Reading the Comics, January 7, 2020: I Could Have Slept In Edition


It’s been another of those weeks where the comic strips mentioned mathematics but not in any substantive way. I haven’t read Saturday’s comics yet, as I write this, so perhaps the last day of the week will revolutionize things. In the meanwhile, here’s the strips you can look at and agree say ‘mathematics’ in them somewhere.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 5th of January, 2020, uses a blackboard full of arithmetic as signifier of teaching. The strip is an extended riff on Extruded Inspirational Teacher Movie product. I like the strip, but I don’t fault you if you think it’s a lot of words deployed against a really ignorable target.

Henry Scarpelli’s Archie rerun for the 7th has Archie not doing his algebra homework.

Bill Bettwy’s Take It From The Tinkersons on the 6th started a short series about Tillman Tinkerson and his mathematics homework. The storyline went on Tuesday, and Wednesday, and finished on Thursday.

Nate Fakes’s Break of Day for the 7th uses arithmetic as signifier of a child’s intelligence.

Mark Pett’s Mr Lowe rerun for the 7th has Lowe trying to teach arithmetic. Also, the strip is rerunning again, which is nice to see.


And that’s enough for now. I’ll read Saturday’s comics next and maybe have another essay at this link, soon. Thanks for reading.

Just reminding you that you could watch Arthur Christmas


Folks who’ve been with me a long while know one of my happy Christmastime traditions is watching the Aardman Animation film Arthur Christmas. The film also gave me a great mathematical-physics question. You should watch the movie, but you might also consider the questions it raises.

First: Could `Arthur Christmas’ Happen In Real Life? There’s a spot in the movie when Arthur and Grand-Santa are stranded on a Caribbean island while the reindeer and sleigh, without them, go flying off in a straight line. What does a straight line on the surface of the Earth mean?

Second: Returning To Arthur Christmas. From here spoilers creep in and I have to discuss, among other things, what kind of straight line the reindeer might move in. There is no one “right” answer.

Third: Arthur Christmas And The Least Common Multiple. If we suppose the reindeer move in a straight line the way satellites move in a straight line, we can calculate how long Arthur and Grand-Santa would need to wait before the reindeer and sled are back if they’re lucky enough to be waiting on the equator.

Fourth: Six Minutes Off. Waiting for the reindeer to get back becomes much harder if Arthur and Grand-Santa are not on the equator. This has potential dangers for saving the day.

Fifth and last: Arthur Christmas and the End of Time. We get to the thing that every mathematical physics blogger really really wants to get into. This is the paradox that conservation of energy and the fact of entropy seem to force us into some weird conclusions, if the universe can get old enough. Maybe; there’s some extra considerations, though, that can change the conclusion.

My 2019 Mathematics A To Z: Zeno’s Paradoxes


Today’s A To Z term was nominated by Dina Yagodich, who runs a YouTube channel with a host of mathematics topics. Zeno’s Paradoxes exist in the intersection of mathematics and philosophy. Mathematics majors like to declare that they’re all easy. The Ancient Greeks didn’t understand infinite series or infinitesimals like we do. Now they’re no challenge at all. This reflects a belief that philosophers must be silly people who haven’t noticed that one can, say, exit a room.

This is your classic STEM-attitude of missing the point. We may suppose that Zeno of Elea occasionally exited rooms himself. That is a supposition, though. Zeno, like most philosophers who lived before Socrates, we know from other philosophers making fun of him a century after he died. Or at least trying to explain what they thought he was on about. Modern philosophers are expected to present others’ arguments as well and as strongly as possible. This even — especially — when describing an argument they want to say is the stupidest thing they ever heard. Or, to use the lingo, when they wish to refute it. Ancient philosophers had no such compulsion. They did not mind presenting someone else’s argument sketchily, if they supposed everyone already knew it. Or even badly, if they wanted to make the other philosopher sound ridiculous. Between that and the sparse nature of the record, we have to guess a bit about what Zeno precisely said and what he meant. This is all right. We have some idea of things that might reasonably have bothered Zeno.

And they have bothered philosophers for thousands of years. They are about change. The ones I mean to discuss here are particularly about motion. And there are things we do not understand about change. This essay will not answer what we don’t understand. But it will, I hope, show something about why that’s still an interesting thing to ponder.

