So last week there were only a handful of comic strips which mentioned mathematics in any detail. That is, that brought up some point that I could go on about for a paragraph or so. There were more that had some marginal mathematics content. I gather them here for the interested.
Gordon Bess’s Redeye rerun for the 7th mentions mathematics as the homework that the chief is helping his son with. It could be any subject, but arithmetic is easy to fit into one panel of comic strip. And it’s also easy to establish that the work is on a low level. The comic originally ran the 18th of February, 1973.
John McPherson’s Close to Home for the 11th mentions percentages. The joke’s built on doing a meaningless calculation. And a bit of convention, in which the label has been reduced to the point people could mis-read it. You just know this guy would tell the “scanner didn’t pick it up, it must be free” joke if he thought of it that fast.
Paige Braddock’s Jane’s World for the 11th is part of a sequence from 2002 in which Jane concludes the problems in her life came from the introduction of algebra. Her niece is having fun with algebra, a thing I understand. Algebra can be a more playful, explorative kind of mathematics than you get with, like, long division. For some people it’s liberating. This one’s a new tag, so I’m sure to be surprised that I have ever mentioned Jane’s World sometime in the future.
Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur for the 11th presents a Sphere of Serenity. Or, as Danae’s horse points out, a Cube of Serenity. There are ways that the difference between a sphere and a cube becomes nothing. If the cube and the sphere have infinitely great extent, for example, then there’s no observable difference between the shapes. Or if we use certain definitions of distance then the sphere — as in, the points all an equal distance from a center — can be indistinguishable from a cube. That’s not what the comic is going for.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th is a joke about holographic cosmology, proving that there are such things as jokes about holographic cosmology. Cosmology is about the big picture stuff, like, why there is a universe and why it looks like that. It’s a rather mathematical field, owing to the difficulty of doing controlled experiments. Holograms are that same technology used back in the 80s to put shoddy three-dimensional-ish pictures of eagles on credit cards. (In the United States. I imagine they were other animals in other countries.) Holograms, at least when they’re well-made, encode the information needed to make a three-dimensional image in a two-dimensional surface. (Please pretend that anything made of matter is two-dimensional like that.)
Holographic cosmology is a mathematical model for the universe. It represents the things in a space with a description of information on the boundary of this space. This seems bizarre and it won’t surprise you that key inspiration was in the strange physics of black holes. Properties of everything which falls into a black hole manifest in the event horizon, the boundary between normal space and whatever’s going on inside the black hole. The black hole is this three-dimensional volume, but in some way everything there is to say about it is the two-dimensional edge.
Dr Leonard Susskind did much to give this precise mathematical form. You didn’t think the character name was just a bit of whimsy, did you? Susskind’s work showed how the information of a particle falling into a black hole — information here meaning stuff like its position and momentum — turn into oscillations in the event horizon. The holographic principle argues this can be extended to ordinary space, the whole of the regular universe. Is this so? It’s hard to say. It’s a corner of string theory. It’s difficult to run experiments that prove very much. And we are stuck with an epistemological problem. If all the things in the universe and their interactions are equally well described as a three-dimensional volume or as a two-dimensional surface, which is “real”? It may seem intuitively obvious that we experience a three-dimensional space. But that intuition is a way we organize our understanding of our experiences. That’s not the same thing as truth.
Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten, and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde for the 22nd is a joke about power, and how it can coerce someone out of truth. Arithmetic serves as an example of indisputable truth. It could be any deductive logic statement, or for that matter a definition. Arithmetic is great for the comic purpose needed here, though. Anyone can understand, at least the simpler statements, and work out their truth or falsity. And need very little word balloon space for it.
Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead for the 25th also features a quick mention of algebra as the height of rationality. Also as something difficult to understand. Most fields are hard to understand, when you truly try. But algebra works well for this writing purpose. Anyone who’d read Zippy the Pinhead has an idea of what understanding algebra would be like, the way they might not have an idea of holographic cosmology.
Teresa Logan’s Laughing Redhead Comics for the 25th is the Venn diagram joke for the week, this one with a celebrity theme. Your choice whether the logic of the joke makes sense. Ryan Reynolds and John Krasinski are among those celebrities that I keep thinking I don’t know, but that it turns out I do know. Ryan Gosling I’m still not sure about.
