Reading the Comics, November 19, 2016: Thought I Featured This Already Edition


For the second half of last week Comic Strip Master Command sent me a couple comics I would have sworn I showed off here before.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby for the 16th I would have sworn I’d featured around here before. I still think it’s a rerun but apparently I haven’t written it up. It’s a pun, I suppose, playing on the use of “power” to mean both exponentials and the thing knowledge is. I’m curious why Polard used 10 for the new exponent. Normally if there isn’t an exponent explicitly written we take that to be “1”, and incrementing 1 would give 2. Possibly that would have made a less-clear illustration. Or possibly the idea of sleeping squared lacked the Brobdingnagian excess of sleeping to the tenth power.

Exponentials have been written as a small number elevated from the baseline since 1636. James Hume then published an edition of François Viète’s text on algebra. Hume used a Roman numeral in the superscript — xii instead of x2 — but apart from that it’s the scheme we use today. The scheme was in the air, though. Renée Descartes also used the notation, but with Arabic numerals throughout, from 1637. (With quirks; he would write “xx” instead of “x2”, possibly because it’s the same number of characters to write.) And Pierre Hérigone just wrote the exponent after the variable: x2, like you see in bad character-recognition texts. That isn’t a bad scheme, particularly since it’s so easy to type, although we would add a caret: x^2. (I draw all this history, as ever, from Florian Cajori’s A History of Mathematical Notations, particularly sections 297 through 299).

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 16th has a fun concept about statisticians running wild and causing chaos. I appreciate a good healthy prank myself. It does point out something valuable, though. People in general have gotten to understand the idea that there are correlations between things. An event happening and some effect happening seem to go together. This is sometimes because the event causes the effect. Sometimes they’re both caused by some other factor; the event and effect are spuriously linked. Sometimes there’s just no meaningful connection. Coincidences do happen. But there’s really no good linking of how strong effects can be. And that’s not just a pop culture thing. For example, doing anything other than driving while driving increases the risk of crashing. But by how much? It’s easy to take something with the shape of a fact. Suppose it’s “looking at a text quadruples your risk of crashing”. (I don’t know what the risk increase is. Pretend it’s quadruple for the sake of this.) That’s easy to remember. But what’s my risk of crashing? Suppose it’s a clear, dry day, no winds, and I’m on a limited-access highway with light traffic. What’s the risk of crashing? Can’t be very high, considering how long I’ve done that without a crash. Quadruple that risk? That doesn’t seem terrifying. But I don’t know what that is, or how to express it in a way that helps make decisions. It’s not just newscasters who have this weakness.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 18th is the soothing appearance of Andertoons for this essay. And while it’s the familiar form of the student protesting the assignment the kid does have a point. There are times an estimate is all we need, and there’s times an exact answer is necessary. When are those times? That’s another skill that people have to develop.

Arthur C Clarke, in his semi-memoir Astounding Days, wrote of how his early-40s civil service job had him auditing schoolteacher pension contributions. He worked out that he really didn’t need to get the answers exactly. If the contribution was within about one percent of right it wasn’t worth his time to track it down more precisely. I’m not sure that his supervisors would take the same attitude. But the war soon took everyone to other matters without clarifying just how exactly he was supposed to audit.

Mark Anderson’s Mr Lowe rerun for the 18th is another I would have sworn I’ve brought up before. The strip was short-lived and this is at least its second time through. But then mathematics is only mentioned here as a dull things students must suffer through. It might not have seemed interesting enough for me to mention before.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 19th is another sort of pun. At least it plays on the multiple meanings of “negative”. And I suspect that negative numbers acquired a name with, er, negative connotations because the numbers were suspicious. It took centuries for mathematicians to move them from “obvious nonsense” to “convenient but meaningless tools for useful calculations” to “acceptable things” to “essential stuff”. Non-mathematicians can be forgiven for needing time to work through that progression. Also I’m not sure I didn’t show this one off here when it was first-run. Might be wrong.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal pops back into my attention for the 19th. That’s with a bit about Dad messing with his kid’s head. Not much to say about that so let me bury the whimsy with my earnestness. The strip does point out that what we name stuff is arbitrary. We would say that 4 and 12 and 6 are “composite numbers”, while 2 and 3 are “prime numbers”. But if we all decided one day to swap the meanings of the terms around we wouldn’t be making any mathematics wrong. Or linguistics either. We would probably want to clarify what “a really good factor” is, but all the comic really does is mess with the labels of groups of numbers we’re already interested in.

