And here’s the other half of last week’s comic strips that name-dropped mathematics in such a way that I couldn’t expand it to a full paragraph. We’ll likely be back to something more normal next week.
David Malki’s Wondermark for the 20th is built on the common idiom of giving more than 100%. I’m firmly on the side of allowing “more than 100%” in both literal and figurative uses of percent, so there’s not much more to say.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th uses Big Numbers as the sort of thing that need a down-to-earth explanation. The strip is about explanations that don’t add clarity. It shows my sense of humor that I love explanations that are true but explain nothing. The more relevant and true without helping the better. Right up until it’s about something I could be explaining instead.
Tom Batiuk’s vintage Funky Winkerbean for the 21st is part of a week of strips from the perspective of a school desk. It includes a joke about football players working mathematics problems. The strip originally ran the 8th of February, 1974, looks like.
Each week Comic Strip Master Command sends out some comics that mention mathematics, but that aren’t substantial enough to write miniature essays about. This past week, too. Here are the comics that just mention mathematics. You may like them; there’s just not more to explain is all.
Dan Collins’s Looks Good On Paper rerun for the 27th uses a blackboard of mathematics — geometry-related formulas — to stand in for all classwork. This strip also ran in 2017 and in 2015. I haven’t checked 2013. I know the strip is still in original production, as it’ll include strips referring to current events, so I’ll keep reading it a while yet.
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 29th, which originally ran the 23rd of November, 1949, is a basic cheating-in-class joke. It works for mathematics in a way it wouldn’t for, say, history. Mathematics has enough symbols that don’t appear in ordinary writing that you could copy them upside-down without knowing that you transcribe something meaningless. Well, not realizing an upside-down 4 isn’t anything is a bit odd, but anyone can get pretty lost in symbols.
It might be more fair to call this a blackboard edition, as three of the strips worth discussing feature that element. But I think I’ve used that name recently. And two of the strips feature specifically 2 + 2, so I’ll use that instead.
And here’s a possible movie heads-up. Turner Classic Movies, United States feed, is showing Monday at 9:30 am (Eastern/Pacific) All-American Chump. All I know about this 1936 movie is from its Leonard Maltin review:
[ Stuart ] Erwin is funny, in his usual country bumpkin way, as a small-town math whiz known as “the human adding machine” who is exploited by card sharks and hustlers. Fairly diverting double-feature item.
People with great powers of calculation were — and still are — with us. Before calculating machines were common they were, pop mathematicians tell us, in demand for doing the kinds of arithmetic mathematicians and engineers need a lot of. They’d also have value in performing, if they can put together some good patter. And, sure, gambling is just another field that needs calculation done well. I have no idea the quality of the film (it’s rated two and a half stars, but Leonard Maltin rates many things two and a half stars). But it’s there if you’re curious. The film also stars Robert Armstrong. I assume it’s not the guy I know but, you know? We live in a strange world. Now on to the comics.
Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys for the 13th uses the image of a blackboard full of mathematics symbols to represent deep thought. The equations on the board are mostly nonsense, although some, like , have obvious meaning. Many of the other symbols have some meaning to them too. In the upper-right corner, for example, is what looks like . This any physics major would recognize: it’s the energy of a photon, which is equal to Planck’s constant (that stuff) times its frequency.
And there are other physics-relevant symbols. In the bottom center is a line that starts . The capital B is commonly used to represent a magnetic field. The arrow above the capital B is a warning that this is a vector, which magnetic fields certainly are. (Mathematicians see vectors as a quite abstract concept. Physicists are more likely to see them as an intensity and direction, like forces, and the fields that make fields.) The symbol comes from vector calculus. It represent an integral taken along a closed loop, a shape that goes out along some path and comes back to where it started without crossing itself. This turns out to be useful all the time in dynamics problems. So the McCoys drew something that doesn’t mean anything, but looks ready to mean things.
“Overthinking this” is a problem common to mathematicians, even at an advanced level. Real problems don’t make clear what their boundaries are, the things that are important and the things that aren’t and the things that are convenient but not essential. Making mistakes picking them out, and working too hard on the wrong matters, will happen.
Graham Harrop’s Ten Cats for the 14th sees the cats pondering the counts of vast things. These are famous problems. Archimedes composed a text, The Sand Reckoner, which tried to estimate how much sand there could be in the universe. To work on the question he had to think of new ways to represent numbers. Grains of sand become numerous by being so tiny. Stars become numerous by the universe being so vast. Comparing the two quantities is a good challenge. For both numbers we have to make estimates. The volume of beaches in the world. The typical size of a grain of sand. The number of galaxies in the universe. The typical number of stars in a galaxy. There’s room to dispute all these numbers; we really have to come up with a range of possible values, with maybe some idea of what seems more likely.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 15th has the student bringing authority to his answer. The mathematician is called on to prove an answer is “technically” correct. I’m not sure whether the kid is meant to be prefacing the answer he’s about to give, or whether his answer was rewriting the horizontal “2 + 2 = ” in a vertical form.
Jim Unger’s Herman for the 16th is a student-talking-back-to-the-teacher strip. It also uses the 2 + 2 problem. It’s a common thing for teachers to say they learn from their students. It’s even true, although I son’t know that people ever quite articulate how teachers learn. A good mistake is a great chance to learn. A good mistake shows off a kind of brilliant twist. That the student has understood some but not all of the idea, and has filled in the misunderstood parts with something plausible enough one has to think about why it’s wrong. And why someone would think the wrong idea might be right. There is a kind of mistake that inspires you to think closely about what “right” has to be, and students who know how to make those mistakes are treasures.
