Of course I like all the comics. … Well, that’s not literally true; but I have at least some affection for nearly all of the syndicated comics. This essay I bring up some strips, partly, because I just like them. This is my content hole. If you want a blog not filled with comic strips, go start your own and don’t put these things on it.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 5th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Also a bit of a comment on the ability of collective action to change things. Wavehead is … well, he’s just wrong about making the number four plus the number four equal to the number seven. Not based on the numbers we mean by the words “four” and “seven”, and based on the operation we mean by “plus” and the relationship we mean by “equals”. The meaning of those things is set by, ultimately, axioms and deductive reasoning and the laws of deductive reasoning and there’s no changing the results.
But. The thing we’re referring to when we say “seven”? Or when we write the symbol “7”? That is convention. That is a thing we’ve agreed on as a reference for this concept. And that we can change, if we decide we want to. We’ve done this. Look at a thousand-year-old manuscript and the symbol that looks like ‘4’ may represent the number we call five. And the names of numbers are just common words. They’re subject to change the way every other common word is. Which is, admittedly, not very subject. It would be almost as much bother to change the word ‘four’ as it would be to change the word ‘mom’. But that’s not impossible. Just difficult.
Juba’s Viivi and Wagner for the 5th is a bit of a percentage joke. The characters also come to conclude that a thing either happens or it does not; there’s no indefinite states. This principle, the “excluded middle”, is often relied upon for deductive logic, and fairly so. It gets less clear that this can be depended on for predictions of the future, or fears for the future. And real-world things come in degrees that a mathematical concept might not. Like, your fear of the home catching fire comes true if the building burns down. But it’s also come true if a quickly-extinguished frying pan fire leaves the wall scorched, embarrassing but harmless. Anyway, relaxing someone else’s anxiety takes more than a quick declaration of statistics. Show sympathy.
Harry Bliss and Steve Martin’s Bliss for the 6th is a cute little classroom strip, with arithmetic appearing as the sort of topic that students feel overwhelmed and baffled by. It could be anything, but mathematics uses the illustration space efficiently. The strip may properly be too marginal to include, but I like Bliss’s art style and want more people to see it.
Will Henry’s Wallace the Brave for the 7th puts up what Spud calls a sadistic math problem. And, well, it is a story problem happening in their real life. You could probably turn this into an actual exam problem without great difficulty.
And now I’ll cover the handful of comic strips which ran last week and which didn’t fit in my Sunday report. And link to a couple of comics that ultimately weren’t worth discussion in their own right, mostly because they were repeats of ones I’ve already discussed. I have been trimming rerun comics out of my daily reading. But there are ones I like too much to give up, at least not right now.
Bud Blake’s Tiger for the 25th has Tiger quizzing Punkinhead on counting. The younger kid hasn’t reached the point where he can work out numbers without a specific physical representation. It would come, if he were in one of those comics where people age.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 24th is an optimization problem, and an expectation value problem. The wisdom-seeker searches for the most satisfying life. The mathematician-guru offers an answer based in probability and expectation values. List all the possible outcomes, and how probable each are, and how much of the relevant quantity you get (or lose) with each outcome. This is a quite utilitarian view of life-planning. Finding the best possible outcome, given certain constraints, is another big field of mathematics.
John Atkinson’s Wrong Hands for the 26th is a nonsense-equation panel. It’s built on a cute idea. If you do wan to know how many bears you can fit in the kitchen you would need something like this. Not this, though. You can tell by the dimensions. ‘x’, as the area of the kitchen, has units of, well, area. Square feet, or square meters, or square centimeters, or whatever is convenient to measure its area. The average volume of a bear, meanwhile, has units of … volume. Cubic feet, or cubic meters, or cubic centimeters, or the like. The one divided by the other has units of one-over-distance.
And I don’t know what the units of desire to have bears in your kitchen are, but I’m guessing it’s not “bear-feet”, although that would be worth a giggle. The equation would parse more closely if y were the number of bears that can fit in a square foot, or something similar. I say all this just to spoil Atkinson’s fine enough bit of nonsense.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 26th is a joke built on inappropriate extrapolation. 3520 seconds is a touch under an hour. Skippy’s pace, if he could keep it up, would be running a mile every five minutes, 52 seconds. That pace isn’t impossible — I find it listed on charts for marathon runners. But that would be for people who’ve trained to be marathon or other long-distance runners. They probably have different fifty-yard run times.
And now for some of the recent comics that didn’t seem worth their own discussion, and why they didn’t.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 20th features reciting the digits of π as a pointless macho stunt. There are people who make a deal of memorizing digits of π. Everyone needs hobbies, and memorizing meaningless stuff is a traditional fanboy’s way of burying oneself in the thing appreciated. Me, I can give you π to … I want to say sixteen digits. I might have gone farther in my youth, but I was heartbroken when I learned one of the digits I had memorized I got wrong, and so after correcting that mess I gave up going farther.
And we had another of those peculiar days where a lot of strips are on-topic enough for me to talk about.
Eric the Circle, this one by Kyle, for the 26th has a bit of mathematical physics in it. This is the kind of diagram you’ll see all the time, at least if you do the mathematics that tells you where things will be and when. The particular example is an easy problem, a thing rolling down an inclined plane. But the work done for it applies to more complicated problems. The question it’s for is, “what happens when this thing slides down the plane?” And that depends on the forces at work. There’s gravity, certainly . If there were something else it’d be labelled. Gravity’s represented with that arrow pointing straight down. That gives us the direction. The label (Eric)(g) gives us how strong this force is.