To Borrow A Page


If you’re very like me you wonder sometimes about subtraction, like, where it comes from and how people have thought about it over time. I’m particularly interested in different ideas of what negative numbers have meant, but my amateur standings in the history of mathematics keep me from easily finding what I want to know. I’m not seeking pity; I know many interesting things as it is.

Pat Ballew’s On This Day In Math Twitter recently posted the above. It links to an article about how subtraction has been represented in history, with a particular focus on ways borrowing has been taught.

I have a particular horror for the mathematics books quoted in it that demand people work out borrowing problems without the use of any extra marks. That is, if working out “5276 – 3739”, no fair writing the first number as “52716” along the way. I can accept that, to someone experienced with arithmetic, the writing out of borrowing steps is unnecessary. And the steps do make for a pretty cluttered page. But it seems to me that especially in the learning stage this sort of false work is essential. Any new skill is hard, and it’s worth making some mess to be sure nothing essential is left out.

Ballew also mentions a fascinating point. The ordinary homeworks and assignments and preparation papers for teachers may have found their way into public libraries. These could be great guides to the ways people actually did calculations, or learned how to do calculations, in past eras. I don’t know how much material there is, or how useful it is. I confess that while I love mathematical history, it is a remote love.

Reading the Comics, June 25, 2015: Not Making A Habit Of This Edition


I admit I did this recently, and am doing it again. But I don’t mean to make it a habit. I ran across a few comic strips that I can’t, even with a stretch, call mathematically-themed, but I liked them too much to ignore them either. So they’re at the end of this post. I really don’t intend to make this a regular thing in Reading the Comics posts.

Justin Boyd’s engagingly silly Invisible Bread (June 22) names the tuning “two steps below A”. He dubs this “negative C#”. This is probably an even funnier joke if you know music theory. The repetition of the notes in a musical scale could be used as an example of cyclic or modular arithmetic. Really, that the note above G is A of the next higher octave, and the note below A is G of the next lower octave, probably explains the idea already.

If we felt like, we could match the notes of a scale to the counting numbers. Match A to 0, B to 1, C to 2 and so on. Work out sharps and flats as you like. Then we could think of transposing a note from one key to another as adding or subtracting numbers. (Warning: do not try to pass your music theory class using this information! Transposition of keys is a much more subtle process than I am describing.) If the number gets above some maximum, it wraps back around to 0; if the number would go below zero, it wraps back around to that maximum. Relabeling the things in a group might make them easier or harder to understand. But it doesn’t change the way the things relate to one another. And that’s why we might call something F or negative C#, as we like and as we hope to be understood.

After a blackboard full of work the mathematician must conclude 'the solution is not in this piece of chalk'.
Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange for the 23rd of June, 2015.

Hilary Price’s Rhymes With Orange (June 23) reminds us how important it is to pick the correct piece of chalk. The mathematical symbols on the board don’t mean anything. A couple of the odder bits of notation might be meant as shorthand. Often in the rush of working out a problem some of the details will get written as borderline nonsense. The mathematician is probably more interested in getting the insight down. She’ll leave the details for later reflection.

Jason Poland’s Robbie and Bobby (June 23) uses “calculating obscure digits of pi” as computer fun. Calculating digits of pi is hard, at least in decimals, which is all anyone cares about. If you wish to know the 5,673,299,925th decimal digit of pi, you need to work out all 5,673,299,924 digits that go before it. There are formulas to work out a binary (or hexadecimal) digit of pi without working out all the digits that go before. This saves quite some time if you need to explore the nether-realms of pi’s digits.

The comic strip also uses Stephen Hawking as the icon for most-incredibly-smart-person. It’s the role that Albert Einstein used to have, and still shares. I am curious whether Hawking is going to permanently displace Einstein as the go-to reference for incredible brilliance. His pop culture celebrity might be a transient thing. I suspect it’s going to last, though. Hawking’s life has a tortured-genius edge to it that gives it Romantic appeal, likely to stay popular.

