The past week had a fair number of comic strips mentioning some aspect of mathematics. One of them is, really, fairly slight. But it extends a thread in the comic strip that I like and so that I will feature here.
Sam Hurt’s Eyebeam for the 11th uses heaps of mathematical expressions, graphs, charts, and Venn diagrams to represent the concept of “data”. It’s spilled all over to represent “sloppy data”. Usually by the term we mean data that we feel is unreliable. Measurements that are imprecise, or that are unlikely to be reliable. Precision is, roughly, how many significant digits your measurement has. Reliability is, roughly, if you repeated the measurement would you get about the same number?
We’re accustomed in probability to thinking of the expectation value. This is the chance that something will happen, given some number N opportunities to happen, if at each opportunity it has the probability p of happening. Let me assume the probability is always the same number. If it’s not, our work gets harder, although it’s basically the same kind of work. But, then, the expectation value, the number of times we’d expect to see the thing happen, is N times p. Which, as Utahraptor points out, we can expect has to be at least 1 for any event, however unlikely, given enough chances. So it should be.
But, then, to take Utahraptor’s example: what is the probability that an immortal being never trips down the stairs? At least not badly enough to do harm? Why should we think that’s zero? It’s not as if there’s a physical law that compels someone to go to stairs and then to fall down them to their death. And, if there’s any nonzero chance of someone not dying this way? Then, if there are enough immortals, there’s someone who will go forever without falling down stairs.
That covers just the one way to die, of course. But the same reasoning holds for every possible way to die. If there’s enough immortals, there’s someone who would not die from falling down stairs and from never being struck by a meteor. And someone who’d never fall down stairs and never be struck by a meteor and never fall off a cliff trying to drop an anvil on a roadrunner. And so on. If there are infinitely many people, there’s at least one who’d avoid all possible accidental causes of death.
More. If there’s infinitely many immortals, then there are going to be a second and a third — indeed, an infinite number — of people who happen to be lucky enough to never die from anything. Infinitely many immortals die of accidents, sure, but somehow not all of them. We can’t even say that more immortals die of accidents than don’t.
My point is that probability gets really weird when you try putting infinities into it. Proceed with extreme caution. But the results of basic, incautious, thinking can be quite heady.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 12th has Paige cramming for a geometry exam. Don’t cram for exams; it really doesn’t work. It’s regular steady relaxed studying that you need. That and rest. There is nothing you do that you do better for being sleep-deprived.
Last week saw a modest number of mathematically-themed comic strips. Then it threw in a bunch of them all on Thursday. I’m splitting the week partway through that, since it gives me some theme to this collection.
Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit for the 3rd of May is a dictionary joke, with Brewster naming each kind of chart and making a quick joke about it. The comic may help people who’ve had trouble remembering the names of different kinds of graphs. I doubt people are likely to confuse a pie chart with a bar chart, admittedly. But I could imagine thinking a ‘line graph’ is what we call a bar chart, especially if the bars are laid out horizontally as in the second panel here.
The point of all these graphs is to understand data geometrically. We have fair intuitions about relatives lengths and areas. Bar charts represent relative magnitudes in lengths. Pie charts and bubble charts represent magnitudes in area. We have okay skills in noticing structures in complex shapes. Line graphs and scatter plots use that skill. So these pictures can help us understand some abstraction or something we can’t sense using a sense we do have. It’s not necessarily great; note that I said our intuitions were ‘fair’ and ‘okay’. But we hope to use reason helped by intuition to better understand what we are doing.
And, yes, in the greater scheme of things, any homework or classwork problem is trivial. It’s meant to teach how to calculate things we would like to know. The framing of the story is meant to give us a reason to want to know a thing. But they are practice, and meant to be practice. One practices on something of no consequence, where errors in one’s technique can be corrected without breaking anything.
It happens a round of story problems broke out among my family. My sister’s house has some very large trees. There turns out to be a poorly-organized process for estimating the age of these trees from their circumference. This past week saw a lot of chatter and disagreement about what the ages of these trees might be.
Michael Fry’s Committed rerun for the 7th finally gets us to golf. The Lazy Parent tries to pass off watching golf as educational, with working out the distance to the pin as a story problem. Structurally this is just fine, though: a golfer would be interested to know how far the ball has yet to go. All the information needed is given. It’s the question of whether anyone but syndicated cartoonists cares about golf that’s a mystery.
I haven’t forgotten about the comic strips. It happens that last week’s were mostly quite casual mentions, strips that don’t open themselves up to deep discussions. I write this before I see what I actually have to write about the strips. But here’s the first half of the past week’s. I’ll catch up on things soon.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 22nd, a new strip, has Jason and Marcus using arithmetic problems to signal pitches. At heart, the signals between a pitcher and catcher are just an index. They’re numbers because that’s an easy thing to signal given that one only has fingers and that they should be visually concealed. I would worry, in a pattern as complicated as these two would work out, about error correction. If one signal is mis-read — as will happen — how do they recognize it, and how do they fix it? This may seem like a lot of work to put to a trivial problem, but to conceal a message is important, whatever the message is.
James Beutel’s Banana Triangle for the 23rd has a character trying to convince himself of his intelligence. And doing so by muttering mathematics terms, mostly geometry. It’s a common shorthand to represent deep thinking.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 25th is a joke about orders of magnitude. The order of magnitude is, roughly, how big the number is. Often the first step of a physics problem is to try to get a calculation that’s of the right order of magnitude. Or at least close to the order of magnitude. This may seem pretty lax. If we want to find out something with value, say, 231, it seems weird to claim victory that our model says “it will be a three-digit number”. But getting the size of the number right is a first step. For many problems, particularly in cosmology or astrophysics, we’re intersted in things whose functioning is obscure. And relies on quantities we can measure very poorly. This is why we can see getting the order magnitude about right as an accomplishment.
I can clear out all last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips in one move, it looks like. There were a fair number of strips; it’s just they mostly mention mathematics in passing.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 23rd — a new strip; it’s still in original production for Sundays — has Jason asking his older sister to double-check a mathematics problem. Double-checking work is reliably useful, as proof against mistakes both stupid and subtle. But that’s true of any field.
Jim Unger’s Herman for the 23rd has a parent complaining about the weird New Math. The strip is a rerun and I don’t know from when; it hardly matters. The New Math has been a whipping boy for mathematics education since about ten minutes after its creation. And the complaint attaches to every bit of mathematics education reform ever. I am sympathetic to parents, who don’t see why their children should be the test subjects for a new pedagogy. And who don’t want to re-learn mathematics in order to understand what their children are doing. But, still, let someone know you were a mathematics major and they will tell you how much they didn’t understand or like mathematics in school. It’s hard to see why not try teaching it differently.
(If you do go out pretending to be a mathematics major, don’t worry. If someone challenges you on a thing, cite “Euler’s Theorem”, and you’ll have said something on point. And I’ll cover for you.)
Brian Gordon’s Fowl Language for the 25th has a father trying to explain the vastness of Big Numbers to their kid. Past a certain point none of us really know how big a thing is. We can talk about 300 sextillion stars, or anything else, and reason can tell us things about that number. But do we understand it? Like, can we visualize that many stars the way we can imagine twelve stars? This gets us into the philosophy of mathematics pretty soundly. 300 sextillion is no more imaginary than four is, but I know I feel more confident in my understanding of four. How does that make sense? And can you explain that to your kid?
Vic Lee’s Pardon my Planet for the 28th has an appearance by Albert Einstein. And a blackboard full of symbols. The symbols I can make out are more chemistry than mathematics, but they do exist just to serve as decoration.
There were a bunch of comic strips mentioning some kind of mathematical theme last week. I need to clear some out. So I’ll start with some of the marginal mentions. Many of these involve having to deal with exams or quizzes.
There are different ways to find square roots. (I can guarantee that Skip wasn’t expected to use this one.) The term ‘root’ derives from an idea that the root of a number is the thing that generates it: 3 is a square root of 9 because multiplying 3’s together gives you 9. ‘Square’ is I have always only assumed because multiplying a number by itself will give you the area of a square with sides of length that number. This is such an obvious word origin, though, that I am reflexively suspicious. Word histories are usually subtle and capricious things.
The strip for the 8th closing the storyline has a nice example of using “billion” as a number so big as to be magical, capable of anything. Big numbers can do strange and contrary-to-intuition things. But they can be reasoned out.
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 4th sees the title character figuring she could sell her “personal smartness”. Her best friend Trout wonders if that’s tutoring math or something. (Incidentally, Agnes is one of the small handful of strips to capture what made Calvin and Hobbes great; I recommend giving it a try.)
