Each week Comic Strip Master Command sends out some comics that mention mathematics, but that aren’t substantial enough to write miniature essays about. This past week, too. Here are the comics that just mention mathematics. You may like them; there’s just not more to explain is all.
Dan Collins’s Looks Good On Paper rerun for the 27th uses a blackboard of mathematics — geometry-related formulas — to stand in for all classwork. This strip also ran in 2017 and in 2015. I haven’t checked 2013. I know the strip is still in original production, as it’ll include strips referring to current events, so I’ll keep reading it a while yet.
Ernie Bushmiller’s Nancy Classics for the 29th, which originally ran the 23rd of November, 1949, is a basic cheating-in-class joke. It works for mathematics in a way it wouldn’t for, say, history. Mathematics has enough symbols that don’t appear in ordinary writing that you could copy them upside-down without knowing that you transcribe something meaningless. Well, not realizing an upside-down 4 isn’t anything is a bit odd, but anyone can get pretty lost in symbols.
So, it has been hot around here. Extremely hot. Like, hot to the point that there’s nothing to do but form hyperbolic statements about the heat. This does not help anyone feel cooler, but it does help us feel like we’re doing something relevant to the weather. The result is that I haven’t had time to think about my comic strip reading. I’ve been very busy trying to pop my head off and leave it in the freezer. This has not worked. Our refrigerator’s dying and we have a replacement scheduled to arrive this week.
The consequence is that I haven’t had time to write my paragraphs about the comic strips that mention mathematical issues of substance. To not be a complete void, though, let me give you the marginalia. These are the comics that mentioned mathematics in some way so slight that I don’t think them worth further discussion. I’ll get to substantial stuff Tuesday. Thank you.
A couple years back we needed to patch a bunch of weak spots in the roof. We found all the spots that needed shoring up and measured how long they were, and went to buy some wood and get it cut to fit. I turned over the list of sizes and the guy told us we’d have to buy more than one of the standard-size sheets of plywood to do it. I thought, wait, no, that can’t be, and sketched out possible ways to cut the wood and fit pieces together. Finally I concluded that, oh, yes, the guy whose job it was to figure out how much wood was needed for particular tasks knew what he was talking about. His secret? I don’t know. What finally convinced me was adding up the total area of the wood we’d need, and finding that it was more than what one sheet would be.
Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 19th uses a whiteboard full of mathematics as visual shorthand for “some really complicated subject”. It’s a good set of mathematics symbols on the whiteboard. They don’t mean anything in the combination shown, though. It’s just meant to bewilder.
The key is the Mover’s claim that he can look at any amount of stuff and tell you whether it fits in the moving bins. Working out something like this is a version of the knapsack problem. The knapsack problem is … well, the problem you imagine it might be, if someone told you “some mathematicians study a thing called the knapsack problem”? That’s about right. Formally, it’s about selecting from a set of things of different value. How hard is it to pick a subset of things with exactly that value? Or find that there is no such subset?
Well, in a sense, not hard at all. You can just keep trying combinations. Eventually you’ll either find a set that works, or you’ll try every possibility and find none of them work. This is known as “exhaustion”, and correctly. If there are ten things, there are 3,628,800 possibilities. Then it gets really bad. If there are twenty things, there are 2,432,902,008,176,640,000 possibilities. Finding the one that works? That could take a while.
So being able to tell whether a collection of things can fit within a particular space? That’s a form of the knapsack problem. Being able to always solve that any faster than just “try out every combination until you find one that works”? That would be incredible. The problem is hard. That’s a technical term. It means what you imagine it means, but more precisely.
So why the mathematician’s response? It’s because the problem of hacking the common Internet security algorithms is also hard. (I am discussing here how difficult hacking would be if the algorithm were implemented perfectly. There are many hacking techniques available because of bugs. Programs are not written perfectly. Compilers do not translate them to computer code perfectly. Computers are not built perfectly. These and more flaws make hacking more possible than it should be.) It’s the same kind of hard as this knapsack problem. I mean “the same” more technically than you might imagine. If you had a method to quickly solve this knapsack problem, then, you could use this to break computer encryption quickly. And, it turns out, vice-versa, so at least there’s some fairness to things. So if the the Mover can, truly, always instantly tell whether a set of things fit in the moving bins, then hacking e-mails should be possible to. The Mover would have to team up with a mathematician who studies computational problems like this. I don’t know how to do it, myself. I think about the how to do this and feel lost, myself.