Cartoony banner illustration of a coati, a raccoon-like animal, flying a kite in the clear autumn sky. A skywriting plane has written 'MATHEMATIC A TO Z'; the kite, with the letter 'S' on it to make the word 'MATHEMATICS'.
Art by Thomas K Dye, creator of the web comics Projection Edge, Newshounds, Infinity Refugees, and Something Happens. He’s on Twitter as @projectionedge. You can get to read Projection Edge six months early by subscribing to his Patreon.

Zeno’s Paradoxes.

When we capture a moment by photographing it we add lies to what we see. We impose a frame on its contents, discarding what is off-frame. We rip an instant out of its context. And that before considering how we stage photographs, making people smile and stop tilting their heads. We forgive many of these lies. The things excluded from or the moments around the one photographed might not alter what the photograph represents. Making everyone smile can convey the emotional average of the event in a way that no individual moment represents. Arranging people to stand in frame can convey the participation in the way a candid photograph would not.

But there remains the lie that a photograph is “a moment”. It is no such thing. We notice this when the photograph is blurred. It records all the light passing through the lens while the shutter is open. A photograph records an eighth of a second. A thirtieth of a second. A thousandth of a second. But still, some time. There is always the ghost of motion in a picture. If we do not see it, it is because our photograph’s resolution is too coarse. If we could photograph something with infinite fidelity we would see, even in still life, the wobbling of the molecules that make up a thing.

A photograph of a blurry roller coaster passing through a vertical loop.
One of the many loops of Vortex, a roller coaster at Kings Island amusement park from 1987 to 2019. Taken by me the last day of the ride’s operation; this was one of the roller coaster’s runs after 7 pm, the close of the park the last day of the season.

Which implies something fascinating to me. Think of a reel of film. Here I mean old-school pre-digital film, the thing that’s a great strip of pictures, a new one shown 24 times per second. Each frame of film is a photograph, recording some split-second of time. How much time is actually in a film, then? How long, cumulatively, was a camera shutter open during a two-hour film? I use pre-digital, strip-of-film movies for convenience. Digital films offer the same questions, but with different technical points. And I do not want the writing burden of describing both analog and digital film technologies. So I will stick to the long sequence of analog photographs model.

Let me imagine a movie. One of an ordinary everyday event; an actuality, to use the terminology of 1898. A person overtaking a walking tortoise. Look at the strip of film. There are many frames which show the person behind the tortoise. There are many frames showing the person ahead of the tortoise. When are the person and the tortoise at the same spot?

We have to put in some definitions. Fine; do that. Say we mean when the leading edge of the person’s nose overtakes the leading edge of the tortoise’s, as viewed from our camera. Or, since there must be blur, when the center of the blur of the person’s nose overtakes the center of the blur of the tortoise’s nose.

Do we have the frame when that moment happened? I’m sure we have frames from the moments before, and frames from the moments after. But the exact moment? Are you positive? If we zoomed in, would it actually show the person is a millimeter behind the tortoise? That the person is a hundredth of a millimeter ahead? A thousandth of a hair’s width behind? Suppose that our camera is very good. It can take frames representing as small a time as we need. Does it ever capture that precise moment? To the point that we know, no, it’s not the case that the tortoise is one-trillionth the width of a hydrogen atom ahead of the person?

If we can’t show the frame where this overtaking happened, then how do we know it happened? To put it in terms a STEM major will respect, how can we credit a thing we have not observed with happening? … Yes, we can suppose it happened if we suppose continuity in space and time. Then it follows from the intermediate value theorem. But then we are begging the question. We impose the assumption that there is a moment of overtaking. This does not prove that the moment exists.

Fine, then. What if time is not continuous? If there is a smallest moment of time? … If there is, then, we can imagine a frame of film that photographs only that one moment. So let’s look at its footage.

One thing stands out. There’s finally no blur in the picture. There can’t be; there’s no time during which to move. We might not catch the moment that the person overtakes the tortoise. It could “happen” in-between moments. But at least we have a moment to observe at leisure.

So … what is the difference between a picture of the person overtaking the tortoise, and a picture of the person and the tortoise standing still? A movie of the two walking should be different from a movie of the two pretending to be department store mannequins. What, in this frame, is the difference? If there is no observable difference, how does the universe tell whether, next instant, these two should have moved or not?

A mathematical physicist may toss in an answer. Our photograph is only of positions. We should also track momentum. Momentum carries within it the information of how position changes over time. We can’t photograph momentum, not without getting blurs. But analytically? If we interpret a photograph as “really” tracking the positions of a bunch of particles? To the mathematical physicist, momentum is as good a variable as position, and it’s as measurable. We can imagine a hyperspace photograph that gives us an image of positions and momentums. So, STEM types show up the philosophers finally, right?

