There were nearly a dozen mathematically-themed comic strips among what I’d read, and they almost but not quite split mid-week. Better, they include one of my favorite ever mathematics strips from Charles Schulz’s Peanuts.
Jimmy Halto’s Little Iodine for the 4th of December, 1956 was rerun the 2nd of February. Little Iodine seeks out help with what seems to be story problems. The rate problem — “if it takes one man two hours to plow seven acros, how long will it take five men and a horse to … ” — is a kind I remember being particularly baffling. I think it’s the presence of three numbers at once. It seems easy to go from, say, “if you go two miles in ten minutes, how long will it take to go six miles?” to an answer. To go from “if one person working two hours plows seven acres then how long will five men take to clear fourteen acres” to an answer seems like a different kind of problem altogether. It’s a kind of problem for which it’s even wiser than usual to carefully list everything you need.
Kieran Meehan’s Pros and Cons for the 5th uses a bit of arithmetic. It looks as if it’s meant to be a reminder about following the conclusions of one’s deductive logic. It’s more common to use 1 + 1 equalling 2, or 2 + 2 equalling 4. Maybe 2 times 2 being 4. But then it takes a little turn into numerology, trying to read more meaning into numbers than is wise. (I understand why people should use numerological reasoning, especially given how much mathematicians like to talk up mathematics as descriptions of reality and how older numeral systems used letters to represent words. And that before you consider how many numbers have connotations.)
Mort Walker and Dik Browne’s Hi and Lois for the 10th of August, 1960 was rerun the 6th of February. It’s a counting joke. Babies do have some number sense. At least babies as old as Trixie do, I believe, in that they’re able to detect that something weird is going on when they’re shown, eg, two balls put into a box and four balls coming out. (Also it turns out that stage magicians get called in to help psychologists study just how infants and toddlers understand the world, which is neat.)
It wasn’t just another busy week from Comic Strip Master Command. And a week busy enough for me to split the mathematics comics into two essays. It was one where I recognized one of the panels as one I’d featured before. Multiple times. Some of the comics I feature are in perpetual reruns and don’t have your classic, deep, Peanuts-style decades of archives to draw from. I don’t usually go checking my archives to see if I’ve mentioned a comic before, not unless something about it stands out. So for me to notice I’ve seen this strip repeatedly can mean only one thing: there was something a little bit annoying about it. Recognize it yet? You will.
Hy Eisman’s Popeye for the 7th of January, 2018 is an odd place for mathematics to come in. J Wellington Wimpy regales Popeye with all the intellectual topics he tried to impress his first love with, and “Euclidean postulates in the original Greek” made the cut. And, fair enough. Euclid’s books are that rare thing that’s of important mathematics (or scientific) merit and that a lay person can just pick up and read, even for pleasure. These days we’re more likely to see a division between mathematics writing that’s accessible but unimportant (you know, like, me) or that’s important but takes years of training to understand. Doing it in the original Greek is some arrogant showing-off, though. Can’t blame Carolyn for bailing on someone pulling that stunt.
John Hambrock’s The Brilliant Mind of Edison Lee for the 8th is set in mathematics class. And Edison tries to use a pile of mathematically-tinged words to explain why it’s okay to read a Star Wars book instead of paying attention. Or at least to provide a response the teacher won’t answer. Maybe we can make something out of this by allowing the monetary value of something to be related to its relevance. But if we allow that then Edison’s messed up. I don’t know what quantity is measured by multiplying “every Star Wars book ever written” by “all the movies and merchandise”. But dividing that by the value of the franchise gets … some modest number in peculiar units divided by a large number of dollars. The number value is going to be small. And the dimensions are obviously crazy. Edison needs to pay better attention to the mathematics.
Johnny Hart’s B.C. for the 14th of July, 1960 shows off the famous equation of the 20th century. All part of the comic’s anachronism-comedy chic. The strip reran the 9th of January. “E = mc2” is, correctly, associated with Albert Einstein and some of his important publications of 1905. But the expression does have some curious precursors, people who had worked out the relationship (or something close to it) before Einstein and who didn’t quite know what they had. A short piece from Scientific American a couple years back describes pre-Einstein expressions of the equation from Oliver Heaviside, Henri Poincaré, and Fritz Hasenöhrl. I’m not surprised Poincaré had something close to this; it seems like he spent twenty years almost discovering Relativity. That’s all right; he did enough in dynamical systems that mathematicians aren’t going to forget him.
Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 9th draws my eye just because the blackboard lists “Prime Numbers”. Fair enough place setting, although what’s listed are 1, 3, 5, and 7. These days mathematicians don’t tend to list 1 as a prime number; it’s inconvenient. (A lot of proofs depend on their being exactly one way to factorize a number. But you can always multiply a number by ‘1’ a couple more times without changing its value. So ‘6’ is 3 times 2, but it’s also 3 times 2 times 1, or 3 times 2 times 1 times 1, or 3 times 2 times 1145,388,434,247. You can write around that, but it’s easier to define ‘1’ as not a prime.) But it could be defended. I can’t think any reason to leave ‘2’ off a list of prime numbers, though. I think Chatfield conflated odd and prime numbers. If he’d had a bit more blackboard space we could’ve seen whether the next item was 9 or 11 and that would prove the matter.
Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 9th uses arithmetic — square roots — as the kind of thing to test whether a computer’s working. Everyone has their little tests like this. My love’s father likes to test whether the computer knows of the band Walk The Moon or of Christine Korsgaard (a prominent philosopher in my love’s specialty). I’ve got a couple words I like to check dictionaries for. Of course the test is only any good if you know what the answer should be, and what’s the actual square root of 3,278? Goodness knows. It’s got to be between 50 (50 squared is 25 hundred) and 60 (60 squared is 36 hundred). Since 3,278 is so much closer 3,600 than 2,500 its square root should be closer to 60 than to 50. So 57-point-something is plausible. Unfortunately square roots don’t lend themselves to the same sorts of tricks from reading the last digit that cube roots do. And 3,278 isn’t a perfect square anyway. Alexa is right on this one. Also about the specific gravity of cobalt, at least if Wikipedia is right and not conspiring with the artificial intelligences on this one. Catch you in 2021.
There were a good number of mathematically-themed comic strips in the syndicated comics last week. Those from the first part of the week gave me topics I could really sink my rhetorical teeth into, too. So I’m going to lop those off into the first essay for last week and circle around to the other comics later on.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz started a week of calendar talk on the 31st of December. I’ve usually counted that as mathematical enough to mention here. The 1st of January as we know it derives, as best I can figure, from the 1st of January as Julius Caesar established for 45 BCE. This was the first Roman calendar to run basically automatically. Its length was quite close to the solar year’s length. It had leap days added according to a rule that should have been easy enough to understand (one day every fourth year). Before then the Roman calendar year was far enough off the solar year that they had to be kept in synch by interventions. Mostly, by that time, adding a short extra month to put things more nearly right. This had gotten all confusingly messed up and Caesar took the chance to set things right, running 46 BCE to 445 days long.
But why 445 and not, say, 443 or 457? And I find on research that my recollection might not be right. That is, I recall that the plan was to set the 1st of January, Reformed, to the first new moon after the winter solstice. A choice that makes sense only for that one year, but, where to set the 1st is literally arbitrary. While that apparently passes astronomical muster (the new moon as seen from Rome then would be just after midnight the 2nd of January, but hitting the night of 1/2 January is good enough), there’s apparently dispute about whether that was the objective. It might have been to set the winter solstice to the 25th of December. Or it might have been that the extra days matched neatly the length of two intercalated months that by rights should have gone into earlier years. It’s a good reminder of the difficulty of reading motivation.
Brian Fies’s The Last Mechanical Monster for the 1st of January, 2018, continues his story about the mad scientist from the Fleischer studios’ first Superman cartoon, back in 1941. In this panel he’s describing how he realized, over the course of his long prison sentence, that his intelligence was fading with age. He uses the ability to do arithmetic in his head as proof of that. These types never try naming, like, rulers of the Byzantine Empire. Anyway, to calculate the cube root of 50,653 in his head? As he used to be able to do? … guh. It’s not the sort of mental arithmetic that I find fun.
But I could think of a couple ways to do it. The one I’d use is based on a technique called Newton-Raphson iteration that can often be used to find where a function’s value is zero. Raphson here is Joseph Raphson, a late 17th century English mathematician known for the Newton-Raphson method. Newton is that falling-apples fellow. It’s an iterative scheme because you start with a guess about what the answer would be, and do calculations to make the answer better. I don’t say this is the best method, but it’s the one that demands me remember the least stuff to re-generate the algorithm. And it’ll work for any positive number ‘A’ and any root, to the ‘n’-th power.
So you want the n-th root of ‘A’. Start with your current guess about what this root is. (If you have no idea, try ‘1’ or ‘A’.) Call that guess ‘x’. Then work out this number:
Ta-da! You have, probably, now a better guess of the n-th root of ‘A’. If you want a better guess yet, take the result you just got and call that ‘x’, and go back calculating that again. Stop when you feel like your answer is good enough. This is going to be tedious but, hey, if you’re serving a prison term of the length of US copyright you’ve got time. (It’s possible with this sort of iterator to get a worse approximation, although I don’t think that happens with n-th root process. Most of the time, a couple more iterations will get you back on track.)
But that’s work. Can we think instead? Now, most n-th roots of whole numbers aren’t going to be whole numbers. Most integers aren’t perfect powers of some other integer. If you think 50,653 is a perfect cube of something, though, you can say some things about it. For one, it’s going to have to be a two-digit number. 103 is 1,000; 1003 is 1,000,000. The second digit has to be a 7. 73 is 343. The cube of any number ending in 7 has to end in 3. There’s not another number from 1 to 9 with a cube that ends in 3. That’s one of those things you learn from playing with arithmetic. (A number ending in 1 cubes to something ending in 1. A number ending in 2 cubes to something ending in 8. And so on.)
