Reading the Comics, November 19, 2016: Thought I Featured This Already Edition


For the second half of last week Comic Strip Master Command sent me a couple comics I would have sworn I showed off here before.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 16th I would have sworn I’d featured around here before. I still think it’s a rerun but apparently I haven’t written it up. It’s a pun, I suppose, playing on the use of “power” to mean both exponentials and the thing knowledge is. I’m curious why Polard used 10 for the new exponent. Normally if there isn’t an exponent explicitly written we take that to be “1”, and incrementing 1 would give 2. Possibly that would have made a less-clear illustration. Or possibly the idea of sleeping squared lacked the Brobdingnagian excess of sleeping to the tenth power.

Exponentials have been written as a small number elevated from the baseline since 1636. James Hume then published an edition of François Viète’s text on algebra. Hume used a Roman numeral in the superscript — xii instead of x2 — but apart from that it’s the scheme we use today. The scheme was in the air, though. Renée Descartes also used the notation, but with Arabic numerals throughout, from 1637. (With quirks; he would write “xx” instead of “x2”, possibly because it’s the same number of characters to write.) And Pierre Hérigone just wrote the exponent after the variable: x2, like you see in bad character-recognition texts. That isn’t a bad scheme, particularly since it’s so easy to type, although we would add a caret: x^2. (I draw all this history, as ever, from Florian Cajori’s A History of Mathematical Notations, particularly sections 297 through 299).

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 16th has a fun concept about statisticians running wild and causing chaos. I appreciate a good healthy prank myself. It does point out something valuable, though. People in general have gotten to understand the idea that there are correlations between things. An event happening and some effect happening seem to go together. This is sometimes because the event causes the effect. Sometimes they’re both caused by some other factor; the event and effect are spuriously linked. Sometimes there’s just no meaningful connection. Coincidences do happen. But there’s really no good linking of how strong effects can be. And that’s not just a pop culture thing. For example, doing anything other than driving while driving increases the risk of crashing. But by how much? It’s easy to take something with the shape of a fact. Suppose it’s “looking at a text quadruples your risk of crashing”. (I don’t know what the risk increase is. Pretend it’s quadruple for the sake of this.) That’s easy to remember. But what’s my risk of crashing? Suppose it’s a clear, dry day, no winds, and I’m on a limited-access highway with light traffic. What’s the risk of crashing? Can’t be very high, considering how long I’ve done that without a crash. Quadruple that risk? That doesn’t seem terrifying. But I don’t know what that is, or how to express it in a way that helps make decisions. It’s not just newscasters who have this weakness.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 18th is the soothing appearance of Andertoons for this essay. And while it’s the familiar form of the student protesting the assignment the kid does have a point. There are times an estimate is all we need, and there’s times an exact answer is necessary. When are those times? That’s another skill that people have to develop.

Arthur C Clarke, in his semi-memoir Astounding Days, wrote of how his early-40s civil service job had him auditing schoolteacher pension contributions. He worked out that he really didn’t need to get the answers exactly. If the contribution was within about one percent of right it wasn’t worth his time to track it down more precisely. I’m not sure that his supervisors would take the same attitude. But the war soon took everyone to other matters without clarifying just how exactly he was supposed to audit.

Mark Anderson’s Mr Lowe rerun for the 18th is another I would have sworn I’ve brought up before. The strip was short-lived and this is at least its second time through. But then mathematics is only mentioned here as a dull things students must suffer through. It might not have seemed interesting enough for me to mention before.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 19th is another sort of pun. At least it plays on the multiple meanings of “negative”. And I suspect that negative numbers acquired a name with, er, negative connotations because the numbers were suspicious. It took centuries for mathematicians to move them from “obvious nonsense” to “convenient but meaningless tools for useful calculations” to “acceptable things” to “essential stuff”. Non-mathematicians can be forgiven for needing time to work through that progression. Also I’m not sure I didn’t show this one off here when it was first-run. Might be wrong.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal pops back into my attention for the 19th. That’s with a bit about Dad messing with his kid’s head. Not much to say about that so let me bury the whimsy with my earnestness. The strip does point out that what we name stuff is arbitrary. We would say that 4 and 12 and 6 are “composite numbers”, while 2 and 3 are “prime numbers”. But if we all decided one day to swap the meanings of the terms around we wouldn’t be making any mathematics wrong. Or linguistics either. We would probably want to clarify what “a really good factor” is, but all the comic really does is mess with the labels of groups of numbers we’re already interested in.

