I’ve had several weeks since my last Reading the Comics post. They’ve been quiet enough weeks. Let me share some of the recent offerings from Comic Strip Master Command that I enjoyed, though. I enjoy many comic strips but not all of them mention something on-point here.
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 24th of July gets a bit more solidly mathematical, as it’s natural to think of this sort of complicated polyhedron as something mathematicians do. Geometers at least. There’s a comfortable bit of work to be done in these sorts of shapes. They sometimes have appealing properties, for instance balancing weight loads well. Building polyhedrons out of toothpicks and gumdrops, or straws and marshmallows, or some other rigid-and-soft material, is a fine enough activity. I think every mathematics department has some dusty display shelf with a couple of these.
There are many shapes that Paige Fox’s construction might be. To my eye Paige Fox seems to be building a truncated icosahedron, that is to say, the soccer-ball shape. It’s an Archimedean solid, one of the family of thirteen shapes made of nonintersecting regular convex polygons. These are the shapes you discover if you go past Platonic solids. The family is named for that Archimedes, although the work in which he discussed them is now lost.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 26th of July is a different take on the challenge of motivating students to care about mathematics. The “right approach” argument has its appeal, although it’s obviously thinking of “professor” as the only job a mathematician can hold. And even granting that none of the people who understand your work have the power to fire you, that means people who don’t understand your work do have it. Also, people shut down very hard at your promise that they could understand anything about what you do, even when you know how to express it in common-language terms. This gets old fast. I am also skeptical that women are impressed by men at bars who claim to be employed for their intellect.
Anyway, academic jobs are great and more jobs should work by their rules, which, yes, do include extremely loose set hours and built-in seasons where the amount and kind of work you do varies.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 5th of August is a mathematics-anxiety dream, represented with the sudden challenge to do mental arithmetic. 47 times 342 is an annoying problem, yes, but one can at least approximate it fairly well quickly. 47 is almost 50, which is half a hundred. So 47 times 342 has to be nearly half of a hundred times 342, that is, half of 34,200. This is an easy number to cut in half, though: 17,100. To get this exactly? 47 is three less than fifty, so, subtract three times 342. 342 is about a third of a thousand, we can make a better estimate by subtracting a thousand: 16,100.
If you’re really good you notice that 342 is nine more than 333, so, three times 342 is three times nine more than three times 333. That is, it’s 27 more than 999. So the 16,100 estimate is 26 more than the correct number, 16,074. And I believe if you check, you will find the card in your hand is the ace of clubs. Am I not right, professor?
The past week was a light one for mathematically-themed comic strips. So let’s see if I can’t review what’s interesting about them before the end of this genially dumb movie (1940’s Hullabaloo, starring Frank Morgan and featuring Billie Burke in a small part). It’ll be tough; they’re reaching a point where the characters start acting like they care about the plot either, which is usually the sign they’re in the last reel.
Jenny Campbell’s Flo and Friends for the 26th is a joke about fumbling a bit of practical mathematics, in this case, cutting a recipe down. When I look into arguments about the metric system, I will sometimes see the claim that English traditional units are advantageous for cutting down a recipe: it’s quite easy to say that half of “one cup” is a half cup, for example. I doubt that this is much more difficult than working out what half of 500 ml is, and my casual inquiries suggest that nobody has the faintest idea what half of a pint would be. And anyway none of this would help Ruthie’s problem, which is taking two-fifths of a recipe meant for 15 people. … Honestly, I would have just cut it in half and wonder who’s publishing recipes that serve 15.
Ed Bickford and Aaron Walther’s American Chop Suey for the 28th uses a panel of (gibberish) equations to represent deep thinking. It’s in part of a story about an origami competition. This interests me because there is serious mathematics to be done in origami. Most of these are geometry problems, as you might expect. The kinds of things you can understand about distance and angles from folding a square may surprise. For example, it’s easy to trisect an arbitrary angle using folded squares. The problem is, famously, impossible for compass-and-straightedge geometry.
Origami offers useful mathematical problems too, though. (In practice, if we need to trisect an angle, we use a protractor.) It’s good to know how to take a flat, or nearly flat, thing and unfold it into a more interesting shape. It’s useful whenever you have something that needs to be transported in as few pieces as possible, but that on site needs to not be flat. And this connects to questions with pleasant and ordinary-seeming names like the map-folding problem: can you fold a large sheet into a small package that’s still easy to open? Often you can. So, the mathematics of origami is a growing field, and one that’s about an accessible subject.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 2nd of May also talks about the use of x as a symbol. Curt takes eagerly to the notion that a symbol can represent any number, whether we know what it is or not. And, also, that the choice of symbol is arbitrary; we could use whatever symbol communicates. I remember getting problems to work in which, say, 3 plus a box equals 8 and working out what number in the box would make the equation true. This is exactly the same work as solving 3 + x = 8. Using an empty box made the problem less intimidating, somehow.
Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 2nd is, really, a bit baffling. It has a student asking Siri for the cosine of 174 degrees. But it’s not like anyone knows the cosine of 174 degrees off the top of their heads. If the cosine of 174 degrees wasn’t provided in a table for the students, then they’d have to look it up. Well, more likely they’d be provided the cosine of 6 degrees; the cosine of an angle is equal to minus one times the cosine of 180 degrees minus that same angle. This allows table-makers to reduce how much stuff they have to print. Still, it’s not really a joke that a student would look up something that students would be expected to look up.
