric the Circle for the 3rd of November is by “Shane”. It’s a cute joke: if Eric were in a horserace, how would his lead be measured? Obviously, by comparison to his diameter. I doubt the race caller would need so many digits past the decimal, though. If cartoons and old-time radio sitcoms about horseracing haven’t led me wrong, distances are measured in a couple common fractions of a horse length — a half, a quarter, three-quarters and so on. So surely Eric would be called “about seven radii” or “three and a half diameters” ahead. It would make sense if his lead were measured by circumferences, if he’s rolling along. But it can be surprisingly hard to estimate by eye what the circumference of a circle is. Diameters are easier.

Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th of November has a M&oum;bius strip joke. Obviously, though, what’s taking so long is that Eightball’s spare tire isn’t even on the rim. This is bad.

John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Working Daze for the 4th of November is a variation on the joke about mathematicians being lousy at arithmetic. Here it’s an accountant who’s bad. I am reminded of the science fiction great Arthur C Clarke mentioning his time as an accounts auditor. He supposed that as long as figures added up approximately, to something like one percent, then there probably wasn’t anything requiring further scrutiny going on. He was able to finish his day’s work quickly, and went on to other jobs in time. Bob Newhart also claimed to not demand too much precision in the accounts he was overseeing. He then went on to sell comedy records to radio stations for a fair bit less than they cost to produce, so perhaps he was better off not working on the money side of things.

My Mathematics Blog Abbreviated Statistics, June 2015

So, that was a fairly successful month. For June this blog managed a record 1,051 pages viewed. That’s just above April’s high of 1,047, and is a nice rebound from May’s 936. I feel comfortable crediting this mostly to the number of articles I published in the month. Between the Mathematics A To Z and the rush of Reading The Comics posts, and a couple of reblogged or miscellaneous bits, June was my most prolific month: I had 28 articles. If I’d known how busy it was going to be I wouldn’t have skipped the first two Sundays. And i start the month at 25,871 total views.

It’s quite gratifying to get back above 1,000 for more than the obvious reasons. I’ve heard rumors — and I’m not sure where because most of my notes are on my not-yet-returned main computer — that WordPress somehow changed its statistics reporting so that mobile devices aren’t counted. That would explain a sudden drop in both my mathematics and humor blogs, and drops I heard reported from other readership-watching friends. It also implies many more readers out there, which is a happy thought.

Unfortunately because of my computer problems I can’t give reports on things like the number of visitors, or the views per visitor. I can get at WordPress’s old Dashboard statistics page, and that had been showing the number of unique visitors and views per visitor and all that. But on Firefox 3.6.16, and on Safari 5.0.6, this information isn’t displayed. I don’t know if they’ve removed it altogether from the Dashboard Statistics page in the hopes of driving people to their new, awful, statistics page or what. I also can’t find things like the number of likes, because that’s on the New Statistics page, which is inaccessible on browsers this old.

Worse, I can’t find the roster of countries that sent me viewers. I trust that when I get my main computer back, and can look at the horrible new statistics page, I’ll be able to fill that in, but for now — nothing. I’m sorry. I will provide these popular lists when I’m able.

I can say what the most popular posts were in June. As you might expect for a month dominated by the A-To-Z project, the five most popular posts were all Reading The Comics entries:

Finally after that some of the A To Z posts appear, with fallacy, and graph, and n-tuple the most popular of that collection.

Among the search terms bringing people here were:

• real life problems involving laws of exponents comic strip (three people wanted them!)
• if the circumference is 40,000,000 then what is the radius (why, one Earth-radius, of course) (approximately)
• poster on mathematical diagram in the form of cartoon for ,7th class student
• how to figure out what you need on a final to pass (you need to start sooner in the term)
• how to count fish (count all the things which are not fish, and subtract that from the total number of all things, and there you go)
• einstein vs pythagoras formula (do I have to take a side?)
• origin is the gateway to your entire gaming universe.
• big ben anthropomorphized (it’s not actually Big Ben, you know. The text is clear that it’s Big Ben’s Creature.)
• wyoming rectangular most dilbert (are we having Zippy the Pinhead fanfiction yet?)