Where the diagram gets interesting, and useful, are those dashed lines ending in arrows. One of those lines is, or at least means to be, parallel to the incline. The other is perpendicular to it. These both reflect gravity. We can represent the force of gravity as a vector. That means, we can represent the force of gravity as the sum of vectors. This is like how we can can write “8” or we can write “3 + 5”, depending on what’s more useful for what we’re doing. (For example, if you wanted to work out “67 + 8”, you might be better off doing “67 + 3 + 5”.) The vector parallel to the plane and the one perpendicular to the plane add up to the original gravity vector.
The force that’s parallel to the plane is the only force that’ll actually accelerate Eric. The force perpendicular to the plane just … keeps it snug against the plane. (Well, it can produce friction. We try not to deal with that in introductory physics because it is so hard. At most we might look at whether there’s enough friction to keep Eric from starting to slide downhill.) The magnitude of the force parallel to the plane, and perpendicular to the plane, are easy enough to work out. These two forces and the original gravity can be put together into a little right triangle. It’s the same shape but different size to the right triangle made by the inclined plane plus a horizontal and a vertical axis. So that’s how the diagram knows the parallel force is the original gravity times the sine of x. And that the perpendicular force is the original gravity times the cosine of x.
The perpendicular force is often called the “normal” force. This because mathematical physicists noticed we had only 2,038 other, unrelated, things called “normal”.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 26th sees Ruthie demand to know who this Venn person was. Fair question. Mathematics often gets presented as these things that just are. That someone first thought about these things gets forgotten.
John Venn, who lived from 1834 to 1923 — he died the 4th of April, it happens — was an English mathematician and philosopher and logician and (Anglican) priest. This is not a rare combination of professions. From 1862 he was a lecturer in Moral Science at Cambridge. This included work in logic, yes. But he also worked on probability questions. Wikipedia credits his 1866 Logic Of Chance with advancing the frequentist interpretation of probability. This is one of the major schools of thought about what the “probability of an event” is. It’s the one where you list all the things that could possibly happen, and consider how many of those are the thing you’re interested in. So, when you do a problem like “what’s the probability of rolling two six-sided dice and getting a total of four”? You’re doing a frequentist probability problem.
Venn Diagrams he presented to the world around 1880. These show the relationships between different sets. And the relationships of mathematical logic problems they represent. Venn, if my sources aren’t fibbing, didn’t take these diagrams to be a new invention of his own. He wrote of them as “Euler diagrams”. Venn diagrams, properly, need to show all the possible intersections of all the sets in play. You just mark in some way the intersections that happen to have nothing in them. Euler diagrams don’t require this overlapping. The name “Venn diagram” got attached to these pictures in the early 20th century. Euler here is Leonhard Euler, who created every symbol and notation mathematicians use for everything, and who has a different “Euler’s Theorem” that’s foundational to every field of mathematics, including the ones we don’t yet know exist. I exaggerate by 0.04 percent here.
Venn had his other projects, too. His biography at St Andrews writes of his composing The Biographical History of Gonville and Caius College (Cambridge). And then he had another history of the whole Cambridge University. It also mentions his skills in building machines, though only cites one, a device for bowling cricket balls. The St Andrews biography says that in 1909 “Venn’s machine clean bowled one of [the Australian Cricket Team’s] top stars four times”. I do not know precisely what it means but I infer it to be a pretty good showing for the machine. His Wikipedia biography calls him a “passionate gardener”. Apparently the Cambridgeshire Horticultural Society awarded him prizes for his roses in July 1885 and for white carrots in September that year. And that he was a supporter of votes for women.
Ashleigh Brilliant’s Pot-Shots for the 26th makes a cute and true claim about percentiles. That a person will usually be in the upper 99% of whatever’s being measured? Hard to dispute. But, measure enough things and eventually you’ll fall out of at least one of them. How many things? This is easy to calculate if we look at different things that are independent of each other. In that case we could look at 69 things before there we’d expect a 50% chance of at least one not being in the upper 99%.
It’s getting that independence that’s hard. There’s often links between things. For example, a person’s height does not tell us much about their weight. But it does tell us something. A person six foot, ten inches tall is almost certainly not also 35 pounds, even though a person could be that size or could be that weight. A person’s scores on a reading comprehension test and their income? But test-taking results and wealth are certainly tied together. Age and income? Most of us have a bigger income at 46 than at 6. This is part of what makes studying populations so hard.
T Shepherd’s Snow Sez for the 26th is finally a strip I can talk about briefly, for a change. Snow does a bit of arithmetic wordplay, toying with what an expression like “1 + 1” might represent.
Since I took the Pi Day comics ahead of their normal sequence on Sunday, it’s time I got back to the rest of the week. There weren’t any mathematically-themed comics worth mentioning from last Friday or Saturday, so I’m spending the latter part of this week covering stuff published before Pi Day. It’s got me slightly out of joint. It’ll all be better soon.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this week. That’s nice to have. It’s built on the concept of story problems. That there should be “stories” behind a problem makes sense. Most actual mathematics, even among mathematicians, is done because we want to know a thing. Acting on a want is a story. Wanting to know a thing justifies the work of doing this calculation. And real mathematics work involves looking at some thing, full of the messiness of the real world, and extracting from it mathematics. This would be the question to solve, the operations to do, the numbers (or shapes or connections or whatever) to use. We surely learn how to do that by doing simple examples. The kid — not Wavehead, for a change — points out a common problem here. There’s often not much of a story to a story problem. That is, where we don’t just want something, but someone else wants something too.
Parker and Hart’s The Wizard of Id for the 11th is a riff on the “when do you use algebra in real life” snark. Well, no one disputes that there are fields which depend on advanced mathematics. The snark comes in from supposing that a thing is worth learning only if it’s regularly “useful”.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 12th has Joe stalling class to speak to “the guy who invented zero”. I really like this strip since it’s one of those cute little wordplay jokes that also raises a legitimate point. Zero is this fantastic idea and it’s hard to imagine mathematics as we know it without the concept. Of course, we could say the same thing about trying to do mathematics without the concept of, say, “twelve”.