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 5th sees Charlie Brown working problems on the board. He’s stuck for what to do until he recasts the problem as scoring in football and golf. We may giggle at this, but I support his method. It’s convinced him the questions are worth solving, the most important thing to doing them at all. And it’s gotten him to the correct answers. Casting these questions as sports problems is the building of falsework: it helps one do the task, and then is taken away (or hidden) from the final product. Everyone who does mathematics builds some falsework like this. If we do a particular problem, or kind of problem, often enough we get comfortable enough with the main work that we don’t need the falsework anymore. So it is likely to be for Charlie Brown.
Jim Meddick’s Monty for the 29th has the time-travelling Professor Xemit (get it?) show a Times Square Ball Drop of the future. The ball gets replaced with a “demihypercube”, the idea being that the future will have some more complicated geometry than a mere “ball”. There is no such thing as “a” demihypercube, in the same way there is not “a” pentagon. There is a family of shapes, all called demihypercubes. There’s a variety of ways to represent them. A reasonable one, though, is a roughly spherical shape made of pointy triangles all over. It wouldn’t look absurd. There are probably time ball drops that use something like a demihypercube already.
You know, I had picked these comic strips out as the ones that, last week, had the most substantial mathematics content. And on preparing this essay I realize there’s still not much. Maybe I could have skipped out on the whole week instead.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 1st is mostly some wordplay. Jason’s finding ways to represent the counting numbers with square roots. The joke plays more tightly than one might expect. Root beer was, traditionally, made with sassafras root, hence the name. (Most commercial root beers don’t use actual sassafras anymore as the safrole in it is carcinogenic.) The mathematical term root, meanwhile, derives from the idea that the root of a number is the thing which generates it. That 2 is the fourth root of 16, because four 2’s multiplied together is 16. That idea. This draws on the metaphor of the roots of a plant being the thing which lets the plant grow. This isn’t one of those cases where two words have fused together into one set of letters.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 1st is set up with an exponential growth premise. The kid — I can’t figure out his name — promises to increase the number of push-ups he does each day by ten percent, with exciting forecasts for how many that will be before long. As Frazz observes, it’s not especially realistic. It’s hard to figure someone working themselves up from nothing to 300 push-ups a day in only two months.
Also much else of the kid’s plan doesn’t make sense. On the second day he plans to do 1.1 push-ups? On the third 1.21 push-ups? I suppose we can rationalize that, anyway, by taking about getting a fraction of the way through a push-up. But if we do that, then, I make out by the end of the month that he’d be doing about 15.863 push-ups a day. At the end of two months, at this rate, he’d be at 276.8 push-ups a day. That’s close enough to three hundred that I’d let him round it off. But nobody could be generous enough to round 15.8 up to 90.
An alternate interpretation of his plans would be to say that each day he’s doing ten percent more, and round that up. So that, like, on the second day he’d do 1.1 rounded up to 2 push-ups, and on the third day 2.2 rounded up to 3 push-ups, and so on. Then day thirty looks good: he’d be doing 94. But the end of two months is a mess as by then he’d be doing 1,714 push-ups a day. I don’t see a way to fit all these pieces together. I’m curious what the kid thought his calculation was. Or, possibly, what Jef Mallett thought the calculation was.
Zach Weinersmith’s for the 2nd has a kid rejecting accounting in favor of his art. But, wanting to do that art with optimum efficiency … ends up doing accounting. It’s a common story. A common question after working out that someone can do a thing is how to do it best. Best has many measures, yes. But the logic behind how to find it stays the same. Here I admit my favorite kinds of games tend to have screen after screen of numbers, with the goal being to make some number as great as possible considering. If they ever made Multiple Entry Accounting Simulator none of you would ever hear from me again.
Which may be some time! Between Reading the Comics, A to Z, recap posts, and the occasional bit of filler I’ve just finished slightly over a hundred days in a row posting something. That is, however, at its end. I don’t figure to post anything tomorrow. I may not have anything before Sunday’s Reading the Comics post, at this link. I’ll be letting my typing fingers sleep in instead. Thanks for reading.
So finally I get to the mathematically-themed comic strips of last week. There were four strips which group into natural pairings. So let’s use that as the name for this edition.
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 3rd puts forth “cookie and cake charts”, as a riff on pie charts. There’s always room for new useful visual representations of data, certainly, although quite a few of the ones we do use are more than two centuries old now. Pie charts, which we trace to William Playfair’s 1801 Statistical Breviary, were brought to the public renown by Florence Nightingale. She wanted her reports on the causes of death in the Crimean War to communicate well, and illustrations helped greatly.
Wayno and Piraro’s Bizarro for the 9th is another pie chart joke. If I weren’t already going on about pie charts this week I probably would have relegated this to the “casual mentions” heap. I love the look of the pie, though.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th jokes about stereotypes of mathematics and English classes. Or exams, anyway. There is some stabbing truth in the presentation of English-as-math-class. Many important pieces of mathematics are definitions or axioms. In an introductory class there’s not much you can usefully say about, oh, why we’d define a limit to be this rather than that. The book surely has its reasons and we’ll avoid confusion by trusting in them.
I dislike the stereotype of English as a subject rewarding longwinded essays that avoid the question. It seems at least unfair to what good academic writing strives for. (If you wish to argue about bad English writing, you have your blog for that, but let’s not pretend mathematics lacks fundamentally bad papers.) And writing an essay about why a thing should be true, or interesting, is certainly worthwhile. I’m reminded of a mathematical logic professor I had, who spoke of a student who somehow could not do a traditional proper-looking proof. But could write a short essay explaining why a thing should be true which convinced the professor that the student deserved an A. The professor was sad that the student was taking the course pass-fail.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 6th shows off a bit of mathematical modeling. The specific problem is silly, yes. But the approach is dead on: identify the things that affect what you’re interested in, and how they interact. Add to this estimates of the things’ values and you’ll get at least a provisional answer. You can then use that answer to guide the building of a more precise model, if you need one.
This little bugs-on-Superman problem makes note of the units everything’s measured in. Paying attention to the units is often done in dimensional analysis, a great tool for building simple models. I ought to write an essay sequence about that sometime.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 9th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. This one plays on the use of the same word to measure an angle and a temperature. Degree, etymologically, traces back to “a step”, like you might find in stairs. This, taken to represent a stage of progress, got into English in the 13th century. By the late 14th century “degree” was used to describe this 1/360th slice of a circle. By the 1540s it was a measure of heat. Making the degree the unit of temperature, as on a thermometer, seems to be written down only as far back as the 1720s.
And for a last strip of the week, Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 7th mentions an advantage of being a cartoonist “instead of an engineer” is how cartooning doesn’t require math. Also I guess this means the regular guy in Real Life Adventures represents one (or both?) of the creators? I guess that makes the name Real Life Adventures make more sense. I just thought he was a generic comic strip male. And, of course, there’s nothing about mathematics that keeps one from being a cartoonist, although I don’t know of any current daily-syndicated cartoonists with strong mathematics backgrounds. Bill Amend, of FoxTrot, and Bud Grade, of The Piranha Club/Ernie, were both physics majors, which is a heavy-mathematics program.
Several of the mathematically-themed comic strips from last week featured the fine art of calculation. So that was set to be my title for this week. Then I realized that all the comics worth some detailed mention were published last Sunday, and I do like essays that are entirely one-day affairs. There are a couple of other comic strips that mentioned mathematics tangentially and I’ll list those later this week.
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison lee for the 29th has Edison show off an organic computer. This is a person, naturally enough. Everyone can do some arithmetic in their heads, especially if we allow that sometimes approximate answers are often fine. People with good speed and precision have always been wonders, though. The setup may also riff on the ancient joke of mathematicians being ways to turn coffee into theorems. (I would imagine that Hambrock has heard that joke. But it is enough to suppose that he’s aware many adult humans drink coffee.)
John Kovaleski’s Daddy Daze for the 29th sees Paul, the dad, working out the calculations his son (Angus) proposed. It’s a good bit of arithmetic that Paul’s doing in his head. The process of multiplying an insubstantial thing by many, many times until you get something of moderate size happens all the time. Much of integral calculus is based on the idea that we can add together infinitely many infinitesimal numbers, and from that get something understandable on the human scale. Saving nine seconds every other day is useless for actual activities, though. You need a certain fungibility in the thing conserved for the bother to be worth it.
Dan Thompson’s Harley for the 29th gets us into some comic strips not drawn by people named John. The comic has some mathematics in it qualitatively. The observation that you could jump a motorcycle farther, or higher, with more energy, and that you can get energy from rolling downhill. It’s here mostly because of the good fortune that another comic strip did a joke on the same topic, and did it quantitatively. That comic?