Sorry it’s an abbreviated report. Or, sry is abbrev rept, anyway. I’ll fill in what I can, when I can, and isn’t that true of all of us?

Reading the Comics, June 25, 2015: Not Making A Habit Of This Edition

I admit I did this recently, and am doing it again. But I don’t mean to make it a habit. I ran across a few comic strips that I can’t, even with a stretch, call mathematically-themed, but I liked them too much to ignore them either. So they’re at the end of this post. I really don’t intend to make this a regular thing in Reading the Comics posts.

Justin Boyd’s engagingly silly Invisible Bread (June 22) names the tuning “two steps below A”. He dubs this “negative C#”. This is probably an even funnier joke if you know music theory. The repetition of the notes in a musical scale could be used as an example of cyclic or modular arithmetic. Really, that the note above G is A of the next higher octave, and the note below A is G of the next lower octave, probably explains the idea already.

If we felt like, we could match the notes of a scale to the counting numbers. Match A to 0, B to 1, C to 2 and so on. Work out sharps and flats as you like. Then we could think of transposing a note from one key to another as adding or subtracting numbers. (Warning: do not try to pass your music theory class using this information! Transposition of keys is a much more subtle process than I am describing.) If the number gets above some maximum, it wraps back around to 0; if the number would go below zero, it wraps back around to that maximum. Relabeling the things in a group might make them easier or harder to understand. But it doesn’t change the way the things relate to one another. And that’s why we might call something F or negative C#, as we like and as we hope to be understood.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange (June 23) reminds us how important it is to pick the correct piece of chalk. The mathematical symbols on the board don’t mean anything. A couple of the odder bits of notation might be meant as shorthand. Often in the rush of working out a problem some of the details will get written as borderline nonsense. The mathematician is probably more interested in getting the insight down. She’ll leave the details for later reflection.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby (June 23) uses “calculating obscure digits of pi” as computer fun. Calculating digits of pi is hard, at least in decimals, which is all anyone cares about. If you wish to know the 5,673,299,925th decimal digit of pi, you need to work out all 5,673,299,924 digits that go before it. There are formulas to work out a binary (or hexadecimal) digit of pi without working out all the digits that go before. This saves quite some time if you need to explore the nether-realms of pi’s digits.

The comic strip also uses Stephen Hawking as the icon for most-incredibly-smart-person. It’s the role that Albert Einstein used to have, and still shares. I am curious whether Hawking is going to permanently displace Einstein as the go-to reference for incredible brilliance. His pop culture celebrity might be a transient thing. I suspect it’s going to last, though. Hawking’s life has a tortured-genius edge to it that gives it Romantic appeal, likely to stay popular.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy (June 23) presents confusing brand-new letters and numbers. Letters are obviously human inventions though. They’ve been added to and removed from alphabets for thousands of years. It’s only a few centuries since “i” and “j” became (in English) understood as separate letters. They had been seen as different ways of writing the same letter, or the vowel and consonant forms of the same letter. If enough people found a proposed letter useful it would work its way into the alphabet. Occasionally the ampersand & has come near being a letter. (The ampersand has a fascinating history. Honestly.) And conversely, if we collectively found cause to toss one aside we could remove it from the alphabet. English hasn’t lost any letters since yogh (the Old English letter that looks like a 3 written half a line off) was dropped in favor of “gh”, about five centuries ago, but there’s no reason that it couldn’t shed another.

Numbers are less obviously human inventions. But the numbers we use are, or at least work like they are. Arabic numerals are barely eight centuries old in Western European use. Their introduction was controversial. People feared shopkeepers and moneylenders could easily cheat people unfamiliar with these crazy new symbols. Decimals, instead of fractions, were similarly suspect. Negative numbers took centuries to understand and to accept as numbers. Irrational numbers too. Imaginary numbers also. Indeed, look at the connotations of those names: negative numbers. Irrational numbers. Imaginary numbers. We can add complex numbers to that roster. Each name at least sounds suspicious of the innovation.