We don’t know who’s “the guy” who invented zero. It’s probably not all a single person, though, or even a single group of people. There are several threads of thought which merged together to zero. One is the notion of emptiness, the absense of a measurable thing. That probably occurred to whoever was the first person to notice a thing wasn’t where it was expected. Another part is the notion of zero as a number, something you could add to or subtract from a conventional number. That is, there’s this concept of “having nothing”, yes. But can you add “nothing” to a pile of things? And represent that using the addition we do with numbers? Sure, but that’s because we’re so comfortable with the idea of zero that we don’t ponder whether “2 + 1” and “2 + 0” are expressing similar ideas. You’ll occasionally see people asking web forums whether zero is really a number, often without getting much sympathy for their confusion. I admit I have to think hard to not let long reflex stop me wondering what I mean by a number and why zero should be one.
And then there’s zero, the symbol. As in having a representation, almost always a circle, to mean “there is a zero here”. We don’t know who wrote the first of that. The oldest instance of it that we know of dates to the year 683, and was written in what’s now Cambodia. It’s in a stone carving that seems to be some kind of bill of sale. I’m not aware whether there’s any indication from that who the zero was written for, or who wrote it, though. And there’s no reason to think that’s the first time zero was represented with a symbol. It’s the earliest we know about.
Darrin Bell’s Candorville for the 12th has some talk about numbers, and favorite numbers. Lemont claims to have had 8 as his favorite number because its shape, rotated, is that of the infinity symbol. C-Dog disputes Lemont’s recollection of his motives. Which is fair enough; it’s hard to remember what motivated you that long ago. What people mostly do is think of a reason that they, today, would have done that, in the past.
The ∞ symbol as we know it is credited to John Wallis, one of that bunch of 17th-century English mathematicians. He did a good bit of substantial work, in fields like conic sections and physics and whatnot. But he was also one of those people good at coming up with notation. He developed what’s now the standard notation for raising a number to a power, that stuff, and showed how to define raising a number to a rational-number power. Bunch of other things. He also seems to be the person who gave the name “continued fraction” to that concept.
Wallis never explained why he picked ∞ as a shape, of all the symbols one could draw, for this concept. There’s speculation he might have been varying the Roman numeral for 1,000, which we’ve simplified to M but which had been rendered as (|) or () and I can see that. (Well, really more of a C and a mirror-reflected C rather than parentheses, but I don’t have the typesetting skills to render that.) Conflating “a thousand” with “many” or “infinitely many” has a good heritage. We do the same thing when we talk about something having millions of parts or costing trillions of dollars or such. But, Wallis never explained (so far as we’re aware), so all this has to be considered speculation and maybe mnemonic helps to remembering the symbol.
Terry LaBan and Patty LaBan’s Edge City for the 12th is another story problem joke. Curiously the joke seems to be simply that the father gets confused following the convolutions of the story. The specific story problem circles around the “participation awards are the WORST” attitude that newspaper comics are surprisingly prone to. I think the LaBans just wanted the story problem to be long and seem tedious enough that our eyes glazed over. Anyway you could not pay me to read whatever the comments on this comic are. Sorry not sorry.
I thought I had a flood of mathematically-themed comic strips last week. On reflection, many of them were slight enough not to need further context. You’ll see in the paragraph of not-discussed strips at the end of this. What did rate discussion turned out to get more interesting to me the more I wrote about them.
Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 6th uses mathematics as icon of things that are indisputably true. Two plus two equals four is a good example of such. If we take the ordinary meanings of ‘two’ and ‘plus’ and ‘equals’ and ‘four’ there’s no disputing it. The result follows from some uncontroversial-seeming axioms and a lot of deduction. By the rules of logic, the conclusion has to be true, whoever makes it. Even, for that matter, if nobody makes it. It’s difficult to imagine a universe in which nobody ever notices two plus two equals four. But we can imagine that there are mathematical truths that will never be noticed by anyone. (Here’s one. There is some largest finite whole number that any human-created project will ever use in any context. Consider the equation represented by “that number plus two equals (even bigger number)”.)
But you see cards palmed there. What do we mean by ‘two’? Have we got a good definition? Might there be a different definition that’s more useful? Probably not, for ‘two’ anyway. But a part of mathematics, especially as a field develops, is working out what are the important concepts, and what their definitions should be. What a ‘function’ is, for example, went through a lot of debate and change over the 19th century. There is an elusiveness to facts, even in mathematics, where you’d think epistemology would be simpler.
Frank Page’s Bob the Squirrel for the 6th continues the SAT prep questions from earlier in the week. There’s two more problems in shuffling around algebraic expressions here. The first one, problem 5, is probably easiest to do by eliminating wrong answers. is a tedious mess. But look at just the terms: they have to add up to , so, the answer has to be either c or d. So next look at the terms and oh, that’s nice. They add up to zero. The answer has to be c. If you feel like checking the terms, go ahead; that’ll offer some reassurance, if you do the addition correctly.
