I’m writing this on Thursday, because I’m expecting to be busy Friday and Saturday. It might be a good policy if I planned the deadline for all these Reading the Comics posts to be a couple days before publishing. But it’ll probably ever come to that. I am not yet begun resisting treating this blog like a professional would. Well, what’s been interesting this week so far have been comic strips presenting or about story problems. That’s enough for a theme.
Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 13th makes the familiar complaint that story problems aren’t “useful”. Perhaps not; she can cut the Gordion knot for most common setups. Well, students aren’t likely to get problems for which there’s no other way to find a solution. I suppose what’s happening is that many mathematical puzzles come from questions like, what’s the least amount of information you need to deduce something? Or what’s an indirect way to find that? Mathematicians are often drawn to questions like this. At least Nancy has found there are problems she’s legitimately interested in, questions about how to do a thing she finds important.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s vintage Hi and Lois for the 17th has Chip’s new arithmetic book trying to be more relevant. Chip’s still bored by the problem, which chooses to be about foreign aid. (In the 50s and 60s comics discovered it was very funny that the United States would just give money to other countries and not get anything back out of it except maybe their economies staying stable or their countries not going to war too much.)
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:
The first half of last week’s comics offered another bunch of chances to think about what mathematics is for. Before I do get into all that, though, may I mention the most recent update of Gregory Taylor’s serial:
Whether you're an American celebrating Thanksgiving, or simply enjoying the end of a week… there's still a chance to vote on the latest serial entry! https://t.co/ZEMWN4ticK
It does conclude with a vote about the next direction to take. So it’s a good chance for people who like to see authors twisting to their audience’s demands.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 23rd of May, 1961 builds off a major use of arithmetic. Budgeting doesn’t get much attention from mathematicians. I suppose it seems to us like all the basic problems are solved: adding? Subtracting? Multiplication? All familiar things. Especially now with decimal currency. There are great unsolved problems in mathematics, but they get into specialized areas of financial mathematics and just don’t matter for ordinary household budgeting.
Hi comes across a bit harsh here. I’m going to suppose he was taken so by surprise by Lois’s problem that he spoke without thinking.
Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 19th is the anthropomorphic numerals strip for the week. With the title of “improper fractions” it’s wordplay on the common meaning for a mathematical term. Two times over, come to it. That negative refers to a class of numbers as well as disapproval of something is ordinary enough. I’ve mentioned it, I estimate, 840 times this month alone.
Jokes about the technical and common meanings of “improper” are rarer. In a proper fraction, the numerator is a smaller number than the denominator. In an improper fraction, we don’t count on that. I remember a modest bit of time in elementary and middle school working on converting improper fractions into mixed fractions — a whole number plus a proper fraction. And also don’t remember anyone caring about that after calculus. In most arithmetic work, there’s not much that’s easier about “1 + 1/2” than about “3/2”. The one major convenience “1 + 1/2” has is that it’s easy to tell at a glance how big the number is. It’s not mysterious how big a number 3/2 is, but that’s because of long familiarity. If I asked you whether 54/17 or 46/13 was the larger number, you’d be fairly stumped and maybe cranky. So there’s not much reason to worry about improper fractions while you’re doing work. For the final presentation of an answer, proper or mixed fractions may well be better.
Whoever colored that minus symbol before the 5 screwed up and confused the joke. Syndicated cartoonists give precise coloring instructions for Sunday strips. But many of them don’t, or aren’t able to, give coloring instructions for weekday strips like this. And mistakes like that are the unfortunate result.
Pascal Wyse and Joe Berger’s Berger and Wyse for the 19th features a sudoku appearance. It’s labelled a diversion, and so it is, as many mathematics and logic puzzles will be. The lone commenter at GoComics claims to have solved the puzzle, so I will suppose they’re being honest about this.
Brian Fies’s Mom’s Cancer for the 19th I have mentioned before, although not since I started including images for all mentioned comics. It’s set a moment when treatment for Mom’s cancer has been declared a great success.