There are more kinds of numbers. In the 19th century William Rowan Hamilton developed quaternions. These are 4-tuples of numbers that work kind of like complex numbers. They’re strange creatures, admittedly, not very popular these days. Their greatest strength is in representing rotations in three-dimensional space well. There are also octonions, 8-tuples of numbers. They’re more exotic than quaternions and have fewer good uses. We might find more, in time.

Rina Piccolo’s entry in Six Chix this week (June 24) draws a house with extra dimensions. An extra dimension is a great way to add volume, or hypervolume, to a place. A cube that’s 20 feet on a side has a volume of 203 or 8,000 cubic feet, after all. A four-dimensional hypercube 20 feet on each side has a hypervolume of 160,000 hybercubic feet. This seems like it should be enough for people who don’t collect books.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals (June 24, rerun) is just a bit of wordplay. It’s built on the idea kids might not understand the difference between the words “ratio” and “racial”.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am (June 25, rerun) inspires me to wonder if anybody’s ever sold novelty 4-D glasses. Probably they have, sometime.

Now for the comics that I just can’t really make mathematics but that I like anyway:

Phil Dunlap’s Ink Pen (June 23, rerun) is aimed at the folks still lingering in grad school. Please be advised that most doctoral theses do not, in fact, end in supervillainy.

Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy (June 25, rerun) tickles me. But Albert Einstein did after all say many things in his life, and not everything was as punchy as that line about God and dice.

Reading the Comics, May 9, 2015: Trapezoid Edition

And now I get caught up again, if briefly, to the mathematically-themed comic strips I can find. I’ve dubbed this one the trapezoid edition because one happens to mention the post that will outlive me.

Todd Clark’s Lola (May 4) is a straightforward joke. Monty’s given his chance of passing mathematics and doesn’t understand the prospect is grim.

Joe Martin’s Willy and Ethel (May 4) shows an astounding feat of mind-reading, or of luck. How amazing it is to draw a number at random from a range depends on many things. It’s less impressive to pick the right number if there are only three possible answers than it is to pick the right number out of ten million possibilities. When we ask someone to pick a number we usually mean a range of the counting numbers. My experience suggests it’s “one to ten” unless some other range is specified. But the other thing affecting how amazing it is is the distribution. There might be ten million possible responses, but if only a few of them are likely then the feat is much less impressive.

The distribution of a random number is the interesting thing about it. The number has some value, yes, and we may not know what it is, but we know how likely it is to be any of the possible values. And good mathematics can be done knowing the distribution of a value of something. The whole field of statistical mechanics is an example of that. James Clerk Maxwell, famous for the equations which describe electromagnetism, used such random variables to explain how the rings of Saturn could exist. It isn’t easy to start solving problems with distributions instead of particular values — I’m not sure I’ve seen a good introduction, and I’d be glad to pass one on if someone can suggest it — but the power it offers is amazing.

Reading the Comics, May 4, 2015: Hatless Aliens Edition

I have to make two confessions for this round of mathematics comic strips. First is that I was busy for like two days and missed about a jillion comic strips. So this is the first part of some catching-up to do. The second is that I don’t have a favorite of this bunch. The most interesting, I suppose, is the Mr Boffo, because it lets me get into a little trivia about Albert Einstein. But there’s not any in this bunch that made me smile much or that gave me a juicy topic to discuss. Maybe tomorrow.

Steve Breen and Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue ran a week of snarky-answers-to-word-problems strips. April 28th, April 30th, and May 2nd featured mathematics questions. This must reflect how easy it is to undermine the logic of a mathematics question. The April 27th strip is about using Roman numerals, which I suppose is arithmetic. I’m not sure there’s much point to learning Roman numerals. We don’t do any calculations using the Roman numeral scheme except to show why Arabic numerals are better. All you get from Roman numerals is an ability to read building cornerstones and movie copyright dates. At least learning cursive handwriting provides the learner with a way to make illegible notes.