The second one, problem 8, is probably easier to just think out. If then there’s a lot of places to go. What stands out to me is that has the reciprocal of in it. So, the reciprocal of has to equal the reciprocal of . So . And is, well, four times , so, four times one-half, or two. There’s other ways to go about this. In honestly, what I did when I looked at the problem was multiply both sides of by . But it’s harder to explain why that struck me as an obviously right thing to do. It’s got shortcuts I grew into from being comfortable with the more methodical approach. Someone who does a lot of problems like these will discover shortcuts.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 6th asks one of those questions you need to be a genius or a child to ponder. Why don’t the numbers eleven and twelve follow the pattern of the other teens, or for that matter of twenty-one and thirty-two, and the like? And the short answer is that they kind of do. At least, “eleven” and “twelve”, etymologists agree, derive from the Proto-Germanic “ainlif” and “twalif”. If you squint your mouth you can get from “ain” to “one” (it’s probably easier if you go through the German “ein” along the way). Getting from “twa” to “two” is less hard. If my understanding is correct, etymologists aren’t fully agreed on the “lif” part. But they are settled on it means the part above ten. Like, “ainlif” would be “one left above ten”. So it parses as one-and-ten, putting it in form with the old London-English preference for one-and-twenty or two-and-thirty as word constructions.
It’s not hard to figure how “twalif” might over centuries mutate to “twelve”. We could ask why “thirteen” didn’t stay something more Old Germanic. My suspicion is that it amounts to just, well, it worked out like that. It worked out the same way in German, which switches to “-zehn” endings from 13 on. Lithuanian has all the teens end with “-lika”; Polish, similarly, but with “-ście”. Spanish — not a Germanic language — has “custom” words for the numbers up to 15, and then switches to “diecis-” as a prefix to the numbers 6 through 9. French doesn’t switch to a systematic pattern until 17. (And no I am not going to talk about France’s 80s and 90s.) My supposition is that different peoples came to different conclusions about whether they needed ten, or twelve, or fifteen, or sixteen, unique names for numbers before they had to resort to systemic names.
Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 6th is a percentages comic. It makes reference to an old series of (American, at least) advertisements in which four out of five dentists would agree that chewing sugarless gum is a good thing. Shifting the four-out-of-five into 80% riffs is not just fun with tautologies. Percentages have this connotation of technical precision; 80% sounds like a more rigorously known number than “four out of five”. It doesn’t sound as scientific as “0.80”, quite. But when applied to populations a percentage seems less bizarre than a decimal.
There are some subjects that seem to come up all the time in these Reading the Comics posts. Lotteries. Roman numerals. Venn Diagrams. The New Math. Kids not doing arithmetic well, or not understanding when they do it. This is the slate of comics for today’s discussion.
Olivia Jaimes’s Nancy for the 27th is the Roman Numerals joke for the week. I am not certain there is a strong consensus about the origins of Roman numerals. It’s hard to suppose that the first several numerals, though, are all that far from tally marks. Adding serifs just makes the numerals probably easier to read, if harder to write. I’ll go along with Nancy’s excuse of using the weights to represent work with a lesser weight.
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 28th has the kid, Joe, impressed by something that he ought to have already expected. Grandpa uses this to take a crack at “that new, new math”, as though there were a time people weren’t amazed by what they should have deduced. Or a level of person who’s not surprised by the implications. One of Richard Feynman’s memoirs recounts him pranking people who have taken calculus by pointing out how whatever way you hold a French curve, the lowest point on it has a horizontal slope. This is true of the drafting instrument; but it’s also true of any curve that hasn’t got a corner or discontinuity.
There aren’t comments (so far as I’m aware) on Creators.com, which hosted this strip. So there weren’t any cracks about Common Core. But I am curious whether DeTorie wrote Grandpa as mentioning the New Math because the character would, plausibly, have seen that educational reform movement come and go. Or did DeTorie just riff on the New Math because that’s been a reliable punching bag since the mid-60s?
I admit I’m including a fairly marginal strip in this, just so I can have the fun of another single-day edition. What can I say? I can be easily swayed by silly things. Also, somehow, all four strips today have circumstances where one might mistake them for reruns. Let’s watch.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 13th is wordplay, mashing up ‘cell division’ with ‘long division’. As you might expect from Bill Amend — who loves sneaking legitimate mathematics and physics in where it’s not needed — Paige’s long cell division is a legitimate one. If you’d like a bit of recreational mathematics fun, you can figure out which microscopic organisms correspond to which numerals. The answer is also the Featured Comment on the page, at least as I write this. So if you need an answer, or you want to avoid having the answer spoiled, know what’s there.
Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 13th is the strip of most marginal relevance here. Part of Luann’s awful ay is a mathematics test. The given problems are nothing particularly meaningful. There is the sequence ‘mc2’ in the problem, although written as . There’s also a mention of ‘googleplex’, which when the strip was first published in 1991 was nothing more than a misspelling of the quite large number. (‘Googol’ is the number; ‘Google’ a curious misspelling. Or perhaps a reversion. The name was coined in 1938 by Milton Sirotta. Sirotta was seven years old at the time. I accept that it is at least possible Sirotta was thinking of the then-very-popular serial-comic strip Barney Google, and that his uncle Edward Kasner, who brought the name to mathematics, wrote it down wrong.) And that carries with it the connotation that big numbers are harder than small numbers. This is … kind of true. At least, long numbers are more tedious than short numbers. But you don’t really do different work, dividing 1428 by 7, than you do dividing 147 by 7. It’s just longer. “Hard” is a flexible idea.
Mathematics on clock faces is often used as a way to introduce modular arithmetic, a variation on arithmetic with only finitely many integers. This can help, if you’re familiar with clock faces. Like regular arithmetic, modular arithmetic can form a group and a ring. Clock faces won’t give you a group or ring, not unless you replace the number before ‘1’ with a ‘0’. To be a group, you need a collection of items, and a binary operation on the items. This operation we often think of as either addition or multiplication, depending on what makes sense for the problem. To be a ring, you need two binary operations, which interact by a distributive law. So the operations are often matched to addition and multiplication. Modular arithmetic is fun, yes. It’s also useful, not just as a way to do something like arithmetic that’s different. Many schemes for setting up checksums, quick and easy tests against data entry errors, rely on modular arithmetic on the data. And many schemes for generating ‘random’ numbers are built on finding multiplicative inverses in modular arithmetic. This isn’t truly random, of course. But you can look at a string of digits and not see any clear patterns. This is often as close to random as you need.