… That said …
If you know anything about trigonometry, you know the sine and cosine of a 30-degree angle. If you know a bit about trigonometry, and are willing to put in a bit of work, you can start from a regular pentagon and work out the sine and cosine of a 36-degree angle. And, again if you know anything about trigonometry, you know that there are angle-addition and angle-subtraction formulas. That is, if you know the cosine of two angles, you can work out the cosine of the difference between them.
So, in principle, you could start from scratch and work out the cosine of 6 degrees without using a calculator. And the cosine of 174 degrees is minus one times the cosine of 6 degrees. So it could be a legitimate question to work out the cosine of 174 degrees without using a calculator. I can believe in a mathematics class which has that as a problem. But that requires such an ornate setup that I can’t believe Whamond intended that. Who in the readership would think the cosine of 174 something to work out by hand? If I hadn’t read a book about spherical trigonometry last month I wouldn’t have thought the cosine of 6 a thing someone could reasonably work out by hand.
I didn’t finish writing before the end of the movie, even though it took about eighteen hours to wrap up ten minutes of story. My love came home from a walk and we were talking. Anyway, this is plenty of comic strips for the week. When there are more to write about, I’ll try to have them in an essay at this link. Thanks for reading.
There were a good number of comic strips mentioning mathematical subjects last week, as you might expect for one including the 14th of March. Most of them were casual mentions, though, so that’s why this essay looks like this. And is why the week will take two pieces to finish.
Paul Trap’s Thatababy for the 9th is a memorial strip to Katherine Johnson. She was, as described, a NASA mathematician, and one of the great number of African-American women whose work computing was rescued from obscurity by the book and movie Hidden Figures. NASA, and its associated agencies, do a lot of mathematical work. Much of it is numerical mathematics: a great many orbital questions, for example, can not be answered with, like, the sort of formula that describes how far away a projectile launched on a parabolic curve will land. Creating a numerical version of a problem requires insight and thought about how to represent what we would like to know. And calculating that requires further insight, so that the calculation can be done accurately and speedily. (I think about sometime doing a bit about the sorts of numerical computing featured in the movie, but I would hardly be the first.)
I also had thought the Mathematical Moments from the American Mathematical Society had posted an interview with her last year. I was mistaken but in, I think, a forgivable way. In the episode “Winning the Race”, posted the 12th of June, they interviewed Christine Darden, another of the people in the book, though not (really) the movie. Darden joined NASA in the late 60s. But the interview does talk about this sort of work, and how it evolved with technology. And, of course, mentions Johnson and her influence.
Stephen Beals’s Adult Children for the 11th has a character mourning that he took calculus as he’s “too stupid to be smart”. Knowing mathematics is often used as proof of intelligence. And calculus is used as the ultimate of mathematics. It’s a fair question why calculus and not some other field of mathematics, like differential equations or category theory or topology. Probably it’s a combination of slightly lucky choices (for calculus). Calculus is old enough to be respectable. It’s often taught as the ultimate mathematics course that people in high school or college (and who aren’t going into a mathematics field) will face. It’s a strange subject. Learning it requires a greater shift in thinking about how to solve problems than even learning algebra does. And the name is friendly enough, without the wordiness or technical-sounding language of, for example, differential equations. The subject may be well-situated.
I’ll have the rest of the week’s strips, including what Comic Strip Master Command ordered done for Pi Day, soon. And again I mention that I’m hosting this month’s Playful Math Education Blog Carnival. If you have come across a web site with some bit of mathematics that brought you delight and insight, please let me know, and mention any creative projects that you have, that I may mention that too. Thank you.
Today, I’m just listing the comics from last week that mentioned mathematics, but which didn’t raise a deep enough topic to be worth discussing. You know what a story problem looks like. I can’t keep adding to that.
Hector D. Cantú and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo for the 10th quotes René Descartes, billing him as a “French mathematician”. Which is true, but the quote is one about living properly. That’s more fairly a philosophical matter. Descartes has some reputation for his philosophical work, I understand.
It might be more fair to call this a blackboard edition, as three of the strips worth discussing feature that element. But I think I’ve used that name recently. And two of the strips feature specifically 2 + 2, so I’ll use that instead.
And here’s a possible movie heads-up. Turner Classic Movies, United States feed, is showing Monday at 9:30 am (Eastern/Pacific) All-American Chump. All I know about this 1936 movie is from its Leonard Maltin review:
[ Stuart ] Erwin is funny, in his usual country bumpkin way, as a small-town math whiz known as “the human adding machine” who is exploited by card sharks and hustlers. Fairly diverting double-feature item.
People with great powers of calculation were — and still are — with us. Before calculating machines were common they were, pop mathematicians tell us, in demand for doing the kinds of arithmetic mathematicians and engineers need a lot of. They’d also have value in performing, if they can put together some good patter. And, sure, gambling is just another field that needs calculation done well. I have no idea the quality of the film (it’s rated two and a half stars, but Leonard Maltin rates many things two and a half stars). But it’s there if you’re curious. The film also stars Robert Armstrong. I assume it’s not the guy I know but, you know? We live in a strange world. Now on to the comics.
Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Flying McCoys for the 13th uses the image of a blackboard full of mathematics symbols to represent deep thought. The equations on the board are mostly nonsense, although some, like , have obvious meaning. Many of the other symbols have some meaning to them too. In the upper-right corner, for example, is what looks like . This any physics major would recognize: it’s the energy of a photon, which is equal to Planck’s constant (that stuff) times its frequency.