The trouble is, as Feis lays out, volume is three-dimensional. We are pretty good at measuring the length, or at least the greatest width of something. You might call that the “characteristic length”. A linear dimension. But volume scales as the cube of this characteristic length. And the sad thing is that 0.8 times 0.8 times 0.8 is, roughly, 0.5. This means that the characteristic length dropping by 20% drops the volume by 50%. Or, as Feis is disappointed to see in this strip and its successor, the great news of a 50% reduction in the turmor’s mass is that it’s just 20% less big in every direction. It doesn’t look like enough.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 20th presents one of Fi’s seminars about why mathematics is a good thing. The offscreen student’s question about why one should learn mathematics goes unanswered. As often happens the question is presented as though it’s too absurd to deserve answering. The questioner is conflating “mathematics” with “calculating arithmetic”, yes. And a computer will be better at these calculations. A related question, sometimes asked (and rarely on-topic for my essays here), is why one needs to learn any specific facts when a computer is so much better at finding them.
Knowing facts is not understanding them, no. But it is hard to understand a thing without knowing facts. More, without loving the knowing of facts. If we don’t need to be good at calculating, we do still need to know what to have calculated. And why to calculate that instead of something else. In calculating we can learn things of great beauty. And some of us do go on to mathematics which cannot be calculated. There is software that will do very well at computing, say, the indefinite integral of functions. I don’t know of any that will even start on a problem like “find the kernel of this ring”. But these are problems we see, and think interesting, because our experience in arithmetic trains us to notice them. Perhaps there is new interesting mathematics that we would notice if we didn’t have preconceptions set by times tables and long division. But it is hard to believe that we can’t find it because we’re not ignorant enough. I wouldn’t risk it.
There won’t be, this week, any mathematically-themed comic strips featuring the long-running, Carl Anderson-created character Henry. You’ll come to see why I find this worth mentioning soon enough. Not today.
Hart, Mastroianni, and Parker’s Wizard of Id for the 2nd features the blackboard full of symbols to represent the difficult and unsolved problem. And sometimes it does seem like it takes magic to solve an equation. That magic usually takes the form of a transformation. That is, we find a way to rewrite the problem as something different, and find that this different problem is solvable. And then that the solution to this altered problem can be transformed into a solution of the original. This is normal magic, the kind any trained mathematician can do, if haltingly. But sometimes it’ll be just a stroke of imaginative genius, solving a problem that seems at first to have nothing to do with the original. This is genius work, and we all hope we can find a problem on which we can do that.
I can also take the strip to represent one of those things I’m curmudgeonly about. That is that I tend to look at big special-effects-laden attempts to make mathematics look beautiful as … well, they’re nice. But I don’t think they help anyone learn how to do anything. So that the Wizard’s work doesn’t actually solve the problem feels true to me.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s vintage Hi and Lois for the 3rd sees Chip struggling with mathematics. His father has a noble idea, that it’ll be easier if he tries to see the problems as fun puzzles. Maybe so, but I agree with Chip: there’s not a punch line to 246 ÷ 3. Also, points to Chip for doing that division right away. Clearly he isn’t bad at arithmetic; he just doesn’t like it. We’ve all got things like that.
Hector D Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo for the 4th is a joke about being helpless with numbers. … Actually, from the phrasing, I’m not positive that Cruz doesn’t mean he got question number 9, or maybe 19, or maybe number 10 wrong. It’s a bit sloppy to not remember which question was, but I certainly know the pain of remembering having done a problem wrong.