There’s several comics from the first half of last week that I can’t perfectly characterize. They seem to be on-topic enough for my mathematical discussions. It’s just how exactly they are on-topic that I haven’t quite got. Some weeks are like that.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 28th circles around being a numerals joke. It’s built on the binary representation of numbers that we’ve built modern computers on. And on the convention that “(Subject) 101” is the name for an introductory course in a subject. This convention of course numbering — particularly, three-digit course numbers, with the leading digit representing the year students are expected to take it — seems to have spread in American colleges in the 1930s. It’s a compromise, as many things are. As college programs of study become more specialized there’s the need for a greater number of courses in each field. And there’s a need to give people some hint of the course level. “Numerical Methods” could be a sophomore, senior, or grad-student course; how should someone from a different school know what to expect? But the pull of the serial number, and the idea that ’01’ must be the first in a field, is hard to resist.
Anyway, the long string of zeroes and ones after the original ‘101’ is silliness and that’s all it has to be. The number one-hundred-and-one in binary would be a mere “1100101”, which doesn’t start with the important one-oh-one, and isn’t a big enough string of digits to be funny. Maybe this is a graduate course. The number given, if we read it as a single long binary number, would be 182,983,026,468. I’ve been to schools which use four-digit course codes. Twelve digits seems excessive.
John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 29th circles around being an anthropomorphic numerals joke. At least it is a person using a large representation of the number eight. I’m not sure how to characterize it, or why I find the strip amusing. It’s a strange one.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 1st is, finally, a certain anthropomorphic numerals joke. With wordplay about prime numbers being unavoidably prime suspects. … And when I was a kid, I had no idea what “numbers rackets” were, other than a thing sometimes mentioned on older sitcoms. That it involved somehow literally taking numbers and doing … something … that the authorities didn’t like was mysterious. I don’t remember what surely hilarious idea the young me had for what that might even mean. I suspect that, had I seen this strip at the time, I would have understood this wasn’t really whatever was going on. But I would have explained to my parents what a prime number was, and they would put up with my doing so, because that’s just what our relationship was.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 1st is more or less the Venn Diagram joke for this essay. It’s a bit of a fourth-wall-breaking strip: the joke wouldn’t really work from the other goldfish’s perspective. Anyway, only two of those figures are proper Venn diagrams. The topmost figure, with five circles, and the bottommost, with three, aren’t proper Venn diagrams. Only some of the possible intersections between sets exist there. They are proper Euler diagrams, though.
So then this happened: Comic Strip Master Command didn’t have much they wanted me to write about this week. I made out three strips as being relevant enough to discuss at all. And even they don’t have topics that I felt I could really dig into. Coincidence, surely, although I like to think they were trying to help me get ahead of deadline on my A To Z essays for this last week of the run. It’s a noble thought, but doomed. I haven’t been more than one essay ahead of deadline the last three months. I know in past years I’ve gotten three or even four essays ahead of time and I don’t know why it hasn’t worked this time. I am going ahead and blaming that this these essays have been way longer than previous years’. So anyway, I thank Comic Strip Master Command for trying to make my Monday and my Thursday this week be less packed. It won’t help.
Darrin Bell and Theron Heir’s Rudy Park for the 10th uses mathematics as shorthand for a deep, thought-out theory of something. In this case, Randy’s theory of how to interest women. (He has rather a large number of romantic events around him.) It’s easy to suppose that people can be modeled mathematically. Even a crude model, one supposing that people have things they like and dislike, can give us good interesting results. This gets into psychology and sociology though. And probably requires computer modeling to get slightly useful results.
Randy’s blackboard has a good number of legitimate equations on it. They’re maybe not so useful to his problem of modeling people, though. The lower left corner, for example, are three of Maxwell’s Equations, describing electromagnetism. I’m not sure about all of these, in part because I think some might be transcribed incorrectly. The second equation in the upper left, for example, looks like it’s getting at the curl of a conserved force field being zero, but it’s idiosyncratic to write that with a ‘d’ to start with. The symbols all over the right with both subscripts and superscripts look to me like tensor work. This turns up in electromagnetism, certainly. Tensors turn up anytime something, such as electrical conductivity, is different in different directions. But I’ve never worked deeply in those fields so all I can confidently say is that they look like they parse.
Lincoln Pierce’s Big Nate for the 14th is part of a bit where Nate’s trying to write a gruesome detective mystery for kids. I’m not sure that’s a ridiculous idea, at least if the gore could be done at a level that wouldn’t be too visceral. Anyway, Nate has here got the idea of merging some educational value into the whole affair. It’s not presented as a story problem, just as characters explaining stuff to one another. There probably would be some room for an actual problem where Barky and Winky wanted to know something and had to work out how to find it from what they knew, though.
And since it was a low-volume week, let me mention strips I didn’t decide fit. Ray Kassinger asked about Tim Rickard’s Brewster Rockit for the 12th. Might it be a play on Schrödinger’s Cat, the famous thought-experiment about how to understand the mathematics of quantum mechanics? It’s possible, but I think it’s more likely just that cats like sitting in boxes. Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 13th looks like it should be an anthropomorphic numerals joke. But it’s playing on the idiom about three being a crowd, and the whole of the mathematical content is that three is a number. John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 15th mentions mathematics. Particularly, Maria wishing they weren’t studying it. It’s a cameo appearance; it could be any subject whose value a student doesn’t see. That’s all I can make of it.
Last week Comic Strip Master Command sent out just enough on-theme comics for two essays, the way I do them these days. The first half has some multiplication in two of the strips. So that’s enough to count as a theme for me.
Aaron Neathery’s Endtown for the 26th depicts a dreary, boring school day by using arithmetic. A lot of times tables. There is some credible in-universe reason to be drilling on multiplication like this. The setting is one where the characters can’t expect to have computers available. That granted, I’m not sure there’s a point to going up to memorizing four times 27. Going up to twelve-times seems like enough for common uses. For multiplying two- and longer-digit numbers together we usually break the problem up into a string of single-digit multiplications.