Reading the Comics, April 22, 2015: April 21, 2015 Edition

I try to avoid doing Reading The Comics entries back-to-back since I know they can get a bit repetitive. How many ways can I say something is a student-resisting-the-word-problem joke? But if Comic Strip Master Command is going to send a half-dozen strips at least mentioning mathematical topics in a single day, how can I resist the challenge? Worse, what might they have waiting for me tomorrow? So here’s a bunch of comic strips from the 21st of April, 2015:

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons plays on the idea of a number being used up. I’m most tickled by this one. I have heard that the New York Yankees may be running short on uniform numbers after having so many retired. It appears they’ve only retired 17 numbers, but they do need numbers for a 40-player roster as well as managers and coaches and other participants. Also, and this delights me, two numbers are retired for two people each. (Number 8, for Yogi Berra and Bill Dickey, and Number 42, for Jackie Robinson and Mariano Rivera.)

Reading the Comics, October 14, 2014: Not Talking About Fourier Transforms Edition

I know that it’s disappointing to everyone, given that one of the comic strips in today’s roundup of mathematically-themed such gives me such a good excuse to explain what Fourier Transforms are and why they’re interesting and well worth the time learning. But I’m not going to do that today. There’s enough other things to think about and besides you probably aren’t going to need Fourier Transforms in class for a couple more weeks yet. For today, though, no, I’ll go on to other things instead. Sorry to disappoint.

Glen McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys (October 9) jokes about how one can go through life without ever using algebra. I imagine other departments get this, too, like, “I made it through my whole life without knowing anything about US History!” or “And did any of that time I spent learning Art do anything for me?” I admit a bias here: I like learning stuff even if it isn’t useful because I find it fun to learn stuff. I don’t insist that you share in finding that fun, but I am going to look at you weird if you feel some sense of triumph about not learning stuff.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (October 10) does a gag about theoretical physics, and string theory, which is that field where physics merges almost imperceptibly into mathematics and philosophy. The rough idea of string theory is that it’d be nice to understand why the particles we actually observe exist, as opposed to things that we could imagine existing that that don’t seem to — like, why couldn’t there be something that’s just like an electron, but two times as heavy? Why couldn’t there be something with the mass of a proton but three-quarters the electric charge? — by supposing that what we see are the different natural modes of behavior of some more basic construct, these strings. A natural mode is, well, what something will do if it’s got a bunch of energy and is left to do what it will with it.

Probably the most familiar kind of natural mode is how if you strike a glass or a fork or such it’ll vibrate, if we’re lucky at a tone we can hear, and if we’re really lucky, at one that sounds good. Things can have more than one natural mode. String theory hopes to explain all the different kinds of particles, and the different ways in which they interact, as being different modes of a hopefully small and reasonable variety of “strings”. It’s a controversial theory because it’s been very hard to find experiments that proves, or soundly rules out, a particular model of it as representation of reality, and the models require invoking exotic things like more dimensions of space than we notice. This could reflect string theory being an intriguing but ultimately non-physical model of the world; it could reflect that we just haven’t found the right way to go about proving it yet.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (October 10, originally run October 13, 1967) has Sally press Charlie Brown into helping her with her times tables. She does a fair bit if guessing, which isn’t by itself a bad approach. For one, if you don’t know the exact answer, but you can pin down a lower and and upper bound, you’re doing work that might be all you really need and you’re doing work that may give you a hint how to get what you really want. And for that matter, guessing at a solution can be the first step to finding one. One of my favorite areas of mathematics, Monte Carlo methods, finds solutions to complicated problems by starting with a wild guess and making incremental refinements. It’s not guaranteed to work, but when it does, it gets extremely good solutions and with a remarkable ease. Granted this, doesn’t really help the times tables much.