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 13th is mostly a bunch of complaints the old always have against the young. Well, the complaint about parallel parking I haven’t seen before. But the rest are common enough. Featured in it is a complaint that the young can’t do arithmetic. I’m not sure there was ever a time that the older generation thought the young were well-trained in arithmetic. Nor that there was ever a time that the current educational vogue wasn’t blamed for destroying a generation’s ability to calculate. I’m sure there are better and worse ways to teach calculation. But I suspect any teaching method will fall short of addressing a couple issues. One is that people over-rate their own competence and under-rate other’s competence. So the older generation will see itself as having got the best possible arithmetic education and anything that’s different is a falling away. And another is that people get worse at stuff they don’t think is enjoyable or don’t have to do a lot. If you haven’t got a use for the fact, or an appreciation for the beauty in it, three times six is a bit of trivia, and not one that inspires much conversation when shared.
The first half of last week’s comics are mostly ones from Comics Kingdom and Creators.com. That’s unusual. GoComics usually far outranks the other sites. Partly for sheer numbers; they have an incredible number of strips, many of them web-only, that Comics Kingdom and Creators.com don’t match. I think the strips on GoComics are more likely to drift into mathematical topics too. But to demonstrate that would take so much effort. Possibly any effort at all. Hm.
Bill Holbrook’s On the Fastrack for the 8th of July is premised on topographic maps. These are some of the tools we’ve made to understand three-dimensional objects with a two-dimensional representation. When topographic maps come to the mathematics department we tend to call them “contour maps” or “contour plots”. These are collections of shapes. They might be straight lines. They might be curved. They often form a closed loop. Each of these curves is called a “contour curve” or a “contour line” (even if it’s not straight). Or it’s called an “equipotential curve”, if someone’s being all fancy, or pointing out the link between potential functions and these curves.
Their purpose is in thinking of three-dimensional surfaces. We can represent a three-dimensional surface by putting up some reasonable coordinate system. For the sake of simplicity let’s suppose the “reasonable coordinate system” is the Cartesian one. So every point in space has coordinates named ‘x’, ‘y’, and ‘z’. Pick a value for ‘x’ and ‘y’. There’s at most one ‘z’ that’ll be on the surface. But there might be many sets of values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ together which have that height ‘z’. So what are all the values of ‘x’ and ‘y’ which match the same height ‘z’? Draw the curve, or curves, which match that particular value of ‘z’.
Topographical maps are a beloved example of this, to mathematicians, because we imagine everyone understands them. A particular spot on the ground at some given latitude and longitude is some particular height above sea level. OK. Imagine the slice of a hill representing all the spots that are exactly 10 feet above sea level, or whatever. That’s a curve. Possibly several curves, but we just say “a curve” for simplicity.
A topographical map will often include more than one curve. Often at regular intervals, say with one set of curves representing 10 feet elevation, another 20 feet, another 30 feet, and so on. Sometimes these curves will be very near one another, where a hill is particularly steep. Sometimes these curves will be far apart, where the ground is nearly level. With experience one can learn to read the lines and their spacing. One can see where extreme values are, and how far away they might be.
Topographical maps date back to 1789. These sorts of maps go back farther. In 1701 Edmond Halley, of comet fame, published maps showing magnetic compass variation. He had hopes that the difference between magnetic north and true north would offer a hint at how to find longitude. (The principle is good. But the lines of constant variation are too close to lines of latitude for the method to be practical. And variation changes over time, too.) And that shows how the topographical map idea can be useful to visualize things that aren’t heights. Weather maps include “isobars”, contour lines showing where the atmospheric pressure is a set vale. More advanced ones will include “isotherms”, each line showing a particular temperature. The isobar and isotherm lines can describe the weather and how it can be expected to change soon.
This idea, rendering three-dimensional information on a two-dimensional surface, is a powerful one. We can use it to try to visualize four-dimensional objects, by looking at the contour surfaces they would make in three dimensions. We can also do this for five and even more dimensions, by using the same stuff but putting a note that “D = 16” or the like in the corner of our image. And, yes, if Cartesian coordinates aren’t sensible for the problem you can use coordinates that are.
If you need a generic name for these contour lines that doesn’t suggest lines or topography or weather or such, try ‘isogonal curves’. Nobody will know what you mean, but you’ll be right.
Ted Key’s Hazel for the 9th is a joke about the difficulties in splitting the bill. It is archetypical of the sort of arithmetic people know they need to do in the real world. Despite that at least people in presented humor don’t get any better at it. I suppose real-world people don’t either, given some restaurants now list 15 and 20 percent tips on the bill. Well, at least everybody has a calculator on their phone so they can divide evenly. And I concede that, yeah, there isn’t really specifically a joke here. It’s just Hazel being competent, like the last time she showed up here.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. And it’s a bit of geometry wordplay, too. Also about how you can carry a joke over well enough even without understanding it, or the audience understanding it, if it’s delivered right.
Rick DeTorie’s One Big Happy for the 11th is another strip about arithmetic done in the real world. I’m also amused by Joe’s attempts to distract from how no kid that age has ever not known precisely how much money they have, and how much of it is fairly won.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 11th is another example of using understanding algebra as a show of intelligence. And it follows that up with undrestanding quantum physics as a show of even greater intelligence. One can ask what’s meant by “understanding” quantum physics. Someday someone might even answer. But it seems likely that the ability to do calculations based on a model has to be part of fully understanding it.