There are a handful of bigger multiplications that can make your life easier to know, like how four times 25 is 100. Or three times 33 is pretty near 100. But otherwise? … Of course, the story needs the class to do something dull and seemingly pointless. Going deep into multiplication tables communicates that to the reader quickly.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 26th is a spot of wordplay. Also a shout-out to my friends who record mathematics videos for YouTube. It is built on the conflation between the ideas of something multiplying and the amount of something growing. It’s easy to see where the idea comes from; just keep hitting ‘x 2’ on a calculator and the numbers grow excitingly fast. You get even more exciting results with ‘x 3’ or ‘x π’. But multiplying by 1 is still multiplication. As is multiplying by a number smaller than 1. Including negative numbers. That doesn’t hurt the joke any. That multiplying two things together doesn’t necessarily give you something larger is a consideration when you’re thinking rigorously about what multiplication can do. It doesn’t have to be part of normal speech.
Nate Frakes’s Break of Day for the 27th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. I don’t know that there’s anything in the other numerals being odds rather than evens, or a mixture of odds and evens. It might just be that they needed to be anything but 1.
There were just enough mathematically-themed comic strips last week to make two editions for this coming week. All going well I’ll run the other half on either Wednesday or Thursday. There is a point that isn’t quite well, which is that one of the comics is in dubious taste. I’ll put that at the end, behind a more specific content warning. In the meanwhile, you can find this and hundreds of other Reading the Comics posts at this link.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 11th is wordplay, built on the conflation of “negative” as in numbers and “negative” as in bad. I’m not sure the two meanings are unrelated. The word ‘negative’ itself derives from the Latin word meaning to deny, which sounds bad. It’s easy to see why the term would attach to what we call negative numbers. A number plus its negation leaves us zero, a nothing. But it does make the negative numbers sound like bad things to have around, or to have to deal with. The convention that a negative number is less than zero implies that the default choice for a number is one greater than zero. And the default choice is usually seen as the good one, with everything else a falling-away. Still, -7 is as legitimate a number as 7 is; it’s we who think one is better than another.
J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 11th has the Dadaist panel present prime numbers as a way to communicate. I suspect Duffy’s drawing from speculations about how to contact alien intelligences. One problem with communicating with the truly alien is how to recognize there is a message being sent. A message too regular will look like a natural process, one conveying no more intelligence than the brightness which comes to most places at dawn and darkness coming at sunset. A message too information-packed, peculiarly, looks like random noise. We need an intermediate level. A signal that it’s easy to receive, and that is too hard to produce by natural processes.
Prime numbers seem like a good compromise. An intelligence that understands arithmetic will surely notice prime numbers, or at least work out quickly what’s novel about this set of numbers once given them. And it’s hard to imagine an intelligence capable of sending or receiving interplanetary signals that doesn’t understand arithmetic. (Admitting that yes, we might be ruling out conversational partners by doing this.) We can imagine a natural process that sends out (say) three pulses and then rests, or five pulses and rests. Or even draws out longer cycles: two pulses and a rest, three pulses and a rest five pulses and a rest, and then a big rest before restarting the cycle. But the longer the string of prime numbers, the harder it is to figure a natural process that happens to hit them and not other numbers.
We think, anyway. Until we contact aliens we won’t really know what it’s likely alien contact would be like. Prime numbers seem good to us, but — even if we stick to numbers — there’s no reason triangular numbers, square numbers, or perfect numbers might not be as good. (Well, maybe not perfect numbers; there aren’t many of them, and they grow very large very fast.) But we have to look for something particular, and this seems like a plausible particularity.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 11th is an early strip, from the days when Lucy would look to Charlie Brown for information. And it’s a joke built on conflating ‘zero’ with ‘nothing’. Lucy’s right that zero times zero has to be something. That’s how multiplication works. That the number zero is something? That’s a tricky concept. I think being mathematically adept can blind one to how weird that is. If you’re used to how zero is the amount of a thing you have to have nothing of that thing, then we start to see what’s weird about it.
But I’m not sure the strip quite sets that up well. I think if Charlie Brown had answered that zero times zero was “nothing” it would have been right (or right enough) and Lucy’s exasperation would have flowed more naturally. As it is? She must know that zero is “nothing”; but then why would she figure “nothing times nothing” has to be something? Maybe not; it would have left Charlie Brown less reason to feel exasperated or for the reader to feel on Charlie Brown’s side. Young Lucy’s leap to “three” needs to be at least a bit illogical to make any sense.
Now to the last strip and the one I wanted to warn about. It alludes to gun violence and school shootings. If you don’t want to deal with that, you’re right. There’s other comic strips to read out there. And this for a comic that ran on the centennial of Armistice Day, which has to just be an oversight in scheduling the (non-plot-dependent) comic.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 18th is a bit of wordplay. There’s something interesting culturally about phrasing “lots of math, but no chemistry”. Algorithms as mathematics makes sense. Much of mathematics is about finding processes to do interesting things. Algorithms, and the mathematics which justifies them, can at least in principle be justified with deductive logic. And we like to think that the universe must make deductive-logical sense. So it is easy to suppose that something mathematical simply must make logical sense.
Chemistry, though. It’s a metaphor for whatever the difference is between a thing’s roster of components and the effect of the whole. The suggestion is that it is mysterious and unpredictable. It’s an attitude strange to actual chemists, who have a rather good understanding of why most things happen. My suspicion is that this sense of chemistry is old, dating to before we had a good understanding of why chemical bonds work. We have that understanding thanks to quantum mechanics, and its mathematical representations.