There were just enough mathematically-themed comic strips last week to make two editions for this coming week. All going well I’ll run the other half on either Wednesday or Thursday. There is a point that isn’t quite well, which is that one of the comics is in dubious taste. I’ll put that at the end, behind a more specific content warning. In the meanwhile, you can find this and hundreds of other Reading the Comics posts at this link.
Thaves’s Frank and Ernest for the 11th is wordplay, built on the conflation of “negative” as in numbers and “negative” as in bad. I’m not sure the two meanings are unrelated. The word ‘negative’ itself derives from the Latin word meaning to deny, which sounds bad. It’s easy to see why the term would attach to what we call negative numbers. A number plus its negation leaves us zero, a nothing. But it does make the negative numbers sound like bad things to have around, or to have to deal with. The convention that a negative number is less than zero implies that the default choice for a number is one greater than zero. And the default choice is usually seen as the good one, with everything else a falling-away. Still, -7 is as legitimate a number as 7 is; it’s we who think one is better than another.
J C Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 11th has the Dadaist panel present prime numbers as a way to communicate. I suspect Duffy’s drawing from speculations about how to contact alien intelligences. One problem with communicating with the truly alien is how to recognize there is a message being sent. A message too regular will look like a natural process, one conveying no more intelligence than the brightness which comes to most places at dawn and darkness coming at sunset. A message too information-packed, peculiarly, looks like random noise. We need an intermediate level. A signal that it’s easy to receive, and that is too hard to produce by natural processes.
Prime numbers seem like a good compromise. An intelligence that understands arithmetic will surely notice prime numbers, or at least work out quickly what’s novel about this set of numbers once given them. And it’s hard to imagine an intelligence capable of sending or receiving interplanetary signals that doesn’t understand arithmetic. (Admitting that yes, we might be ruling out conversational partners by doing this.) We can imagine a natural process that sends out (say) three pulses and then rests, or five pulses and rests. Or even draws out longer cycles: two pulses and a rest, three pulses and a rest five pulses and a rest, and then a big rest before restarting the cycle. But the longer the string of prime numbers, the harder it is to figure a natural process that happens to hit them and not other numbers.
We think, anyway. Until we contact aliens we won’t really know what it’s likely alien contact would be like. Prime numbers seem good to us, but — even if we stick to numbers — there’s no reason triangular numbers, square numbers, or perfect numbers might not be as good. (Well, maybe not perfect numbers; there aren’t many of them, and they grow very large very fast.) But we have to look for something particular, and this seems like a plausible particularity.
Charles Schulz’s Peanuts Begins for the 11th is an early strip, from the days when Lucy would look to Charlie Brown for information. And it’s a joke built on conflating ‘zero’ with ‘nothing’. Lucy’s right that zero times zero has to be something. That’s how multiplication works. That the number zero is something? That’s a tricky concept. I think being mathematically adept can blind one to how weird that is. If you’re used to how zero is the amount of a thing you have to have nothing of that thing, then we start to see what’s weird about it.
But I’m not sure the strip quite sets that up well. I think if Charlie Brown had answered that zero times zero was “nothing” it would have been right (or right enough) and Lucy’s exasperation would have flowed more naturally. As it is? She must know that zero is “nothing”; but then why would she figure “nothing times nothing” has to be something? Maybe not; it would have left Charlie Brown less reason to feel exasperated or for the reader to feel on Charlie Brown’s side. Young Lucy’s leap to “three” needs to be at least a bit illogical to make any sense.
Now to the last strip and the one I wanted to warn about. It alludes to gun violence and school shootings. If you don’t want to deal with that, you’re right. There’s other comic strips to read out there. And this for a comic that ran on the centennial of Armistice Day, which has to just be an oversight in scheduling the (non-plot-dependent) comic.
My week got busier than I imagined, but it was in ways worthwhile. I apologize for running late, and for not having an essay I meant to put up here this week. But I should be back to something more normal next week. I keep saying that. Also, for what seems like a rarity, all the strips for this essay are comic strips. No panels. That won’t last, I know.
Johnny Hart’s Back to B.C. for the 14th features arithmetic as a demonstration of The Smartest Man in the World’s credentials. I understand using a bit of arithmetic as a quick check that someone has any intelligence at all. It seems to me that checking “two plus two” is more common than “one plus one”, and either is more common than, say, “one plus two” or “three plus five” or anything. I’m curious why that is, though. Might one plus one just seem too simple? Or is it the bias against odd numbers and feeling that two plus two is somehow more balanced? If only there were some smart person I could ask.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 14th has a blackboard full of arithmetic as the icon of “doing a lot of school work”. Can’t say it’s age-inappropriate or anything. It’s just an efficient way to show a lot of work that’s kind of tiring to do has been done. … Also somehow one of the commenters didn’t understand the use of ‘flag’ as meaning to lose energy or enthusiasm. Huh.