I have a couple loose rules about these Reading the Comics posts. At least one a week, whether there’s much to talk about or not. Not too many comics in one post, because that’s tiring to read and tiring to write. Trying to write up each day’s comics on the day mitigates that some, but not completely. So I tend to break up a week’s material if I can do, say, two posts of about seven strips each. This year, that’s been necessary; I’ve had a flood of comics on-topic or close enough for me to write about. This past week was a bizarre case. There really weren’t enough strips to break up the workload. It was, in short, a normal week, as strange as that is to see. I don’t know what I’m going to do Thursday. I might have to work.
Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks for the 25th of March is formally just a cameo mention of mathematics. There is some serious content to it. Whether someone likes to do a thing depends, to an extent, on whether they expect to like doing a thing. It seems likely to me that if a community encourages people to do mathematics, then it’ll have more people who do mathematics well. Mathematics does at least have the advantage that a lot of its fields can be turned into games. Or into things like games. Is one knot the same as another knot? You can test the laborious but inevitably correct way, trying to turn one into the other. Or you can find a polynomial that describes both knots and see if those two are the same polynomials. There’s fun to be had in this. I swear. And, of course, making arguments and finding flaws in other people’s arguments is a lot of mathematics. And good fun for anybody who likes that sort of thing. (This is a new tag for me.)
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 26th is a student-resisting-the-problem joke. A variable like ‘x’ serves a couple of roles. One of them is the name for a number whose value we don’t explicitly know, but which we hope to work out. And that’s the ‘x’ seen here. The other role of ‘x’ is the name for a number whose value we don’t know and don’t particularly care about. Since those are different reasons to use ‘x’ maybe we ought to have different names for the concepts. But we don’t and there’s probably no separating them now.
Tony Cochran’s Agnes for the 27th grumbles that mathematics and clairvoyance are poorly taught. Well, everyone who loves mathematics grumbles that the subject is poorly taught. I don’t know what the clairvoyants think but I’ll bet the same.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow rerun for the 28th is about sudoku. As with any puzzle the challenge is having rules that are restrictive enough to be interesting. This is also true of any mathematical field, though. You want ideas that imply a lot of things are true, but that also imply enough interesting plausible things are not true.
Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 31st depicts mathematics as the stuff of nightmares. (Although it’s not clear to me this is meant to recount a nightmare. Reads like it, anyway.) Calculus, too, which is an interesting choice. Calculus seems to be a breaking point for many people. A lot of people even who were good at algebra or trigonometry find all this talk about differentials and integrals and limits won’t cohere into understanding. Isaac Asimov wrote about this several times, and the sad realization that for as much as he loved mathematics there were big important parts of it that he could not comprehend.
I’m curious why calculus should be such a discontinuity, but the reasons are probably straightforward. It’s a field where you’re less interested in doing things to numbers and more interested in doing things to functions. Or to curves that a function might represent. It’s a field where information about a whole region is important, rather than information about a single point. It’s a field where you can test your intuitive feeling for, say, a limit by calculating a couple of values, but for which those calculations don’t give the right answer. Or at least can’t be guaranteed to be right. I don’t know if the choice of what to represent mathematics was arbitrary. But it was a good choice certainly. (This is another newly-tagged strip.)
If anything dominated the week in mathematically-themed comic strips it was Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. I don’t know how GoComics selects the strips to (re?)print on their site. But there were at least four that seemed on-point enough for me to mention. So, okay. He’s got my attention. What’s he do with it?
On the 3rd of December is a strip I can say is about conditional probability. The mathematician might be right that the chance someone will be murdered by a serial killer are less than one in ten million. But that is the chance of someone drawn from the whole universe of human experiences. There are people who will never be near a serial killer, for example, or who never come to his attention or who evade his interest. But if we know someone is near a serial killer, or does attract his interest? The information changes the probability. And this is where you get all those counter-intuitive and somewhat annoying logic puzzles about, like, the chance someone’s other child is a girl if the one who just walked in was, and how that changes if you’re told whether the girl who just entered was the elder.
On the 5th is a strip about sequences. And built on the famous example of exponential growth from doubling a reward enough times. Well, you know these things never work out for the wise guy. The “Fibonacci Spiral” spoken of in the next-to-last panel is a spiral, like you figure. The dimensions of the spiral are based on those of golden-ratio rectangles. It looks a great deal like a logarithmic spiral to the untrained eye. Also to the trained eye, but you knew that. I think it’s supposed to be humiliating that someone would call such a spiral “random”. But I admit I don’t get that part.
The strip for the 6th has a more implicit mathematical content. It hypothesizes that mathematicians, given the chance, will be more interested in doing recreational puzzles than even in eating and drinking. It’s amusing, but I’ll admit I’ve found very few puzzles all that compelling. This isn’t to say there aren’t problems I keep coming back to because I’m curious about them, just that they don’t overwhelm my common sense. Don’t ask me when I last received actual pay for doing something mathematical.
And then on the 9th is one more strip, about logicians. And logic puzzles, such as you might get in a Martin Gardner collection. The problem is written out on the chalkboard with some shorthand logical symbols. And they’re symbols both philosophers and mathematicians use. The letter that looks like a V with a crossbar means “for all”. (The mnemonic I got was “it’s an A-for-all, upside-down”. This paired with the other common symbol, which looks like a backwards E and means there exists: “E-for-exists, backwards”. Later I noticed upside-down A and backwards E could both be just 180-degree-rotated A and E. But try saying “180-degree-rotated” in a quick way.) The curvy E between the letters ‘x’ and ‘S’ means “belongs to the set”. So that first line says “for all x that belong to the set S this follows”. Writing out “isLiar(x)” instead of, say, “L(x)”, is more a philosopher’s thing than a mathematician’s. But it wouldn’t throw anyway. And the T just means emphasizing that this is true.