On the 11th (originally run October 14, 1967), Sally incidentally shows the hard part of refining guesses about a solution; there has to be some way of telling whether you’re getting warmer. In your typical problem for a Monte Carlo approach, for example, you have some objective function — say, the distance travelled by something going along a path, or the total energy of a system — and can measure whether an attempted change is improving your solution — say, minimizing your distance or reducing the potential energy — or is making it worse. Typically, you take any refinement that makes the provisional answer better, and reject most, but not all, refinements that make the provisional answer worse.

That said, “Overly-Eight” is one of my favorite made-up numbers. A “Quillion” is also a pretty good one.

Jeff Mallet’s Frazz (October 12) isn’t explicitly about mathematics, but it’s about mathematics. “Why do I have to show my work? I got the right answer?” There are good responses on two levels, the first of which is practical, and which blends into the second: if you give me-the-instructor the wrong answer then I can hopefully work out why you got it wrong. Did you get it wrong because you made a minor but ultimately meaningless slip in your calculations, or did you get it wrong because you misunderstood the problem and did not know what kind of calculation to do? Error comes in many forms; some are boring — wrote the wrong number down at the start and never noticed, missed a carry — some are revealing — doesn’t know the order of operations, doesn’t know how the chain rule applies in differentiation — and some are majestic.

These last are the great ones, the errors that I love seeing, even though they’re the hardest to give a fair grade to. Sometimes a student will go off on a tack that doesn’t look anything like what we did in class, or could have reasonably seen in the textbook, but that shows some strange and possibly mad burst of creative energy. Usually this is rubbish and reflects the student flailing around, but, sometimes the student is on to something, might be trying an approach that, all right, doesn’t work here, but which if it were cleaned of its logical flaws might be a new and different way to work out the problem.

And that blends to the second reason: finding answers is nice enough and if you’re good at that, I’m glad, but is it all that important? We have calculators, after all. What’s interesting, and what is really worth learning in mathematics, is how to find answers: what approaches can efficiently be used on this problem, and how do you select one, and how do you do it to get a correct answer? That’s what’s really worth learning, and what is being looked for when the instruction is to show your work. Caulfield had the right answer, great, but is it because he knew a good way to work out the problem, or is it because he noticed the answer was left on the blackboard from the earlier class when this one started, or is it because he guessed and got lucky, or is it because he thought of a clever new way to solve the problem? If he did have a clever new way to do the problem, shouldn’t other people get to see it? Coming up with clever new ways to find answers is the sort of thing that gets you mathematical immortality as a pioneer of some approach that gets mysteriously named for somebody else.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (October 14) makes fun of tenure, the process by which people with a long track record of skill, talent, and drive are rewarded with no longer having to fear being laid off or fired except for cause. (Though I should sometime write about Fourier Transforms, as they’re rather neat.)

Margaret Shulock’s turn at Six Chix (October 14) (the comic strip is shared among six women because … we couldn’t have six different comic strips written and drawn by women all at the same time, I guess?) evokes the classic image of Albert Einstein, the genius, and drawing his famous equation out of the ordinary stuff of daily life. (I snark a little; Shulock is also the writer for Apartment 3-G, to the extent that things can be said to be written in Apartment 3-G.)

Reading the Comics, August 25, 2014: Summer Must Be Ending Edition

I’m sorry to admit that I can’t think of a unifying theme for the most recent round of comic strips which mention mathematical topics, other than that this is one of those rare instances of nobody mentioning infinite numbers of typing monkeys. I have to guess Comic Strip Master Command sent around a notice that summer vacation (in the United States) will be ending soon, so cartoonists should start practicing their mathematics jokes.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 a.m. (August 22, rerun) presents what’s surely the lowest-probability outcome of a toss of a fair coin: its landing on the edge. (I remember this as also the gimmick starting a genial episode of The Twilight Zone.) It’s a nice reminder that you do have to consider all the things that might affect an experiment’s outcome before concluding what are likely and unlikely results.