Paul Trap’s Thatababy (June 23) presents confusing brand-new letters and numbers. Letters are obviously human inventions though. They’ve been added to and removed from alphabets for thousands of years. It’s only a few centuries since “i” and “j” became (in English) understood as separate letters. They had been seen as different ways of writing the same letter, or the vowel and consonant forms of the same letter. If enough people found a proposed letter useful it would work its way into the alphabet. Occasionally the ampersand & has come near being a letter. (The ampersand has a fascinating history. Honestly.) And conversely, if we collectively found cause to toss one aside we could remove it from the alphabet. English hasn’t lost any letters since yogh (the Old English letter that looks like a 3 written half a line off) was dropped in favor of “gh”, about five centuries ago, but there’s no reason that it couldn’t shed another.

Numbers are less obviously human inventions. But the numbers we use are, or at least work like they are. Arabic numerals are barely eight centuries old in Western European use. Their introduction was controversial. People feared shopkeepers and moneylenders could easily cheat people unfamiliar with these crazy new symbols. Decimals, instead of fractions, were similarly suspect. Negative numbers took centuries to understand and to accept as numbers. Irrational numbers too. Imaginary numbers also. Indeed, look at the connotations of those names: negative numbers. Irrational numbers. Imaginary numbers. We can add complex numbers to that roster. Each name at least sounds suspicious of the innovation.

There are more kinds of numbers. In the 19th century William Rowan Hamilton developed quaternions. These are 4-tuples of numbers that work kind of like complex numbers. They’re strange creatures, admittedly, not very popular these days. Their greatest strength is in representing rotations in three-dimensional space well. There are also octonions, 8-tuples of numbers. They’re more exotic than quaternions and have fewer good uses. We might find more, in time.

Beside an Escher-esque house a woman says, 'The extra dimensions are wonderful, but oy, the property taxes.'
Rina Piccolo’s entry in Six Chix for the 24th of June, 2015.

Rina Piccolo’s entry in Six Chix this week (June 24) draws a house with extra dimensions. An extra dimension is a great way to add volume, or hypervolume, to a place. A cube that’s 20 feet on a side has a volume of 203 or 8,000 cubic feet, after all. A four-dimensional hypercube 20 feet on each side has a hypervolume of 160,000 hybercubic feet. This seems like it should be enough for people who don’t collect books.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals (June 24, rerun) is just a bit of wordplay. It’s built on the idea kids might not understand the difference between the words “ratio” and “racial”.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am (June 25, rerun) inspires me to wonder if anybody’s ever sold novelty 4-D glasses. Probably they have, sometime.


Now for the comics that I just can’t really make mathematics but that I like anyway:

Phil Dunlap’s Ink Pen (June 23, rerun) is aimed at the folks still lingering in grad school. Please be advised that most doctoral theses do not, in fact, end in supervillainy.

Darby Conley’s Get Fuzzy (June 25, rerun) tickles me. But Albert Einstein did after all say many things in his life, and not everything was as punchy as that line about God and dice.

Reading the Comics, November 20, 2014: Ancient Events Edition


I’ve got enough mathematics comics for another roundup, and this time, the subjects give me reason to dip into ancient days: one to the most famous, among mathematicians and astronomers anyway, of Greek shipwrecks, and another to some point in the midst of winter nearly seven thousand years ago.

Eric the Circle (November 15) returns “Griffinetsabine” to the writer’s role and gives another “Shape Single’s Bar” scene. I’m amused by Eric appearing with his ex: x is practically the icon denoting “this is an algebraic expression”, while geometry … well, circles are good for denoting that, although I suspect that triangles or maybe parallelograms are the ways to denote “this is a geometric expression”. Maybe it’s the little symbol for a right angle.

Jim Meddick’s Monty (November 17) presents Monty trying to work out just how many days there are to Christmas. This is a problem fraught with difficulties, starting with the obvious: does “today” count as a shopping day until Christmas? That is, if it were the 24th, would you say there are zero or one shopping days left? Also, is there even a difference between a “shopping day” and a “day” anymore now that nobody shops downtown so it’s only the stores nobody cares about that close on Sundays? Sort all that out and there’s the perpetual problem in working out intervals between dates on the Gregorian calendar, which is that you have to be daft to try working out intervals between dates on the Gregorian calendar. The only worse thing is trying to work out the intervals between Easters on it. My own habit for this kind of problem is to use the United States Navy’s Julian Date conversion page. The Julian date is a straight serial number, counting the number of days that have elapsed since noon Universal Time at what’s called the 1st of January, 4713 BCE, on the proleptic Julian calendar (“proleptic” because nobody around at the time was using, or even imagined, the calendar, but we can project back to what date that would have been), a year picked because it’s the start of several astronomical cycles, and it’s way before any specific recordable dates in human history, so any day you might have to particularly deal with has a positive number. Of course, to do this, we’re transforming the problem of “counting the number of days between two dates” to “counting the number of days between a date and January 1, 4713 BCE, twice”, but the advantage of that is, the United States Navy (and other people) have worked out how to do that and we can use their work.