Hold on. Let’s allow that somehow we get changes in position from the momentum of something. Hold off worrying about how momentum gets into position. Where does a change in momentum come from? In the mathematical physics problems we can do, the change in momentum has a value that depends on position. In the mathematical physics problems we have to deal with, the change in momentum has a value that depends on position and momentum. But that value? Put it in words. That value is the change in momentum. It has the same relationship to acceleration that momentum has to velocity. For want of a real term, I’ll call it acceleration. We need more variables. An even more hyperspatial film camera.

… And does acceleration change? Where does that change come from? That is going to demand another variable, the change-in-acceleration. (The “jerk”, according to people who want to tell you that “jerk” is a commonly used term for the change-in-acceleration, and no one else.) And the change-in-change-in-acceleration. Change-in-change-in-change-in-acceleration. We have to invoke an infinite regression of new variables. We got here because we wanted to suppose it wasn’t possible to divide a span of time infinitely many times. This seems like a lot to build into the universe to distinguish a person walking past a tortoise from a person standing near a tortoise. And then we still must admit not knowing how one variable propagates into another. That a person is wide is not usually enough explanation of how they are growing taller.

Numerical integration can model this kind of system with time divided into discrete chunks. It teaches us some ways that this can make logical sense. It also shows us that our projections will (generally) be wrong. At least unless we do things like have an infinite number of steps of time factor into each projection of the next timestep. Or use the forecast of future timesteps to correct the current one. Maybe use both. These are … not impossible. But being “ … not impossible” is not to say satisfying. (We allow numerical integration to be wrong by quantifying just how wrong it is. We call this an “error”, and have techniques that we can use to keep the error within some tolerated margin.)

So where has the movement happened? The original scene had movement to it. The movie seems to represent that movement. But that movement doesn’t seem to be in any frame of the movie. Where did it come from?

We can have properties that appear in a mass which don’t appear in any component piece. No molecule of a substance has a color, but a big enough mass does. No atom of iron is ferromagnetic, but a chunk might be. No grain of sand is a heap, but enough of them are. The Ancient Greeks knew this; we call it the Sorites paradox, after Eubulides of Miletus. (“Sorites” means “heap”, as in heap of sand. But if you had to bluff through a conversation about ancient Greek philosophers you could probably get away with making up a quote you credit to Sorites.) Could movement be, in the term mathematical physicists use, an intensive property? But intensive properties are obvious to the outside observer of a thing. We are not outside observers to the universe. It’s not clear what it would mean for there to be an outside observer to the universe. Even if there were, what space and time are they observing in? And aren’t their space and their time and their observations vulnerable to the same questions? We’re in danger of insisting on an infinite regression of “universes” just so a person can walk past a tortoise in ours.

We can say where movement comes from when we watch a movie. It is a trick of perception. Our eyes take some time to understand a new image. Our brains insist on forming a continuous whole story even out of disjoint ideas. Our memory fools us into remembering a continuous line of action. That a movie moves is entirely an illusion.

You see the implication here. Surely Zeno was not trying to lead us to understand all motion, in the real world, as an illusion? … Zeno seems to have been trying to support the work of Parmenides of Elea. Parmenides is another pre-Socratic philosopher. So we have about four words that we’re fairly sure he authored, and we’re not positive what order to put them in. Parmenides was arguing about the nature of reality, and what it means for a thing to come into or pass out of existence. He seems to have been arguing something like that there was a true reality that’s necessary and timeless and changeless. And there’s an apparent reality, the thing our senses observe. And in our sensing, we add lies which make things like change seem to happen. (Do not use this to get through your PhD defense in philosophy. I’m not sure I’d use it to get through your Intro to Ancient Greek Philosophy quiz.) That what we perceive as movement is not what is “really” going on is, at least, imaginable. So it is worth asking questions about what we mean for something to move. What difference there is between our intuitive understanding of movement and what logic says should happen.

(I know someone wishes to throw down the word Quantum. Quantum mechanics is a powerful tool for describing how many things behave. It implies limits on what we can simultaneously know about the position and the time of a thing. But there is a difference between “what time is” and “what we can know about a thing’s coordinates in time”. Quantum mechanics speaks more to the latter. There are also people who would like to say Relativity. Relativity, special and general, implies we should look at space and time as a unified set. But this does not change our questions about continuity of time or space, or where to find movement in both.)