With a light load of mathematically-themed comic strips I’m going to have to think of things to write about twice this coming week. Fortunately, I have plans. We’ll see how that works out for me. So far this year I’m running about one-for-eight on my plans.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 1st of November, 1960 looks pretty familiar somehow. Having noticed what might be the first appearance of “the answer is twelve?” in Peanuts I’m curious why Chip started out by guessing twelve. Probably just coincidence. Possibly that twelve is just big enough to sound mathematical without being conspicuously funny, like 23 or 37 or 42 might be. I’m a bit curious that after the first guess Sally looked for smaller numbers than twelve, while Chip (mostly) looked for larger ones. And I see a logic in going from a first guess of 12 to a second guess of either 4 or 144. The 32 is a weird one.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 3rd of May is a riff on the motivation problem. For once, not about the motivation of the people in story problems to do what they do. It’s instead about why the student should care what the story people do. And, fair enough, really. It’s easy to calculate something you’d like to know the answer to. But give the teacher or textbook writer a break. There’s nothing that’s interesting to everybody. No, not even what minimum grade they need on this exam to get an A in the course. After a moment of clarity in fifth grade I never cared what my scores were. I just did my work and accepted the assessment. My choice not to worry about my grades had more good than bad results, but I admit, there were bad results too.
John McNamee’s Pie Comic for the 4th of May riffs on some ancient story-problems built on infinite sets. I don’t know the original source. I assume a Martin Gardiner pop-mathematics essay. I don’t know, though, and I’m curious if anyone does know.
Often I see these kinds of problem as set at the Hilbert Hotel. This references David Hilbert, the late-19th/early-20th century mastermind behind the 20th century’s mathematics field. They try to challenge people’s intuitions about infinitely large sets. Ponder a hotel with one room for each of the counting numbers. Suppose it’s full. How many guests can you add to it? Can you add infinitely many more guests, and still have room for them all? If you do it right, and if “infinitely many more guests” means something particular, yes. If certain practical points don’t get in the way. I mean practical for a hotel with infinitely many rooms.
There were nearly a dozen mathematically-themed comic strips among what I’d read, and they almost but not quite split mid-week. Better, they include one of my favorite ever mathematics strips from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.
Jimmy Halto’s Little Iodine for the 4th of December, 1956 was rerun the 2nd of February. Little Iodine seeks out help with what seems to be story problems. The rate problem — “if it takes one man two hours to plow seven acros, how long will it take five men and a horse to … ” — is a kind I remember being particularly baffling. I think it’s the presence of three numbers at once. It seems easy to go from, say, “if you go two miles in ten minutes, how long will it take to go six miles?” to an answer. To go from “if one person working two hours plows seven acres then how long will five men take to clear fourteen acres” to an answer seems like a different kind of problem altogether. It’s a kind of problem for which it’s even wiser than usual to carefully list everything you need.
Kieran Meehan’s Pros and Cons for the 5th uses a bit of arithmetic. It looks as if it’s meant to be a reminder about following the conclusions of one’s deductive logic. It’s more common to use 1 + 1 equalling 2, or 2 + 2 equalling 4. Maybe 2 times 2 being 4. But then it takes a little turn into numerology, trying to read more meaning into numbers than is wise. (I understand why people should use numerological reasoning, especially given how much mathematicians like to talk up mathematics as descriptions of reality and how older numeral systems used letters to represent words. And that before you consider how many numbers have connotations.)
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 10th of August, 1960 was rerun the 6th of February. It’s a counting joke. Babies do have some number sense. At least babies as old as Trixie do, I believe, in that they’re able to detect that something weird is going on when they’re shown, eg, two balls put into a box and four balls coming out. (Also it turns out that stage magicians get called in to help psychologists study just how infants and toddlers understand the world, which is neat.)
I had just enough comic strips to split this week’s mathematics comics review into two pieces. I like that. It feels so much to me like I have better readership when I have many days in a row with posting something, however slight. The A to Z is good for three days a week, and if comic strips can fill two of those other days then I get to enjoy a lot of regular publication days. … Though last week I accidentally set the Sunday comics post to appear on Monday, just before the A To Z post. I’m curious how that affected my readers. That nobody said anything is ominous.
Nicole Hollander’s Sylvia rerun for the 7th tosses off a mention that “we’re the first generation of girls who do math”. And that therefore there will be a cornucopia of new opportunities and good things to come to them. There’s a bunch of social commentary in there. One is the assumption that mathematics skill is a liberating thing. Perhaps it is the gloom of the times but I doubt that an oppressed group developing skills causes them to be esteemed. It seems more likely to me to make the skills become devalued. Social justice isn’t a matter of good exam grades.