Bill Hind’s kids-sports comic Cleats (November 19, rerun) presents Michael offering basketball advice that verges into logic and set theory problems: making the ball not go to a place outside the net is equivalent to making the ball go inside the net (if we decide that the edge of the net counts as either inside or outside the net, at least), and depending on the problem we want to solve, it might be more convenient to think about putting the ball into the net, or not putting the ball outside the net. We see this, in logic, in a set of relations called De Morgan’s Laws (named for Augustus De Morgan, who put these ideas in modern mathematical form), which describe what kinds of descriptions — “something is outside both sets A and B at one” or “something is not inside set A or set B”, or so on — represent the same relationship between the thing and the sets.

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (November 19) is set in the classic caveman era, with prehistoric Frank and Ernest and someone else discovering mathematics and working out whether a negative number times a negative number might be positive. It’s not obvious right away that they should, as you realize when you try teaching someone the multiplication rules including negative numbers, and it’s worth pointing out, a negative times a negative equals a positive because that’s the way we, the users of mathematics, have chosen to define negative numbers and multiplication. We could, in principle, have decided that a negative times a negative should give us a negative number. This would be a different “multiplication” (or a different “negative”) than we use, but as long as we had logically self-consistent rules we could do that. We don’t, because it turns out negative-times-negative-is-positive is convenient for problems we like to do. Mathematics may be universal — something following the same rules we do has to get the same results we do — but it’s also something of a construct, and the multiplication of negative numbers is a signal of that.

Goofy sees the message 'buried treasure in back yard' in his alphabet soup; what are the odds of that?
The Mickey Mouse comic rerun the 20th of November, 2014.

Mickey Mouse (November 20, rerun) — I don’t know who wrote or draw this, but Walt Disney’s name was plastered onto it — sees messages appearing in alphabet soup. In one sense, such messages are inevitable: jumble and swirl letters around and eventually, surely, any message there are enough letters for will appear. This is very similar to the problem of infinite monkeys at typewriters, although with the special constraint that if, say, the bowl has only two letters “L”, it’s impossible to get the word “parallel”, unless one of the I’s is doing an impersonation. Here, Goofy has the message “buried treasure in back yard” appear in his soup; assuming those are all the letters in his soup then there’s something like 44,881,973,505,008,615,424 different arrangements of letters that could come up. There are several legitimate messages you could make out of that (“treasure buried in back yard”, “in back yard buried treasure”), not to mention shorter messages that don’t use all those letters (“run back”), but I think it’s safe to say the number of possible sentences that make sense are pretty few and it’s remarkable to get something like that. Maybe the cook was trying to tell Goofy something after all.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons (November 20) is a cute gag about the dangers of having too many axes on your plot.

Gary Delainey and Gerry Rasmussen’s Betty (November 20) mentions the Antikythera Mechanism, one of the most famous analog computers out there, and that’s close enough to pure mathematics for me to feel comfortable including it here. The machine was found in April 1900, in ancient shipwreck, and at first seemed to be just a strange lump of bronze and wood. By 1902 the archeologist Valerios Stais noticed a gear in the mechanism, but since it was believed the wreck far, far predated any gear mechanisms, the machine languished in that strange obscurity that a thing which can’t be explained sometimes suffers. The mechanism appears to be designed to be an astronomical computer, tracking the positions of the Sun and the Moon — tracking the actual moon rather than an approximate mean lunar motion — the rising and etting of some constellations, solar eclipses, several astronomical cycles, and even the Olympic Games. It’s an astounding mechanism, it’s mysterious: who made it? How? Are there others? What happened to them? How was the mechanical engineering needed for this developed, and what other projects did the people who created this also do? Any answers to these questions, if we ever know them, seem sure to be at least as amazing as the questions are.