But we can still allow for things that happen but aren’t obvious. When we write about “emergent properties” we describe things which are inherent in whatever we talk about. But they only appear when the things are a large enough mass, or interact long enough. Some things become significant only when they have enough chance to be seen.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th is about mathematicians’ favorite Ancient Greek philosopher they haven’t actually read. (In fairness, Zeno is hard to read, even for those who know the language.) Zeno’s famous for four paradoxes, the most familiar of which is alluded to here. To travel across a space requires travelling across half of it first. But this applies recursively. To travel any distance requires accomplishing infinitely many partial-crossings. How can you do infinitely many things, each of which take more than zero time, in less than an infinitely great time? But we know we do this; so, what aren’t we understanding? A callow young mathematics major would answer: well, pick any tiny interval of time you like. All but a handful of the partial-crossings take less than your tiny interval time. This seems like a sufficient answer and reason to chuckle at philosophers. Fine; an instant has zero time elapse during it. Nothing must move during that instant, then. So when does movement happen, if there is no movement during all the moments of time? Reconciling these two points slows the mathematician down.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 19th mentions fractions. It’s only used to list a kind of mathematics problem a student might feign unconsciousness rather than do. And takes quite little space in the word balloon to describe. It’d be the same joke if Todd were asked to come up and give a ten-minute presentation on the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set for the 19th mentions the Rubik’s Cube. Sometime I should do a proper essay about its mathematics. Any Rubik’s Cube can be solved in at most 20 moves. And it’s apparently known there are some cube configurations that take at least 20 moves, so, that’s nice to have worked out. But there are many approaches to solving a cube, none of which I am competent to do. Some algorithms are, apparently, easier for people to learn, at the cost of taking more steps. And that’s fine. You should understand something before you try to do it efficiently.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 17th is, for me, extremely relatable content. I don’t say that my interest in mathematics is entirely because there was this Berenstain Bears book about jobs which made it look like a mathematician’s job was to do sums in an observatory on the Moon. But it didn’t hurt. When I joke about how seven-year-old me wanted to be the astronaut who drew Popeye, understand, that’s not much comic exaggeration.
Justin Thompson’s Mythtickle rerun for the 17th is a timely choice about lotteries and probabilities. Vlad raises a fair point about your chance of being struck by lightning. It seems like that’s got to depend on things like where you are. But it does seem like we know what we mean when we say “the chance you’ll be hit by lightning”. At least I think it means “the probability that a person will be hit by lightning at some point in their life, if we have no information about any environmental facts that might influence this”. So it would be something like the number of people struck by lightning over the course of a year divided by the number of people in the world that year. You might have a different idea of what “the chance you’ll be hit by lightning” means, and it’s worth trying to think what precisely that does mean to you.
Lotteries are one of those subjects that a particular kind of nerd likes to feel all smug about. Pretty sure every lottery comic ever has drawn a comment about a tax on people who can’t do mathematics. This one did too. But then try doing the mathematics. The Mega Millions lottery, in the US, has a jackpot for the first drawing this week estimated at more than a billion dollars. The chance of winning is about one in 300 million. A ticket costs two dollars. So what is the expectation value of playing? You lose two dollars right up front, in the cost of the ticket. What do you get back? A one-in-300-million chance of winning a billion dollars. That is, you can expect to get back a bit more than three dollars. The implication is: you make a profit of dollar on each ticket you buy. There’s something a bit awry here, as you can tell from my decision not to put my entire savings into lottery tickets this week. But I won’t say someone is foolish or wrong if they buy a couple.
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 18th is a bit of mathematics-circling wordplay, featuring the blackboard full of equations. The blackboard doesn’t have any real content on it, but it is a good visual shorthand. And it does make me notice that rounding a quantity off is, in a way, making it simpler. If we are only a little interested in the count of the thing, “two thousand forty” or even “two thousand” may be more useful than the exact 2,038. The loss of precision may be worth it for the ease with which the rounded-off version is remembered and communicated.
For the second part of last week’s comics, there’s several strips whose authors prefer to use a single name. I’m relieved. Somehow my writing seems easier when I don’t have a long authorial credit to give. I can take writing “Zach Weinersmith” fourteen times a week. It’s all those appearances of, like, “Corey Pandolph and Phil Frank and Joe Troise” (The Elderberries) that slow me way up.
Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 4th shows off one of the things statistics can do. Tracking some measurable thing lets one notice patterns. These patterns might signify something important. At the least they can suggest things that deserve more scrutiny. There’s dangers, of course. If you’re measuring something that’s rare, or that naturally fluctuates a lot, you might misinterpret changes. You could suppose the changes represent some big, complicated, and invariably scary pattern that isn’t actually there. You can take steps to avoid how much weight you give to little changes. For example, you could look at running averages. Instead of worrying about how often Lemont has asked for his clippers this year versus last, look at how often he’s asked for it, on average, each of the last three years, compared to the average of the three years before that. Changes in that are more likely to be meaningful. But doing this does mean that a sudden change, or a slight but persistent change, is harder to notice. There are always mistakes to be made, when analyzing data. You have to think about what kinds of mistakes you would rather make, and how likely you want to make them.
C-Dog talks about fitting Lemont’s hair growth to a curve. This means looking at the data one has as points in space. What kinds of curves will come as close as possible to including all those points? It turns out infinitely many curves will, and you can fit a curve to all the data points you have. (Unless you have some inconsistent data, like, in 2017 Lemont asked both 14 times and 18 times.) So to do an interpolation you need to make some suppositions. Suppose that the data is really a straight line, with some noise in it. Or is really a parabola. Really a sine wave. Or, drawing from a set of plausible curves, which of those best fits the data?
The Bézier Curve mentioned here is a family of shapes. They’re named for Pierre Bézier, an engineer with Renault who in the 1950s pioneered the using of these curves. There are infinitely many of them. But they’re nice to work with. You can make great-looking curves as sharply curved or as smoothly curved as you like, using them. Most modern fonts use Bézier Curves to compute the shapes of letters. If you have a drawing program, it’s got some kind of Bézier curve in there. It’s the weird tool with a bunch of little dots, most of which are nowhere near the curve they draw. But moving the dots changes the way the curve looks.