And there are other physics-relevant symbols. In the bottom center is a line that starts . The capital B is commonly used to represent a magnetic field. The arrow above the capital B is a warning that this is a vector, which magnetic fields certainly are. (Mathematicians see vectors as a quite abstract concept. Physicists are more likely to see them as an intensity and direction, like forces, and the fields that make fields.) The symbol comes from vector calculus. It represent an integral taken along a closed loop, a shape that goes out along some path and comes back to where it started without crossing itself. This turns out to be useful all the time in dynamics problems. So the McCoys drew something that doesn’t mean anything, but looks ready to mean things.
“Overthinking this” is a problem common to mathematicians, even at an advanced level. Real problems don’t make clear what their boundaries are, the things that are important and the things that aren’t and the things that are convenient but not essential. Making mistakes picking them out, and working too hard on the wrong matters, will happen.
Graham Harrop’s Ten Cats for the 14th sees the cats pondering the counts of vast things. These are famous problems. Archimedes composed a text, The Sand Reckoner, which tried to estimate how much sand there could be in the universe. To work on the question he had to think of new ways to represent numbers. Grains of sand become numerous by being so tiny. Stars become numerous by the universe being so vast. Comparing the two quantities is a good challenge. For both numbers we have to make estimates. The volume of beaches in the world. The typical size of a grain of sand. The number of galaxies in the universe. The typical number of stars in a galaxy. There’s room to dispute all these numbers; we really have to come up with a range of possible values, with maybe some idea of what seems more likely.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 15th has the student bringing authority to his answer. The mathematician is called on to prove an answer is “technically” correct. I’m not sure whether the kid is meant to be prefacing the answer he’s about to give, or whether his answer was rewriting the horizontal “2 + 2 = ” in a vertical form.
Jim Unger’s Herman for the 16th is a student-talking-back-to-the-teacher strip. It also uses the 2 + 2 problem. It’s a common thing for teachers to say they learn from their students. It’s even true, although I son’t know that people ever quite articulate how teachers learn. A good mistake is a great chance to learn. A good mistake shows off a kind of brilliant twist. That the student has understood some but not all of the idea, and has filled in the misunderstood parts with something plausible enough one has to think about why it’s wrong. And why someone would think the wrong idea might be right. There is a kind of mistake that inspires you to think closely about what “right” has to be, and students who know how to make those mistakes are treasures.
I apologize for running quite so late. Comic Strip Master Command tried to make it easy for me, by issuing few comic strips that had any mathematical content to speak of. I was just busier than all that, and even now, I can’t say quite how. Well, living, I suppose. But I’ve done plenty of things now and can settle back to the usual, if anyone knows just what that was.
Also I am drawing down on the number of cancelled, in-eternal-reruns comic strips on my daily feed. So that should reduce the number of times I feature a comic strip and realize I’ve described it four times already and haven’t got anything new to say. It’s hard for me, since most of these comics have some charms, or at least pleasant weirdness. But clearly just making a note to myself that I’ve said everything there is to say about Randolph Itch, 2 am, isn’t enough. I’m sorry, Randolph.
Bill Holbrook’s On The Fastrack for the 28th is an example of the cartoonist’s habit of drawing metaphors literally. Dethany does ask the auditor Fi about “accepting his numbers”. In this context the numbers aren’t intersting as numbers. They’re interesting as representations for a narrative. If the numbers are consistent with a believable story? If it’s more believable that they represent a truth than that they’re a hoax? We call that “accepting the numbers”, but what we’re accepting is the story they’re given as evidence for.
Auditing, and any critical thinking about numbers, involves some subtle uses of Bayesian probability. We’re working out the probability that this story is something we should believe. Each piece of evidence makes us think this probability is greater or lesser. With experience and skill one learns of patterns which suggest the story is false. Benford’s Law, for example, is often useful. Honestly-taken samples show tendencies, for example, in what leading digits appear. A discrepancy between what’s expected and what appears, if it can’t be explained, can be a sign of forgery.
But it can still be indirectly practical. To work with enormous but finite numbers of things is hard. We do well working with small numbers like ‘six’ and ‘fourteen’ and some of us are even good at around ‘thirty’. We don’t have a good intuition for how a number like 480,000,000,000,000,000 should work. And that’s important; if we try adding six and fourteen and get thirty, we realize there’s something not quite right before we’ve done too much more work. With enormous numbers we can go on not noticing the mistake’s there. We need to find ways to understand these inconvenient numbers using the skills and intuitions we already have. Aristotle had to develop new terminology for numbers to get the Ancient Greek numerals system to handle the problem coherently. Peter’s invention of a gillion is — I’ll go ahead and say — a sly reenactment of that.
Ryan Pagelow’s Buni for the 28th I’ll list as the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for the week, since it did turn out to be that slow a week here. I’m a bit curious what the now-9 is figuring to do next year. I suppose that one’s easy; it’s going to be going from 3 to 4 in a couple years that’s a real problem.
The various Reading the Comics posts should all be at this link. I like to think I’ll be back to having a post this coming Sunday, and maybe a second one next week if there are enough comic strips near enough to on-topic. Thanks for reading.
If there is a theme to the last comic strips from the previous week, it’s that kids find arithmetic hard. That’s a title for you.
Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes for the 2nd is one of the classics, of course. Calvin’s made the mistake of supposing that mathematics is only about getting true answers. We’ll accept the merely true, if that’s what we can get. But we want interesting. Which is stuff that’s not just true but is unexpected or unforeseeable in some way. We see this when we talk about finding a “proper” answer, or subset, or divisor, or whatever. Some things are true for every question, and so, who cares?