So is the Mover full of it? Let’s put this more nicely. Is he at least unduly optimistic about his claims?
Nah. What makes the knapsack problem hard is that you have to find a solution that quickly finds answers for every possible set of things. But the Mover doesn’t have to deal with that. Most of the stuff is in boxes. It’s in mostly simple polygonal shapes. There’s not, like, 400 million items, each the size of a Cheerio. The Mover may plausibly have never encountered a set of things to move where he couldn’t tell whether it fits.
And, yes, there’s selection bias. Suppose he declared that no, this load had to fit into two vans. But that actually a sufficiently clever arrangement would have let it fit in one. Who would ever know he was wrong? He’d only ever know his intuition was wrong if he declared something would fit in one van and, in fact, it couldn’t.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 21st is a student-at-the-board problem. It’s using the punch line that “I don’t know” might be a true answer to any problem. There are many real mathematics problems for which nobody really knows an answer.
But Miss Larkin has good advice here. Maybe you don’t know the final answer. But do you know anything? Write it down. It’s good for partial credit, at least. Working out a part of the problem might also be useful, too. Often you can work out how to do a hard problem by looking at a similar but simpler problem. If Skippy is lost at 8 + 4 + 7 + 5, could he do at least 8 + 4 + 7? Could he do 8 + 4? Maybe this wouldn’t help him get to the ultimate answer. Often a difficult problem turns out to be solved by solving a circle of simple problems, that starve out the hard.
Our roof patches held up for their need, which was just to last a couple months while we contracted for a replacement roof. And, happily, the roof replacement got done speedily and during a week that did not rain. (Back in grad school the apartment I was in had its roof replaced on a day that, it turns out, would get a spontaneous downpour halfway through. My apartment was on the top floor. This made for an exciting afternoon.)
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.
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 23rd has a neat variation on story problems. Zoe’s given the assignment to make her own. I don’t remember getting this as homework, in elementary school, but it’s hard to see why I wouldn’t. It’s a great exercise: not just set up an arithmetic problem to solve, but a reason one would want to solve it.
Composing problems is a challenge. It’s a skill, and you might be surprised that when I was in grad school we didn’t get much training in it. We were just taken to be naturally aware of how to identify a skill one wanted to test, and to design a question that would mostly test that skill, and to write it out in a question that challenged students to identify what they were to do and how to do it, and why they might want to do it. But as a grad student I wasn’t being prepared to teach elementary school students, just undergraduates.
Mastroianni and Hart’s B.C. for the 23rd is a joke in the funny-definition category, this for “chaos theory”. Chaos theory formed as a mathematical field in the 60s and 70s, and it got popular alongside the fractal boom in the 80s. The field can be traced back to the 1890s, though, which is astounding. There was no way in the 1890s to do the millions of calculations needed to visualize any good chaos-theory problem. They had to develop results entirely by thinking.
Wiley’s definition is fine enough about certain systems being unpredictable. Wiley calls them “advanced”, although they don’t need to be that advanced. A compound pendulum — a solid rod that swings on the end of another swinging rod — can be chaotic. You can call that “advanced” if you want but then people are going to ask if you’ve had your mind blown by this post-singularity invention, the “screw”.
What makes for chaos is not randomness. Anyone knows the random is unpredictable in detail. That’s no insight. What’s exciting is when something’s unpredictable but deterministic. Here it’s useful to think of continental divides. These are the imaginary curves which mark the difference in where water runs. Pour a cup of water on one side of the line, and if it doesn’t evaporate, it eventually flows to the Pacific Ocean. Pour the cup of water on the other side, it eventually flows to the Atlantic Ocean. These divides are often wriggly things. Water may mostly flow downhill, but it has to go around a lot of hills.
So pour the water on that line. Where does it go? There’s no unpredictability in it. The water on one side of the line goes to one ocean, the water on the other side, to the other ocean. But where is the boundary? And that can be so wriggly, so crumpled up on itself, so twisted, that there’s no meaningfully saying. There’s just this zone where the Pacific Basin and the Atlantic Basin merge into one another. Any drop of water, however tiny, dropped in this zone lands on both sides. And that is chaos.