So the cube root has to be one of 17, 27, 37, 47, 57, 67, 77, 87, or 97. Again, if 50,653 is a perfect cube. And we can do better than saying it’s merely one of those nine possibilities. 40 times 40 times 40 is 64,000. This means, first, that 47 and up are definitely too large. But it also means that 40 is just a little more than the cube root of 50,653. So, if 50,653 is a perfect cube, then it’s most likely going to be the cube of 37.
Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes rerun for the 2nd is a great sequence of Hobbes explaining arithmetic to Calvin. There is nothing which could be added to Hobbes’s explanation of 3 + 8 which would make it better. I will modify Hobbes’s explanation of what the numerator. It’s ridiculous to think it’s Latin for “number eighter”. The reality is possibly more ridiculous, as it means “a numberer”. Apparently it derives from “numeratus”, meaning, “to number”. The “denominator” comes from “de nomen”, as in “name”. So, you know, “the thing that’s named”. Which does show the terms mean something. A poet could turn “numerator over denominator” into “the number of parts of the thing we name”, or something near enough that.
Hobbes continues the next day, introducing Calvin to imaginary numbers. The term “imaginary numbers” tells us their history: they looked, when first noticed in formulas for finding roots of third- and fourth-degree polynomials, like obvious nonsense. But if you carry on, following the rules as best you can, that nonsense would often shake out and you’d get back to normal numbers again. And as generations of mathematicians grew up realizing these acted like numbers we started to ask: well, how is an imaginary number any less real than, oh, the square root of six?
Hobbes’s particular examples of imaginary numbers — “eleventenn” and “thirty-twelve” — are great-sounding compositions. They put me in mind, as many of Watterson’s best words do, of a 1960s Peanuts in which Charlie Brown is trying to help Sally practice arithmetic. (I can’t find it online, as that meme with edited text about Sally Brown and the sixty grapefruits confounds my web searches.) She offers suggestions like “eleventy-Q” and asks if she’s close, which Charlie Brown admits is hard to say.
And finally, James Allen’s Mark Trail for the 3rd just mentions mathematics as the subject that Rusty Trail is going to have to do some work on instead of allowing the experience of a family trip to Mexico to count. This is of extremely marginal relevance, but it lets me include a picture of a comic strip, and I always like getting to do that.
Comic Strip Master Command hasn’t had many comics exactly on mathematical points the past week. I’ll make do. There are some that are close enough for me, since I like the comics already. And enough of them circle around people being nervous about doing mathematics that I have a title for this edition.
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 24th talks about math anxiety. It’s not a comic strip that will do anything to resolve anyone’s mathematics anxiety. But it’s funny about its business. Agnes usually is; it’s one of the less-appreciated deeply-bizarre comics out there.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts for the 24th reruns the comic from the 2nd of November, 1970. It has Sally discovering that multiplication is much easier than she imagined. As it is, she’s not in good shape. But if you accept ‘tooty-two’ as another name for ‘four’ and ‘threety-three’ as another name for ‘nine’, why not? And she might do all right in group theory. In that you can select a bunch of things, called ‘elements’, and describe their multiplication to fit anything you like, provided there’s consistency. There could be a four-forty-four if that seems to answer some question.
Hilary Price’s Rhymes with Orange for the 26th is a calculator joke, made explicitly magical. I’m amused but also wonder if those are small wizards or large mushrooms. And it brings up again the question: why do mathematics teachers care about seeing how you got the answer? Who cares, as long as the answer is right? And my answer there is that yeah, sometimes all we care about is the answer. But more often we care about why someone knows the answer is this instead of that. The argument about what makes this answer right — or other answers wrong — should make it possible to tell why. And it often will help inform other problems. Being able to use the work done for one problem to solve others, or better, a whole family of problems, is fantastic. It’s the sort of thing mathematicians naturally try to do.
And now I get caught up again, if briefly, to the mathematically-themed comic strips I can find. I’ve dubbed this one the trapezoid edition because one happens to mention the post that will outlive me.
Todd Clark’s Lola (May 4) is a straightforward joke. Monty’s given his chance of passing mathematics and doesn’t understand the prospect is grim.
Joe Martin’s Willy and Ethel (May 4) shows an astounding feat of mind-reading, or of luck. How amazing it is to draw a number at random from a range depends on many things. It’s less impressive to pick the right number if there are only three possible answers than it is to pick the right number out of ten million possibilities. When we ask someone to pick a number we usually mean a range of the counting numbers. My experience suggests it’s “one to ten” unless some other range is specified. But the other thing affecting how amazing it is is the distribution. There might be ten million possible responses, but if only a few of them are likely then the feat is much less impressive.
The distribution of a random number is the interesting thing about it. The number has some value, yes, and we may not know what it is, but we know how likely it is to be any of the possible values. And good mathematics can be done knowing the distribution of a value of something. The whole field of statistical mechanics is an example of that. James Clerk Maxwell, famous for the equations which describe electromagnetism, used such random variables to explain how the rings of Saturn could exist. It isn’t easy to start solving problems with distributions instead of particular values — I’m not sure I’ve seen a good introduction, and I’d be glad to pass one on if someone can suggest it — but the power it offers is amazing.