Jef Mallett’s Frazz for the 15th is a percentages joke, built on confusion between how to go from percentages to fractions and back again. Must say that I had thought 50 percent was tied well enough to one-half in ordinary language (or in phrases like splitting something fifty-fifty) that someone wouldn’t be confused by that. But everyone does miss some obvious things.
Mark Pett’s Lucky Cow for the 16th is a probability strip. It is based on what seems obvious, that the fact of any person’s existing is an incredibly unlikely event. We can imagine restarting the universe, and letting it all develop again. And we’re forced to conclude there are so many other ways that galaxies might form and stars might come into being and planets might form and life might develop and evolution might proceed and people might meet and children might be born, and only one way that gets us here. So the chance of any of us existing is impossibly tiny. This is all consistent with the “frequentist” idea of what probability means. In that, we say the probability of a thing happening is all the ways that it could happen divided by all the ways that something could happen. (There are a bunch of technical points to go along with this.)
But there are a lot of buried assumptions in there. Many of them seem reasonable. For example: could the universe unfold any differently? It seems obvious that, for example, the radius of the Earth’s orbit around the sun is arbitrary and might be anything in a band that could support life. And, surely, if the year had more or fewer days to it all human history would be different. But then this seems obvious: drop a bunch of short needles across a set of parallel straight lines. The number of needles that cross any of those lines should be arbitrary and unpredictable. Except that it is predictable; there’s a well-known formula that says how many of those needles have to cross those lines. The prediction can be lousy for a handful of needles. For millions of needles, though, it’ll be dead on. The universe won’t make sense any other way.
I can’t go so far as to say that it’s impossible for a universe to exist without me existing and just as I am. That seems egotistical. Even the needle-drop talk has room for variations on the universe. In ten million needle drops, one needle crossing more or less would not be an implausible difference. Ten or a thousand needles falling differently wouldn’t stand out. But, then, after enough needle drops? … If infinitely many needles dropped, I could say exactly what percentage of them crossed lines. (I am speaking so very casually about very difficult technical points. Please pretend I have clear answers for them.) There are deep philosophical questions about the idea of “other universes” that we have to ask if we want to take the subject seriously. But there are deep mathematical questions too.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 16th is more or less the anthropomorphized Roman Numerals joke for the week. I don’t know that there’s a strong consensus about why X was used to represent “ten”. Likely it’s impossible to prove any explanation is right. But X has settled into meaning ten, and to serve a host of other uses in typography and in symbols. Some of them are likely connected. Some are probably just coincidence.
To close out last week’s comics I got a bunch of strips that were repeats, or that touch on topics I’ve discussed quite a bit around these parts already. I’m pretty sure all the words I have here are new in their specific organization. The words themselves are pretty old.
Maria Scrivan’s Half Full for the 4th is the Rubik’s Cube joke for the week. I ought to write up a proper description of the algebra of Rubik’s Cubes. The real stuff is several books’ worth of material, yes. But a couple hundred words about what’s interesting should be doable. … Or I could just ask folks if they’ve read good descriptions of the group theory that cubes show off. I’m always open to learning other people have said stuff better than me. This is part of why I’ve never published an essay about Cantor’s Diagonal Proof; many people have written such essays and I couldn’t add anything useful to that heap of words.
Ryan North’s Dinosaur Comics for the 5th is about the heap paradox. Or the sorites paradox, depending on what book you’ve been reading from. The problem is straightforward enough. As God, in the strip says, a big pile of sand is clearly a heap. One or two grains of sand is clearly not. If you remove grains from the heap, eventually, you lose the heap-ness. T-Rex suggests solving the question of when that happens by statistical survey, finding what people on average find to be the range where things shift over.