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 29th. Young prodigies Jason and Marcus are putting serious calculation into their Hot Wheels track and working out the biggest loop-the-loop possible from a starting point. Their calculations are right, of course. Bill Amend, who’d been a physics major, likes putting authentic mathematics and mathematical physics in. The key is making sure the car moves fast enough in the loop that it stays on the track. This means the car experiencing a centrifugal force that’s larger than that of gravity. The centrifugal force on something moving in a circle is proportional to the square of the thing’s speed, and inversely proportional to the radius of the circle. This for a circle in any direction, by the way.
So they need to know, if the car starts at the height A, how fast will it go at the top of the loop, at height B? If the car’s going fast enough at height B to stay on the track, it’s certainly going fast enough to stay on for the rest of the loop.
The hard part would be figuring the speed at height B. Or it would be hard if we tried calculating the forces, and thus acceleration, of the car along the track. This would be a tedious problem. It would depend on the exact path of the track, for example. And it would be a long integration problem, which is trouble. There aren’t many integrals we can actually calculate directly. Most of the interesting ones we have to do numerically or work on approximations of the actual thing. This is all right, though. We don’t have to do that integral. We can look at potential energy instead. This turns what would be a tedious problem into the first three lines of work. And one of those was “Kinetic Energy = Δ Potential Energy”.
But as Peter observes, this does depend on supposing the track is frictionless. We always do this in basic physics problems. Friction is hard. It does depend on the exact path one follows, for example. And it depends on speed in complicated ways. We can make approximations to allow for friction losses, often based in experiment. Or try to make the problem one that has less friction, as Jason and Marcus are trying to do.
The past week included another Friday the 13th. Several comic strips found that worth mention. So that gives me a theme by which to name this look over the comic strips.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rerun for the 12th presents a pretty wordy algebra problem. And Peppermint Patty, in the grips of a math anxiety, freezing up and shutting down. One feels for her. Great long strings of words frighten anyone. The problem seems a bit complicated for kids Peppermint Patty’s and Franklin’s age. But the problem isn’t helping. One might notice, say, that a parent’s age will be some nice multiple of a child’s in a year or two. That in ten years a man’s age will be 14 greater than the combined age of their ages then? What imagination does that inspire?
Grant Peppermint Patty her fears. The situation isn’t hopeless. It helps to write out just what know, and what we would like to know. At least what we would like to know if we’ve granted the problem worth solving. What we would like is to know the man’s age. That’s some number; let’s call it M. What we know are things about how M relates to his daughter’s and his son’s age, and how those relate to one another. Since we know several things about the daughter’s age and the son’s age it’s worth giving those names too. Let’s say D for the daughter’s age and S for the son’s.
So. We know the son is three years older than the daughter. This we can write as . We know that in one year, the man will be six times as old as the daughter is now. In one year the man will be M + 1 years old. The daughter’s age now is D; six times that is 6D. So we know that . In ten years the man’s age will be M + 10; the daughter’s age, D + 10; the son’s age, S + 10. In ten years, M + 10 will be 14 plus D + 10 plus S + 10. That is, . Or if you prefer, . Or even, .
So this is a system of three equation, all linear, in three variables. This is hopeful. We can hope there will be a solution. And there is. There are different ways to find an answer. Since I’m grading this, you can use the one that feels most comfortable to you. The problem still seems a bit advanced for Peppermint Patty and Franklin.
Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set rerun for the 13th has a bit of talk about a mathematical discovery. The comic is accurate enough for its publication. In 2008 a number known as M43112609 was proven to be prime. The number, 243,112,609 – 1, is some 12,978,189 digits long. It’s still the fifth-largest known prime number (as I write this).
Prime numbers of the form 2N – 1 for some whole number N are known as Mersenne primes. These are named for Marin Mersenne, a 16th century French friar and mathematician. They’re a neat set of numbers. Each Mersenne prime matches some perfect number. Nobody knows whether there are finite or infinitely many Mersenne primes. Every even perfect number has a form that matches to some Mersenne prime. It’s unknown whether there are any odd perfect numbers. As often happens with number theory, the questions are easy to ask but hard to answer. But all the largest known prime numbers are Mersenne primes; they’re of a structure we can test pretty well. At least that electronic computers can test well; the last time the largest known prime was found by mere mechanical computer was 1951. The last time a non-Mersenne was the largest known prime was from 1989 to 1992, and before that, 1951.
T Shepherd’s Snow Sez for the 13th finishes off the unlucky-13 jokes. It observes that whatever a symbol might connote generally, your individual circumstances are more important. There are people for whom 13 is a good omen, or for whom Mondays are magnificent days, or for whom black cats are lucky.
These are all the comics I can write paragraphs about. There were more comics mentioning mathematics last week. Here were some of them:
We continue to be in the summer vacation doldrums for mathematically-themed comic strips. But there’ve been a couple coming out. I could break this week’s crop into two essays, for example. All of today’s strips are comics that turn up in my essays a lot. It’s like hanging out with a couple of old friends.
Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 17th uses the motif of arithmetic expressions as “difficult” things. The expressions Samson quotes seem difficult for being syntactically weird: What does the colon under the radical sign mean in ? Or they’re difficult for being indirect, using a phrase like “50%” for “half”. But with some charity we can read this as Horace talking about 3:33 am to about 6:30 am. I agree that those are difficult hours.
It also puts me in mind of a gift from a few years back. An aunt sent me an Irrational Watch, with a dial that didn’t have the usual counting numbers on it. Instead there were various irrational numbers, like the Golden Ratio or the square root of 50 or the like. Also the Euler-Mascheroni Constant, a number that may or may not be irrational. Nobody knows. It’s likely that it is irrational, but it’s not proven. It’s a good bit of fun, although it does make it a bit harder to use the watch for problems like “how long is it until 4:15?” This isn’t quite what’s going on here — the square root of nine is a noticeably rational number — but it seems in that same spirit.
I may need to rewrite that old essay. An “improper” form satisfies all the required conditions for the term. But it misses some of the connotation of the term. It’s true that, say, the new process takes “a fraction of the time” of the old, if the old process took one hour and the new process takes fourteen years. But if you tried telling someone that they would assume you misunderstood something. The ordinary English usage of “fraction” carries the connotation of “a fraction between zero and one”, and that’s what makes a “proper fraction”.
In practical terms, improper fractions are fine. I don’t know of any mathematicians who seriously object to them, or avoid using them. The hedging word “seriously” is in there because of a special need. That need is: how big is, say, ? Is it bigger than five? Is it smaller than six? An improper fraction depends on you knowing, in this case, your fourteen-times tables to tell. Switching that to a mixed fraction, , helps figure out what the number means. That’s as far as we have to worry about the propriety of fractions.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th uses the form of a Fermi problem for its joke. Fermi problems have a place in mathematical modeling. The idea is to find an estimate for some quantity. We often want to do this. The trick is to build a simple model, and to calculate using a tiny bit of data. The Fermi problem that has someone reached public consciousness is called the Fermi paradox. The question that paradox addresses is, how many technologically advanced species are there in the galaxy? There’s no way to guess. But we can make models and those give us topics to investigate to better understand the problem. (The paradox is that reasonable guesses about the model suggest there should be so many aliens that they’d be a menace to air traffic. Or that the universe should be empty except for us. Both alternatives seem unrealistic.) Such estimates can be quite wrong, of course. I remember a Robert Heinlein essay in which he explained the Soviets were lying about the size of Moscow, his evidence being he didn’t see the ship traffic he expected when he toured the city. I do not remember that he analyzed what he might have reasoned wrong when he republished this in a collection of essays he didn’t seem to realize were funny.
So the interview question presented is such a Fermi problem. The job applicant, presumably, has not committed to memory the number of employees at the company. But there would be clues. Does the company own the whole building it’s in, or just a floor? Just an office? How large is the building? How large is the parking lot? Are there people walking the hallways? How many desks are in the offices? The question could be answerable. The applicant has a pretty good chain of reasoning too.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 20th has several mathematical jokes in it. One is the use of excessively many decimal points to indicate intelligence. Grant that someone cares about the hyperbolic cosines of 15.2. There is no need to cite its wrong value to nine digits past the decimal. Decimal points are hypnotic, though, and listing many of them has connotations of relentless, robotic intelligence. That is what Amend went for in the characters here. That and showing how terrible nerds are when they find some petty issue to rage over.
Eugene is correct about the hyperbolic cosine being wrong, there, though. He’s not wrong to check that. It’s good form to have some idea what a plausible answer should be. It lets one spot errors, for one. No mathematician is too good to avoid making dumb little mistakes. And computing tools will make mistakes too. Fortunately they don’t often, but this strip originally ran a couple years after the discovery of the Pentium FDIV bug. This was a glitch in the way certain Pentium chips handled floating-point division. It was discovered by Dr Thomas Nicely, at Lynchberg College, who found inconsistencies in some calculations when he added Pentium systems to the computers he was using. This Pentium bug may have been on Amend’s mind.