Also, is it really true that Calvin doesn’t know any of his homework problems? It’s possible, but did he check?
Were I grading, I would accept an “I don’t know”, at least for partial credit, in certain conditions. Those involve the student writing out what they would like to do to try to solve the problem. If the student has a fair idea of something that ought to find a correct answer, then the student’s showing some mathematical understanding. But there are times that what’s being tested is proficiency at an operation, and a blank “I don’t know” would not help much with that.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 2nd has an arithmetic cameo. Fractions, particularly. They’re mentioned as something too dull to stay awake through. So for the joke’s purpose this could have been any subject that has an exposition-heavy segment. Fractions do have more complicated rules than adding whole numbers do. And introducing those rules can be hard. But anything where you introduce rules instead of showing what you can do with them is hard. I’m thinking here of several times people have tried to teach me board games by listing all the rules, instead of setting things up and letting me ask “what am I allowed to do now?” the first couple turns. I’m not sure how that would translate to fractions, but there might be something.
John Zakour and Scott Roberts’s Maria’s Day for the 2nd has another of Maria’s struggles with arithmetic. It’s presented as a challenge so fierce it can defeat even superheroes. Could be any subject, really. It’s hard to beat the visual economy of having it be a division problem, though.
Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 3rd shows a bit of youthful enthusiasm. Hammie’s parents would rather that enthusiasm be put to memorizing multiplication facts. I’m not sure this would match the fun of building stuff. But I remember finding patterns inside the multiplication table fascinating. Like how you could start from a perfect square and get the same sequence of numbers as you moved out along a diagonal. Or tracing out where the same number appeared in different rows and columns, like how just everything could multiply into 24. Might be worth playing with some.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 18th is a bit of wordplay. There’s something interesting culturally about phrasing “lots of math, but no chemistry”. Algorithms as mathematics makes sense. Much of mathematics is about finding processes to do interesting things. Algorithms, and the mathematics which justifies them, can at least in principle be justified with deductive logic. And we like to think that the universe must make deductive-logical sense. So it is easy to suppose that something mathematical simply must make logical sense.
Chemistry, though. It’s a metaphor for whatever the difference is between a thing’s roster of components and the effect of the whole. The suggestion is that it is mysterious and unpredictable. It’s an attitude strange to actual chemists, who have a rather good understanding of why most things happen. My suspicion is that this sense of chemistry is old, dating to before we had a good understanding of why chemical bonds work. We have that understanding thanks to quantum mechanics, and its mathematical representations.
But we can still allow for things that happen but aren’t obvious. When we write about “emergent properties” we describe things which are inherent in whatever we talk about. But they only appear when the things are a large enough mass, or interact long enough. Some things become significant only when they have enough chance to be seen.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 18th is about mathematicians’ favorite Ancient Greek philosopher they haven’t actually read. (In fairness, Zeno is hard to read, even for those who know the language.) Zeno’s famous for four paradoxes, the most familiar of which is alluded to here. To travel across a space requires travelling across half of it first. But this applies recursively. To travel any distance requires accomplishing infinitely many partial-crossings. How can you do infinitely many things, each of which take more than zero time, in less than an infinitely great time? But we know we do this; so, what aren’t we understanding? A callow young mathematics major would answer: well, pick any tiny interval of time you like. All but a handful of the partial-crossings take less than your tiny interval time. This seems like a sufficient answer and reason to chuckle at philosophers. Fine; an instant has zero time elapse during it. Nothing must move during that instant, then. So when does movement happen, if there is no movement during all the moments of time? Reconciling these two points slows the mathematician down.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 19th mentions fractions. It’s only used to list a kind of mathematics problem a student might feign unconsciousness rather than do. And takes quite little space in the word balloon to describe. It’d be the same joke if Todd were asked to come up and give a ten-minute presentation on the Battle of Bunker Hill.
Julie Larson’s The Dinette Set for the 19th mentions the Rubik’s Cube. Sometime I should do a proper essay about its mathematics. Any Rubik’s Cube can be solved in at most 20 moves. And it’s apparently known there are some cube configurations that take at least 20 moves, so, that’s nice to have worked out. But there are many approaches to solving a cube, none of which I am competent to do. Some algorithms are, apparently, easier for people to learn, at the cost of taking more steps. And that’s fine. You should understand something before you try to do it efficiently.
The last half of last week was not entirely the work of Chuckle Brothers and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. It seemed like it, though. Let’s review.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 28th is a common sort of fear-of-mathematics joke. In this case the fear of doing arithmetic even when it is about something one would really like to know. I think the question got away from Todd, though. If they just wanted to know whether they had enough money, well, they need twelve dollars and have seven. Subtracting seven from twelve is only needed if they want to know how much more they need. Which they should want to know, but wasn’t part of the setup.
Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers for the 28th uses mathematics as the sine qua non of rocket science. As in, well, the stuff that’s hard and takes some real genius to understand. It’s not clear to me that the equations are actually rocket science. There seem to be a shortage of things in exponentials to look quite right to me. But I can’t zoom in on the art, so, who knows just what might be in there.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 28th is a set theory joke. Or a logic joke, anyway. It refers to some of the mathematics/logic work of Bertrand Russell. Among his work was treating seriously the problems of how to describe things defined in reference to themselves. These have long been a source of paradoxes, sometimes for fun, sometimes for fairy-tale logic, and sometimes to challenge our idea of what we mean by definitions of things. Russell made a strong attempt at describing what we mean when we describe a thing by reference to itself. The iconic example here was the “set of all sets not members of themselves”.