A Bézier curve can be linear; indeed, it can just be a line. C-Dog’s showing off by talking about a linear Bézier curve. Or he means something that looks a lot like a line, to the casual eye. Negative-sloped means what it would in high school algebra when you talk about lines: it’s a thing with a value that decreases as the independent variable increases. Something getting rarer in time, for example.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 5th uses arithmetic, particularly simple addition, as emblematic of the basics of life. Hard to argue that this isn’t some of the first things anyone would learn, and that mathematics as it’s taught builds from that. A mathematician might see other fields — particularly set theory and category theory — as more fundamental than arithmetic. That is, that you can explain arithmetic in terms of set theory, and set theory in terms of category theory. So one could argue that those are the more basic. But if we mean basic as in the first things anyone learns, yeah, it’s arithmetic. Definitely.
Kliban’s Kliban Cartoons for the 5th speaks of proofs. A good bit of mathematics is existence proofs, which is to say, showing that a thing with desired properties does exist. Sometimes they actually show you the thing. Such a “constructive proof” — showing how you make an example of the thing — pretty well proves the thing exists. But sometimes the best you can do is show that there is an answer. In any case, an example of a fish would convince all but the most hardcore skeptics that fish do exist.
The title of this installment has nothing to do with anything. My love and I just got to talking about Reader’s Digest Condensed Books and I learned moments ago that they’re still being made. I mean, the title of the series changed from “Condensed Books” to “Select Editions” in 1997, but they’re still going on, as far as anyone can tell. This got us wondering things like how they actually do the abridging. And got me wondering whether any abridged book ended up being better than the original. So I have reasons for only getting partway through last week’s mathematically-themed comics. I don’t say they’re good reasons.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 13th is the Roman Numerals joke for the week, the first one of those in like five days. Also didn’t know that there were still sidewalk theaters that still showed porn movies. I thought they had all been renovated into either respectable neighborhood-revitalization projects that still sometimes show Star Wars films or else become incubator space for startup investment groups.
Corey Pandolph’s The Elderberries for the 13th is a joke about learning fractions. They don’t see to be having much fun thinking about them. Fair enough, I suppose. Once you’ve got the hang of basic arithmetic here come fractions to follow rules for addition and subtraction that are suddenly way more complicated. Multiplication isn’t harder, at least, although it is longer. Same with division. Without a clear idea why this is anything you want to do, yeah, it seems to be unmotivated complicating of stuff.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 13th is trying to pick a fight with me. I’m not taking the bait. Although by saying ‘likelihood’ the question seems to be setting up a probability question. Those tend to use ‘p’ and ‘q’ as a generic variable name, rather than ‘x’. I bet you imagine that ‘p’ gets used to represent a possibly-unknown ‘probability’ because, oh yeah, first letter. Well … so far as I know that’s why. I’m away from my references right now so I can’t look them over and find no quite satisfactory answer. But that sure seems like it. ‘q’ gets called in if you need a second probability, and don’t want to deal with subscripts, then it’s a nice convenient letter close to ‘p’ in the alphabet. Again, so far as I know.
The other half of last week’s mathematically-themed comics were on familiar old themes. I’ll see what I can do with them anyway.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 9th is the anthropomorphic numerals joke for the week. I’m curious why the Middletons would need multiple division symbols, but I suppose that’s their business. It does play on the idea that “division” and “splitting up” are the same thing. And that fits the normal use of these words. We’re used to thinking, say, of dividing a desired thing between several parties. While that’s probably all right in introducing the idea, I do understand why someone would get very confused when they first divide by one-half or one-third or any number between zero and one. And then negative numbers make things even more confusing.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 9th is the anthropomorphic geometric figures joke for the week. I think I can wrangle a way by which Circle’s question has deeper mathematical context. Mathematicians use the idea of “space” a lot. The use is inspired by how, you know, the geometry of a room works. Euclidean space, in the trade. A Euclidean space is a collection of points that obey a couple simple rules. You can take two points and add them, and get something in the space. You can take any scalar and multiply it by any point and get a point in the space. A scalar is something that acts like a real number. For example, real numbers. Maybe complex numbers, if you’re feeling wild.
A Euclidean space can be two-dimensional. This is the geometry of stuff you draw on paper. It can be three-dimensional. This is the geometry of stuff in the real world, or stuff you draw on paper with shading. It can be four-dimensional. This is the geometry of stuff you draw on paper with big blobby lines around it. Each of these is an equally good space, though, as legitimate and as real as any other. Context usually puts an implicit “three dimensional” before most uses of the word “space”. But it’s not required to be there. There’s many kinds of spaces out there.
And “space” describes stuff that doesn’t look anything like rooms or table tops or sheets of paper. These are spaces built of things like functions, or of sets of things, or of ways to manipulate things. Spaces built of the ways you can subdivide the integers. The details vary. But there’s something in common in all these ideas that communicates.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. I think we’ve all seen this joke go across our social media feed and it’s reassuring to know Mark Anderson has social media too. We do talk about solving for x, using the language of describing how we help someone get past a problem. I wonder if people might like this kind of algebra more if we talked more about finding out what values ‘x’ could have that make the equation true. Well, it won’t stop people feeling they don’t like the mathematics they learned in school. But it might help people feel like they know why they’re doing it.
And now I’ve got caught up with last week’s comics. I can get to readying for this coming Sunday looking at … so far … nine comic strips that made the preliminary cut. Whimper.
This time the name does mean something.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 31st complains about not being treated as a “prime number”. There’s a lot of linguistic connotation gone into this strip. The first is the sense that to be a number is to be stripped of one’s humanity, to become one of a featureless horde. Each number is unique, of course; Iva Sallay’s Find the Factors page each day starts with some of the features of each whole number in turn. But one might look at, oh, 84,644 and not something very different from 84,464.