And that is as much about Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal as I have to say this week.
Sam Hurt’s Eyebeam for the 4th tells a cute story about twins trying to explain infinity to one another. I’m not sure I can agree with the older twin’s assertion that infinity means there’s no biggest number. But that’s just because I worry there’s something imprecise going on there. I’m looking forward to the kids learning about negative numbers, though, and getting to wonder what’s the biggest negative real number.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 4th starts with Skippy explaining a story problem. One about buying potatoes, in this case. I’m tickled by how cranky Skippy is about boring old story problems. Motivation is always a challenge. The strip originally ran the 7th of October, 1930.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 6th uses a panel of (gibberish) mathematics as an example of an algorithm. Algorithms are mathematical, in origin at least. The word comes to us from the 9th century Persian mathematician Al-Khwarizmi’s text about how to calculate. The modern sense of the word comes from trying to describe the methods by which a problem can be solved. So, legitimate use of mathematics to show off the idea. The symbols still don’t mean anything.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 7th has Joe trying to get his mathematics homework done at the last minute. … And it’s caused me to reflect on how twenty multiplication problems seems like a reasonable number to do. But there’s only fifty multiplications to even do, at least if you’re doing the times tables up to the 10s. No wonder students get so bored seeing the same problems over and over. It’s a little less dire if you’re learning times tables up to the 12s, but not that much better. Yow.
Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 8th looks pretty legitimate to me. It’s going to read as gibberish to people who haven’t done parametric functions, though. Start with the plane and the familiar old idea of ‘x’ and ‘y’ representing how far one is along a horizontal and a vertical direction. Here, we’re given a dummy variable ‘t’, and functions to describe a value for ‘x’ and ‘y’ matching each value of ‘t’. The plot then shows all the points that ever match a pair of ‘x’ and ‘y’ coordinates for some ‘t’. The top drawing is a shape known as the cardioid, because it kind of looks like a Valentine-heart. The lower figure is a much more complicated parametric equation. It looks more anatomically accurate,
Still no sign of Mark Anderson’s Andertoons and the drought is worrying me, yes.
It was a normal-paced week at Comic Strip Master Command. It was also one of those weeks that didn’t have anything from Comics Kingdom or Creators.Com. So I’m afraid you’ll all just have to click the links for strips you want to actually see. Sorry.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 12th has Jason and Marcus creating “mathic novels”. They, being a couple of mathematically-gifted smart people, credit mathematics knowledge with smartness. A “chiliagon” is a thousand-sided regular polygon that’s mostly of philosophical interest. A regular polygon with a thousand equal sides and a thousand equal angles looks like a circle. There’s really no way to draw one so that the human eye could see the whole figure and tell it apart from a circle. But if you can understand the idea of a regular polygon it seems like you can imagine a chilagon and see how that’s not a circle. So there’s some really easy geometry things that can’t be visualized, or at least not truly visualized, and just have to be reasoned with.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 12th is a story-problem-subversion joke. The joke’s good enough as it is, but the supposition of the problem is that the driving does cover fifty miles in an hour. This may not be the speed the car travels at the whole time of the problem. Mister Green is maybe speeding to make up for all the time spent travelling slower.
Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man for the 15thalso uses a blackboard full of equations to represent the deep thinking being done on a less silly subject. It’s a really good-looking blackboard full of equations, by the way. Beyond the appearance of our old friend E = mc2 there’s a lot of stuff that looks like legitimate quantum mechanics symbols there. They’re at least not obvious nonsense, as best I can tell without the ability to zoom the image in. I wonder if Wheeler didn’t find a textbook and use some problems from it for the feeling of authenticity.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 18th talks about making a bet on the World Series, which wrapped up a couple weeks ago. It raises the question: can you bet on an already known outcome? Well, sure, you can bet on anything you like, given a willing partner. But there does seem to be something fundamentally different between betting on something whose outcome isn’t in principle knowable, such as the winner of the next World Series, and betting on something that could be known but happens not to be, such as the winner of the last. We see this expressed in questions like “is it true the 13th of a month is more likely to be Friday than any other day of the week?” If you know which month and year is under discussion the chance the 13th is Friday is either 1 or 0. But we mean something more like, if we don’t know what month and year it is, what’s the chance this is a month with a Friday the 13th? Something like this is at work in this World Series bet. (The Astros won the recently completed World Series.)
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th is also featured on some underemployed philosopher’s “Reading the Comics” WordPress blog and fair enough. Utilitarianism exists in an odd triple point, somewhere on the borders of ethics, economics, and mathematics. The idea that one could quantize the good or the utility or the happiness of society, and study how actions affect it, is a strong one. It fits very well the modern mindset that holds everything can be quantified even if we don’t know how to do it well just yet. And it appeals strongly to a mathematically-minded person since it sounds like pure reason. It’s not, of course, any more than any ethical scheme can be. But it sounds like the ethics a Vulcan would come up with and that appeals to a certain kind of person. (The comic is built on one of the implications of utilitarianism that makes it seem like the idea’s gone off the rails.)
There’s some mathematics symbols on The Utilitarian’s costume. The capital U on his face is probably too obvious to need explanation. The on his chest relies on some mathematical convention. For maybe a half-millennium now mathematicians have been using the capital sigma to mean “take a sum of things”. The things are whatever the expression after that symbol is. Usually, the Sigma will have something below and above which carries meaning. It says what the index is for the thing after the symbol, and what the bounds of the index are. Here, it’s not set. This is common enough, though, if this is understood from context. Or if it’s obvious. The small ‘u’ to the right suggests the utility of whatever’s thought about. (“Utility” being the name for the thing measured and maximized; it might be happiness, it might be general well-being, it might be the number of people alive.) So the symbols would suggest “take the sum of all the relevant utilities”. Which is the calculation that would be done in this case.