Russell started out by trying to find some way to prove Georg Cantor’s theorems about different-sized infinities wrong. He worked out a theory of types, and what kinds of rules you can set about types of things. Most mathematicians these days prefer to solve the paradox with a particular organization of set theory. But Russell’s type theory still has value, particularly as part of the logic behind lambda calculus. This is an approach to organizing relationships between things that can do wonderful things, including in computer programming. It lets one write code that works extremely efficiently and can never be explained to another person, modified, or debugged ever. I may lack the proper training for the uses I’ve made of it.
Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers for the 29th is a lottery joke. It does happen that more than one person wins a drawing; sometimes three or even four people do, for the larger prizes. The chance that there’s a million winners? Frightfully unlikely unless something significant went wrong with the lottery mechanism.
So what are the chances of a million lottery winners? If I’m not mistaken the only way to do this is to work out a binomial distribution. The binomial distribution is good for cases where you have many attempts at doing a thing, where each thing can either succeed or fail, and the likelihood of success or failure is independent of all the other attempts. In this case each lottery ticket is an attempt; it winning is success and it losing is failure. Each ticket has the same chance of winning or losing, and that chance doesn’t depend on how many wins or losses there are. What is that chance? … Well, if each ticket has one chance in a million of winning, and there are a million tickets out there, the chance of every one of them winning is about one-millionth raised to the millionth power. Which is so close to zero it might as well be nothing. … And yet, for all that it’s impossible, there’s not any particular reason it couldn’t happen. It just won’t.
Jef Mallet’s Frazz for the 29th is a less dire take on what-you-learned-this-year. In this case it’s trivia, but it’s a neat sort of trivia. Once you understand how it works you can understand how to make all sorts of silly little divisibility rules. The threes rule — and the nines rule — work by the same principle. Suppose you have a three-digit number. Let me call ‘a’ the digit in the hundreds column, ‘b’ the digit in the tens column, and ‘c’ the digit in the ones column. Then the number is equal to . And, well, that’s equal to . Which is . 99 times any whole number is a multiple of 9, and also of 3. 9 times any whole number is a multiple of 9, and also of 3. So whether the original number is divisible by 9, or by 3, depends on whether is. And that’s why adding the digits up tells you whether a number is a whole multiple of three.
This has only proven anything for three-digit numbers. But with that proof in mind, you probably can imagine what the proof looks like for two- or four-digit numbers, and would believe there’s one for five- and for 500-digit numbers. Or, for that matter, the proof for an arbitrarily long number. So I’ll skip actually doing that. You can fiddle with it if you want a bit of fun yourself.
Also maybe it’s me, or the kind of person who gets into mathematics. But I find silly little rules like this endearing. It’s a process easy to understand that anyone can do and it tells you something not obvious from when you start. It feels like getting let in on a magic trick. That seems like the sort of thing that endears people to mathematics.
Mike Thompson’s Grand Avenue for the 29th is trying to pick its fight with me again. I can appreciate someone wanting to avoid kids losing their mathematical skills over summer. It’s just striking how Thompson has consistently portrayed their grandmother as doing this in a horrible, joy-crushing manner.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 29th gets into a philosophy-of-mathematics problem. Also a pure philosophy problem. It’s a problem of what things you can know independently of experience. There are things it seems as though are true, and that seem independent of the person who is aware of them, and what culture that person comes from. All right. Then how can these things be relevant to the specifics of the universe that we happen to be in just now? If ‘2’ is an abstraction that means something independent of our universe, how can there be two books on the table? There’s something we don’t quite understand yet, and it’s taking our philosophers and mathematicians a long while to work out what that is.
I learn, from reading not-yet-dead Usenet group rec.arts.comics.strips, that Rick Stromoski is apparently ending the comic Soup To Nutz. This is sad enough. But worse, GoComics.com has removed all but the current day’s strip from its archives. I had trusted that GoComics.com links were reliable in a way that Comics Kingdom and Creators.com weren’t. Now I learn that maybe I need to include images of the comics I review and discuss here lest my essays become unintelligible in the future? That’s not a good sign. I can do it, mind you. I just haven’t got started. You’ll know when I swing into action.
Norm Feuti, of Retail, still draws Sunday strips for Gil. They’re to start appearing on GoComics.com soon, and I can talk about them from my regular sources after that. But for now I follow the strip on Twitter. And last Sunday he posted this one.