Eugene would have spotted right away that the hyperbolic cosine was wrong, though, and didn’t need nine digits for it. The hyperbolic cosine is a function. Its domain is the real numbers. It range is entirely numbers greater than or equal to one, or less than or equal to minus one. A 0.9 something just can’t happen, not as the hyperbolic cosine for a real number.
And what is the hyperbolic cosine? It’s one of the hyperbolic trigonometric functions. The other trig functions — sine, tangent, arc-sine, and all that — have their shadows too. You’ll see the hyperbolic sine and hyperbolic tangent some. You will never see the hyperbolic arc-cosecant and anyone trying to tell you that you need it is putting you on. They turn up in introductory calculus classes because you can differentiate them, and integrate them, the way you can ordinary trig functions. They look just different enough from regular trig functions to seem interesting for half a class. By the time you’re doing this, your instructor needs that.
The ordinary trig functions come from the unit circle. You can relate the Cartesian coordinates of a point on the circle described by to the angle made between that point and the center of the circle and the positive x-axis. Hyperbolic trig functions we can relate the Cartesian coordinates of a point on the hyperbola described by to angles instead. The functions … don’t have a lot of use at the intro-to-calculus level. Again, other than that they let you do some quite testable differentiation and integration problems that don’t look exactly like regular trig functions do. They turn up again if you get far enough into mathematical physics. The hyperbolic cosine does well in describing catenaries, that is, the shape of flexible wires under gravity. And the family of functions turn up in statistical mechanics, often, in the mathematics of heat and of magnetism. But overall, these functions aren’t needed a lot. A good scientific calculator will offer them, certainly. But it’ll be harder to get them.
There is another oddity at work here. The cosine of 15.2 degrees is about 0.965, yes. But mathematicians will usually think of trigonometric functions — regular or hyperbolic — in terms of radians. This is just a different measure of angles. A right angle, 90 degrees, is measured as radians. The use of radians makes a good bit of other work easier. Mathematicians get to accustomed to using radians that to use degrees seems slightly alien. The cosine of 15.2 radians, then, would be about -0.874. Eugene has apparently left his calculator in degree mode, rather than radian mode. If he weren’t so worked up about the hyperbolic cosine being wrong he might have noticed. Perhaps that will be another exciting error to discover down the line.
This strip was part of a several-months-long story Bill Amend did, in which Jason has adventures at Math Camp. I don’t remember the whole story. But I do expect the strip to have several more appearances here this summer.
I’d meant to get back into discussing continuous functions this week, and then didn’t have the time. I hope nobody was too worried.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 19th is set up as geometry or trigonometry homework. There are a couple of angles that we use all the time, and they do correspond to some common unit fractions of a circle: a quarter, a sixth, an eighth, a twelfth. These map nicely to common cuts of circular pies, at least. Well, it’s a bit of a freak move to cut a pie into twelve pieces, but it’s not totally out there. If someone cuts a pie into 24 pieces, flee.
Tom Batiuk’s vintage Funky Winkerbean for the 19th of May is a real vintage piece, showing off the days when pocket electronic calculators were new. The sales clerk describes the calculator as having “a floating decimal”. And here I must admit: I’m poorly read on early-70s consumer electronics. So I can’t say that this wasn’t a thing. But I suspect that Batiuk either misunderstood “floating-point decimal”, which would be a selling point, or shortened the phrase in order to make the dialogue less needlessly long. Which is fine, and his right as an author. The technical detail does its work, for the setup, by existing. It does not have to be an actual sales brochure. Reducing “floating point decimal” to “floating decimal” is a useful artistic shorthand. It’s the dialogue equivalent to the implausibly few, but easy to understand, buttons on the calculator in the title panel.
Floating point is one of the ways to represent numbers electronically. The storage scheme is much like scientific notation. That is, rather than think of 2,038, think of 2.038 times 103. In the computer’s memory are stored the 2.038 and the 3, with the “times ten to the” part implicit in the storage scheme. The advantage of this is the range of numbers one can use now. There are different ways to implement this scheme; a common one will let one represent numbers as tiny as 10-308 or as large as 10308, which is enough for most people’s needs.
The disadvantage is that floating point numbers aren’t perfect. They have only around (commonly) sixteen digits of significance. That is, the first sixteen or so nonzero numbers in the number you represent mean anything; everything after that is garbage. Most of the time, that trailing garbage doesn’t hurt. But most is not always. Trying to add, for example, a tiny number, like 10-20, to a huge number, like 1020 won’t get the right answer. And there are numbers that can’t be represented correctly anyway, including such exotic and novel numbers as . A lot of numerical mathematics is about finding ways to compute that avoid these problems.
Back when I was a grad student I did have one casual friend who proclaimed that no real mathematician ever worked with floating point numbers, because of the limitations they impose. I could not get him to accept that no, in fact, mathematicians are fine with these limitations. Every scheme for representing numbers on a computer has limitations, and floating point numbers work quite well. At some point, you have to suspect some people would rather fight for a mistaken idea they already have than accept something new.
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 19th does a bit of stage magic supported by arithmetic: forecasting the sum of three numbers. The trick is that all eight possible choices someone would make have the same sum. There’s a nice bit of group theory hidden in the “Howdydoit?” panel, about how to do the trick a second time. Rotating the square of numbers makes what looks, casually, like a different square. It’s hard for human to memorize a string of digits that don’t have any obvious meaning, and the longer the string the worse people are at it. If you’ve had a person — as directed — black out the rows or columns they didn’t pick, then it’s harder to notice the reused pattern.
The different directions that you could write the digits down in represent symmetries of the square. That is, geometric operations that would replace a square with something that looks like the original. This includes rotations, by 90 or 180 or 270 degrees clockwise. Mac King and Bill King don’t mention it, but reflections would also work: if the top row were 4, 9, 2, for example, and the middle 3, 5, 7, and the bottom 8, 1, 6. Combining rotations and reflections also works.
If you do the trick a second time, your mark might notice it’s odd that the sum came up 15 again. Do it a third time, even with a different rotation or reflection, and they’ll know something’s up. There are things you could do to disguise that further. Just double each number in the square, for example: a square of 4/18/8, 14/10/6, 12/2/16 will have each row or column or diagonal add up to 30. But this loses the beauty of doing this with the digits 1 through 9, and your mark might grow suspicious anyway. The same happens if, say, you add one to each number in the square, and forecast a sum of 18. Even mathematical magic tricks are best not repeated too often, not unless you have good stage patter.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 20th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Wavehead’s marveling at what seems at first like an asymmetry, about squares all being rhombuses yet rhombuses not all being squares. There are similar results with squares and rectangles. Still, it makes me notice something. Nobody would write a strip where the kid marvelled that all squares were polygons but not all polygons were squares. It seems that the rhombus connotes something different. This might just be familiarity. Polygons are … well, if not a common term, at least something anyone might feel familiar. Rhombus is a more technical term. It maybe never quite gets familiar, not in the ways polygons do. And the defining feature of a rhombus — all four sides the same length — seems like the same thing that makes a square a square.
This week had a pretty good crop. I think Comic Strip Master Command is warming its people up for Pi Day. Better, there’s one that’s a good open-ended topic. We’ll get there.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 3rd (not a rerun) has Jason trying to teach his pet iguana algebra. Animals have some number sense, certainly. It depends on the animal. But we do see evidence of animals that can count, and that understand some geometrical truths. The level of abstraction needed for algebra — to discuss numbers when we don’t know, or don’t care, about their value — seems likely beyond what we could expect from animals. I say this aware that the last fifty years of animal cognition research have been, mostly, “yeah, so remember how we all agreed only humans could do this thing? Well, we looked at some nutrias here and … ”
Jason’s diagnosis that Quincy needs something more challenging is fair enough though. Teaching needs a couple of elements to succeed. The student’s confidence that this is worth the attention is one of them. A lot of teaching focuses on things that are, yes, beyond what the student now knows. But that the student can work out without feeling too lost. Feeling a bit lost helps. But there is great motivation in the moment when you feel less lost. Setting up such moments is among the things skilled teachers do.
(And I say “among”. There can be great joy in teaching a topic someone already knows, if what you’re really doing is showing some new perspective on it. And teaching things someone already knows is a good way to reassure that they have got it. Nothing is ever just the one thing.)
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 3rd is a variation of a trick from mid-January and mentioned here. It is, like many mathematics problems on a clock face, or a clock-like face, a modular numbers game in disguise. The trick is to give every starting, blue, bubble a path that ends at the same spot. There are tricks to get there, hidden in the network. For example, the first step is to start at any magician’s name in the outer ring, and move clockwise a number of steps equal to the number of letters in their name. All right: where would you start to finish on ‘Roy’ or ‘Thurston’? Given the levels of work needed for this I find it more impressive than I do January’s clock trick.