Then, too, it’s not as though women haven’t done mathematics since forever. Every mathematics department on a college campus has some faded posters about Emmy Noether and Sofia Kovalevskaya and maybe Sophie Germaine. Probably high school mathematics rooms too. Again perhaps it’s the gloom of the times. But I keep coming back to the goddess’s cynical dismissal of all this young hope.
Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 8th is not quite the anthropomorphic-numerals joke of the week. It circles around that territory, though, giving a couple of odd numbers some personality.
Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 9th finally justifies my title for this essay, as cats ponder mathematics. Well, they ponder quantum mechanics. But it’s nearly impossible to have a serious thought about that without pondering its mathematics. This doesn’t mean calculation, mind you. It does mean understanding what kinds of functions have physical importance. And what kinds of things one can do to functions. Understand them and you can discuss quantum mechanics without being mathematically stupid. And there’s enough ways to be stupid about quantum mechanics that any you can cut down is progress.
Now to close out what Comic Strip Master Command sent my way through last Saturday. And I’m glad I’ve shifted to a regular schedule for these. They ordered a mass of comics with mathematical themes for Sunday and Monday this current week.
Karen Montague-Reyes’s Clear Blue Water rerun for the 17th describes trick-or-treating as “logarithmic”. The intention is to say that the difficulty in wrangling kids from house to house grows incredibly fast as the number of kids increases. Fair enough, but should it be “logarithmic” or “exponential”? Because the logarithm grows slowly as the number you take the logarithm of grows. It grows all the slower the bigger the number gets. The exponential of a number, though, that grows faster and faster still as the number underlying it grows. So is this mistaken?
I say no. It depends what the logarithm is, and is of. If the number of kids is the logarithm of the difficulty of hauling them around, then the intent and the mathematics are in perfect alignment. Five kids are (let’s say) ten times harder to deal with than four kids. Sensible and, from what I can tell of packs of kids, correct.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 17th is a resisting-the-word-problem joke. There’s probably some warning that could be drawn about this in how to write story problems. It’s hard to foresee all the reasonable confounding factors that might get a student to the wrong answer, or to see a problem that isn’t meant to be there.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 19th continues Fi’s story of considering leaving Fastrack Inc, and finding a non-competition clause that’s of appropriate comical absurdity. As an auditor there’s not even a chance Fi could do without numbers. Were she a pure mathematician … yeah, no. There’s fields of mathematics in which numbers aren’t all that important. But we never do without them entirely. Even if we exclude cases where a number is just used as an index, for which Roman numerals would be almost as good as regular numerals. If nothing else numbers would keep sneaking in by way of polynomials.
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Vintage Hi and Lois for the 27th of July, 1959 uses calculus as stand-in for what college is all about. Lois’s particular example is about a second derivative. Suppose we have a function named ‘y’ and that depends on a variable named ‘x’. Probably it’s a function with domain and range both real numbers. If complex numbers were involved then the variable would more likely be called ‘z’. The first derivative of a function is about how fast its values change with small changes in the variable. The second derivative is about how fast the values of the first derivative change with small changes in the variable.
The ‘d’ in this equation is more of an instruction than it is a number, which is why it’s a mistake to just divide those out. Instead of writing it as it’s permitted, and common, to write it as . This means the same thing. I like that because, to me at least, it more clearly suggests “do this thing (take the second derivative) to the function we call ‘y’.” That’s a matter of style and what the author thinks needs emphasis.
There are infinitely many possible functions y that would make the equation true. They all belong to one family, though. They all look like , where ‘C’ and ‘D’ are some fixed numbers. There’s no way to know, from what Lois has given, what those numbers should be. It might be that the context of the problem gives information to use to say what those numbers should be. It might be that the problem doesn’t care what those numbers should be. Impossible to say without the context.