It’s sort of a protesting-the-problem question. It’s also a reaction a lot of people have to “explain how you found the answer” questions. In a sense, yeah, the division shows how the answer was found. But what’s wanted — and what’s actually worth learning — is to explain why you did this calculation. Why, in this case, 216 divided by 8? Why not 216 times 8? Why not 8 divided by 216? Why not 216 minus 8? “How you found your answer” is probably a hard question to make interesting on arithmetic, unfortunately. If you’re doing a long sheet of problems practicing division, it’s not hard to guess that dividing is the answer. And that it’s the big number divided by the small. It can be good training to do blocks of problems that use the same approach, for the same reason it can be good training to focus on any exercise a while. But this does cheat someone of the chance to think about why one does this rather than that.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 11th has mathematics as the thing Todd’s trying to get out of doing. (I suppose someone could try to argue the Y2K bug was an offshoot of mathematics, on the grounds that computer science has so much to do with mathematics. I wouldn’t want to try defending that, though.) I grant that most fraction-to-decimal conversion problems hit that sweet spot of being dull, tedious, and seemingly pointless. There’s some fun decimal expansions of fractions. The sevenths and the elevenths and 1/243 have charm to them. There’s some kid who’ll become a mathematician because at the right age she was told about . 3/16th? Eh.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 11th is the Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the week. I don’t remember seeing a spinny wheel like this used to introduce probability. It’s a good prop, though. I would believe in a class having it.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 11th is built on the Travelling Salesman Problem. It’s one of the famous unsolved and hard problems of mathematics. Weinersmith’s joke is a nice gag about one way to “solve” the problem, that of making it irrelevant. But even if we didn’t need to get to a collection of places efficiently mathematicians would still like to know good ways to do it. It turns out that finding the shortest (quickest, cheapest, easiest, whatever) route connecting a bunch of places is great problem. You can phrase enormously many problems about doing something as well as possible as a Travelling Salesman Problem. It’s easy conceptually to find the answer: try out all the possibilities and pick the best one. But if there’s more than a handful of cities, there are so many possible routes there’s no checking them all, not before you die of old age. We can do very well finding approximate answers, including by my specialization of Monte Carlo methods. In those you take a guess at an answer. Then make, randomly, a change. You’ll either have made things better or worse. If you’ve made it better, keep the change. If you’ve made it worse, usually you reject the change but sometimes you keep it. And repeat. In surprisingly little time you’ll get a really good answer. Maybe not the best possible, but a great answer for how straightforward setting it up was.
Computer science prof tells students one of the major problems in theoretical computer science is to prove P = NP; less than stellar student announces that P = 0 is a solution. https://t.co/xH9l8xkzzn
Dan Thompson’s Brevity for the 12th is a Rubik’s Cube joke. There’s not a lot of mathematics to that. But I do admire how Thompson was careful enough to draw a Rubik’s Cube that actually looks like the real article; it’s not just an isometric cube with thick lines partitioning it. Look at the corners of each colored sub-cube. I may be the only reader to notice this but I’m glad Thompson did the work.
Mason Mastroianni’s The Wizard of Id for the 12th gets Sir Rodney in trouble with the King for doing arithmetic. I haven’t read the comments on GoComics.com. I’d like to enter “three” as my guess for how many comments one would have to read before finding the “weapons of math instruction” joke in there.
Steve Moore’s In The Bleachers for the 13th features a story problem as a test of mental acuity. When the boxer can’t work out what the heck the trains-leaving-Penn-Station problem even means he’s ruled unfit to keep boxing. The question is baffling, though. As put, the second train won’t ever overtake the first. The question: did Moore just slip up? If the first train were going 30 miles per hour and the second 40 there would be a perfectly good, solvable question in this. Or was Moore slipping in an extra joke, making the referee’s question one that sounds like it was given wrong? Don’t know, so I’ll suppose the second.
February’s been a flooding month. Literally (we’re about two blocks away from the Voluntary Evacuation Zone after the rains earlier this week) and figuratively, in Comic Strip Master Command’s suggestions about what I might write. I have started thinking about making a little list of the comics that just say mathematics in some capacity but don’t give me much to talk about. (For example, Bob the Squirrel having a sequence, as it does this week, with a geometry tutor.) But I also know, this is unusually busy this month. The problem will recede without my having to fix anything. One of life’s secrets is learning how to tell when a problem’s that kind.
Ham’s Life on Earth for the 12th has a science-y type giving a formula as “something you should know”. The formula’s gibberish, so don’t worry about it. I got a vibe of it intending to be some formula from statistics, but there’s no good reason for that. I’ve had some statistical distribution problems on my mind lately.
Eric Teitelbaum and Bill Teitelbaum’s Bottomliners for the 12th maybe influenced my thinking. It has a person claiming to be a former statistician, and his estimate of how changing his job’s affected his happiness. Could really be any job that encourages people to measure and quantify things. But “statistician” is a job with strong connotations of being able to quantify happiness. To have that quantity feature a decimal point, too, makes him sound more mathematical and thus, more surely correct. I’d be surprised if “two and a half times” weren’t a more justifiable estimate, given the margin for error on happiness-measurement I have to imagine would be there. (This seems to be the first time I’ve featured Bottomliners at least since I started tagging the comic strips named. Neat.)
Ruben Bolling’s Super-Fun-Pak Comix for the 12th reprinted a panel called The Uncertainty Principal that baffled commenters there. It’s a pun on “Uncertainty Principle”, the surprising quantum mechanics result that there are some kinds of measurements that can’t be taken together with perfect precision. To know precisely where something is destroys one’s ability to measure its momentum. To know the angular momentum along one axis destroys one’s ability to measure it along another. This is a physics result (note that the panel’s signed “Heisenberg”, for the name famously attached to the Uncertainty Principle). But the effect has a mathematical side. The operations that describe finding these incompatible pairs of things are noncommutative; it depends what order you do them in.
We’re familiar enough with noncommutative operations in the real world: to cut a piece of paper and then fold it usually gives something different to folding a piece of paper and then cutting it. To pour batter in a bowl and then put it in the oven has a different outcome than putting batter in the oven and then trying to pour it into the bowl. Nice ordinary familiar mathematics that people learn, like addition and multiplication, do commute. These come with partners that don’t commute, subtraction and division. But I get the sense we don’t think of subtraction and division like that. It’s plain enough that ‘a’ divided by ‘b’ and ‘b’ divided by ‘a’ are such different things that we don’t consider what’s neat about that.
