Comic Strip Master Command decided to respect my need for a writing break. At least a break around here. So here’s the first half of last week’s comic strips that mention mathematics. None of them get into material substantial enough that I feel justified including pictures. Some of them are even repeats, at least to my Reading the Comics essays.
The last burst of mathematically-themed comic strips last week nearly all came the 1st of the month. But the count fell just short. I can only imagine what machinations at Comic Strip Master Command went wrong, that we couldn’t get a full four comics for the same day. Well, life is messy and things will happen.
Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal for the 1st is a rerun. I discussed it last time I noticed it too. I’d previously taken Herb to be gloating about not using the calculus he’d studied. I may be reading too much into what seems like a smirk in the final panel, though. Could be he’s thinking of the strangeness that something which, at the time, is challenging and difficult and all-consuming turns out to not be such a big deal. Which could be much of high school.
But my first instinct is still to read this as thinking of the “uselessness” of calculus. It betrays the terrible attitude that education is about job training. It should be about letting people be literate in the world’s great thoughts. Mathematics seems to get this attitude a lot, but I’m aware I may feel a confirmation bias. If I had become a French major perhaps I’d pay attention to all the comic strips where someone giggles about how they never use the foreign languages they learned in high school either.
Jon Rosenberg’s Scenes from a Multiverse for the 1st is set in a “Mathpinion City”, showing people arguing about mathematical truths. It seems to me a political commentary, about the absurdity of rejecting true things over perceived insults. The 1+1=3 partisans aren’t even insisting they’re right, just that the other side is obnoxious. Arithmetic here serves as good source for things that can’t be matters of opinion, at least provided we’ve agreed on what’s meant by ideas like ‘1’ and ‘3’.
Mathematics is a human creation, though. What we decide to study, and what concepts we think worth interesting, are matters of opinion. It’s difficult to imagine people who think 1+1=2 a statement so unimportant they don’t care whether it’s true or false. At least not ones who reason anything like we do. But that is our difficulty, not a constraint on what life could think.
Neil Kohney’s The Other End for the 1st has a mathematics cameo. It’s the subject of a quiz so difficult that the kid begs for God’s help sorting it out. The problems all seem to be simplifying expressions. It’s a skill worth having. There are infinitely many ways to write the same quantity. Some of them are more convenient than others. Brief expressions, for example, are often easier to understand. But a longer expression might let us tease out relationships that are good to know. Many analysis proofs end up becoming simpler when you multiply by one — that is, multiplying by and dividing by the same quantity, but using the numerator to reduce one part of the expression and the denominator to reduce some other. Or by adding zero, in which you add and subtract a quantity and use either side to simplify other parts of the expression. So, y’know, just do the work. It’s better that way.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 2nd is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. Wavehead’s learning about invertible operations: that a particular division can undo a multiplication. Or, presumably, that a particular multiplication can undo a division. Fair to wonder why you’d want to do that, though. Most of the operations we use in arithmetic have inverses, or come near it. (There’s one thing you can multiply by which you can’t divide out.) The term used in group theory for this is to say the real numbers are a “field”. This is a ring in which not just does addition have an inverse, but so does multiplication. And the operations commute; dividing by four and multiplying by four is as good as multiplying by for and dividing by four. You can build interesting mathematical structures that don’t have some of these properties. Elementary-school division, where you might describe (say) 26 divided by 4 as “6 with a remainder of 2” is one of them.
It was a busy week at Comic Strip Master Command last week, since they wanted to be sure I was overloaded ahead of the start of the Summer 2017 A To Z project. So here’s the couple of comics I didn’t have time to review on Sunday.
Mort (“Addison”) Walker’s Boner’s Ark for the 7th of September, 1971 was rerun the 27th of July. It mentions mathematics but just as a class someone might need more work on. Could be anything, but mathematics has the connotations of something everybody struggles with, and in an American comic strip needs only four letters to write. Most economical use of word balloon space.