Neatly for my purposes there’s even a mountain at a great example of this boundary. Triple Divide Peak, in Montana, rests on the divides between the Atlantic and the Pacific basins, and also on the divide between the Atlantic and the Arctic oceans. (If one interprets the Hudson Bay as connecting to the Arctic rather than the Atlantic Ocean, anyway. If one takes Hudson Bay to be on the Atlantic Ocean, then Snow Dome, Alberta/British Columbia, is the triple point.) There’s a spot on this mountain (or the other one) where a spilled cup of water could go to any of three oceans.
John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 23rd mentions one of those beloved bits of mathematics trivia, the birthday problem. That’s finding the probability that no two people in a group of some particular size will share a birthday. Or, equivalently, the probability that at least two people share some birthday. That’s not a specific day, mind you, just that some two people share a birthday. The version that usually draws attention is the relatively low number of people needed to get a 50% chance there’s some birthday pair. I haven’t seen the probability of 70 people having at least one birthday pair before. 99.9 percent seems plausible enough.
The birthday problem usually gets calculated something like this: Grant that one person has a birthday. That’s one day out of either 365 or 366, depending on whether we consider leap days. Consider a second person. There are 364 out of 365 chances that this person’s birthday is not the same as the first person’s. (Or 365 out of 366 chances. Doesn’t make a real difference.) Consider a third person. There are 363 out of 365 chances that this person’s birthday is going to be neither the first nor the second person’s. So the chance that all three have different birthdays is . Consider the fourth person. That person has 362 out of 365 chances to have a birthday none of the first three have claimed. So the chance that all four have different birthdays is . And so on. The chance that at least two people share a birthday is 1 minus the chance that no two people share a birthday.
As always happens there are some things being assumed here. Whether these probability calculations are right depends on those assumptions. The first assumption being made is independence: that no one person’s birthday affects when another person’s is likely to be. Obvious, you say? What if we have twins in the room? What if we’re talking about the birthday problem at a convention of twins and triplets? Or people who enjoyed the minor renown of being their city’s First Babies of the Year? (If you ever don’t like the result of a probability question, ask about the independence of events. Mathematicians like to assume independence, because it makes a lot of work easier. But assuming isn’t the same thing as having it.)
The second assumption is that birthdates are uniformly distributed. That is, that a person picked from a room is no more likely to be born the 13th of February than they are the 24th of September. And that is not quite so. September births are (in the United States) slightly more likely than other months, for example, which suggests certain activities going on around New Year’s. Across all months (again in the United States) birthdates of the 13th are slightly less likely than other days of the month. I imagine this has to be accounted for by people who are able to select a due date by inducing delivery. (Again if you need to attack a probability question you don’t like, ask about the uniformity of whatever random thing is in place. Mathematicians like to assume uniform randomness, because it akes a lot of work easier. But assuming it isn’t the same as proving it.)
Do these differences mess up the birthday problem results? Probably not that much. We are talking about slight variations from uniform distribution. But I’ll be watching Ripley’s to see if it says anything about births being more common in September, or less common on 13ths.
Four more comics from last week struck me as worth mentioning. Two of them are over sixty years old.
Incidentally, Walt Kelly’s Pogo first appeared in the newspaper seventy years ago today. I don’t know anyone rerunning the comics the way Skippy or Thimble Theatre (Popeye) or the like are, which is a shame. (Few if any strips would be on-point around here, but it’s still worth reading.) But I did think some of the folks around here would like to know.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 25th is a vintage-1931 strip about the miseries of learning arithmetic. Skippy’s scheme to both improve by copying one another’s 50-percent-right papers is not necessarily a bad one. It depends on a couple things to work. For example, do they both get the same questions wrong? Possibly; it’d be natural for both students to do worse on the harder questions. But suppose that the questions Skippy and Sooky get wrong are independent of one another. That is, knowing that Skippy got a question right doesn’t affect our estimate of the probability whether Sooky got that question right. In that case, we’d expect both of them to get about 25% of the questions right. And at least one of them would get about 75% of the questions right. So, if they could copy the right answers, they could get a 25-point improvement. That’s pretty good.