On reflection, that Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal I was thinking about was not mathematically-inclined enough to be worth including here. Helping make my mind up on that was that I had enough other comic strips to discuss here that I didn’t need to pad my essay. Yes, on a slow week I let even more marginal stuff in. Here’s the comic I don’t figure to talk about. Enjoy!
Jack Pullan’s Boomerangs rerun for the 16th is another strip built around the “algebra is useless in real life” notion. I’m too busy noticing Mom in the first panel saying “what are you doing play [sic] video games?” to respond.
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix excerpt for the 16th is marginal, yeah, but fun. Numeric coincidence and numerology can sneak into compulsions with terrible ease. I can believe easily the need to make the number of steps divisible by some favored number.
Rich Powell’s Wide Open for the 16th is a caveman science joke, and it does rely on a chalkboard full of algebra for flavor. The symbols come tantalizingly close to meaningful. The amount of kinetic energy, K or KE, of a particle of mass m moving at speed v is indeed . Both 16 and 32 turn up often in the physics of falling bodies, at least if we’re using feet to measure. turns up in physics too. It comes from the acceleration of a mass on a spring. But an equation of the same shape turns up whenever you describe things that go through tiny wobbles around the normal value. So the blackboard is gibberish, but it’s a higher grade of gibberish than usual.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 17th is a resisting-the-word-problem joke, made fresher by setting it in little Ruthie’s playing at school.
Emphasis on can. There’s no good way to solve the “general” three-body problem, the one where the star and planets can have any sizes and any starting positions and any starting speeds. We can do well for special cases, though. If you have a sun, a planet, and a satellite — each body negligible compared to the other — we can predict orbits perfectly well. If the bodies have to stay in one plane of motion, instead of moving in three-dimensional space, we can do pretty well. If we know two of the bodies orbit each other tightly and the third is way off in the middle of nowhere we can do pretty well.
But there’s still so many interesting cases for which we just can’t be sure chaos will not break out. Three interacting bodies just offer so much more chance for things to happen. (To mention something surely coincidental, it does seem to be a lot easier to write good comedy, or drama, with three important characters rather than two. Any pair of characters can gang up on the third, after all. I notice how much more energetic Over The Hedge became when Hammy the Squirrel joined RJ and Verne as the core cast.)
And now I can close out last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. Two of them are even about counting, which is enough for me to make that the name of this set.
John Allen’s Nest Heads for the 2nd mentions a probability and statistics class and something it’s supposed to be good for. I would agree that probability and statistics are probably (I can’t find a better way to write this) the most practically useful mathematics one can learn. At least once you’re past arithmetic. They’re practical by birth; humans began studying them because they offer guidance in uncertain situations. And one can use many of their tools without needing more than arithmetic.
I’m not so staunchly anti-lottery as many mathematics people are. I’ll admit I play it myself, when the jackpot is large enough. When the expectation value of the prize gets to be positive, it’s harder to rationalize not playing. This happens only once or twice a year, but it’s fun to watch and see when it happens. I grant it’s a foolish way to use two dollars (two tickets are my limit), but you know? My budget is not so tight I can’t spend four dollars foolishly a year. Besides, I don’t insist on winning one of those half-billion-dollar prizes. I imagine I’d be satisfied if I brought in a mere $10,000.
Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy for the 3rd continues my previous essay’s bit of incompetence at basic mathematics, here, counting. But working out that her age is between 22 an a gazillion may be worth doing. It’s a common mathematical challenge to find a correct number starting from little information about it. Usually we find it by locating bounds: the number must be larger than this and smaller than that. And then get the bounds closer together. Stop when they’re close enough for our needs, if we’re numerical mathematicians. Stop when the bounds are equal to each other, if we’re analytic mathematicians. That can take a lot of work. Many problems in number theory amount to “improve our estimate of the lowest (or highest) number for which this is true”. We have to start somewhere.
Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 3rd is a counting-sheep joke and I was amused that the counting went so awry here. On looking over the strip again for this essay, though, I realize I read it wrong. It’s the fences that are getting counted, not the sheep. Well, it’s a cute little sheep having the same problems counting that Horace has. We don’t tend to do well counting more than around seven things at a glance. We can get a bit farther if we can group things together and spot that, say, we have four groups of four fences each. That works and it’s legitimate; we’re counting and we get the right count out of it. But it does feel like we’re doing something different from how we count, say, three things at a glance.
Mick Mastroianni and Mason MastroianniDogs of C Kennel for the 3rd is about the world’s favorite piece of statistical mechanics, entropy. There’s room for quibbling about what exactly we mean by thermodynamics saying all matter is slowly breaking down. But the gist is fair enough. It’s still mysterious, though. To say that the disorder of things is always increasing forces us to think about what we mean by disorder. It’s easy to think we have an idea what we mean by it. It’s hard to make that a completely satisfying definition. In this way it’s much like randomness, which is another idea often treated as the same as disorder.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 3rd reprinted the comic from the 10th of February, 2006. Mathematics teachers always want to see how you get your answers. Why? … Well, there are different categories of mistakes someone can make. One can set out trying to solve the wrong problem. One can set out trying to solve the right problem in a wrong way. One can set out solving the right problem in the right way and get lost somewhere in the process. Or one can be doing just fine and somewhere along the line change an addition to a subtraction and get what looks like the wrong answer. Each of these is a different kind of mistake. Knowing what kinds of mistakes people make is key to helping them not make these mistakes. They can get on to making more exciting mistakes.