As with many attempts to apply statistical, or experimental, methods to philosophical questions it misses the point. There are properties that things seem to have only as aggregations. Where do they come from? How can there be something true about a collection of things that isn’t true about any part of the thing? This is not just about messy real-world properties either; we can say stuff about groups of mathematical objects that aren’t true about individual objects within the set. For example, suppose we want to draw a real number at random, uniformly, from the continuous interval 0 to 10. There’s a 50% chance we’ll draw a number greater than 5. The chance of drawing any specific number greater than 5, though, is zero. But we can always draw one. Something weird is happening here, as often happens with questions we’ve been trying to answer for thousands of years.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 6th is a new strip, although the joke’s appeared before. There’s some arithmetic calculations that are easy to do, or that become easy because you do them a lot. Or because you see them done a lot and learn what the patterns are. A handful of basic tricks — like that 80 percent off is 20 percent of something, or that 20 percent of a thing is one-fifth the original thing — can be stunning. Stage magicians find the same effect.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 7th is the anthropomorphized abacus joke of the week. Been a while since we had one of those. I suppose an adding machine would be at least as good a representative of the abstract concept of doing arithmetic, but it’s likely harder to draw too. This is just tiring to draw.
Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 8th presents the old complaint about mathematics’s utility, here in an ancient setting. I’m intereste that the caveman presents counting in terms of matching up other things to his fingers. We use this matching of one set of things to another even today. It gets us to ordinal and cardinal numbers, and the to what we feel pretty sure about with infinitely large sets. An idea can be ancient and basic and still be vital.
Steve Sicula’s Home and Away for the 9th is about the hatred people profess for mathematics. Some of that is more hatred of how it’s taught, which is too often as a complicated and apparently pointless activity. Some of that is hatred of how it’s used, since it turns up in a lot of jobs. And for some reason we’ve designed society so that we do jobs we don’t like. I don’t know why we think that’s a good idea. We should work on that.
Last week ended with another little string of mathematically-themed comic strips. Most of them invited, to me, talk about the cultural significance of mathematics and what connotations they have. So, this title for an artless essay.
Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County 2017 for the 28th of March uses “two plus two equals” as the definitive, inarguable truth. It always seems to be “two plus two”, doesn’t it? Never “two plus three”, never “three plus three”. I suppose I’ve sometimes seen “one plus one” or “two times two”. It’s easy to see why it should be a simple arithmetic problem, nothing with complicated subtraction or division or numbers as big as six. Maybe the percussive alliteration of those repeated two’s drives the phrase’s success. But then why doesn’t “two times two” show up nearly as often? Maybe the phrase isn’t iambic enough. “Two plus two” allows (to my ear) the “plus” sink in emphasis, while “times” stays a little too prominent. We need a wordsmith in to explore it. (I’m open to other hypotheses, including that “two times two” gets used more than my impression says.)
Christiann MacAuley’s Sticky Comics for the 28th uses mathematics as the generic “more interesting than people” thing that nerds think about. The thing being thought of there is the Mandelbrot Set. It’s built on complex-valued numbers. Pick a complex number, any you like; that’s called ‘C’. Square the number and add ‘C’ back to itself. This will be some new complex-valued number. Square that new number and add the original ‘C’ back to it again. Square that new number and add the original ‘C’ back once more. And keep at this. There are two things that might happen. These squared numbers might keep growing infinitely large. They might be negative, or imaginary, or (most likely) complex-valued, but their size keeps growing. Or these squared numbers might not grow arbitrarily large. The Mandelbrot Set is the collection of ‘C’ values for which the numbers don’t just keep growing in size. That’s the sort of lumpy kidney bean shape with circles and lightning bolts growing off it that you saw on every pop mathematics book during the Great Fractal Boom of the 80s and 90s. There’s almost no point working it out in your head; the great stuff about fractals almost requires a computer. They take a lot of computation. But if you’re just avoiding conversation, well, anything will do.
Olivia Walch’s Imogen Quest for the 29th riffs on the universe-as-simulation hypothesis. It’s one of those ideas that catches the mind and is hard to refute as long as we don’t talk to the people in the philosophy department, which we’re secretly scared of. Anyway the comic shows one of the classic uses of statistical modeling: try out a number of variations of a model in the hopes of understanding real-world behavior. This is an often-useful way to balance how the real world has stuff going on that’s important and that we don’t know about, or don’t know how to handle exactly.