Reading the Comics, September 8, 2014: What Is The Problem Edition


Must be the start of school or something. In today’s roundup of mathematically-themed comics there are a couple of strips that I think touch on the question of defining just what the problem is: what are you trying to measure, what are you trying to calculate, what are the rules of this sort of calculation? That’s a lot of what’s really interesting about mathematics, which is how I’m able to say something about a rerun Archie comic. It’s not easy work but that’s why I get that big math-blogger paycheck.

Edison Lee works out the shape of the universe, and as ever in this sort of thing, he forgot to carry a number.
I’d have thought the universe to be at least three-dimensional.

John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee (September 2) talks about the shape of the universe. Measuring the world, or the universe, is certainly one of the older influences on mathematical thought. From a handful of observations and some careful reasoning, for example, one can understand how large the Earth is, and how far away the Moon and the Sun must be, without going past the kinds of reasoning or calculations that a middle school student would probably be able to follow.

There is something deeper to consider about the shape of space, though: the geometry of the universe affects what things can happen in them, and can even be seen in the kinds of physics that happen. A famous, and astounding, result by the mathematical physicist Emmy Noether shows that symmetries in space correspond to conservation laws. That the universe is, apparently, rotationally symmetric — everything would look the same if the whole universe were picked up and rotated (say) 80 degrees along one axis — means that there is such a thing as the conservation of angular momentum. That the universe is time-symmetric — the universe would look the same if it had got started five hours later (please pretend that’s a statement that can have any coherent meaning) — means that energy is conserved. And so on. It may seem, superficially, like a cosmologist is engaged in some almost ancient-Greek-style abstract reasoning to wonder what shapes the universe could have and what it does, but (putting aside that it gets hard to divide mathematics, physics, and philosophy in this kind of field) we can imagine observable, testable consequences of the answer.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (September 5) tells a joke starting with “two perfectly rational perfectly informed individuals walk into a bar”, along the way to a joke about economists. The idea of “perfectly rational perfectly informed” people is part of the mathematical modeling that’s become a popular strain of economic thought in recent decades. It’s a model, and like many models, is properly speaking wrong, but it allows one to describe interesting behavior — in this case, how people will make decisions — without complications you either can’t handle or aren’t interested in. The joke goes on to the idea that one can assign costs and benefits to continuing in the joke. The idea that one can quantify preferences and pleasures and happiness I think of as being made concrete by Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarian philosophers, although trying to find ways to measure things has been a streak in Western thought for close to a thousand years now, and rather fruitfully so. But I wouldn’t have much to do with protagonists who can’t stay around through the whole joke either.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (September 6) was probably composed in the spirit of joking, but it does hit something that I understand baffles kids learning it every year: that subtracting a negative number does the same thing as adding a positive number. To be fair to kids who need a couple months to feel quite confident in what they’re doing, mathematicians needed a couple generations to get the hang of it too. We have now a pretty sound set of rules for how to work with negative numbers, that’s nice and logically tested and very successful at representing things we want to know, but there seems to be a strong intuition that says “subtracting a negative three” and “adding a positive three” might just be different somehow, and we won’t really know negative numbers until that sense of something being awry is resolved.

Andertoons pops up again the next day (September 7) with a completely different drawing of a chalkboard and this time a scientist and a rabbit standing in front of it. The rabbit’s shown to be able to do more than multiply and, indeed, the mathematics is correct. Cosines and sines have a rather famous link to exponentiation and to imaginary- and complex-valued numbers, and it can be useful to change an ordinary cosine or sine into this exponentiation of a complex-valued number. Why? Mostly, because exponentiation tends to be pretty nice, analytically: you can multiply and divide terms pretty easily, you can take derivatives and integrals almost effortlessly, and then if you need a cosine or a sine you can get that out at the end again. It’s a good trick to know how to do.

Jeff Harris’s Shortcuts children’s activity panel (September 9) is a page of stuff about “Geometry”, and it’s got some nice facts (some mathematical, some historical), and a fair bunch of puzzles about the field.

Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals (September 7, perhaps a rerun; Turner died several months ago, though I don’t know how far ahead of publication he was working) features a word problem in terms of jellybeans that underlines the danger of unwarranted assumptions in this sort of problem-phrasing.

Moose has trouble working out 15 percent of $8.95; Jughead explains why.
How far back is this rerun from if Moose got lunch for two for $8.95?

