## Reading the Comics, November 5, 2018: November 5, 2018 Edition

This past week included one of those odd days that’s so busy I get a column’s worth of topics from a single day’s reading. And there was another strip (the Cow and Boy rerun) which I might have roped in had the rest of the week been dead. The Motley rerun might have made the cut too, for a reference to $E = mc^2$.

Jason Chatfield’s Ginger Meggs for the 5th is a joke about resisting the story problem. I’m surprised by the particulars of this question. Turning an arithmetic problem into counts of some number of particular things is common enough and has a respectable history. But slices of broccoli quiche? I’m distracted by the choice, and I like quiche. It’s a weird thing for a kid to have, and a weird amount for anybody to have.

JC Duffy’s Lug Nuts for the 5th uses mathematics as a shorthand for intelligence. And it particularly uses π as shorthand for mathematics. There’s a lot of compressed concepts put into this. I shouldn’t be surprised if it’s rerun come mid-March.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2 am for the 5th I’ve highlighted before. It’s the pie chart joke. It will never stop amusing me, but I suppose I should take Randolph Itch, 2 am out of my rotation of comics I read to include here.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 5th is a logic puzzle joke. And a set theory joke. Dad is trying to argue he can’t be surprised by his gift because it’ll belong to one of two sets of things. And he receives nothing. This ought to defy his expectations, if we think of “nothing” as being “the empty set”. The empty set is an indispensable part of set theory. It’s a set that has no elements, has nothing in it. Then suppose we talk about what it means for one set to be contained in another. Take what seems like an uncontroversial definition: set A is contained in set B if there’s nothing in A which is not also in B. Then the empty set is contained inside every set. So Dad, having supposed that he can’t be surprised, since he’d receive either something that is “socks” or something that is “not-socks”, does get surprised. He gets the one thing that is both “socks” and “not-socks” simultaneously.

I hate to pull this move a third time in one week (see here and here), but the logic of the joke doesn’t work for me. I’ll go along with “nothing” as being “the empty set” for these purposes. And I’ll accept that “nothing” is definitely “not-socks”. But to say that “nothing” is also “socks” is … weird, unless you are putting it in the language of set theory. I think the joke would be saved if it were more clearly established that Dad should be expecting some definite thing, so that no-thing would defy all expectations.

“Nothing” is a difficult subject to treat logically. I have been exposed a bit to the thinking of professional philosophers on the subject. Not enough that I feel I could say something non-stupid about the subject. But enough to say that yeah, they’re right, we have a really hard time describing “nothing”. The null set is better behaved. I suppose that’s because logicians have been able to tame it and give it some clearly defined properties.

Mike Shiell’s The Wandering Melon for the 5th felt like a rerun to me. It wasn’t. But Shiell did do a variation on this joke in August. Both are built on the same whimsy of probability. It’s unlikely one will win a lottery. It’s unlikely one will die in a particular and bizarre way. What are the odds someone would have both things happen to them?

This and every Reading the Comics post should be at this link. Essays that include Ginger Meggs are at this link. Essays in which I discuss Lug Nuts are at this link. Essays mentioning Randolph Itch, 2 am, should be at this link. The many essays with a mention of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link. And essays where I’m inspired by something in The Wandering Melon should be at this link. And, what the heck, when I really discuss Cow and Boy it’s at this link. Real discussions of Motley are at this link. And my Fall 2018 Mathematics A-To-Z averages two new posts a week, now and through December. Thanks again for reading.

## Reading the Comics, August 24, 2018: Delayed But Eventually There Edition

Now I’ve finally had the time to deal with the rest of last week’s comics. I’ve rarely been so glad that Comic Strip Master Command has taken it easy on me for this week.

Tom Toles’s Randolph Itch, 2am for the 20th is about a common daydream, that of soap bubbles of weird shapes. There’s fun mathematics to do with soap bubbles. Most of these fall into the “calculus of variations”, which is good at finding minimums and maximums. The minimum here is a surface with zero mean curvature that satisfies particular boundaries. In soap bubble problems the boundaries have a convenient physical interpretation. They’re the wire frames you dunk into soap film, and pull out again, to see what happens. There’s less that’s proven about soap bubbles than you might think. For example: we know that two bubbles of the same size will join on a flat common surface. Do three bubbles? They seem to, when you try blowing bubbles and fitting them together. But this falls short of mathematical rigor.

Parker and Hart’s Wizard of Id Classics for the 21st is a joke about the ignorance of students. Of course they don’t know basic arithmetic. Curious thing about the strip is that you can read it as an indictment of the school system, failing to help students learn basic stuff. Or you can read it as an indictment of students, refusing the hard work of learning while demanding a place in politics. Given the 1968 publication date I have a suspicion which was more likely intended. But it’s hard to tell; 1968 was a long time ago. And sometimes it’s just so easy to crack an insult there’s no guessing what it’s supposed to mean.