Telling which are the right answers is hard. But, it’s typically easier to check whether an answer is right than it is to find an answer. Arithmetic is a point where this might not be usefully so. You can verify that 25 – 17 is indeed 8 by trying to calculate 17 + 8. But I don’t know that one equation is easier than the other.
Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde for the 26th is a percentages joke. Miss Latham is making the supposition that one hundred percent effort is needed to get the assignment done correctly. That’s fair if the full effort to make is “what effort it takes to do the assignment correctly”. Tautological, but indisputable. If the one-hundred-percent-effort is whatever’s considered the appropriate standard effort to make for an assignment this size … well, that’s harder to agree with. Some assignments, some days, are easy; some just aren’t. Depends on what’s being asked.
Bill Schorr’s The Grizzwells for the 27th says it’s about mathematics. The particular question is about how many quarts go into a gallon. Measurement questions like this do get bundled into mathematics. It’s a bit hard to say why, though. It’s arbitrary how big a unit is; all we really demand is that it be convenient for whatever we’re doing. It’s even more arbitrary what the subdivisions of a unit are. A quart — well, the name gives away, it should be a quarter of something bigger. But there’s no reason we couldn’t have divided a gallon into three pieces, or six, or twelve instead. We just didn’t happen to do that. And similarly for subdividing a quart (or whatever name it would get, if it were a sixth of a gallon).
I suppose it’s from thinking of arithmetic as a tool for clerks and shopkeepers. These calculations would need to carry along units. Even the currency might need to carry units. Decimal currency obscures the units. Older-style pound-shilling-pence units (or whatever they were called in the local language) don’t allow that. So I’m guessing that it was natural to think of, say, “quadruple three quarts” as the same sort of problem as “one-sixth of 8s/4d”.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 29th speaks of “a perfect circle”. Violet asks an excellent question. But to say “a perfect circle” does communicate something. We name things like circles and lines and squares and agree they have certain properties. Also that the circles or lines or squares that we see in the world don’t have those properties. We might emphasize that something is a perfect circle or a straight line or something, to insist that it approaches this ideal of circle-ness. I’m not well-versed in the philosophy of mathematics. But it does seem hard to avoid Platonist thoughts about it. It’s hard to do geometry without pictures. But we insist to ourselves that the pictures may lie to us.
I haven’t got any good ideas for the title for this collection of mathematically-themed comic strips. But I was reading the Complete Peanuts for 1999-2000 and just ran across one where Rerun talked about consoling his basketball by bringing it to a nice warm gymnasium somewhere. So that’s where that pile of words came from.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 21st is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for this installment. It has Wavehead suggest a name for the subtraction of fractions. It’s not by itself an absurd idea. Many mathematical operations get specialized names, even though we see them as specific cases of some more general operation. This may reflect the accidents of history. We have different names for addition and subtraction, though we eventually come to see them as the same operation.
In calculus we get introduced to Maclaurin Series. These are polynomials that approximate more complicated functions. They’re the best possible approximations for a region around 0 in the domain. They’re special cases of the Taylor Series. Those are polynomials that approximate more complicated functions. But you get to pick where in the domain they should be the best approximation. Maclaurin series are nothing but a Taylor series; we keep the names separate anyway, for the reasons. And slightly baffling ones; James Gregory and Brook Taylor studied Taylor series before Colin Maclaurin did Maclaurin series. But at least Taylor worked on Taylor series, and Maclaurin on Macularin series. So for a wonder mathematicians named these things for appropriate people. (Ignoring that Indian mathematicians were poking around this territory centuries before the Europeans were. I don’t know whether English mathematicians of the 18th century could be expected to know of Indian work in the field, in fairness.)
In numerical calculus, we have a scheme for approximating integrals known as the trapezoid rule. It approximates the areas under curves by approximating a curve as a trapezoid. (Any questions?) But this is one of the Runge-Kutta methods. Nobody calls it that except to show they know neat stuff about Runge-Kutta methods. The special names serve to pick out particularly interesting or useful cases of a more generally used thing. Wavehead’s coinage probably won’t go anywhere, but it doesn’t hurt to ask.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 22nd I admit I don’t quite understand. It mentions arithmetic anyway. I think it’s a joke about a textbook like this being good only if it’s got the questions and the answers. But it’s the rare Skippy that’s as baffling to me as most circa-1930 humor comics are.