Frank Page’s Bob the Squirrel for the 4th sees Lauren working on a multiple-choice mathematics question. (It’s SAT prep work.) She’s startled that Bob can spot the answer right away. But there’s reasons it’s not so shocking Bob would be so fast.
The first thing I notice in this problem is f(x). For positive values of x this is an “increasing” function. That is, if you have two positive numbers x and y, and x is less than y, then f(x) is less than f(y). You can see that from how is an increasing function. Multiply an increasing function by a positive number and it stays increasing. Add a constant to an increasing function and it stays increasing. So this right away rules out f(4) as a possible answer. If Lauren guessed wildly at this point, she’d have a one-in-three chance of getting it right. If the SAT still scores by the rules in place when I took it, that’s a chance worth taking.
That is another tip. This value grows, and pretty fast. It grows even faster the bigger x gets. The difference between f(10) and f(11) is 42. The difference between f(11) and f(12) is 46. The difference between f(12) and f(13) is 50. So just from that alone it’s hard to imagine f(15) being the right answer. Easier to imagine f(10) being right. Less hard to imagine f(6) being right. If I had to guess, f(6) would be it. If I must know which is right? I’d start by calculating f(5) and f(6). Then check their difference. If that seems close to what f(3) must be, good, call it done. If that didn’t work I’d move reluctantly on to calculating f(10). But, bleah. Seems tedious. I’m glad to be past having to work that out.
S Camilleri Konar’s Six Chix for the 6th name-drops Fibonacci. This fellow is Leonardo of Pisa, who lived from around 1175 to around 1240 or so. He’s famous for — well, a bunch of things. One is his book explaining Arabic numerals to Western Europe and why they’re really better for so much calculation work. But another is what we now call the Fibonacci Sequence. We now call him Fibonacci, although that name’s a 19th century retronym. He belonged to the Bonacci family (‘Fibonacci’ would mean ‘child of Bonacci’) and, at least sometimes, called himself Leonardo Bigollo. Bigollo here meaning a traveller or a good-for-nothing.
His sequence is famous; it starts 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, and so on, with each term in the sequence being the sum of the two terms before it. He was using this as a toy problem about breeding rabbits, meant to demonstrate ways to calculate better. This toy problem turns up in surprising contexts. Sometimes in algorithms. Sometimes in growth of natural objects; plant leaves and genes moving around on chromosomes and such. Sometimes in number theory. It’s even got links to the Golden Ratio, if we count that as interesting mathematics. And it inspires an activity problem. Per John Golden, a friend on Twitter:
The joke is all right as it is. The thing someone might associate with the name Fibonacci is the sequence, and it’s true that one never ends. But never ending isn’t a particularly distinctive feature of the Fibonacci sequence. Can the joke be rewritten so that the mathematics referenced is important?
There’s several properties of the sequence that might be useful. One is the thing that defined the sequence. Each term in it is the sum of the two preceding terms. The Golden Ratio offers another. Take any term in the sequence. The next term in the sequence is, approximately, the golden ratio of 1.618(etc) times the current term. The approximation gets better and better the more terms you go on.
That’s … really probably all you can expect to work with. There are fascinating other properties but you have to be really into number theory to know them. A positive number x is a Fibonacci number if and only if either or , or both, are perfect squares, for example. 1, 8, and 144 are the only Fibonacci numbers that are perfect powers of a whole number. Any Fibonacci number besides 1, 2, and 3 is the largest number of a Pythagorean triplet. Building a joke on any of these facts aims it at a particularly narrow audience.
If you feel the essential part of the joke is “this thing is never-ending” rather than “this involves Fibonacci” you have other options. How you might rewrite the joke depends on what you think the joke is.
And to speak of rewriting the joke is not to say Konar was wrong to make the joke she did, of course. We all understood what was being referenced and why it made for a punch line. Rewriting the joke to more tightly use its mathematical content does not necessarily make it funnier. This is especially so if a rewrite makes the joke too inaccessible. A comic strip is an optimization problem of how to compose a funny idea and to express it to a broad audience quickly. And then you have to solve it again.
There were a handful of comic strips from last week which I didn’t already discuss. Two of them inspire me to write about how we know how to do things. That makes a good theme.
Marcus Hamilton and Scott Ketcham’s Dennis the Menace for the 27th gets into deep territory. How does we could count to a million? Maybe some determined soul has actually done it. But it would take the better part of a month. Things improve some if we allow that anything a computing machine can do, a person could do. This seems reasonable enough. It’s heady to imagine that all the computing done to support, say, a game of Roller Coaster Tycoon could be done by one person working alone with a sheet of paper. Anyway, a computer could show counting up to a million, a billion, a trillion, although then we start asking whether anyone’s checked that it hasn’t skipped some numbers. (Don’t laugh. The New York Times print edition includes an issue number, today at 58,258, at the top of the front page. It’s meant to list the number of published daily editions since the paper started. They mis-counted once, in 1898, and nobody noticed until 1999.)
Anyway, allow that. Nobody doubts that, if we put enough time and effort into it, we could count up to any positive whole number, or as they say in the trade, “counting number”. But … there is some largest number that we could possibly count to, even if we put every possible resource and all the time left in the universe to that counting. So how do we know we “could” count to a number bigger than that? What does it mean to say we “could” if the circumstances of the universe are such that we literally could not?
Counting up to a number seems uncontroversial enough. If I wanted to prove it I’d say something like “if we can count to the whole number with value N, then we can count to the whole number with value N + 1 by … going one higher.” And “We can count to the whole number 1”, proving that by enunciating as clearly as I can. The induction follows. Fine enough. That’s a nice little induction proof.
But … what if we needed to do more work? What if we needed to do a lot of work? There is a corner of logic which considers infinitely long proofs, or infinitely long statements. They’re not part of the usual deductive logic that any mathematician knows and relies on. We’re used to, at least in principle, being able to go through and check every step of a proof. If that becomes impossible is that still a proof? It’s not my field, so I feel comfortable not saying what’s right and what’s wrong. But it is one of those lectures in your Mathematical Logic course that leaves you hanging your jaw open.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 27th is a joke about algorithms. These are the processes by which we know how to do a thing. Here, Hansel and Gretel are shown using what’s termed a “greedy algorithm” to follow pebbles back home. This kind of thing reflects trying to find an acceptable solution, in this case, finding a path somewhere. What makes it “greedy” is each step. You’re at a pebble. You can see other pebbles nearby. Which one do you go to? Go to some extreme one; in this case, the nearest. It could instead have been the biggest, or the shiniest, the one at the greatest altitude, the one nearest a water source. Doesn’t matter. You choose your summum bonum and, at each step, take the move that maximizes that.
The wicked mother knows something about this sort of algorithm, one that promises merely a solution and not the best solution. And that is that all these solutions can be broken. You can set up a problem that the algorithm can’t solve. Greedy algorithms are particularly vulnerable to this. They’re called “local maximums”. You find the best answer of the ones nearby, but not the best one you possibly could locate.
Why use an algorithm like this, that can be broken so? That’s because we often want to do problems like finding a path through the woods. There are so many possible paths that it’s hard to find one of the acceptable ones. But there are processes that will, typically, find an acceptable answer. Maybe processes that will let us take an acceptable answer and improve it to a good answer. And this is getting into my field.
Actual persons encountering one of these pebble rings would (probably) notice they were caught in a loop. And what they’d do, then, is suspend the greedy rule: instead of going to the nearest pebble they could find, they’d pick something else. Maybe simply the nearest pebble they hadn’t recently visited. Maybe the second-nearest pebble. Maybe they’d give up and strike out in a random direction, trusting they’ll find some more pebbles. This can lead them out of the local maximum they don’t want toward the “global maximum”, the path home, that they do. There’s no reason they can’t get trapped again — this is why the wicked mother made many loops — and no reason they might not get caught in a loop of loops again. Every algorithm like this can get broken by some problem, after all. But sometimes taking the not-the-best steps can lead you to a better solution. That’s the insight at the heart of “Metropolis-Hastings” algorithms, which was my field before I just read comic strips all the time.