Gene Mora’s Graffiti for the 22nd mentions what’s probably the most famous equation after that thing with two times two in it. It does cry out something which seems true, that $E = mc^2$ was there before Albert Einstein noticed it. It does get at one of those questions that, I say without knowledge, is probably less core to philosophers of mathematics than the non-expert would think. But are mathematical truths discovered or invented? There seems to be a good argument that mathematical truths are discovered. If something follows by deductive logic from the axioms of the field, and the assumptions that go into a question, then … what’s there to invent? Anyone following the same deductive rules, and using the same axioms and assumptions, would agree on the thing discovered. Invention seems like something that reflects an inventor.

But it’s hard to shake the feeling that there is invention going on. Anyone developing new mathematics decides what things seem like useful axioms. She decides that some bundle of properties is interesting enough to have a name. She decides that some consequences of these properties are so interesting as to be named theorems. Maybe even the Fundamental Theorem of the field. And there was the decision that this is a field with a question interesting enough to study. I’m not convinced that isn’t invention.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 23rd sees Wavehead — waaait a minute. That’s not Wavehead! This throws everything off. Well, it’s using mathematics as the subject that Not-Wavehead is trying to avoid. And it’s not using arithmetic as the subject easiest to draw on the board. It needs some kind of ascending progression to make waiting for some threshold make sense. Numbers rising that way makes sense.

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 24th is the Roman numerals joke for this week. Oh, and apparently it’s a rerun; I hadn’t noticed before that the strip was rerunning. This isn’t a complaint. Cartoonists need vacations too.

That birds will fly in V-formation has long captured people’s imaginations. We’re pretty confident we know why they do it. The wake of one bird’s flight can make it easier for another bird to stay aloft. This is especially good for migrating birds. The fluid-dynamic calculations of this are hard to do, but any fluid-dynamic calculations are hard to do. Verifying the work was also hard, but could be done. I found and promptly lost an article about how heartbeat monitors were attached to a particular flock of birds whose migration path was well-known, so the sensors could be checked and data from them gathered several times over. (Birds take turns as the lead bird, the one that gets no lift from anyone else’s efforts.)

So far as I’m aware there’s still some mystery as to how they do it. That is, how they know to form this V-formation. A particularly promising line of study in the 80s and 90s was to look at these as self-organizing structures. This would have each bird just trying to pay attention to what made sense for itself, where to fly relative to its nearest-neighbor birds. And these simple rules created, when applied to the whole flock, that V pattern. I do not know whether this reflects current thinking about bird formations. I do know that the search for simple rules that produce rich, complicated patterns goes on. Centuries of mathematics, physics, and to an extent chemistry have primed us to expect that everything is the well-developed result of simple components.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 24th is apparently an answer to The Wandering Melon‘s comic earlier this month. So now we know what kind of lead time Dave Whamond is working on.

My next, and past, Reading the Comics posts are available at this link. Other essays with Randolph Itch, 2 a.m., are at this link. Essays that mention The Wizard of Id, classic or modern, are at this link. Essays mentioning Graffiti are at this link. Other appearances by Andertoons are at this link, or just read about half of all Reading the Comics posts. The Argyle Sweater is mentioned in these essays. And other essays with Reality Check are at this link. And what the heck; here’s other essays with The Wandering Melon in them.

## Reading the Comics, August 4, 2018: August 4, 2018 Edition

And finally, at last, there’s a couple of comics left over from last week and that all ran the same day. If I hadn’t gone on forever about negative Kelvin temperatures I might have included them in the previous essay. That’s all right. These are strips I expect to need relatively short discussions to explore. Watch now as I put out 2,400 words explaining Wavehead misinterpreting the teacher’s question.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 4th is proof that my time spent writing about which is better, large numbers or small last week wasn’t wasted. There I wrote about four versus five for Beetle Bailey. Here it’s the same joke, but with compound words. Well, that’s easy to take care of.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 4th is driving me slightly crazy. The equation on the board looks like an electrostatics problem to me. The ‘E’ is a common enough symbol for the strength of an electric field. And the funny-looking K’s look to me like the Greek kappa. This often represents the dielectric constant. That measures how well an electric field can move through a material. The upside-down triangles, known in the trade as Delta, describe — well, that’s getting complicated. By themselves, they describe measuring “how much the thing right after this changes in different directions”. When there’s a x symbol between the Delta and the thing, it measures something called the “curl”. This roughly measures how much the field inspires things caught up in it to turn. (Don’t try passing this off to your thesis defense committee.) The Delta x Delta x E describes the curl of the curl of E. Oh, I don’t like visualizing that. I don’t blame you if you don’t want to either.

Anyway. So all this looks like it’s some problem about a rod inside an electric field. Fine enough. What I don’t know and can’t work out is what the problem is studying exactly. So I can’t tell you whether the equation, so far as we see it, is legitimately something to see in class. Envisioning a rod that’s infinitely thin is a common enough mathematical trick, though. Three-dimensional objects are hard to deal with. They have edges. These are fussy to deal with. Making sure the interior, the boundary, and the exterior match up in a logically consistent way is tedious. But a wire? A plane? A single point? That’s easy. They don’t have an interior. You don’t have to match up the complicated stuff.