Ham’s Life on Earth for the 23rd presents the blackboard full of symbols as an attempt to prove something challenging. In this case, to say something about the existence of God. It’s tempting to suppose that we could say something about the existence or nonexistence of God using nothing but logic. And there are mathematics fields that are very close to pure logic. But our scary friends in the philosophy department have been working on the ontological argument for a long while. They’ve found a lot of arguments that seem good, and that fall short for reasons that seem good. I’ll defer to their experience, and suppose that any mathematics-based proof to have the same problems.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 23rd deploys a Maclaurin series. If you want to calculate the cosine of an angle, and you know the angle in radians, you can find the value by adding up the terms in an infinitely long series. So if θ is the angle, measured in radians, then its cosine will be:
60 degrees is in radians and you see from the comic how to turn this series into a thing to calculate. The series does, yes, go on forever. But since the terms alternate in sign — positive then negative then positive then negative — you have a break. Suppose all you want is the answer to within an error margin. Then you can stop adding up terms once you’ve gotten to a term that’s smaller than your error margin. So if you want the answer to within, say, 0.001, you can stop as soon as you find a term with absolute value less than 0.001.
For high school trig, though, this is all overkill. There’s five really interesting angles you’d be expected to know anything about. They’re 0, 30, 45, 60, and 90 degrees. And you need to know about reflections of those across the horizontal and vertical axes. Those give you, like, -30 degrees or 135 degrees. Those reflections don’t change the magnitude of the cosines or sines. They might change the plus-or-minus sign is all. And there’s only three pairs of numbers that turn up for these five interesting angles. There’s 0 and 1. There’s and . There’s and . Three things to memorize, plus a bit of orienteering, to know whether the cosine or the sine should be the larger size and whether they should positive or negative. And then you’ve got them all.
You might get asked for, like, the sine of 15 degrees. But that’s someone testing whether you know the angle-addition or angle-subtraction formulas. Or the half-angle and double-angle formulas. Nobody would expect you to know the cosine of 15 degrees. The cosine of 30 degrees, though? Sure. It’s .
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 23rd is your basic confused-student joke. People often have trouble going from percentages to decimals to fractions and back again. Me, I have trouble in going from percentage chances to odds, as in, “two to one odds” or something like that. (Well, “one to one odds” I feel confident in, and “two to one” also. But, say, “seven to five odds” I can’t feel sure I understand, other than that the second choice is a perceived to be a bit more likely than the first.)
… You know, this would have parsed as the Maclaurin Series Edition, wouldn’t it? Well, if only I were able to throw away words I’ve already written and replace them with better words before publishing, huh?
And this should clear out last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. I didn’t realize just how busy last week had been until I looked at what I thought was a backlog of just two days’ worth of strips and it turned out to be about two thousand comics. I exaggerate, but as ever, not by much. This current week seems to be a more relaxed pace. So I’ll have to think of something to write for the Tuesday and Thursday slots. Hm. (I’ll be all right. I’ve got one thing I need to stop bluffing about and write, and there’s usually a fair roundup of interesting tweets or articles I’ve seen that I can write. Those are often the most popular articles around here.)
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City rerun for the 1st finally has some specific mathematics mentioned in Heart’s efforts to avoid a mathematics tutor. The bit about the sum of adjacent angles forming a right line being 180 degrees is an important one. A great number of proofs rely on it. I can’t deny the bare fact seems dull, though. I know offhand, for example, that this bit about adjacent angles comes in handy in proving that the interior angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees. At least for Euclidean geometry. And there are non-Euclidean geometries that are interesting and important and for which that’s not true. Which inspires the question: on a non-Euclidean surface, like say the surface of the Earth, is it that adjacent angles don’t add up to 180 degrees? Or does something else in the proof of a triangle’s interior angles adding up to 180 degrees go wrong?
Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 2nd features the classic page full of equations to demonstrate some hard mathematical work. And it is the sort of subject that is done mathematically. The equations don’t look to me anything like what you’d use for asteroid orbit projections. I’d expect forecasting just where an asteroid might hit the Earth to be done partly by analytic formulas that could be done on a blackboard. And then made precise by a numerical estimate. The advantage of the numerical estimate is that stuff like how air resistance affects the path of something in flight is hard to deal with analytically. Numerically, it’s tedious, but we can let the computer deal with the tedium. So there’d be just a boring old computer screen to show on-panel.
Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff reprint for the 2nd is a little baffling. And not really mathematical. It’s just got a bizarre arithmetic error in it. Mutt’s fiancee Encee wants earrings that cost ten dollars (each?) and Mutt takes this to be fifty dollars in earring costs and I have no idea what happened there. Thomas K Dye, the web cartoonist who’s done artwork for various article series, has pointed out that the lettering on these strips have been redone with a computer font. (Look at the letters ‘S’; once you see it, you’ll also notice it in the slightly lumpy ‘O’ and the curly-arrow ‘G’ shapes.) So maybe in the transcription the earring cost got garbled? And then not a single person reading the finished product read it over and thought about what they were doing? I don’t know.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal reprint for the 2nd is based, as his efforts to get my attention often are, on a real mathematical physics postulate. As the woman postulates: given a deterministic universe, with known positions and momentums of every particle, and known forces for how all these interact, it seems like it should be possible to predict the future perfectly. It would also be possible to “retrodict” the past. All the laws of physics that we know are symmetric in time; there’s no reason you can’t predict the motion of something one second into the past just as well as you an one second into the future. This fascinating observation took a lot of battery in the 19th century. Many physical phenomena are better described by statistical laws, particularly in thermodynamics, the flow of heat. In these it’s often possible to predict the future well but retrodict the past not at all.
But that looks as though it’s a matter of computing power. We resort to a statistical understanding of, say, the rings of Saturn because it’s too hard to track the billions of positions and momentums we’d need to otherwise. A sufficiently powerful mathematician, for example God, would be able to do that. Fair enough. Then came the 1890s. Henri Poincaré discovered something terrifying about deterministic systems. It’s possible to have chaos. A mathematical representation of a system is a bit different from the original system. There’s some unavoidable error. That’s bound to make some, larger, error in any prediction of its future. For simple enough systems, this is okay. We can make a projection with an error as small as we need, at the cost of knowing the current state of affairs with enough detail. Poincaré found that some systems can be chaotic, though, ones in which any error between the current system and its representation will grow to make the projection useless. (At least for some starting conditions.) And so many interesting systems are chaotic. Incredibly simplified models of the weather are chaotic; surely the actual thing is. This implies that God’s projection of the universe would be an amusing but almost instantly meaningless toy. At least unless it were a duplicate of the universe. In which case we have to start asking our philosopher friends about the nature of identity and what a universe is, exactly.
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 2nd is an installment of Guy Walks Into A Bar featuring what looks like an arithmetic problem to start. It takes a turn into base-ten jokes. There are times I suspect Ruben Bolling to be a bit of a nerd.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 3rd originally ran the 8th of December, 1930. It alludes to one of those classic probability questions: what’s the chance that in your lungs is one of the molecules exhaled by Julius Caesar in his dying gasp? Or whatever other event you want: the first breath you ever took, or something exhaled by Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount, or exhaled by Sue the T-Rex as she died. Whatever. The chance is always surprisingly high, which reflects the fact there’s a lot of molecules out there. This also reflects a confidence that we can say one molecule of air is “the same” as some molecule if air in a much earlier time. We have to make that supposition to have a problem we can treat mathematically. My understanding is chemists laugh at us if we try to suggest this seriously. Fair enough. But whether the air pumped out of a bicycle tire is ever the same as what’s pumped back in? That’s the same kind of problem. At least some of the molecules of air will be the same ones. Pretend “the same ones” makes sense. Please.
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.
So I try to keep up with nearly all the comic strips run on Comics Kingdom and on GoComics. This includes some vintage strips: take some ancient comic like Peanuts or Luann and rerun it, day at a time, from the beginning. This is always enlightening. It’s always interesting to see a comic in that first flush of creative energy, before the characters have quite settled in and before the cartoonist has found stock jokes that work so well they don’t even have to be jokes anymore. One of the most startling cases for me has been Johnny Hart’s B.C. which, in its Back To B.C. incarnation, has been pretty well knocking it out of the park.