And this is why we are likely never to finish pondering Zeno’s Paradoxes. In this essay I’ve only discussed two of them: Achilles and the Tortoise, and The Arrow. There are two other particularly famous ones: the Dichotomy, and the Stadium. The Dichotomy is the one about how to get somewhere, you have to get halfway there. But to get halfway there, you have to get a quarter of the way there. And an eighth of the way there, and so on. The Stadium is the hardest of the four great paradoxes to explain. This is in part because the earliest writings we have about it don’t make clear what Zeno was trying to get at. I can think of something which seems consistent with what’s described, and contrary-to-intuition enough to be interesting. I’m satisfied to ponder that one. But other people may have different ideas of what the paradox should be.

There are a handful of other paradoxes which don’t get so much love, although one of them is another version of the Sorites Paradox. Some of them the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy dubs “paradoxes of plurality”. These ask how many things there could be. It’s hard to judge just what he was getting at with this. We know that one argument had three parts, and only two of them survive. Trying to fill in that gap is a challenge. We want to fill in the argument we would make, projecting from our modern idea of this plurality. It’s not Zeno’s idea, though, and we can’t know how close our projection is.

I don’t have the space to make a thematically coherent essay describing these all, though. The set of paradoxes have demanded thought, even just to come up with a reason to think they don’t demand thought, for thousands of years. We will, perhaps, have to keep trying again to fully understand what it is we don’t understand.


And with that — I find it hard to believe — I am done with the alphabet! All of the Fall 2019 A-to-Z essays should appear at this link. Additionally, the A-to-Z sequences of this and past years should be at this link. Tomorrow and Saturday I hope to bring up some mentions of specific past A-to-Z essays. Next week I hope to share my typical thoughts about what this experience has taught me, and some other writing about this writing.

Thank you, all who’ve been reading, and who’ve offered topics, comments on the material, or questions about things I was hoping readers wouldn’t notice I was shorting. I’ll probably do this again next year, after I’ve had some chance to rest.

Reading the Comics, May 16, 2019: Two and Two Edition


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 E = mc^2 , 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 E = \hbar \omega . This any physics major would recognize: it’s the energy of a photon, which is equal to Planck’s constant (that \hbar stuff) times its frequency.

Pair of scientist or mathematician types standing in front of a blackboard full of symbols. One says to the other: 'You're overthinking this.'
Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys for the 13th of May 2019. I had thought I was just writing about this strip, and no, yesterday I posted a mention that I was not writing about it. You can see that and other mentions of The Flying McCoys at this link.

And there are other physics-relevant symbols. In the bottom center is a line that starts \oint \vec{B} . 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 \oint 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.

Chesney, cat: 'Question: Are there more stars in the sky or grains of sand on all the beach of the world?' Annie: 'I would say definitely stars.' Jack, cat: 'That settles it.' Chesney, walking away, to Jack: 'Sand it is.' Jack: 'She's never right.'
Graham Harrop’s Ten Cats for the 14th of May 2019. This is a new tag; a strip about a girl and the ten cats she caretakes doesn’t get much into mathematics. I did mention it once, years ago, before I was tagging essays by comic strip name. Anyway, this and future mentions of Ten Cats should be at this link.

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.

Student, waving to two adults behind him, and explaining to his nonplussed arithmetic teacher (the blackboard has a big 2 + 2 = on it): 'This is a mathematics professor and my attorney. They'll explain why my answer is technically and legally correct.'
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 15th of May 2019. Essays which mention some aspect of Frank and Ernest should appear at this link.

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.

Serf: 'How much would you charge to draw up my will?' Lawyer: 'I take one-third of your estate.' Serf: 'That's impossible.' Lawyer: 'Why?' (The serf's children enter.) Serf: 'Three don't go into *five*.'
Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s The Wizard of Id Classics for the 15th of May 2019. By the way the lawyer’s name is Larsen E Pettifogger, in case that ever comes up. I don’t know that the Serf has a name. This particular strip is from 1969. Essays inspired by something in either new-run Wizard of Id strips or 50-year-old repeats should be at this link.