It also inspires, in me, a side question: a single coin, obviously, has a tiny chance of landing on its side. A roll of coins has a tiny chance of not landing on its side. How thick a roll has to be assembled before the chance of landing on the side and the chance of landing on either edge become equal? (Without working it out, my guess is it’s about when the roll of coins is as tall as it is across, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it were some slightly oddball thing like the roll has to be the square root of two times the diameter of the coins.)

Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens (August 22) presents an “advanced Sudoku”, in a puzzle that’s either trivially easy or utterly impossible: there’s so few constraints on the numbers in the presented puzzle that it’s not hard to write in digits that will satisfy the results, but, if there’s one right answer, there’s not nearly enough information to tell which one it is. I do find interesting the problem of satisfiability — giving just enough information to solve the puzzle, without allowing more than one solution to be valid — an interesting one. I imagine there’s a very similar problem at work in composing Ivasallay’s Find The Factors puzzles.

Phil Frank and Joe Troise’s The Elderberries (August 24, rerun) presents a “mind aerobics” puzzle in the classic mathematical form of drawing socks out of a drawer. Talking about pulling socks out of drawers suggests a probability puzzle, but the question actually takes it a different direction, into a different sort of logic, and asks about how many socks need to be taken out in order to be sure you have one of each color. The easiest way to apply this is, I believe, to use what’s termed the “pigeon hole principle”, which is one of those mathematical concepts so clear it’s hard to actually notice it. The principle is just that if you have fewer pigeon holes than you have pigeons, and put every pigeon in a pigeon hole, then there’s got to be at least one pigeon hole with more than one pigeons. (Wolfram’s MathWorld credits the statement to Peter Gustav Lejeune Dirichlet, a 19th century German mathematician with a long record of things named for him in number theory, probability, analysis, and differential equations.)

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check (August 24) pulls out the old little pun about algebra and former romantic partners. You’ve probably seen this joke passed around your friends’ Twitter or Facebook feeds too.

Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set (August 25) presents some terrible people’s definition of calculus, as “useless math with letters instead of numbers”, which I have to gripe about because that seems like a more on-point definition of algebra. I’m actually sympathetic to the complaint that calculus is useless, at least if you don’t go into a field that requires it (although that’s rather a circular definition, isn’t it?), but I don’t hold to the idea that whether something is “useful” should determine whether it’s worth learning. My suspicion is that things you find interesting are worth learning, either because you’ll find uses for them, or just because you’ll be surrounding yourself with things you find interesting.

Shifting from numbers to letters, as are used in algebra and calculus, is a great advantage. It allows you to prove things that are true for many problems at once, rather than just the one you’re interested in at the moment. This generality may be too much work to bother with, at least for some problems, but it’s easy to see what’s attractive in solving a problem once and for all.

Mikael Wulff and Anders Morgenthaler’s WuMo (August 25) uses a couple of motifs none of which I’m sure are precisely mathematical, but that seem close enough for my needs. First there’s the motif of Albert Einstein as just being so spectacularly brilliant that he can form an argument in favor of anything, regardless of whether it’s right or wrong. Surely that derives from Einstein’s general reputation of utter brilliance, perhaps flavored by the point that he was able to show how common-sense intuitive ideas about things like “it’s possible to say whether this event happened before or after that event” go wrong. And then there’s the motif of a sophistic argument being so massive and impressive in its bulk that it’s easier to just give in to it rather than try to understand or refute it.

It’s fair of the strip to present Einstein as beginning with questions about how one perceives the universe, though: his relativity work in many ways depends on questions like “how can you tell whether time has passed?” and “how can you tell whether two things happened at the same time?” These are questions which straddle physics, mathematics, and philosophy, and trying to find answers which are logically coherent and testable produced much of the work that’s given him such lasting fame.

Reading the Comics, July 18, 2014: Summer Doldrums Edition

Now, there, see? The school year (in the United States) has let out for summer and the rush of mathematics-themed comic strips has subsided; it’s been over two weeks since the last bunch was big enough. Given enough time, though, a handful of comics will assemble that I can do something with, anything, and now’s that time. I hate to admit also that they’re clearly not trying very hard with these mathematics comics as they’re not about very juicy topics. Call it the summer doldroms, as I did.