In the ordinary world the Uncertainty Principle’s almost impossible to detect; I’m not sure there’s any macroscopic phenomena that show it off. I mean, that atoms don’t collapse into electrically neutral points within nanoseconds, sure, but that isn’t as compelling as, like, something with a sodium lamp and a diffraction grating and an interference pattern on the wall. The limits of describing certain pairs of properties is about how precisely both quantities can be known, together. For everyday purposes there’s enough uncertainty about, say, the principal’s weight (and thus momentum) that uncertainty in his position won’t be noticeable. There’s reasons it took so long for anyone to suspect this thing existed.
Dana Simpson’s Ozy and Millie rerun for the 14th has the title characters playing “logical fallacy tag”. Ozy is, as Millie says, making an induction argument. In a proper induction argument, you characterize something with some measure of size. Often this is literally a number. You then show that if it’s true that the thing is true for smaller problems than you’re interested in, then it has to also be true for the problem you are interested in. Add to that a proof that it’s true for some small enough problem and you’re done. In this case, Ozy’s specific fallacy is an appeal to probability: all but one of the people playing tag are not it, and therefore, any particular person playing the game isn’t it. That it’s fallacious really stands out when there’s only two people playing.
Alex Hallatt’s Arctic Circle for the 16th riffs on the mathematics abilities of birds. Pigeons, in this case. The strip starts from their abilities understanding space and time (which are amazing) and proposes pigeons have some insight into the Grand Unified Theory. Animals have got astounding mathematical abilities, should point out. Don’t underestimate them. (This also seems to be the first time I’ve tagged Arctic Circle which doesn’t seem like it could be right. But I didn’t remember naming the penguins before so maybe I haven’t? Huh. Mind, I only started tagging the comic strip titles a couple months ago.)
Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 17th has the title character try bluffing her way out of mathematics homework. Could there be a fundamental flaw in mathematics as we know it? Possibly. It’s hard to prove that any field complicated enough to be interesting is also self-consistent. And there’s a lot of mathematics out there. And mathematics subjects often develop with an explosion of new ideas and then a later generation that cleans them up and fills in logical gaps. Symplectic geometry is, if I’m following the news right, going into one of those cleaning-up phases now. Is it likely to be uncovered by a girl in elementary school? I’m skeptical, and also skeptical that she’d have a replacement system that would be any better. I admire Agnes’s ambition, though.
Mike Baldwin’s Cornered for the 17th plays on the reputation for quantum mechanics as a bunch of mathematically weird, counter-intuitive results. In fairness to the TV program, I’ve had series run longer than I originally planned too.
The week was looking ready to be one where I have my five paragraphs about how something shows off a word problem and that’s it. And then Comic Strip Master Command turned up the flow of comics for Saturday. So, here’s my five paragraphs about something being word problems and we’ll pick up the other half of them soon.
Bill Whitehead’s Free Range for the 10th is an Albert Einstein joke. That’s usually been enough. That it mentions curved space, the exotic geometries that make general relativity so interesting, gives it a little more grounding as a mathematical comic. It’s a bit curious, surely, that curved space strikes people as so absurd. Nobody serious argues whether we live on a curved space, though, not when we see globes and think about shapes that cover a big part of the surface of the Earth. But there is something different about thinking of three-dimensional space as curved; it’s hard to imagine curved around what.
Brian Basset’s Red and Rover started some word problems on the 11th, this time with trains travelling in separate directions. The word problem seemed peculiar, since the trains wouldn’t be 246 miles apart at any whole number of hours. But they will be at a reasonable fraction more than a whole number of hours, so I guess Red has gotten to division with fractions.
Red and Rover are back at it the 12th with basically the same problem. This time it’s with airplanes. Also this time it’s a much worse problem. While you can do the problem still, the numbers are uglier. It’ll be just enough over two hours and ten minutes that I wonder if the numbers got rewritten away from some nicer set. For example, if the planes had been flying at 360 and 540 miles per hour, and the question was when they would be 2,100 miles apart, then you’d have a nice two-and-a-third hours.
In the United States at least it’s the start of the school year. With that, Comic Strip Master Command sent orders to do back-to-school jokes. They may be shallow ones, but they’re enough to fill my need for content. For example:
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot for the 27th of August, a new strip, has Jason fitting his writing tools to the class’s theme. So mathematics gets to write “2” in a complicated way. The mention of a clay tablet and cuneiform is oddly timely, given the current (excessive) hype about that Babylonian tablet of trigonometric values, which just shows how even a nearly-retired cartoonist will get lucky sometimes.
Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 28th uses calculus as the emblem of stuff that would be put on the blackboard and be essential for knowing. It’s legitimate formulas, so far as we get to see, the stuff that would in fact be in class. It’s also got an amusing, to me at least, idea for getting students’ attention onto the blackboard.
Tony Carrillo’s F Minus for the 29th is here to amuse me. I could go on to some excuse about how the sextant would be used for the calculations that tell someone where he is. But really I’m including it because I was amused and I like how detailed a sketch of a sextant Carrillo included here.
Jim Meddick’s Monty for the 29th features the rich obscenity Sedgwick Nuttingham III, also getting ready for school. In this case the summer mathematics tutoring includes some not-really-obvious game dubbed Integer Ball. I confess a lot of attempts to make games out of arithmetic look to me like this: fun to do but useful in practicing skills? But I don’t know what the rules are or what kind of game might be made of the integers here. I should at least hear it out.