Brant Parker and Johnny Hart’s The Wizard of Id Classics for the 15th is built around the divisibility of whole numbers, and of relative primes. Setting the fee as some simple integer fraction of the whole has practicality to it. It likely seemed even more practical in the days before currencies decimalized. The common £sd style currency Europeans used before decimals could be subdivided many ways evenly, with one-third of a pound (livre, Reichsgulden, etc) becoming 80 pence (deniers, Pfennig, etc). Unit fractions, and combinations of unit fractions, could offer interesting ways to slice up anything to a desired amount.

Kid, to the teacher, after answering the blackboard's 2+2 as 5: 'I make mistakes to keep you on your toes!'
Jim Unger’s Herman for the 16th of May 2019. This strip is also a repeat; Unger retired from regularly drawing new strips in 1992, and died in 2012. (From 1997 he occasionally updated old ones or drew new ones.) I have no idea when this first ran. The strip gets little attention from me, but the essays — with this, two of them — mentioning Herman should appear at this link.

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.


And for comic strips that aren’t quite worth a paragraph. Julia Kaye’s Up and Out for the 13th uses mathematics as stand-in for the sort of general education that anybody should master. David Waisglass and Gordon Coulthart’s Farcus for the 17th I don’t think is trying to be a mathematics joke. It’s sufficient joke that the painter’s spelled ‘sign’ wrong. But it did hit on the spelling that would encourage mathematics teachers to notice the strip. Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 18th mentions sudoku.


And with that I am caught up on the past week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. My next Reading the Comics post should be next Sunday, and at this link. Oh, I could have made the edition name something bragging about being on time.

The Arthur Christmas Season


I don’t know how you spend your December, but part of it really ought to be done watching the Aardman Animation film Arthur Christmas. It inspired me to ponder a mathematical-physics question that got into some heady territory and this is a good time to point people back to that.

The first piece is Could `Arthur Christmas’ Happen In Real Life? At one point in the movie Arthur and Grand-Santa are stranded on a Caribbean island while the reindeer and sleigh, without them, go flying off in a straight line. This raises the question of what is a straight line if you’re on the surface of something spherical like the Earth. Also, Grand-Santa is such a fantastic idea for the Santa canon it’s hard to believe that Rankin-Bass never did it.

Returning To Arthur Christmas was titled that because I’d left the subject for a couple weeks. You know how it gets. Here the discussion becomes more spoiler-y. And it has to address the question of what kind of straight line the reindeer might move in. There’s several possible answers and they’re all interesting.

Arthur Christmas And The Least Common Multiple supposes that reindeer move as way satellites do. By making some assumptions about the speed of the reindeer and the path they’re taking, I get to see how long Arthur and Grand-Santa would need to wait before the reindeer and sled are back if they’re lucky enough to be waiting on the equator.

Six Minutes Off makes the problem of Arthur and Grand-Santa waiting for the return of flying reindeer more realistic. This involves supposing that they’re not on the equator, which makes meeting up the reindeer a much nastier bit of timing. If they get unlucky it could make their rescue take over five thousand years, which would complicate the movie’s plot some.

And finally Arthur Christmas and the End of Time gets into one of those staggering thoughts. This would be recurrence, an idea that weaves into statistical mechanics and that seems to require that we accept how the conservation of energy and the fact of entropy are, together, a paradox. So we get into considerations of the long-term fate of the universe. Maybe.

A Leap Day 2016 Mathematics A To Z: Energy


Another of the requests I got for this A To Z was for energy. It came from Dave Kingsbury, of the A Nomad In Cyberspace blog. He was particularly intersted in how E = mc2 and how we might know that’s so. But we ended up threshing that out tolerably well in the original Any Requests post. So I’ll take the energy as my starting point again and go in a different direction.

Energy.

When I was in high school, back when the world was new, our physics teacher presented the class with a problem inspired by an Indiana Jones movie. There’s a scene where Jones is faced with dropping to sure death from a rope bridge. He cuts the bridge instead, swinging on it to the cliff face and safety. Our teacher asked: would that help any?

It’s easy to understand a person dropping the fifty feet we supposed it was. A high school physics class can do the mathematics involved and say how fast Jones would hit the water below. You don’t even need the little bit of calculus we could do then. At least if you’re willing to ignore air resistance. High school physics classes always are.

Swinging on the rope bridge, though — that’s harder. We could model it all right. We could pretend Jones was a weight on the end of a rigid pendulum. And we could describe what the forces accelerating this weight on a pendulum are going through as it swings its arc down. But we looked at the integrals we would have to work out to say how fast he would hit the cliff face. It wasn’t pretty. We had no idea how to even look up how to do these.