I admit I’m including a fairly marginal strip in this, just so I can have the fun of another single-day edition. What can I say? I can be easily swayed by silly things. Also, somehow, all four strips today have circumstances where one might mistake them for reruns. Let’s watch.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 13th is wordplay, mashing up ‘cell division’ with ‘long division’. As you might expect from Bill Amend — who loves sneaking legitimate mathematics and physics in where it’s not needed — Paige’s long cell division is a legitimate one. If you’d like a bit of recreational mathematics fun, you can figure out which microscopic organisms correspond to which numerals. The answer is also the Featured Comment on the page, at least as I write this. So if you need an answer, or you want to avoid having the answer spoiled, know what’s there.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 13th is the strip of most marginal relevance here. Part of Luann’s awful ay is a mathematics test. The given problems are nothing particularly meaningful. There is the sequence ‘mc2’ in the problem, although written as . There’s also a mention of ‘googleplex’, which when the strip was first published in 1991 was nothing more than a misspelling of the quite large number. (‘Googol’ is the number; ‘Google’ a curious misspelling. Or perhaps a reversion. The name was coined in 1938 by Milton Sirotta. Sirotta was seven years old at the time. I accept that it is at least possible Sirotta was thinking of the then-very-popular serial-comic strip Barney Google, and that his uncle Edward Kasner, who brought the name to mathematics, wrote it down wrong.) And that carries with it the connotation that big numbers are harder than small numbers. This is … kind of true. At least, long numbers are more tedious than short numbers. But you don’t really do different work, dividing 1428 by 7, than you do dividing 147 by 7. It’s just longer. “Hard” is a flexible idea.
Mathematics on clock faces is often used as a way to introduce modular arithmetic, a variation on arithmetic with only finitely many integers. This can help, if you’re familiar with clock faces. Like regular arithmetic, modular arithmetic can form a group and a ring. Clock faces won’t give you a group or ring, not unless you replace the number before ‘1’ with a ‘0’. To be a group, you need a collection of items, and a binary operation on the items. This operation we often think of as either addition or multiplication, depending on what makes sense for the problem. To be a ring, you need two binary operations, which interact by a distributive law. So the operations are often matched to addition and multiplication. Modular arithmetic is fun, yes. It’s also useful, not just as a way to do something like arithmetic that’s different. Many schemes for setting up checksums, quick and easy tests against data entry errors, rely on modular arithmetic on the data. And many schemes for generating ‘random’ numbers are built on finding multiplicative inverses in modular arithmetic. This isn’t truly random, of course. But you can look at a string of digits and not see any clear patterns. This is often as close to random as you need.
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 13th is mostly a bunch of complaints the old always have against the young. Well, the complaint about parallel parking I haven’t seen before. But the rest are common enough. Featured in it is a complaint that the young can’t do arithmetic. I’m not sure there was ever a time that the older generation thought the young were well-trained in arithmetic. Nor that there was ever a time that the current educational vogue wasn’t blamed for destroying a generation’s ability to calculate. I’m sure there are better and worse ways to teach calculation. But I suspect any teaching method will fall short of addressing a couple issues. One is that people over-rate their own competence and under-rate other’s competence. So the older generation will see itself as having got the best possible arithmetic education and anything that’s different is a falling away. And another is that people get worse at stuff they don’t think is enjoyable or don’t have to do a lot. If you haven’t got a use for the fact, or an appreciation for the beauty in it, three times six is a bit of trivia, and not one that inspires much conversation when shared.
For today’s entry, Iva Sallay, of Find The Factors, gave me an irresistible topic. I did not resist.
What’s purple and commutes?
An Abelian grape.
Whatever else you say about mathematics we are human. We tell jokes. I will tell some here. You may not understand the words in them. That’s all right. From the Abelian grape there, you gather this is some manner of wordplay. A pun, particularly. It’s built on a technical term. “Abelian groups” come from (not high school) Algebra. In an Abelian group, the group multiplication commutes. That is, if ‘a’ and ‘b’ are any things in the group, then their product “ab” is the same as “ba’. That is, the group works like ordinary addition on numbers does. We say “Abelian” in honor of Niels Henrik Abel, who taught us some fascinating stuff about polynomials. Puns are a common kind of humor. So common, they’re almost base. Even a good pun earns less laughter than groans.
But mathematicians make many puns. A typical page of mathematics jokes has a whole section of puns. “What’s yellow and equivalent to the Axiom of Choice? Zorn’s Lemon.” “What’s nonorientable and lives in the sea?” “Möbius Dick.” “One day Jesus said to his disciples, `The Kingdom of Heaven is like 3x2 + 8x – 9′. Thomas looked very confused and asked peter, `What does the teacher mean?’ Peter replied, `Don’t worry. It’s just another one of his parabolas’.” And there are many jokes built on how it is impossible to tell the difference between the sounds of “π” and “pie”.
It shouldn’t surprise that mathematicians make so many puns. Mathematics trains people to know definitions. To think about precisely what we mean. Puns ignore definitions. They build nonsense out of the ways that sounds interact. Mathematicians practice how to make things interact, even if they don’t know or care what the underlying things are. If you’ve gotten used to proving things about , without knowing what ‘a’ or ‘b’ are, it’s difficult to avoid turning “poles on the half-plane” (which matters in some mathematical physics) to a story about Polish people on an aircraft.
If there’s a flaw to this kind of humor it’s that these jokes may sound juvenile. One of the first things that strikes kids as funny is that a thing might have several meanings. Or might sound like another thing. “Why do mathematicians like parks? Because of all the natural logs!”
Jokes can be built tightly around definitions. “What do you get if you cross a mosquito with a mountain climber? Nothing; you can’t cross a vector with a scalar.” “There are 10 kinds of people in the world, those who understand binary mathematics and those who don’t.” “Life is complex; it has real and imaginary parts.”
There are more sophisticated jokes. Many of them are self-deprecating. “A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems.” “An introvert mathematician looks at her shoes while talking to you. An extrovert mathematician looks at your shoes.” “A mathematics professor is someone who talks in someone else’s sleep”. “Two people are adrift in a hot air balloon. Finally they see someone and shout down, `Where are we?’ The person looks up, and studies them, watching the balloon drift away. Finally, when they are barely in shouting range, the person on the ground shouts back, `You are in a balloon!’ The first passenger curses their luck at running across a mathematician. `How do you know that was a mathematician?’ `Because her answer took a long time, was perfectly correct, and absolutely useless!”’ These have the form of being about mathematicians. But they’re not really. It would be the same joke to say “a poet is a device for turning coffee into couplets”, the sleep-talker anyone who teachers, or have the hot-air balloonists discover a lawyer or a consultant.
Some of these jokes get more specific, with mathematics harder to extract from the story. The tale of the nervous flyer who, before going to the conference, sends a postcard that she has a proof of the Riemann hypothesis. She arrives and admits she has no such thing, of course. But she sends that word ahead of every conference. She knows if she died in a plane crash after that, she’d be famous forever, and God would never give her that. (I wonder if Ian Randal Strock’s little joke of a story about Pierre de Fermat was an adaptation of this joke.) You could recast the joke for physicists uniting gravity and quantum mechanics. But I can’t imagine a way to make this joke about an ISO 9000 consultant.
A dairy farmer knew he could be milking his cows better. He could surely get more milk, and faster, if only the operations of his farm were arranged better. So he hired a mathematician to find the optimal way to configure everything. The mathematician toured every part of the pastures, the milking barn, the cows, everything relevant. And then the mathematician set to work devising a plan for the most efficient possible cow-milking operation. The mathematician declared, “First, assume a spherical cow.”
This joke is very mathematical. I know of no important results actually based on spherical cows. But the attitude that tries to make spheres of cows comes from observing mathematicians. To describe any real-world process is to make a model of that thing. A model is a simplification of the real thing. You suppose that things behave more predictably than the real thing. You trust the error made by this supposition is small enough for your needs. A cow is complicated, all those pointy ends and weird contours. A sphere is easy. And, besides, cows are funny. “Spherical cow” is a funny string of sounds, at least in English.
The spherical cows approach parodying the work mathematicians do. Many mathematical jokes are burlesques of deductive logic. Or not even burlesques. Charles Dodgson, known to humans as Lewis Carroll, wrote this in Symbolic Logic:
“No one, who means to go by the train and cannot get a conveyance, and has not enough time to walk to the station, can do without running;
This party of tourists mean to go by the train and cannot get a conveyance, but they have plenty of time to walk to the station.
∴ This party of tourists need not run.”
[ Here is another opportunity, gentle Reader, for playing a trick on your innocent friend. Put the proposed Syllogism before him, and ask him what he thinks of the Conclusion.
He will reply “Why, it’s perfectly correct, of course! And if your precious Logic-book tells you it isn’t, don’t believe it! You don’t mean to tell me those tourists need to run? If I were one of them, and knew the Premises to be true, I should be quite clear that I needn’t run — and I should walk!”
And you will reply “But suppose there was a mad bull behind you?”
And then your innocent friend will say “Hum! Ha! I must think that over a bit!” ]
The punch line is diffused by the text being so educational. And by being written in the 19th century, when it was bad form to excise any word from any writing. But you can recognize the joke, and why it should be a joke.
Not every mathematical-reasoning joke features some manner of cattle. Some are legitimate:
Claim. There are no uninteresting whole numbers.
Proof. Suppose there is a smalled uninteresting whole number. Call it N. That N is uninteresting is an interesting fact. Therefore N is not an uninteresting whole number.