Not this week, I’m sad to admit. This week it’s been doing a bunch of mathematics jokes, which is what gives me my permission to talk about it here. The jokes have been, eh, the usual, given the setup. A bit fresher, I suppose, for the characters in the strip having had fewer of their edges worn down by time. Probably there’ll be at least one that gets a bit of a grin.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City has a number appear on the 12th. That’s been about as much mathematical content as Heart’s experience at Math Camp has taken. The story’s been more about Dana, her camp friend, who’s presented as good enough at mathematics to be bored with it, and the attempt to sneak out to the nearby amusement park. What has me distracted is wondering what amusement park this could be, given that Heart’s from Philadelphia and the camp’s within bus-trip range and in the forest. I can’t rule out that it might be Knoebels Amusement Park, in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, in which case Heart and Dana are absolutely right to sneak out of camp because it is this amazing place.
Mort Walker’s Beetle Bailey Vintage for the 21st of December, 1960 was rerun the 14th. I can rope this into mathematics. It’s about Cookie trying to scale up a recipe to fit Camp Swampy’s needs. Increasing the ingredient count is easy, or at least it is if your units scale nicely. I wouldn’t want to multiple a third of a teaspoon by 200 without a good stretching beforehand and maybe a rubdown afterwards. But the time needed to cook a multiplied recipe, that gets mysterious. As I understand it — the chemistry of cooking is largely a mystery to me — the center of the trouble is that to cook a thing, heat has to reach throughout the interior. But heat can only really be applied from the surfaces of the cooked thing. (Yes, theoretically, a microwave oven could bake through the entire volume of something. But this would require someone inventing a way to bake using a microwave.) So we must balance the heat that can be applied over what surface to the interior volume and any reasonable time to cook the thing. Won’t deny that at some point it seems easier to just make a smaller meal.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 14th goes to the old “inference testing” well again. This comes up from testing whether something strange is going on. Measure something in a sample. Is the result appreciably different from what would be a plausible result if nothing interesting is going on? The null hypothesis is the supposition that there isn’t anything interesting going on: the measurement’s in the range of what you’d expect given that the world is big and complicated. I’m not sure what the physicist’s exact experiment would have been. I suppose it would be something like “you lose about as much heat through your head as you do any region of skin of about the same surface area”. So, yeah, freezing would be expected, considering.
Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 17th of May, 1930, and rerun the 15th, maybe doesn’t belong here. It’s just about counting. Never mind. I smiled at it, and I’m a fan of the strip. Give it a try; it’s that rare pre-Peanuts comic that still feels modern.
It’s too many comics to call this a famine edition, after last week’s feast. But there’s not a lot of theme to last week’s mathematically-themed comic strips. There’s a couple that include vintage comic strips from before 1940, though, so let’s run with that as a title.
Bill Hinds’s Tank McNamara for the 4th is built on mathematics’ successful invasion and colonization of sports management. Analytics, sabermetrics, Moneyball, whatever you want to call it, is built on ideas not far removed from the quality control techniques that changed corporate management so. Look for patterns; look for correlations; look for the things that seem to predict other things. It seems bizarre, almost inhuman, that we might be able to think of football players as being all of a kind, that what we know about (say) one running back will tell us something about another. But if we put roughly similarly capable people through roughly similar training and set them to work in roughly similar conditions, then we start to see why they might perform similarly. Models can help us make better, more rational, choices.
Morrie Turner’s Wee Pals rerun for the 4th is another word-problem resistance joke. I suppose it’s also a reminder about the unspoken assumptions in a problem. It also points out why mathematicians end up speaking in an annoyingly precise manner. It’s an attempt to avoid being shown up like Oliver is.
Which wouldn’t help with Percy Crosby’s Skippy for the 7th of April, 1930, and rerun the 5th. Skippy’s got a smooth line of patter to get out of his mother’s tutoring. You can see where Percy Crosby has the weird trait of drawing comics in 1930 that would make sense today still; few pre-World-War-II comics do.
Niklas Eriksson’s Carpe Diem for the 7th is a joke about mathematics anxiety. I don’t know that it actually explains anything, but, eh. I’m not sure there is a rational explanation for mathematics anxiety; if there were, I suppose it wouldn’t be anxiety.
George Herriman’s Krazy Kat for the 15th of July, 1939, and rerun the 8th, extends that odd little faintly word-problem-setup of the strips I mentioned the other day. I suppose identifying when two things moving at different speeds will intersect will always sound vaguely like a story problem.