He spared us this work. His point in this was to revive our interest in physics by bringing in pop culture and to introduce the conservation of energy. We can ignore all these forces and positions and the path of a falling thing. We can look at the potential energy, the result of gravity, at the top of the bridge. Then look at how much less there is at the bottom. Where does that energy go? It goes into kinetic energy, increasing the momentum of the falling body. We can get what we are interested in — how fast Jones is moving at the end of his fall — with a lot less work.

Why is this less work? I doubt I can explain the deep philosophical implications of that well enough. I can point to the obvious. Forces and positions and velocities and all are vectors. They’re ordered sets of numbers. You have to keep the ordering consistent. You have to pay attention to paths. You have to keep track of the angles between, say, what direction gravity accelerates Jones, and where Jones is relative his starting point, and in what direction he’s moving. We have notation that makes all this easy to follow. But there’s a lot of work hiding behind the symbols.

Energy, though … well, that’s just a number. It’s even a constant number, if energy is conserved. We can split off a potential energy. That’s still just a number. If it changes, we can tell how much it’s changed by subtraction. We’re comfortable with that.

Mathematicians call that a scalar. That just means that it’s a real number. It happens to represent something interesting. We can relate the scalar representing potential energy to the vectors of forces that describe how things move. (Spoiler: finding the relationship involves calculus. We go from vectors to a scalar by integration. We go from the scalar to the vector by a gradient, which is a kind of vector-valued derivative.) Once we know this relationship we have two ways of describing the same stuff. We can switch to whichever one makes our work easier. This is often the scalar. Solitary numbers are just so often easier than ordered sets of numbers.

The energy, or the potential energy, of a physical system isn’t the only time we can change a vector problem into a scalar. And we can’t always do that anyway. If we have to keep track of things like air resistance or energy spent, say, melting the ice we’re staking over, then the change from vectors to a scalar loses information we can’t do without. But the trick often works. Potential energy is one of the most familiar ways this is used.

I assume Jones got through his bridge problem all right. Happens that I still haven’t seen the movies, but I have heard quite a bit about them and played the pinball game.

Only Fractions


My love and I saw Only Yesterday recently. It’s a 1991 Studio Ghibli film, directed by Isao Takahata. It hasn’t had a United States release before, which is a pity; it’s quite good. The movie is about a woman, Taeko, reflecting on her childhood as she considers changing her life. One of the many wonderfully-realized scenes is about ten-year-old Taeko’s struggles with arithmetic. You probably guessed that, as otherwise the movie would seem outside the remit of this blog.

In the scene Taeko has had a disastrous arithmetic test. Her older sister is trying to coach her through how to divide fractions. It goes lousy. Her older sister insists it’s just a matter of inverting and multiplying. This is a useful tip if you understand how to divide fractions and need to keep straight what you’re doing. If you don’t understand, then it’s whatever the modern equivalent is for instructions on how to set a VCR.

Taeko tries to understand one problem. \frac{2}{3} \div \frac{4}{1} . She pictures it as an apple and draws a circle, blacking out a third of it. She cuts the rest into four equally-sized pieces and concludes that you could fit six slices into the original apple. Her sister stammers over this and fumes. She declares “that’s multiplication!”. She complains her sister isn’t doing the right thing, she’s not inverting and multiplying. I recognize her sister’s panic. It’s the bluster of someone trying to explain something not actually understood, on watching someone going far off the script.

The scene’s filled with irony. Taeko has a better understanding of what she’s doing than her sister has, but never knows it. Her sister understands a procedure but not what fractions dividing signifies. She can’t say why one wants to invert anything or multiply something. Taeko knows what the question she’s asked means, but not how to relate that to what she’s asked to do.

I don’t want to undervalue learning procedures. They’re worth knowing. They are, once you master them, efficient ways to compute. But there are many ways to master a procedure. I can’t believe there is one way to learn anything that works for everyone. One of many challenges teachers face is exploring the different ways their students best learn. Another is getting close enough to how they best learn that most of the students can understand something. It’s a pity when real people akin to Taeko can’t get that little bridge to connect their drawings of an apple to the page of fractions to be worked out.

The Arthur Christmas Problem


Since it’s the season for it I’d like to point new or new-wish readers to a couple of posts I did in 2012-13, based on the Aardman Animation film Arthur Christmas, which was just so very charming in every way. It also puts forth some good mathematical and mathematical-physics questions.