And yet there’s the idea that there are prime numbers, celebrities within the anonymous counting numbers. The name even says it; a prime something is especially choice. And we speak of prime numbers as somehow being the backbone of numbers. This reflects that we find unique factorizations to be a useful thing to do. But being a prime number doesn’t make a number necessarily better. There are reasons most (European) currencies, before decimalization, divided their currency unit into 20 parts of 12 parts each. And nobody divided them into 19 parts of 13 parts each. As often happens, whether something is good depends on what you’re hoping it’s good for.
Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 1st of June is more or less the anthropomorphized numerals installment for the week. It’s also a bit of wordplay, so, good on them. There’s not so many movies about mathematics. Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures are the ones that come to mind, at least in American cinema. And there was the TV detective series Numbers. It seems odd that there wasn’t, like, some little studio prestige thing where Paul Muni played Évariste Galois back in the day. But a lot of the mathematical process isn’t cinematic. People scribbling notes, typing on a computer, or arguing about something you don’t understand are all hard to make worth watching. And the parts that anyone could understand — obsession, self-doubt, arguments over priority, debates about implications — are universal to any discovery or invention. Note that the movies listed are mostly about people who happen to be doing mathematics. You could change the specialties to, say, chemical engineering without altering the major plot beats. Well, Pi would need more alteration. But you could make it about any process that seems to offer reliable forecasting in a new field.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 1st takes place in mathematics class. The subject doesn’t matter for the joke. It could be anything that doesn’t take much word-balloon space but that someone couldn’t bluff their way through.
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 7th of April, 1979 has Quincy thinking what he’ll do with his head for figures. He sees accounting as plausible. Good for him. Society always needs accountants. And they probably do more of society’s mathematics than the mathematicians do.
Bill Abbott’s Spectickles for the 1st features the blackboard-full-of-mathematics to represent the complicated. It shows off the motif that an advanced mathematical formula will be a long and complicated one. This has good grounds behind it. If you want to model something interesting that hasn’t been done before, chances are it’s because you need to consider many factors. And trying to represent them will be clumsily done. It takes reflection and consideration and, often, new mathematical tools to make a formula pithy. Famously, James Clerk Maxwell introduced his equations about electricity and magnetism as a set of twenty equations. By 1873 Maxwell, making some use of quaternions, was able to reduce this to eight equations. Oliver Heaviside, in the late 19th century, used the still-new symbols of vector mechanics. This let him make an attractive quartet. We still see that as the best way to describe electromagnetic fields. As with writing, much of mathematics is rewriting.
There were fewer Pi Day comic strips than I had expected for this year. It’s gotten much more public mention than I had expected a pop-mathematics bit of whimsy might. But I’m still working off last week’s strips; I’ll get to this week’s next week. This makes sense to me, which is as good as making sense at all.
Mark Pett’s Mr Lowe rerun for the 7th is a standardized test joke. Part of the premise of Pett’s strip is that Mister Lowe is a brand-new teacher, which is why he makes mistakes like this problem. (This is touchy to me, as in grad school I hoped to make some spare money selling questions to a standardized testing company. I wasn’t good enough at it, and ultimately didn’t have the time to train up to their needs.) A multiple-choice question needs to clear and concise and to have one clearly best answer. As the given question’s worded, though, I could accept ‘2’ or ’12’ as a correct answer. With a bit of experience Lowe would probably clarify that Tommy and Suzie are getting the same number of apples and that together they should have 20 total.
Then on the 9th Mr Lowe has a joke about cultural bias in standardized tests. It uses an arithmetic problem as the type case. Mathematicians like to think of themselves as working in a universal, culturally independent subject. I suppose it is, but only in ways that aren’t interesting: if you suppose these rules of logic and these axioms and these definitions then these results follow, and it doesn’t matter who does the supposing. But start filtering that by stuff people care about, such as the time it takes for two travelling parties to meet, and you’ve got cultural influence. (Back when this strip was new the idea that a mathematics exam could be culturally biased was a fresh new topic of mockery among people who don’t pay much attention to the problems of teaching but who know what those who do are doing wrong.)
Ralph Hagen’s The Barn for the 8th — a new tag for my comics, by the way — lists a bunch of calculation tools and techniques as “obsolete” items. I’m assuming Rory means that longhand multiplication is obsolete. I’m not sure that it is, but I have an unusual perspective on this.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 8th is an anthropomorphic-numerals joke. I was annoyed when I first read this because I thought, wait, 97 isn’t a prime number. It is, of course. I have no explanation for my blunder.
Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes from a Multiverse has restarted its run on GoComics. The strip for the 8th is a riff on Venn Diagrams. And, it seems to me, about those logic-bomb problems about sets consisting of sets that don’t contain themselves and the like. You get weird and apparently self-destructive results pondering that stuff. The last time GoComics ran the Scenes from a Multiverse series I did not appreciate right away that there were many continuing stories. There might be follow-ups to this Former Venn Prime Universe story.
Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 9th has the Mad Scientist, struggling his way into the climax of the story, testing his mind by calculating a Fibonacci Sequence. Whatever keeps you engaged and going. You can build a Fibonacci Sequence from any two starting terms. Each term after the first two is the sum of the previous two. If someone just says “the Fibonacci Sequence” they mean the sequence that starts with 0, 1, or perhaps with 1, 1. (There’s no interesting difference.) Fibonacci Sequences were introduced to the west by Leonardo of Pisa, who did so much to introduce Hindu-Arabic Numerals to a Europe that didn’t know it wanted this stuff. They touch on some fascinating stuff: the probability of not getting two tails in a row of a set number of coin tosses. Chebyshev polynomials. Diophantine equations. They also touch on the Golden Ratio, which isn’t at all important but that people like.