Craig Boldman and Henry Scarpelli’s Archie (September 8, rerun) goes back to one of arithmetic’s traditional comic strip applications, that of working out the tip. Poor Moose is driving himself crazy trying to work out 15 percent of $8.95, probably from a quiz-inspired fear that if he doesn’t get it correct to the penny he’s completely wrong. Being able to do a calculation precisely is useful, certainly, but he’s forgetting that in tis real-world application he gets some flexibility in what has to be calculated. He’d save some effort if he realized the tip for $8.95 is probably close enough to the tip for $9.00 that he could afford the difference, most obviously, and (if his budget allows) that he could just as well work out one-sixth the bill instead of fifteen percent, and give up that workload in exchange for sixteen cents.

Mark Parisi’s Off The Mark (September 8) is another entry into the world of anthropomorphized numbers, so you can probably imagine just what π has to say here.

Reading the Comics, July 1, 2012


This will be a hastily-written installment since I married just this weekend and have other things occupying me. But there’s still comics mentioning math subjects so let me summarize them for you. The first since my last collection of these, on the 13th of June, came on the 15th, with Dave Whamond’s Reality Check, which goes into one of the minor linguistic quirks that bothers me: the claim that one can’t give “110 percent,” since 100 percent is all there is. I don’t object to phrases like “110 percent”, though, since it seems to me the baseline, the 100 percent, must be to some standard reference performance. For example, the Space Shuttle Main Engines routinely operated at around 104 percent, not because they were exceeding their theoretical limits, but because the original design thrust was found to be not quite enough, and the engines were redesigned to deliver more thrust, and it would have been far too confusing to rewrite all the documentation so that the new design thrust was the new 100 percent. Instead 100 percent was the design capacity of an engine which never flew but which existed in paper form. So I’m forgiving of “110 percent” constructions, is the important thing to me.

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Reading The Comics, May 20, 2012


Since I suspect that the comics roundup posts are the most popular ones I post, I’m very glad to see there was a bumper crop of strips among the ones I read regularly (from King Features Syndicate and from gocomics.com) this past week. Some of those were from cancelled strips in perpetual reruns, but that’s fine, I think: there aren’t any particular limits on how big an electronic comics page one can have, after all, and while it’s possible to read a short-lived strip long enough that you see all its entries, it takes a couple go-rounds to actually have them all memorized.

The first entry, and one from one of these cancelled strips, comes from Mark O’Hare’s Citizen Dog, a charmer of a comic set in a world-plus-talking-animals strip. In this case Fergus has taken the place of Maggie, a girl who’s not quite ready to come back from summer vacation. It’s also the sort of series of questions that it feels like come at the start of any class where a homework assignment’s due.

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Descartes and the Terror of the Negative


When René Descartes first described the system we’ve turned into Cartesian coordinates he didn’t put it forth in quite the way we build them these days. This shouldn’t be too surprising; he lived about four centuries ago, and we have experience with the idea of matching every point on the plane to some ordered pair of numbers that he couldn’t have. The idea has been expanded on, and improved, and logical rigor I only pretend to understand laid underneath the concept. But the core remains: we put somewhere on our surface an origin point — usually this gets labelled O, mnemonic for “origin” and also suggesting the zeroes which fill its coordinates — and we pick some direction to be the x-coordinate and some direction to be the y-coordinate, and the ordered pair for a point are how far in the x-direction and how far in the y-direction one must go from the origin to get there.

The most obvious difference between Cartesian coordinates as Descartes set them up and Cartesian coordinates as we use them is that Descartes would fill a plane with four chips, one quadrant each in the plane. The first quadrant is the points to the right of and above the origin. The second quadrant is to the left of and still above the origin. The third quadrant is to the left of and below the origin, and the fourth is to the right of the origin but below it. This division of the plane into quadrants, and even their identification as quadrants I, II, III, and IV respectively, still exists, one of those minor points on which prealgebra and algebra students briefly trip on their way to tripping over the trigonometric identities.

Descartes had, from his perspective, excellent reason to divide the plane up this way. It’s a reason difficult to imagine today. By separating the plane like this he avoided dealing with something mathematicians of the day were still uncomfortable with. It’s easy enough to describe a point in the first quadrant as being so far to the right and so far above the origin. But a point in the second quadrant is … not any distance to the right. It’s to the left. How far to the right is something that’s to the left?

Continue reading “Descartes and the Terror of the Negative”