Three mathematicians step up to the bar. The bartender asks, “you all want a beer?” The first mathematician says, “I don’t know.” The second mathematician says, “I don’t know.” The third says, “Yes”.
Some mock reasoning uses nonsense methods to get a true conclusion. It’s the fun of watching Mister Magoo walk unharmed through a construction site to find the department store exchange counter:
Venn Diagrams are not by themselves jokes (most of the time). But they are a great structure for jokes. And easy to draw, which is great for us who want to be funny but don’t feel sure about their drafting abilities.
And then there are personality jokes. Mathematics encourages people to think obsessively. Obsessive people are often funny people. Alexander Grothendieck was one of the candidates for “greatest 20th century mathematician”. His reputation is that he worked so well on abstract problems that he was incompetent at practical ones. The story goes that he was demonstrating something about prime numbers and his audience begged him to speak about a specific number, that they could follow an example. And that he grumbled a bit and, finally, said, “57”. It’s not a prime number. But if you speak of “Grothendieck’s prime”, many will recognize what you mean, and grin.
There are more outstanding, preposterous personalities. Paul Erdös was prolific, and a restless traveller. The stories go that he would show up at some poor mathematician’s door and stay with them several months. And then co-author a paper with the elevator operator. (Erdös is also credited as the originator of the “coffee into theorems” quip above.) John von Neumann was supposedly presented with this problem:
Two trains are on the same track, 60 miles apart, heading toward each other, each travelling 30 miles per hour. A fly travels 60 miles per hour, leaving one engine flying toward the other. When it reaches the other engine it turns around immediately and flies back to the other engine. This is repeated until the two trains crash. How far does the fly travel before the crash?
The first, hard way to do this is to realize how far the fly travels is a series. The fly starts at, let’s say, the left engine and flies to the right. Add to that the distance from the right to the left train now. Then left to the right again. Right to left. This is a bunch of calculations. Most people give up on that and realize the problem is easier. The trains will crash in one hour. The fly travels 60 miles per hour for an hour. It’ll fly 60 miles total. John von Neumann, say witnesses, had the answer instantly. He recognized the trick? “I summed the series.”
The personalities can be known more remotely, from a handful of facts about who they were or what they did. “Cantor did it diagonally.” Georg Cantor is famous for great thinking about infinitely large sets. His “diagonal proof” shows the set of real numbers must be larger than the set of rational numbers. “Fermat tried to do it in the margin but couldn’t fit it in.” “Galois did it on the night before.” (Évariste Galois wrote out important pieces of group theory the night before a duel. It went badly for him. French politics of the 1830s.) Every field has its celebrities. Mathematicians learn just enough about theirs to know a couple of jokes.
The jokes can attach to a generic mathematician personality. “How can you possibly visualize something that happens in a 12-dimensional space?” “Easy, first visualize it in an N-dimensional space, and then let N go to 12.” Three statisticians go hunting. They spot a deer. One shoots, missing it on the left. The second shoots, missing it on the right. The third leaps up, shouting, “We’ve hit it!” An engineer and a mathematician are sleeping in a hotel room when the fire alarm goes off. The engineer ties the bedsheets into a rope and shimmies out of the room. The mathematician looks at this, unties the bedsheets, sets them back on the bed, declares, “this is a problem already solved” and goes back to sleep. (Engineers and mathematicians pair up a lot in mathematics jokes. I assume in engineering jokes too, but that the engineers make wrong assumptions about who the joke is on. If there’s a third person in the party, she’s a physicist.)
Do I have a favorite mathematics joke? I suppose I must. There are jokes I like better than others, and there are — I assume — finitely many different mathematics jokes. So I must have a favorite. What is it? I don’t know. It must vary with the day and my mood and the last thing I thought about. I know a bit of doggerel keeps popping into my head, unbidden. Let me close by giving it to you.
Integral z-squared dz
From 1 to the cube root of 3
Times the cosine
Of three π over nine
Equals log of the cube root of e.
This may not strike you as very funny. I’m not sure it strikes me as very funny. But it keeps showing up, all the time. That has to add up.
There were a bunch of mathematically-themed comic strips this past week. A lot of them are ones I’d seen before. One of them is a bit risque and I’ve put that behind a cut. This saves me the effort of thinking up a good nonsense name to give this edition, so there’s that going for me too.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 24th of May ought to have run last Sunday, but I wasn’t able to make time to write about it. It’s part of a sequence of Jason tutoring Paige in geometry. She’s struggling with the areas of common shapes which is relatable. Many of these area formulas could be kept straight by thinking back to rectangles. The size of the area is equal to the length of the base times the length of the height. From that you could probably reason right away the area of a trapezoid. It would have the same area as a rectangle with a base of length the mean length of the trapezoid’s different-length sides. The parallelogram works like the rectangle, length of the base times the length of the height. That you can convince yourself of by imagining the parallelogram. Then imagine slicing a right triangle off one of its sides. Move that around to the other side. Put it together right and you have a rectangle. Already know the area of a rectangle. The triangle, then, you can get by imagining two triangles of the same size and shape. Rotate one of the triangles 180 degrees. Slide it over, so the two triangles touch. Do this right and you have a parallelogram and so you know the area. The triangle’s half the area of that parallelogram.
The circle, I don’t know. I think just remember that if someone says “pi” they’re almost certainly going to follow it with either “r squared” or “day”. One of those suggests an area; the other doesn’t. Best I can do.
Allison Barrows’s PreTeena rerun for the 27th discusses self-esteem as though it were a good thing that children ought to have. This is part of the strip’s work to help build up the Old Person Complaining membership that every comics section community group relies on. But. There is mathematics in Jeri’s homework. Not mathematics in the sense of something particular to calculate. There’s just nothing to do there. But it is mathematics, and useful mathematics, to work out the logic of how to satisfy multiple requirements. Or, if it’s impossible to satisfy them all at once, then to come as near satisfying them as possible. These kinds of problems are considered optimization or logistics problems. Most interesting real-world examples are impossibly hard, or at least become impossibly hard before you realize it. You can make a career out of doing as best as possible in the circumstances.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts rerun for the 27th features an extended discussion by Lucy about the nature of … well, she explicitly talks about “nothing”. Is she talking about zero? Probably; you have to get fairly into mathematics or philosophy to start worrying about the difference between the number zero and the idea of nothing. In Algebra, mathematicians learn to work with systems of things that work like numbers enough that you can add and subtract and multiply them together, without committing to the idea that they’re working with numbers. They will have something that works like zero, though, a “nothing” that can be added to or subtracted from anything without changing it. And for which multiplication turns something into that “nothing”.
I’m with Charlie Brown in not understanding where Lucy was going with all this, though. Maybe she lost the thread herself.
Mark Anderson’sAndertoons for the 28th is Mark Anderson’sAndertoons for the week. Wavehead’s worried about the verbs of both squaring and rounding numbers. Will say it’s a pair of words with contrary alternate meanings that I hadn’t noticed before. I have always taken the use of “square” to reflect, well, if you had a square with sides of size 4, then you’d have a square with area of size 16. The link seems obvious and logical. So on reflection that’s probably not at all where English gets it from. I mean, not to brag or anything but I’ve been speaking English all my life. If I’ve learned anything about it, it’s that the origin is probably something daft like “while Tisquantum [Squanto] was in England he impressed locals with his ability to do arithmetic and his trick of multiplying one number by itself got nicknamed squantuming, which got shortened to squaning to better fit the meter in a music-hall song about him, and a textbook writer in 1704 thought that was a mistake and `corrected’ it to squaring and everyone copied that”. I’m not even going to venture a guess about the etymology of “rounding”.
Marguerite Dabaie and Tom Hart’s Ali’s House for the 28th sets up a homework-help session over algebra. Can’t say where exactly Maisa is going wrong. Her saying “x equals 30 but the train equals” looks like trouble to me. It’s often good practice to start by writing out what are the things in the problem that seem important. And what symbol one wants each to mean. And what one knows about the relationship between these things. It helps clarify why someone would want to do that instead of something else. This is a new comic strip tag and I don’t think I’ve ever had cause to discuss it before.
Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 29th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. I’ve counted that as mathematical enough, usually. The different ways that you can rotate parts of the cube form a group. This is something like what I mentioned in the Peanuts discussion. The different rotations you can do can be added to or subtracted from each other, the way numbers can. (Multiplication I’m wary about.)
And now here’s the strip that is unsuitable for reading at work, owing to the appearance of an undressed woman.
I haven’t got any good ideas for the title for this collection of mathematically-themed comic strips. But I was reading the Complete Peanuts for 1999-2000 and just ran across one where Rerun talked about consoling his basketball by bringing it to a nice warm gymnasium somewhere. So that’s where that pile of words came from.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this installment. It has Wavehead suggest a name for the subtraction of fractions. It’s not by itself an absurd idea. Many mathematical operations get specialized names, even though we see them as specific cases of some more general operation. This may reflect the accidents of history. We have different names for addition and subtraction, though we eventually come to see them as the same operation.