Opening the scene is “Could `Arthur Christmas’ Happen In Real Life?” which begins with a scene in the movie: Arthur and Grand-Santa are stranded on a Caribbean island while the reindeer and sleigh, without them, go flying off in a straight line. This raises the question of what is a straight line if you’re on the surface of something spherical like the Earth.

“Returning To Arthur Christmas” was titled that because I’d left the subject for a couple weeks, as is my wont, and it gets a little bit more spoiler-y since the film seems to come down on the side of the reindeer moving on a path called a Great Circle. This forces us to ask another question: if the reindeer are moving around the Earth, are they moving with the Earth’s rotation, like an airplane does, or freely of it, like a satellite does?

“Arthur Christmas And The Least Common Multiple” starts by supposing that the reindeer are moving the way satellites do, independent of the Earth’s rotation, and on making some assumptions about the speed of the reindeer and the path they’re taking, works out how long Arthur and Grand-Santa would need to wait before the reindeer and sled are back if they’re lucky enough to be waiting on the equator.

“Six Minutes Off” shifts matters a little, by supposing that they’re not on the equator, which makes meeting up the reindeer a much nastier bit of timing. If they’re willing to wait long enough the reindeer will come as close as they want to their position, but the wait can be impractically long, for example, eight years, or over five thousand years, which would really slow down the movie.

And finally “Arthur Christmas and the End of Time” wraps up matters with a bit of heady speculation about recurrence: the way that a physical system can, if the proper conditions are met, come back either to its starting point or to a condition arbitrarily close to its starting point, if you wait long enough. This offers some dazzling ideas about the really, really long-term fate of the universe, which is always a heady thought. I hope you enjoy.

December 2013’s Statistics


There’s a hopeful trend in my readership statistics for December 2013 around these parts: according to WordPress, my number of readers grew from 308 in November to 352 and the number of unique visitors grew from 158 to 176. Even the number of views per visitor grew, from 1.95 to 2.00. None of these are records, but the fact of improvement is a good one.

I can’t figure exactly how to get the report on most popular articles for the exact month of December, and was too busy with other things to check the past-30-day report on New Year’s Eve, but at least the most popular articles for the 30 days ending today were:

The countries sending me the most readers were the United States, Canada, Denmark and Austria (tied, and hi again, Elke), and the United Kingdom. Sending me just one viewer each were a slew of nations: Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Norway, Romania, Slovenia, South Africa, Spain, Sweden, Turkey, and Viet Nam. On that list last month were Jordan and Slovenia, so I’m also marginally interesting to a different group of people this time around.

This has all caused me to realize that I failed to promote my string of articles inspired by Arthur Christmas and getting to the recurrence theorem and the existential dread of the universe’s end during the Christmas season. Maybe next year, then.

Arthur Christmas and the End of Time


In working out my little Arthur Christmas-inspired problem, I argued that if the reindeer take some nice rational number of hours to complete one orbit of the Earth, eventually they’ll meet back up with Arthur and Grand-Santa stranded on the ground. And if the reindeer take an irrational number of hours to make one orbit, they’ll never meet again, although if they wait long enough, they’ll get pretty close together, eventually.

So far this doesn’t sound like a really thrilling result: the two parties, moving on their own paths, either meet again, or they don’t. Doesn’t sound quite like I earned the four-figure income I got from mathematics work last year. But here’s where I get to be worth it: if the reindeer and Arthur don’t meet up again, but I can accept their being very near one another, then they will get as close as I like. I only figured how long it would take for the two to get about 23 centimeters apart, but if I wanted, I could wait for them to be two centimeters apart, or two millimeters, or two angstroms if I wanted. I’d pay for this nearer miss with a longer wait. And this gives me my opening to a really stunning bit of mathematics.

Continue reading “Arthur Christmas and the End of Time”

Six Minutes Off


Let me return, reindeer-like, to my problem, pretty well divorced from the movie at this point, of the stranded Arthur Christmas and Grand-Santa, stuck to wherever they happen to be on the surface of the Earth, going around the Earth’s axis of rotation every 86,164 seconds, while their reindeer and sleigh carry on orbiting the planet’s center once every \sqrt{2} hours. That’s just a touch more than every 5,091 seconds. This means, sadly, that the reindeer will never be right above Arthur again, or else the whole system of rational and irrational numbers is a shambles. Still, they might come close.

