Two things made repeat appearances in the mathematically-themed comics this week. They’re the comic strip Frazz and the idea of having infinitely many monkeys typing. Well, silly answers to word problems also turned up, but that’s hard to say many different things about. Here’s what I make the week in comics out to be.
Sandra Bell-Lundy’s Between Friends for the 6th introduces the infinite monkeys problem. I wonder sometimes why the monkeys-on-typewriters thing has so caught the public imagination. And then I remember it encourages us to stare directly into infinity and its intuition-destroying nature from the comfortable furniture of the mundane — typewriters, or keyboards, for goodness’ sake — with that childish comic dose of monkeys. Given that it’s a wonder we ever talk about anything else, really.
Monkeys writing Shakespeare has for over a century stood as a marker for what’s possible but incredibly improbable. I haven’t seen it compared to finding a four-digit PIN. It has got me wondering about the chance that four randomly picked letters will be a legitimate English word. I’m sure the chance is more than the one-in-a-thousand chance someone would guess a randomly drawn PIN correctly on one try. More than one in a hundred? I’m less sure. The easy-to-imagine thing to do is set a computer to try out all 456,976 possible sets of four letters and check them against a dictionary. The number of hits divided by the number of possibilities would be the chance of drawing a legitimate word. If I had a less capable computer, or were checking even longer words, I might instead draw some set number of words, never minding that I didn’t get every possibility. The fraction of successful words in my sample would be something close to the chance of drawing any legitimate word.
If I thought a little deeper about the problem, though, I’d just count how many four-letter words are already in my dictionary and divide that into 456,976. It’s always a mistake to start programming before you’ve thought the problem out. The trouble is not being able to tell when that thinking-out is done.
Richard Thompson’s Poor Richard’s Almanac for the 7th is the other comic strip to mention infinite monkeys. Well, chimpanzees in this case. But for the mathematical problem they’re not different. I’ve featured this particular strip before. But I’m a Thompson fan. And goodness but look at the face on the T S Eliot fan in the lower left corner there.
Jeff Mallet’s Frazz for the 6th gives Caulfield one of those flashes of insight that seems like it should be something but doesn’t mean much. He’s had several of these lately, as mentioned here last week. As before this is a fun discovery about Roman Numerals, but it doesn’t seem like it leads to much. Perhaps a discussion of how the subtractive principle — that you can write “four” as “IV” instead of “IIII” — evolved over time. But then there isn’t much point to learning Roman Numerals at all. It’s got some value in showing how much mathematics depends on culture. Not just that stuff can be expressed in different ways, but that those different expressions make different things easier or harder to do. But I suspect that isn’t the objective of lessons about Roman Numerals.
Frazz got my attention again the 12th. This time it just uses arithmetic, and a real bear of an arithmetic problem, as signifier for “a big pile of hard work”. This particular problem would be — well, I have to call it tedious, rather than hard. doing it is just a long string of adding together two numbers. But to do that over and over, by my count, at least 47 times for this one problem? Hardly any point to doing that much for one result.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 7th calls out fractions, and arithmetic generally, as the stuff that ruins a child’s dreams. (Well, a dinosaur child’s dreams.) Still, it’s nice to see someone reminding mathematicians that a lot of their field is mostly used by accountants. Actuaries we know about; mathematics departments like to point out that majors can get jobs as actuaries. I don’t know of anyone I went to school with who chose to become one or expressed a desire to be an actuary. But I admit not asking either.
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue started off a week of students-resisting-the-test-question jokes on the 7th. Most of them are hoary old word problem jokes. But, hey, I signed up to talk about it when a comic strip touches a mathematics topic and word problems do count.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reprinted the 7th is a higher level of mathematical joke. It’s from the genre of nonsense calculation. This one starts off with what’s almost a cliche, at least for mathematics and physics majors. The equation it starts with, , is true. And famous. It should be. It links exponentiation, imaginary numbers, π, and negative numbers. Nobody would have seen it coming. And from there is the sort of typical gibberish reasoning, like writing “Pi” instead of π so that it can be thought of as “P times i”, to draw to the silly conclusion that P = 0. That much work is legitimate.
From there it sidelines into “P = NP”, which is another equation famous to mathematicians and computer scientists. It’s a shorthand expression of a problem about how long it takes to find solutions. That is, how many steps it takes. How much time it would take a computer to solve a problem. You can see why it’s important to have some study of how long it takes to do a problem. It would be poor form to tie up your computer on a problem that won’t be finished before the computer dies of old age. Or just take too long to be practical.
Most problems have some sense of size. You can look for a solution in a small problem or in a big one. You expect searching for the solution in a big problem to take longer. The question is how much longer? Some methods of solving problems take a length of time that grows only slowly as the size of the problem grows. Some take a length of time that grows crazy fast as the size of the problem grows. And there are different kinds of time growth. One kind is called Polynomial, because everything is polynomials. But there’s a polynomial in the problem’s size that describes how long it takes to solve. We call this kind of problem P. Another is called Non-Deterministic Polynomial, for problems that … can’t. We assume. We don’t know. But we know some problems that look like they should be NP (“NP Complete”, to be exact).
It’s an open question whether P and NP are the same thing. It’s possible that everything we think might be NP actually can be solved by a P-class algorithm we just haven’t thought of yet. It would be a revolution in our understanding of how to find solutions if it were. Most people who study algorithms think P is not NP. But that’s mostly (as I understand it) because it seems like if P were NP then we’d have some leads on proving that by now. You see how this falls short of being rigorous. But it is part of expertise to get a feel for what seems to make sense in light of everything else we know. We may be surprised. But it would be inhuman not to have any expectations of a problem like this.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 8th gives us the Andertoons content for the week. It’s a fair question why a right triangle might have three sides, three angles, three vertices, and just the one hypotenuse. The word’s origin, from Greek, meaning “stretching under” or “stretching between”. It’s unobjectionable that we might say this is the stretch from one leg of the right triangle to another. But that leaves unanswered why there’s just the one hypothenuse, since the other two legs also stretch from the end of one leg to another. Dr Sarah on The Math Forum suggests we need to think of circles. Draw a circle and a diameter line on it. Now pick any point on the circle other than where the diameter cuts it. Draw a line from one end of the diameter to your point. And from your point to the other end of the diameter. You have a right triangle! And the hypothenuse is the leg stretching under the other two. Yes, I’m assuming you picked a point above the diameter. You did, though, didn’t you? Humans do that sort of thing.
I don’t know if Dr Sarah’s explanation is right. It sounds plausible and sensible. But those are weak pins to hang an etymology on. But I have no reason to think she’s mistaken. And the explanation might help people accept there is the one hypothenuse and there’s something interesting about it.
The first (and as I write this only) commenter, Kristiaan, has a good if cheap joke there.