Neil Kohney’s The Other End for the 28th also mentions mathematics without having any real mathematics content. Barry tries to make the argument that mathematics has a timeless and universal quality that makes for good aesthetic value. I support this principle. Art has many roles. One is to make us see things which are true which are not about ourselves. This mathematics does. Whether it’s something as instantly accessible as, say, RobertLovesPi‘s illustrations of geometrical structures, or something as involved as the five-color map theorem mathematics gives us something. This isn’t any excuse to slum, though.
Rob Harrell’s Big Top rerun for the 29th features a word problem. It’s cast in terms of what a lion might find interesting. Cultural expectations are inseparable from the mathematics we do, however much we might find universal truths about them. Word problems make the cultural biases more explicit, though. Also, note that Harrell shows an important lesson for artists in the final panel: whenever possible, draw animals wearing glasses.
Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse for the 29th is another sheep-counting joke. As Samson will often do this includes different representations of numbers before it all turns to chaos in the end. This is why some of us can’t sleep.
It’s been a busy enough week at Comic Strip Master Command that I’ll need to split the results across two essays. Any other week I’d be glad for this, since, hey, free content. But this week it hits a busy time and shouldn’t I have expected that? The odd thing is that the mathematics mentions have been numerous but not exactly deep. So let’s watch as I make something big out of that.
Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City closed out its “Math Camp” storyline this week. It didn’t end up having much to do with mathematics and was instead about trust and personal responsibility issues. You know, like stories about kids who aren’t learning to believe in themselves and follow their dreams usually are. Since we never saw any real Math Camp activities we don’t get any idea what they were trying to do to interest kids in mathematics, which is a bit of a shame. My guess would be they’d play a lot of the logic-driven puzzles that are fun but that they never get to do in class. The story established that what I thought was an amusement park was instead a fair, so, that might be anywhere Pennsylvania or a couple of other nearby states.
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 25th sees Hammie have “another” mathematics worksheet accident. Could be any subject, really, but I suppose it would naturally be the one that hey wait a minute, why is he doing mathematics worksheets in late July? How early does their school district come back from summer vacation, anyway?
Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 26th uses a spot of mathematics as the emblem for teaching. In this case it’s a bit of physics. And an important bit of physics, too: it’s the time-dependent Schrödinger Equation. This is the one that describes how, if you know the total energy of the system, and the rules that set its potential and kinetic energies, you can work out the function Ψ that describes it. Ψ is a function, and it’s a powerful one. It contains probability distributions: how likely whatever it is you’re modeling is to have a particle in this region, or in that region. How likely it is to have a particle with this much momentum, versus that much momentum. And so on. Each of these we find by applying a function to the function Ψ. It’s heady stuff, and amazing stuff to me. Ψ somehow contains everything we’d like to know. And different functions work like filters that make clear one aspect of that.
Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 26th is a joke about Sesame Street‘s Count von Count. Also about how we can take people’s natural aptitudes and delights and turn them into sad, droning unpleasantness in the service of corporate overlords. It’s fun.
Doug Savage’s Savage Chickens for the 26th proves something “scientific” by putting numbers into it. Particularly, by putting statistics into it. Understandable impulse. One of the great trends of the past century has been taking the idea that we only understand things when they are measured. And this implies statistics. Everything is unique. Only statistical measurement lets us understand what groups of similar things are like. Does something work better than the alternative? We have to run tests, and see how the something and the alternative work. Are they so similar that the differences between them could plausibly be chance alone? Are they so different that it strains belief that they’re equally effective? It’s one of science’s tools. It’s not everything which makes for science. But it is stuff easy to communicate in one panel.
Neil Kohney’s The Other End for the 26th is really a finance joke. It’s about the ways the finance industry can turn one thing into a dazzling series of trades and derivative trades. But this is a field that mathematics colonized, or that colonized mathematics, over the past generation. Mathematical finance has done a lot to shape ideas of how we might study risk, and probability, and how we might form strategies to use that risk. It’s also done a lot to shape finance. Pretty much any major financial crisis you’ve encountered since about 1990 has been driven by a brilliant new mathematical concept meant to govern risk crashing up against the fact that humans don’t behave the way some model said they should. Nor could they; models are simplified, abstracted concepts that let hard problems be approximated. Every model has its points of failure. Hopefully we’ll learn enough about them that major financial crises can become as rare as, for example, major bridge collapses or major airplane disasters.