Mason Mastroianni and Mick Mastroianni’s B.C. (July 6) spends most of its text talking about learning cursive, as part of a joke built around the punch line that gadgets are spoiling students who learn to depend on them instead of their own minds. So it would naturally get around to using calculators (or calculator apps, which is a fair enough substitute) in place of mathematics lessons. I confess I come down on the side that wonders why it’s necessary to do more than rough, approximate arithmetic calculations without a tool, and isn’t sure exactly what’s gained by learning cursive handwriting, but these are subjects that inspire heated and ongoing debates so you’ll never catch me admitting either position in public.

Eric the Circle (July 7), here by “andel”, shows what one commenter correctly identifies as a “pi fight”, which might have made a better caption for the strip, at least for me, because Eric’s string of digits wasn’t one of the approximations to pi that I was familiar with. I still can’t find it, actually, and wonder if andel didn’t just get a digit wrong. (I might just not have found a good web page that lists the digits of various approximations to pi, I admit.) Erica’s approximation is the rather famous 22/7.

Richard Thompson’s Richard’s Poor Almanac (July 7, rerun) brings back our favorite set of infinite monkeys, here, to discuss their ambitious book set at the Museum of Natural History.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (July 16) builds on the (true) point that the ancient Greeks had no symbol for zero, and would probably have had a fair number of objections to the concept.

Joe Martin’s Mr Boffo (July 18, sorry that I can’t find a truly permanent link) plays with one of Martin’s favorite themes, putting deep domesticity to great inventors and great minds. I suspect but do not know that Martin was aware that Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, was a fellow student with him at the Swiss Federal Polytechnic. She studied mathematics and physics. The extent to which she helped Einstein develop his theories is debatable; as far as I’m aware the evidence only goes so far as to prove she was a bright, outside mind who could intelligently discuss whatever he might be wrangling over. This shouldn’t be minimized: describing a problem is often a key step in working through it, and a person who can ask good follow-up questions about a problem is invaluable even if that person doesn’t do anything further.

Charles Schulz’s Peanuts (July 18) — a rerun, of course, from the 21st of July, 1967 — mentions Sally going to Summer School and learning all about the astronomical details of summertime. Astronomy has always been one of the things driving mathematical discovery, but I admit, thinking mostly this would be a good chance to point out Dr Helmer Aslaksen’s page describing the relationship between the solstices and the times of earliest and latest sunrise (and sunset). It’s not quite as easy as finding when the days are longest and shortest. Dr Aslaksen has a number of fascinating astronomy- and calendar-based pages which I think worth reading, so, I hope you enjoy.

Reading the Comics, December 29, 2013

I haven’t quite got seven comics mentioning mathematics themes this time around, but, it’s so busy the end of the year that maybe it’s better publishing what I have and not worrying about an arbitrary quota like mine.

Wuff and Morgenthaler’s WuMo (December 16) uses a spray of a bit of mathematics to stand in for “something just too complicated to understand”, and even uses a caricature of Albert Einstein to represent the person who’s just too smart to be understood. I’m a touch disappointed that, as best I can tell, the equations sprayed out don’t mean anything; I’ve enjoyed WuMo — a new comic to North American audiences — so far and kind of expected they would get an irrelevant detail like that plausibly right.

I’m also interested that sixty years after his death the portrait of Einstein still hasn’t been topped as an image for The Really, Really Smart Guy. Possibly nobody since him has managed to combine being both incredibly important — even if it weren’t for relativity, Einstein would be an important figure in science for his work in quantum mechanics, and if he didn’t have relativity or quantum mechanics, he’d still be important for statistical mechanics — and iconic-looking, which I guess really means he let his hair grow wild. I wonder if Stephen Hawking will be able to hold some of that similar pop cultural presence.