For real world problems, yeah, you have to deal with the interior. Or you have to work out reasons why the interiors aren’t important in your problem. And it can be that your object is so small compared to the space it has to work in that the fact it’s not infinitely thin or flat or smooth just doesn’t matter. Mathematical models, such as give us equations, are a blend of describing what really is there and what we can work with.

Mike Shiell’s The Wandering Melon for the 4th is a probability joke, about two events that nobody’s likely to experience. The chance any individual will win a lottery is tiny, but enough people play them that someone wins just about any given week. The chance any individual will get struck by lightning is tiny too. But it happens to people. The combination? Well, that’s obviously impossible.

In July of 2015, Peter McCathie had this happen. He survived a lightning strike first. And then won the Atlantic Lotto 6/49. This was years apart, but the chance of both happening the same day, or same week? … Well, the world is vast and complicated. Unlikely things will happen.

And that’s all that I have for the past week. Come Sunday I should have my next Reading the Comics post, and you can find it and other essays at this link. Other essays that mention Reality Check are at this link. The many other essays which talk about Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal are at this link. And other essays about The Wandering Melon are at this link. Thanks.

## Reading the Comics, February 15, 2017: SMBC Cuts In Line Edition

It’s another busy enough week for mathematically-themed comic strips that I’m dividing the harvest in two. There’s a natural cutting point since there weren’t any comics I could call relevant for the 15th. But I’m moving a Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal of course from the 16th into this pile. That’s because there’s another Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal of course from after the 16th that I might include. I’m still deciding if it’s close enough to on topic. We’ll see.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for the 12th mentions the “Futurama Theorem”. The trivia is true, in that writer Ken Keeler did create a theorem for a body-swap plot he had going. The premise was that any two bodies could swap minds at most one time. So, after a couple people had swapped bodies, was there any way to get everyone back to their correct original body? There is, if you bring two more people in to the body-swapping party. It’s clever.

From reading comment threads about the episode I conclude people are really awestruck by the idea of creating a theorem for a TV show episode. The thing is that “a theorem” isn’t necessarily a mind-boggling piece of work. It’s just the name mathematicians give when we have a clearly-defined logical problem and its solution. A theorem and its proof can be a mind-wrenching bit of work, like Fermat’s Last Theorem or the Four-Color Map Theorem are. Or it can be on the verge of obvious. Keeler’s proof isn’t on the obvious side of things. But it is the reasoning one would have to do to solve the body-swap problem the episode posited without cheating. Logic and good story-telling are, as often, good partners.

Teresa Burritt’s Frog Applause is a Dadaist nonsense strip. But for the 13th it hit across some legitimate words, about a 14 percent false-positive rate. This is something run across in hypothesis testing. The hypothesis is something like “is whatever we’re measuring so much above (or so far below) the average that it’s not plausibly just luck?” A false positive is what it sounds like: our analysis said yes, this can’t just be luck, and it turns out that it was. This turns up most notoriously in medical screenings, when we want to know if there’s reason to suspect a health risk, and in forensic analysis, when we want to know if a particular person can be shown to have been a particular place at a particular time. A 14 percent false positive rate doesn’t sound very good — except.

Suppose we are looking for a rare condition. Say, something one person out of 500 will have. A test that’s 99 percent accurate will turn up positives for the one person who has got it and for five of the people who haven’t. It’s not that the test is bad; it’s just there are so many negatives to work through. If you can screen out a good number of the negatives, though, the people who haven’t got the condition, then the good test will turn up fewer false positives. So suppose you have a cheap or easy or quick test that doesn’t miss any true positives but does have a 14 percent false positive rate. That would screen out 430 of the people who haven’t got whatever we’re testing for, leaving only 71 people who need the 99-percent-accurate test. This can make for a more effective use of resources.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 13th is an algebra-in-real-life joke and I can’t make something deeper out of that.

Mike Shiell’s The Wandering Melon for the 13th is a spot of wordplay built around statisticians. Good for taping to the mathematics teacher’s walls.

Eric the Circle for the 14th, this one by “zapaway”, is another bit of wordplay. Tans and tangents.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 16th identifies, aptly, a difference between scientists and science fans. Weinersmith is right that loving trivia is a hallmark of a fan. Expertise — in any field, not just science — is more about recognizing patterns of problems and concepts, ways to bring approaches from one field into another, this sort of thing. And the digits of π are great examples of trivia. There’s no need for anyone to know the 1,681st digit of π. There’s few calculations you could ever do when you needed more than three dozen digits. But if memorizing digits seems like fun then π is a great set to learn. e is the only other number at all compelling.

The thing is, it’s very hard to become an expert in something without first being a fan of it. It’s possible, but if a field doesn’t delight you why would you put that much work into it? So even though the scientist might have long since gotten past caring how many digits of π, it’s awfully hard to get something memorized in the flush of fandom out of your head.

I know you’re curious. I can only remember π out to 3.14158926535787962. I might have gotten farther if I’d tried, but I actually got a digit wrong, inserting a ‘3’ before that last ’62’, and the effort to get that mistake out of my head obliterated any desire to waste more time memorizing digits. For e I can only give you 2.718281828. But there’s almost no hope I’d know that far if it weren’t for how e happens to repeat that 1828 stanza right away.