Ah, yes, so, in the midst of feeling all proud that I’d gotten my Reading the Comics workflow improved, I went out to do my afternoon chores without posting the essay. I’m embarrassed. But it really only affects me looking at the WordPress Insights page. It publishes this neat little calendar-style grid that highlights the days when someone’s posted and this breaks up the columns. This can only unnerve me. I deserve it.
Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 8th of February is about the struggle to understand zero. As often happens, the joke has a lot of truth to it. Zero bundles together several ideas, overlapping but not precisely equal. And part of that is the idea of “nothing”. Which is a subtly elusive concept: to talk about the properties of a thing that does not exist is hard. As adults it’s easy to not notice this anymore. Part’s likely because mastering a concept makes one forget what it took to understand. Part is likely because if you don’t have to ponder whether the “zero” that’s “one less than one” is the same as the “zero” that denotes “what separates the count of thousands from the count of tens in the numeral 2,038” you might not, and just assume you could explain the difference or similarity to someone who has no idea.
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 8th has maria and another girl bonding over their hatred of mathematics. Well, at least they’re getting something out of it. The date in the strip leads me to realize this is probably a rerun. I’m not sure just when it’s from.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th proposes a prank based on mathematical use of the word “arbitrarily”. This is a word that appears a lot in analysis, and the strip makes me realize I’m not sure I can give a precise definition. An “arbitrarily large number”, for example, would be any number that’s large enough. But this also makes me realize I’m not sure precisely what joke Weinersmith is going for. I suppose that if someone were to select an arbitrarily large number they might pick 53, or a hundred, or million billion trillion. I suppose Weinersmith’s point is that in ordinary speech an arbitrarily made choice is one selection from all the possible alternatives. In mathematical speech an arbitrarily made choice reflects every possible choice. To speak of an arbitrarily large number is to say that whatever selection is made, we can go on to show this interesting stuff is true. We’d typically like to prove the most generically true thing possible. But picking a single example can be easier to prove. It can certainly be easier to visualize. 53 is probably easier to imagine than “every number 52 or larger”, for example.
Ted Shearer’s Quincy for the 16th of December, 1978 was rerun the 9th of February. It just shows Quincy at work on his mathematics homework, and considering dedicating it to his grandmother. Mathematics books have dedications, just as any other book does. I’m not aware of dedications of proofs or other shorter mathematics works, but there’s likely some. There’s often a note of thanks, usually given to people who’ve made the paper’s writers think harder about the subjects. But I don’t think there’s any reason a paper wouldn’t thank someone who provided “mere” emotional support. I just don’t have examples offhand.
Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 9th looks like one of those creative-teaching exercises I sometimes see in Mathematics Education Twitter: the teacher gives answers and the students come up with story problems to match. That’s not a bad project. I’m not sure how to grade it, but I haven’t done anything that creative when I’ve taught. I’m sorry I haven’t got more to say about it since the idea seems fun.
Gordon Bess’s Redeye for the 30th of September, 1971 was rerun the 10th. It’s a bit of extremely long division and I don’t blame Pokey for giving up on that problem. Starting from 5,967,342 divided by 973 I’d say, well, that’s about six million divided by a thousand, so the answer should be near six thousand. I don’t think the last digits of 2 and 3 suggest anything about what the final digit should be, if this divides evenly. So the only guidance I have is that my answer ought to be around six thousand and then we have to go into actually working. It turns out that 973 doesn’t go into 5,967,342 a whole number of times, so I sympathize more with Pokey. The answer is a little more than 6,132.9311.
The most interesting mathematically-themed comic strips from last week were also reruns. So be it; at least I have an excuse to show a 1931-vintage comic. Also, after discovering my old theme didn’t show the category of essay I was posting, I did literally minutes of search for a new theme that did. And that showed tags. And that didn’t put a weird color behind LaTeX inline equations. So I’m using the same theme as my humor blog does, albeit with a different typeface, and we’ll hope that means I don’t post stuff to the wrong blog. As it is I start posting something to the wrong place about once every twenty times. All I want is a WordPress theme with all the good traits of the themes I look at and none of the drawbacks; why is that so hard to get?
Elzie Segar’s Thimble Theatre rerun for the 5th originally ran the 25th of April, 1931. It’s just a joke about Popeye not being good at bookkeeping. In the story, Popeye’s taking the $50,000 reward from his last adventure and opened a One-Way Bank, giving people whatever money they say they need. And now you understand how the first panel of the last row has several jokes in it. The strip is partly a joke about Popeye being better with stuff he can hit than anything else, of course. I wonder if there’s an old stereotype of sailors being bad at arithmetic. I remember reading about pirate crews that, for example, not-as-canny-as-they-think sailors would demand a fortieth or a fiftieth of the prizes as their pay, instead of a mere thirtieth. But it’s so hard to tell what really happened and what’s just a story about the stupidity of people. Marginal? Maybe, but I’m a Popeye fan and this is my blog, so there.
Norm Feuti’s Gil rerun for the 6th is a subverted word problem joke. And it’s a reminder of how hard story problems can be. You need something that has a mathematics question on point. And the question has to be framed as asking something someone would actually care to learn. Plus the story has to make sense. Much easier when you’re teaching calculus, I think.
Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 6th is a parent-can’t-help-with-homework joke, done with arithmetic since it’s hard to figure another subject that would make the joke possible. I suppose a spelling assignment could be made to work. But that would be hard to write so it didn’t seem contrived.
Thaves’ Frank and Ernest for the 7thfeels like it’s a riff on the old saw about Plato’s Academy. (The young royal sent home with a coin because he asked what the use of this instruction was, and since he must get something from everything, here’s his drachma.) Maybe. Or it’s just the joke that you make if you have “division” and “royals” in mind.