Reading the Comics, May 13, 2014: Good Class Problems Edition


Someone in Comic Strip Master Command must be readying for the end of term, as there’s been enough comic strips mentioning mathematics themes to justify another of these entries, and that’s before I even start reading Wednesday’s comics. I can’t say that there seem to be any overarching themes in the past week’s grab-bag of strips, but, there are a bunch of pretty good problems that would fit well in a mathematics class here.

Darrin Bell’s Candorville (May 6) comes back around to the default application of probability, questions in coin-flipping. You could build a good swath of a probability course just from the questions the strip implies: how many coins have to come up heads before it becomes reasonable to suspect that something funny is going on? Two is obviously too few; two thousand is likely too many. But improbable things do happen, without it signifying anything. So what’s the risk of supposing something’s up when it isn’t? What’s the risk of dismissing the hints that something is happening?

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (May 8) is another entry in the wiseacre schoolchild genre (I wonder if I’ve actually been consistent in describing this kind of comic, but, you know what I mean) and suggesting that arithmetic just be done on the computer. I’m sympathetic, however much fun it is doing arithmetic by hand.

Justin Boyd’s Invisible Bread (May 9) is honestly a marginal inclusion here, but it does show a mathematics problem that’s correctly formed and would reasonably be included on a precalculus or calculus class’s worksheets. It is a problem that’s a no-brainer, really, but that fits the comic’s theme of poorly functioning.

Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers (May 12) uses baseball scores and the start of a series. A series, at least once you’re into calculus, is the sum of a sequence of numbers, and if there’s only finitely many of them, here, there’s not much that’s interesting to say. Each sequence of numbers has some sum and that’s it. But if you have an infinite series — well, there, all sorts of amazing things become possible (or at least logically justified), including integral calculus and numerical computing. The series from the panel, if carried out, would come to a pair of infinitely large sums — this is called divergence, and is why your mathematician friends on Facebook or Twitter are passing around that movie poster with a math formula for a divergent series on it — and you can probably get a fair argument going about whether the sum of all the even numbers would be equal to the sum of all the odd numbers. (My advice: if pressed to give an answer, point to the other side of the room, yell, “Look, a big, distracting thing!” and run off.)

Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse (May 13) is something akin to a pun, playing as it does on the difference between a number and a numeral and shifting between the ways we might talk about “three”. Also, I notice for the first time that apparently the little bird sometimes seen in the comic is named “Sine”, which is probably why it flies in such a wavy pattern. I don’t know how I’d missed that before.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy (May 13, rerun) is also a strip that plays on the difference between a number and its representation as a numeral, really. Come to think of it, it’s a bit surprising that in Arabic numerals there aren’t any relationships between the representations for numbers; one could easily imagine a system in which, say, the symbol for “four” were a pair of whatever represents “two”. In A History Of Mathematical Notations Florian Cajori notes that there really isn’t any system behind why a particular numeral has any particular shape, and he takes a section (Section 96 in Book 1) to get engagingly catty about people who do. I’d like to quote it because it’s appealing, in that way:

A problem as fascinating as the puzzle of the origin of language relates to the evolution of the forms of our numerals. Proceeding on the tacit assumption that each of our numerals contains within itself, as a skeleton so to speak, as many dots, strokes, or angles as it represents units, imaginative writers of different countries and ages have advanced hypotheses as to their origin. Nor did these writers feel that they were indulging simply in pleasing pastimes or merely contributing to mathematical recreations. With perhaps only one exception, they were as convinced of the correctness of their explanations as are circle-squarers of the soundness of their quadratures.

Cajori goes on to describe attempts to rationalize the Arabic numerals as “merely … entertaining illustrations of the operation of a pseudo-scientific imagination, uncontrolled by all the known facts”, which gives some idea why Cajori’s engaging reading for seven hundred pages about stuff like where the plus sign comes from.

Florian Cajori: A History Of Mathematical Notations


I just noticed that over at archive.org they have Volume I of Florian Cajori’s A History Of Mathematical Notations. There’s a fair chance this means nothing to you, but, Dr Cajori did a great deal of work in writing the history of mathematics in the early 20th century, and with a scope and prose style that still leaves me a bit awed. (He also wrote a history of physics; I remember reading the book, originally written in the mid-1920s, with his description of one of the mysteries of the day. With the advantage of decades on my side I knew this to be the Zeeman effect, a way that magnetic fields affect spectral lines.)