After all, one day after being stranded, Arthur and Grand-Santa will be right back to the position where they started, and the reindeer will be just finishing up their seventeenth loop around the Earth. To be more nearly exact, after 86,164 seconds the reindeer will have finished just about 16.924 laps around the planet. If Arthur and Grand-Santa just hold out for another six and a half minutes (very nearly), the reindeer will be back to their line of latitude, and they’ll just be … well, how far away from that spot depends on just where they are. Since this is my problem, I’m going to drop them just a touch north of 30 degrees north latitude, because that means they’ll be travelling a neat 400 meters per second due to the Earth’s rotation and I certainly need some nice numbers here. Any nice number. I’m putting up with a day of 86,164 seconds, for crying out loud.

Continue reading “Six Minutes Off”

How Fast Is The Earth Spinning?


To get to my next point about Arthur Christmas I needed to know how fast an arbitrary point on the Earth is moving, as the Earth rotates. This required me getting out a sheet of paper and doing some sketches, so, I figured it’s worth a side article to explain what I was doing.

The first thing was that I simplified stuff. In particular, I decided the Earth is near enough a sphere that I’m not bothering with the fact that it isn’t. The difference between an actual sphere and the geoid is not worth bothering with unless you’re timing the retrofire for a ballistically-reentering space capsule. That’s … actually fairly close to the problem I want, about how long it might take the reindeer and sleigh to get back to Arthur Christmas and Grand-Santa, but that’s also too much work for the improvement in the answer I’d get.

Continue reading “How Fast Is The Earth Spinning?”

Reading the Comics, January 21, 2013


Feast or famine, as I said. It’s not a week since the last comics roundup and I have eight comic strips that have enough mathematical content for me to discuss. Well, they’re fun essays to write, and people seem to quite like them, so why not another so soon?

Well, because I’m overlooking all the King Features Syndicate comics. I’m not actually overlooking them — I’m keeping track of just which ones have something I could write about — but they haven’t had a nice, archive-friendly way to point people to the strips being discussed. (Most newspaper web sites that have King Features comics have links to those pages expire in a measly 28 days.) Based on the surprising number of people who come to my site by searching for Norm Feuti’s Retail comic strip, they certainly deserve to be talked about. I’ll have something worked out about that soon, I promise.

Continue reading “Reading the Comics, January 21, 2013”

Arthur Christmas and the Least Common Multiple


I left Arthur Christmas and Grand-Santa in a hypothetical puzzle, inspired by the movie, with them stranded on a tiny island while their team of flying reindeer and sleigh carried on in a straight line without them. I am assuming for the sake of an interesting problem that this means the reindeer are carrying on the Great Circle route, favored by airplanes and satellites, and that the reindeer are in an orbit more like the satellite’s than the reindeers — that is, they keep to a circle in a plane which isn’t rotating while the Earth does, since otherwise, Arthur and Grand-Santa have to wait only for the reindeer to finish one lap around the planet and somehow get up to flying altitude to be picked up. If the reindeer aren’t rotating the with the Earth, then, when the reindeer finish one circuit our heroes are going to be … well, maybe east, maybe west, of the reindeer; the problem is, they’re going to be away.

Continue reading “Arthur Christmas and the Least Common Multiple”

Returning to Arthur Christmas


As promised, since I’ve got the chance, I want to return to the question of the reindeer behavior as shown in the Aardman movie Arthur Christmas, and what would ultimately happen to them if the reindeer carry on as Grand-Santa claims they will. (Again, this does require spoiling a plot point of the film and so I tuck the rest behind a cut.)

Continue reading “Returning to Arthur Christmas”

Could “Arthur Christmas” Happen In Real Life?


If you haven’t seen the Aardman Animation movie Arthur Christmas, first, shame on you as it’s quite fun. But also you may wish to think carefully before reading this entry, and a few I project to follow, as it takes one plot point from the film which I think has some interesting mathematical implications, reaching ultimately to the fate of the universe, if I can get a good running start. But I can’t address the question without spoiling a suspense hook, so please do consider that. And watch the film; it’s a grand one about the Santa family.

The premise — without spoiling more than the commercials did — starts with Arthur, son of the current Santa, and Grand-Santa, father of the current fellow, and a linguistic construct which perfectly fills a niche I hadn’t realized was previously vacant, going off on their own to deliver a gift accidentally not delivered to one kid. To do this they take the old sleigh, as pulled by the reindeer, and they’re off over the waters when something happens and there I cut for spoilers.

Continue reading “Could “Arthur Christmas” Happen In Real Life?”