It was an ordinary enough week when I realized I wasn’t sure about the name of the schoolmarm in Barney Google and Snuffy Smith. So I looked it up on Comics Kingdom’s official cast page for John Rose’s comic strip. And then I realized something about the Smiths’ next-door neighbor Elviney and Jughaid’s teacher Miss Prunelly:
Are … are they the same character, just wearing different glasses? I’ve been reading this comic strip for like forty years and I’ve never noticed this before. I’ve also never heard any of you all joking about this, by the way, so I stand by my argument that if they’re prominent enough then, yes, glasses could be an adequate disguise for Superman. Anyway, I’m startled. (Are they sisters? Cousins? But wouldn’t that make mention on the cast page? There are missing pieces here.)
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic In A Minute feature for the 10th sneaks in here yet again with a magic trick based in arithmetic. Here, they use what’s got to be some Magic Square-based technology for a card trick. This probably could be put to use with other arrangements of numbers, but cards have the advantage of being stuff a magician is likely to have around and that are expected to do something weird.
Thom Bluemel’s Birdbrains for the 13th is an Albert Einstein Needing Help panel. It’s got your blackboard full of symbols, not one of which is the famous E = mc2 equation. But given the setup it couldn’t feature that equation, not and be a correct joke.
John Rose’s Barney Google for the 14th does a little more work than necessary for its subtraction-explained-with-candy joke. I non-sarcastically appreciate Rose’s dodging the obvious joke in favor of a guy-is-stupid joke.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 14th is a kind of lying-with-statistics joke. That’s as much as it needs to be. Still, thought always should go into exactly how one presents data, especially visually. There are connotations to things. Just inverting an axis is dangerous stuff, though. The convention of matching an increase in number to moving up on the graph is so ingrained that it should be avoided only for enormous cause.
This joke also seems conceptually close, to me, to the jokes about the strangeness of how a “negative” medical test is so often the good news.
Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 15th is not about solitaire. But “solving” a game by simulating many gameplays and drawing strategic advice from that is a classic numerical mathematics trick. Whether a game is fun once it’s been solved so is up to you. And often in actual play, for a game with many options at each step, it’s impossible without a computer to know the best possible move. You could use simulations like this to develop general guidelines, and a couple rules that often pan out.
It wasn’t like the week wasn’t busy. Comic Strip Master Command sent out as many mathematically-themed comics as I might be able to use. But they were again ones that don’t leave me much to talk about. I’ll try anyway. It was looking like an anthropomorphic-symboles sort of week, too.
Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 31st is another entry in the anthropomorphic-symbols joke contest. This one sticks to mathematical symbols, so if the Frank and Ernest makes the cut this week so must this one.
Eric the Circle for the 31st, this installment by “T daug”, gives the slightly anthropomorphic geometric figure a joke that at least mentions a radius, and isn’t that enough? What catches my imagination about this panel particularly is that the “fractured radius” is not just a legitimate pun but also resembles a legitimate geometry drawing. Drawing a diameter line is sensible enough. Drawing some other point on the circle and connecting that to the ends of the diameter is also something we might do.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 1st of August is one of the logical mathematics jokes you could make about snakes. The more canonical one runs like this: God in the Garden of Eden makes all the animals and bids them to be fruitful. And God inspects them all and finds rabbits and doves and oxen and fish and fowl all growing in number. All but a pair of snakes. God asks why they haven’t bred and they say they can’t, not without help. What help? They need some thick tree branches chopped down. The bemused God grants them this. God checks back in some time later and finds an abundance of baby snakes in the Garden. But why the delay? “We’re adders,” explain the snakes, “so we need logs to multiply”. This joke absolutely killed them in the mathematics library up to about 1978. I’m told.
John Deering’s Strange Brew for the 1st is a monkeys-at-typewriters joke. It faintly reminds me that I might have pledged to retire mentions of the monkeys-at-typewriters joke. But I don’t remember so I’ll just have to depend on saying I don’t think I retired the monkeys-at-typewriters jokes and trust that someone will tell me if I’m wrong.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 3rd is the reassuringly normal appearance of Andertoons for this week. It is a geometry class joke about rays, line segments with one point where there’s an end and … a direction where it just doesn’t. And it riffs on the notion of the existence of mathematical things. At least I can see it that way.
Allison Barrows’s PreTeena rerun for the 18th is a classic syllogism put into the comic strip’s terms. The thing about these sorts of deductive-logic syllogisms is that whether the argument is valid depends only on the shape of the argument. It has nothing to do with whether the thing being discussed makes any sense. This can be disorienting. It’s hard to ignore the everyday meaning of words when you hear a string of sentences. But it’s also hard to parse a string of sentences if the words don’t make sense in them. This is probably part of why on the mathematics side of things logic courses will skimp on syllogisms, using them to give an antique flavor and sense of style to the introduction of courses. It’s easier to use symbolic representations for logic instead.
Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons rerun for the 20th is the old joke about arithmetic being different between school, government, and corporate work. I haven’t looked at the comments — the GoComics redesign, whatever else it does, makes it very easy to skip the comments — but I’m guessing by the second one someone’s said the Common Core method means getting the most wrong answer.
Bil Keane and Jeff Keane’s Family Circus for the 21st I don’t know is a rerun. But a lot of them are these days. Anyway, it looks like a silly joke about how nice mathematics would be without numbers; Dolly has no idea. I can sympathize with being intimidated by numerals. At the risk of being all New Math-y, I wonder if she wouldn’t like arithmetic more if it were presented as a game. Like, here’s a couple symbols — let’s say * and | for a start, and then some rules. * and * makes *, but * and | makes |. Also | and * makes |. But | and | makes |*. And so on. This is binary arithmetic, disguised, but I wonder if making it look like something inconsequential would make it more pleasant to learn, and if that would transfer over to arithmetic with 1’s and 0’s. Normal, useful arithmetic would be harder to play like this. You’d need ten symbols that are easy to write that aren’t already numbers, letters, or common symbols. But I wonder if it’d be worth it.