Archive.org has several of Cajori’s books, including the histories mentioned, but Mathematical Notations I like as it’s an indispensable reference. It describes, with abundant examples, the origins of all sorts of the ways we write out mathematical ideas, from numerals themselves to the choices of symbols like the + and x signs to how we got to using letters to represent quantities to something called alligation which was apparently practiced in 15th-century Venice.

Unfortunately archive.org hasn’t yet got Volume II, which includes topics like where the $ symbol for United States currency came from — Cajori had some strong opinions about this, suggesting he was tired of tracking down false leads — but it’s a book you can feel confident in leafing through to find something interesting most any time. I think his description of the way historical opinions had changed particularly fascinating, and recommend particularly Paragraph 96 (pages 64 through 68 of the book, and not one enormous block of text), describing “Fanciful hypotheses on the origins of the numeral forms”, many of them based on ideas that the symbols for numbers contain the number of vertices or strokes or some other mnemonic to how big a number is represented. Of those hypothesis formers he says, “Nor did these writers feel that they were indulging simply in pleasing pastimes or merely contributing to mathematical recreations. With perhaps only one exception, they were as convinced of the correctness of their explanations as are circle-squarers of the soundness of their quadratures”.

Dover publishing, of course, reprints the entire book on paper if you want Volumes I and II together. I admit that’s the form I have, and enjoy, since it becomes one of those books you could use to beat off an intruder if need be.

Reading The Comics, May 20, 2012


Since I suspect that the comics roundup posts are the most popular ones I post, I’m very glad to see there was a bumper crop of strips among the ones I read regularly (from King Features Syndicate and from gocomics.com) this past week. Some of those were from cancelled strips in perpetual reruns, but that’s fine, I think: there aren’t any particular limits on how big an electronic comics page one can have, after all, and while it’s possible to read a short-lived strip long enough that you see all its entries, it takes a couple go-rounds to actually have them all memorized.

The first entry, and one from one of these cancelled strips, comes from Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog, a charmer of a comic set in a world-plus-talking-animals strip. In this case Fergus has taken the place of Maggie, a girl who’s not quite ready to come back from summer vacation. It’s also the sort of series of questions that it feels like come at the start of any class where a homework assignment’s due.

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Some Names Which e Doesn’t Have


I’ve outlined now some of the numbers which grew important enough to earn their own names. Most of them are counting numbers; the stragglers are a handful of irrational numbers which proved themselves useful, such as π (pi), or attractive, such as φ (phi), or physically important, such as the fine structure constant. Unnamed except in the list of categories is the number whose explanation I hope to be the first movement of this blog: e.

It’s an important number physically, and a convenient and practical number mathematically. For all that, it defies a simple explanation like π enjoys. The simplest description of which I’m aware is that it is the base of the natural logarithm, which perfectly clarifies things to people who know what logarithms are, know which one is the natural logarithm, and know what the significance of the base is. This I will explain, but not today. For now it’s enough to think of the base as a size of the measurement tool, and to know that switching between one base and another is akin to switching between measuring in centimeters and measuring in inches. What the logarithm is will also wait for explanation; for now, let me hold off on that by saying it’s, in a way, a measure of how many digits it takes to write down a number, so that “81” has a logarithm twice that of “9”, and “49” twice that of “7”, and please don’t take this description so literally as to think the logarithm of “81” is equal to that of “49”.

I agree it’s not clear why we should be interested in the natural logarithm when there are an infinity of possible logarithms, and we can convert a logarithm base e into a logarithm base 10 just by multiplying by the correct number. That, too, will come.

Another common explanation is to say that e describes how fast savings will grow under the influence of compound interest. A dollar invested at one-percent interest, compounded daily, for a year, will grow to just about e dollars. Compounded hourly it grows even closer; compounded by the second it grows closer still; compounded annually, it stays pretty far away. The comparison is probably perfectly clear to those who can invest in anything with interest compounded daily. For my part I note when I finally opened an individual retirement account I put a thousand dollars into an almost thoughtfully selected mutual fund, and within mere weeks had lost $15. That about finishes off compound interest to me.

Continue reading “Some Names Which e Doesn’t Have”