In calculus we get introduced to Maclaurin Series. These are polynomials that approximate more complicated functions. They’re the best possible approximations for a region around 0 in the domain. They’re special cases of the Taylor Series. Those are polynomials that approximate more complicated functions. But you get to pick where in the domain they should be the best approximation. Maclaurin series are nothing but a Taylor series; we keep the names separate anyway, for the reasons. And slightly baffling ones; James Gregory and Brook Taylor studied Taylor series before Colin Maclaurin did Maclaurin series. But at least Taylor worked on Taylor series, and Maclaurin on Macularin series. So for a wonder mathematicians named these things for appropriate people. (Ignoring that Indian mathematicians were poking around this territory centuries before the Europeans were. I don’t know whether English mathematicians of the 18th century could be expected to know of Indian work in the field, in fairness.)
In numerical calculus, we have a scheme for approximating integrals known as the trapezoid rule. It approximates the areas under curves by approximating a curve as a trapezoid. (Any questions?) But this is one of the Runge-Kutta methods. Nobody calls it that except to show they know neat stuff about Runge-Kutta methods. The special names serve to pick out particularly interesting or useful cases of a more generally used thing. Wavehead’s coinage probably won’t go anywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 22nd I admit I don’t quite understand. It mentions arithmetic anyway. I think it’s a joke about a textbook like this being good only if it’s got the questions and the answers. But it’s the rare Skippy that’s as baffling to me as most circa-1930 humor comics are.
Ham’s Life on Earth for the 23rd presents the blackboard full of symbols as an attempt to prove something challenging. In this case, to say something about the existence of God. It’s tempting to suppose that we could say something about the existence or nonexistence of God using nothing but logic. And there are mathematics fields that are very close to pure logic. But our scary friends in the philosophy department have been working on the ontological argument for a long while. They’ve found a lot of arguments that seem good, and that fall short for reasons that seem good. I’ll defer to their experience, and suppose that any mathematics-based proof to have the same problems.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 23rd deploys a Maclaurin series. If you want to calculate the cosine of an angle, and you know the angle in radians, you can find the value by adding up the terms in an infinitely long series. So if θ is the angle, measured in radians, then its cosine will be:
60 degrees is in radians and you see from the comic how to turn this series into a thing to calculate. The series does, yes, go on forever. But since the terms alternate in sign — positive then negative then positive then negative — you have a break. Suppose all you want is the answer to within an error margin. Then you can stop adding up terms once you’ve gotten to a term that’s smaller than your error margin. So if you want the answer to within, say, 0.001, you can stop as soon as you find a term with absolute value less than 0.001.
For high school trig, though, this is all overkill. There’s five really interesting angles you’d be expected to know anything about. They’re 0, 30, 45, 60, and 90 degrees. And you need to know about reflections of those across the horizontal and vertical axes. Those give you, like, -30 degrees or 135 degrees. Those reflections don’t change the magnitude of the cosines or sines. They might change the plus-or-minus sign is all. And there’s only three pairs of numbers that turn up for these five interesting angles. There’s 0 and 1. There’s and . There’s and . Three things to memorize, plus a bit of orienteering, to know whether the cosine or the sine should be the larger size and whether they should positive or negative. And then you’ve got them all.
You might get asked for, like, the sine of 15 degrees. But that’s someone testing whether you know the angle-addition or angle-subtraction formulas. Or the half-angle and double-angle formulas. Nobody would expect you to know the cosine of 15 degrees. The cosine of 30 degrees, though? Sure. It’s .
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 23rd is your basic confused-student joke. People often have trouble going from percentages to decimals to fractions and back again. Me, I have trouble in going from percentage chances to odds, as in, “two to one odds” or something like that. (Well, “one to one odds” I feel confident in, and “two to one” also. But, say, “seven to five odds” I can’t feel sure I understand, other than that the second choice is a perceived to be a bit more likely than the first.)
… You know, this would have parsed as the Maclaurin Series Edition, wouldn’t it? Well, if only I were able to throw away words I’ve already written and replace them with better words before publishing, huh?
Many of the strips from the first half of last week are ones that just barely touch on mathematical content. I’m not sure how relevant they all are. I hope you like encountering them anyway.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 4th of March offers “an infinite number of mathematicians walk into a bar” as a joke’s setup. Mathematics popularizers have a small set of jokes about infinite numbers of mathematicians, often arriving at hotels. They’re used to talk about how we now understand infinitely large sets. There’s often counter-intuitive or just plain weird results that follow. And presenting it as a joke works surprisingly well in introducing the ideas. There’s a kind of joke that is essentially a tall tale, spinning out an initial premise to as far and as absurd a consequence as you can get. In structure, that’s not much different to a proof, a discussion of the consequences of an idea. It’s a shame that it’s hard to make jokes or anecdotes about more fields of mathematics. Somehow infinitely large groups of people are funnier than, say, upper-bounded nondecreasing sequences.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 4th has Jason try to make a “universal” loot box that consists of zeroes and ones. As he says, accumulate enough and put them in the right order and you have any digital prize imaginable. Implementation is, as joked, the problem. Assembling ones and zeroes at random isn’t likely to turn up anything you might care about in a reasonable time. (It’s the monkeys-at-typewriters problem.) If you know how to assemble ones and zeroes to get what you want, well, what do you need Jason’s boxes for? As with most clever ideas by computer-oriented boys it shouldn’t really be listened to.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 4th has Neil make an order-of-magnitude error estimating what animal power can do. We’ve all made them. They’re particularly easy to make when switching the unit measure. Trying to go from meters to kilometers and multiplying the distance by a thousand, say. Which is annoying since often it’s easiest to estimate the order of magnitude of something first. I can’t find easily an estimate of how many calories a hamster eats over the course of the day. That seems like it would give an idea of how much energy a hamster could possibly be expected to provide, and so work out whether the estimate of four million hamsters to power a car is itself plausible. If someone has information, I’d take it.
Jonathan Lemon’s Rabbits Against Magic for the 4th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. Also a random processes joke. If a blender could turn the faces of a cube, and could turn them randomly, and could run the right period of time … well, yeah, it could unscramble a cube. But see the previous talk about Jason Fox and the delivery of ones and zeroes.
Mark Tatulli’s Lio for the 5th is a solid geometry joke. I’ve put more thought into whether and where to put hyphens in the last three words of that sentence than is worth it.
Comic Strip Master Command spent most of February making sure I could barely keep up. It didn’t slow down the final week of the month either. Some of the comics were those that I know are in eternal reruns. I don’t think I’m repeating things I’ve already discussed here, but it is so hard to be sure.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 24th of February has a mathematics problem with a joke answer. The approach to finding the area’s exactly right. It’s easy to find areas of simple shapes like rectangles and triangles and circles and half-circles. Cutting a complicated shape into known shapes, finding those areas, and adding them together works quite well, most of the time. And that’s intuitive enough. There are other approaches. If you can describe the outline of a shape well, you can use an integral along that outline to get the enclosed area. And that amazes me even now. One of the wonders of calculus is that you can swap information about a boundary for information about the interior, and vice-versa. It’s a bit much for even Jason Fox, though.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 25th is a dispute between Mrs Olsen and Caulfield about whether it’s possible to give more than 100 percent. I come down, now as always, on the side that argues it depends what you figure 100 percent is of. If you mean “100% of the effort it’s humanly possible to expend” then yes, there’s no making more than 100% of an effort. But there is an amount of effort reasonable to expect for, say, an in-class quiz. It’s far below the effort one could possibly humanly give. And one could certainly give 105% of that effort, if desired. This happens in the real world, of course. Famously, in the right circles, the Space Shuttle Main Engines normally reached 104% of full throttle during liftoff. That’s because the original specifications for what full throttle would be turned out to be lower than was ultimately needed. And it was easier to plan around running the engines at greater-than-100%-throttle than it was to change all the earlier design documents.
Matt Janz’s Out of the Gene Pool rerun for the 25th tosses off a mention of “New Math”. It’s referenced as a subject that’s both very powerful but also impossible for Pop, as an adult, to understand. It’s an interesting denotation. Usually “New Math”, if it’s mentioned at all, is held up as a pointlessly complicated way of doing simple problems. This is, yes, the niche that “Common Core” has taken. But Janz’s strip might be old enough to predate people blaming everything on Common Core. And it might be character, that the father is old enough to have heard of New Math but not anything in the nearly half-century since. It’s an unusual mention in that “New” Math is credited as being good for things. (I’m aware this strip’s a rerun. I had thought I’d mentioned it in an earlier Reading the Comics post, but can’t find it. I am surprised.)