It was again a week just busy enough that I’m comfortable splitting the Reading The Comments thread into two pieces. It’s also a week that made me think about cake. So, I’m happy with the way last week shaped up, as far as comic strips go. Other stuff could have used a lot of work Let’s read.
Stephen Bentley’s Herb and Jamaal rerun for the 13th depicts “teaching the kids math” by having them divide up a cake fairly. I accept this as a viable way to make kids interested in the problem. Cake-slicing problems are a corner of game theory as it addresses questions we always find interesting. How can a resource be fairly divided? How can it be divided if there is not a trusted authority? How can it be divided if the parties do not trust one another? Why do we not have more cake? The kids seem to be trying to divide the cake by volume, which could be fair. If the cake slice is a small enough wedge they can likely get near enough a perfect split by ordinary measures. If it’s a bigger wedge they’d need calculus to get the answer perfect. It’ll be well-approximated by solids of revolution. But they likely don’t need perfection.
This is assuming the value of the icing side is not held in greater esteem than the bare-cake sides. This is not how I would value the parts of the cake. They’ll need to work something out about that, too.
Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 13th features a bit of numerical wizardry. That the dates in a three-by-three block in a calendar will add up to nine times the centered date. Why this works is good for a bit of practice in simplifying algebraic expressions. The stunt will be more impressive if you can multiply by nine in your head. I’d do that by taking ten times the given date and then subtracting the original date. I won’t say I’m fond of the idea of subtracting 23 from 230, or 17 from 170. But a skilled performer could do something interesting while trying to do this subtraction. (And if you practice the trick you can get the hang of the … fifteen? … different possible answers.)
Bill Amend’s FoxTrot rerun for the 14th mentions mathematics. Young nerd Jason’s trying to get back into hand-raising form. Arithmetic has considerable advantages as a thing to practice answering teachers. The questions have clear, definitely right answers, that can be worked out or memorized ahead of time, and can be asked in under half a panel’s word balloon space. I deduce the strip first ran the 21st of August, 2006, although that image seems to be broken.
Ed Allison’s Unstrange Phenomena for the 14th suggests changes in the definition of the mile and the gallon to effortlessly improve the fuel economy of cars. As befits Allison’s Dadaist inclinations the numbers don’t work out. As it is, if you defined a New Mile of 7,290 feet (and didn’t change what a foot was) and a New Gallon of 192 fluid ounces (and didn’t change what an old fluid ounce was) then a 20 old-miles-per-old-gallon car would come out to about 21.7 new-miles-per-new-gallon. Commenter Del_Grande points out that if the New Mile were 3,960 feet then the calculation would work out. This inspires in me curiosity. Did Allison figure out the numbers that would work and then make a mistake in the final art? Or did he pick funny-looking numbers and not worry about whether they made sense? No way to tell from here, I suppose. (Allison doesn’t mention ways to get in touch on the comic’s About page and I’ve only got the weakest links into the professional cartoon community.)
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 15th mentions long division as the stuff of nightmares. So it is. I guess MathWorld and Wikipedia endorse calling 128 divided by 4 long division, although I’m not sure I’m comfortable with that. This may be idiosyncratic; I’d thought of long division as where the divisor is two or more digits. A three-digit number divided by a one-digit one doesn’t seem long to me. I’d just think that was division. I’m curious what readers’ experiences have been.
Slow week around here for mathematically-themed comic strips. These happen. I suspect Comic Strip Master Command is warning me to stop doing two-a-week essays on reacting to comic strips and get back to more original content. Message received. If I can get ahead of some projects Monday and Tuesday we’ll get more going.
Patrick Roberts’s Todd the Dinosaur for the 20th is a typical example of mathematics being something one gets in over one’s head about. Of course it’s fractions. Is there anything in elementary school that’s a clearer example of something with strange-looking rules and processes for some purpose students don’t even know what they are? In middle school and high school we get algebra. In high school there’s trigonometry. In high school and college there’s calculus. In grad school there’s grad school. There’s always something.
Jeff Stahler’s Moderately Confused for the 21st is the usual bad-mathematics-of-politicians joke. It may be a little more on point considering the Future Disgraced Former President it names, but the joke is surely as old as politicians and hits all politicians with the same flimsiness.
John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 22nd names Greek mathematician Pythagoras. That’s close enough to on-point to include here, especially considering what a slow week it’s been. It may not be fair to call Pythagoras a mathematician. My understanding is we don’t know that actually did anything in mathematics, significant or otherwise. His cult attributed any of its individuals’ discoveries to him, and may have busied themselves finding other, unrelated work to credit to their founder. But there’s so much rumor and gossip about Pythagoras that it’s probably not fair to automatically dismiss any claim about him. The beans thing I don’t know about. I would be skeptical of anyone who said they were completely sure.
Vic Lee’s Pardon My Planet for the 23rd is the usual sort of not-understanding-mathematics joke. In this case it’s about percentages, which are good for baffling people who otherwise have a fair grasp on fractions. I wonder if people would be better at percentages if they learned to say “percent” as “out of a hundred” instead. I’m sure everyone who teaches percentages teaches that meaning, but that doesn’t mean the warning communicates.
Samson’s Dark Side Of The Horse for the 25th mentions sudokus, and that’s enough for a slow week like this. I thought Horace was reaching for a calculator in the last panel myself, and was going to say that wouldn’t help any. But then I checked the numbers in the boxes and that made it all better.