Mason Mastroianni’s The Wizard of Id for the 31st uses a sprawl of arithmetic as symbol of … well, of status, really. The sort of thing that marks someone a white-collar criminal. I suppose it also fits with the suggestion of magic that accompanies huge sprawls of mathematical reasoning. Bundle enough symbols together and it looks like something only the intellectual aristocracy, or at least secret cabal, could hope to read.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town for the 1st name-drops arithmetic. And shows off the attitude that anyone we find repulsive must also be stupid, as proven by their being bad at arithmetic. I admit to having no discernable feelings about the Kardashians; but I wouldn’t be so foolish as to conflate intelligence and skill-at-arithmetic.
My guide for how many comics to include in one of these essays is “at least five, if possible”. Occasionally there’s a day when Comic Strip Master Command sends that many strips at once. Last Sunday was almost but not quite such a day. But the business of that day did mean I had enough strips to again divide the past week’s entries. Look for more comics in a few days, if all goes well here. Thank you.
Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 26th reminds me of something I had wholly forgot about: decimals inside fractions. And now that this little horror’s brought back I remember my experience with it. Decimals in fractions aren’t, in meaning, any different from division of decimal numbers. And the decimals are easily enough removed. But I get the kid’s horror. Fractions and decimals are both interesting in the way they represent portions of wholes. They spend so much time standing independently of one another it feels disturbing to have them interact. Well, Andertoons kid, maybe this will comfort you: somewhere along the lines decimals in fractions just stop happening. I’m not sure when. I don’t remember when the last one passed my experience.
Hector Cantu and Carlos Castellanos’s Baldo for the 26th is built on a riddle. It’s one that depends on working in shifting addition from “what everybody means by addition” to “what addition means on a clock”. You can argue — I’m sure Gracie would — that “11 plus 3” does not mean “eleven o’clock plus three hours”. But on what grounds? If it’s eleven o’clock and you know something will happen in three hours, “two o’clock” is exactly what you want. Underlying all of mathematics are definitions about what we mean by stuff like “eleven” and “plus” and “equals”. And underlying the definitions is the idea that “here is a thing we should like to know”.
Addition of hours on a clock face — I never see it done with minutes or seconds — is often used as an introduction to modulo arithmetic. This is arithmetic on a subset of the whole numbers. For example, we might use 0, 1, 2, and 3. Addition starts out working the way it does in normal numbers. But then 1 + 3 we define to be 0. 2 + 3 is 1. 3 + 3 is 2. 2 + 2 is 0. 2 + 3 is 1 again. And so on. We get subtraction the same way. This sort of modulo arithmetic has practical uses. Many cryptography schemes rely on it, for example. And it has pedagogical uses; modulo arithmetic turns up all over a mathematics major’s Introduction to Not That Kind Of Algebra Course. You can use it to learn a lot of group theory with something a little less exotic than rotations and symmetries of polygonal shapes or permutations of lists of items. A clock face doesn’t quite do it, though. We have to pretend the ’12’ at the top is a ‘0’. I’ve grown more skeptical about whether appealing to clocks is useful in introducing modulo arithmetic. But it’s been a while since I’ve needed to discuss the matter at all.
Rob Harrell’s Big Top rerun for the 26th mentions sudoku. Remember when sudoku was threatening to take over the world, or at least the comics page? Also, remember comics pages? Good times. It’s not one of my hobbies, but I get the appeal.
Bob Shannon’s Tough Town I’m not sure if I’ve featured here before. It’s one of those high concept comics. The patrons at a bar are just what you see on the label, and there’s a lot of punning involved. Now that I’ve over-explained the joke please enjoy the joke. There are a couple of strips prior to this one featuring the same characters; they just somehow didn’t mention enough mathematics words for me to bring up here.
Norm Feuti’s Retail for the 27th is about the great concern-troll of mathematics education: can our cashiers make change? I’m being snottily dismissive. Shops, banks, accountants, and tax registries are surely the most common users of mathematics — at least arithmetic — out there. And if people are going to do a thing, ordinarily, they ought to be able to do it well. But, of course, the computer does arithmetic extremely well. Far better, or at least more indefatigably, than any cashier is going to be able to do. The computer will also keep track of the prices of everything, and any applicable sales or discounts, more reliably than the mere human will. The whole point of the Industrial Revolution was to divide tasks up and assign them to parties that could do the separate parts better. Why get worked up about whether you imagine the cashier knows what $22.14 minus $16.89 is?
I will say the time the bookstore where I worked lost power all afternoon and we had to do all the transactions manually we ended up with only a one-cent discrepancy in the till, thank you.