Let me first share the other comic strips from last week which mentioned mathematics, but in a casual way.

Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman’s Zits for the 14th used the phrase “do the math”, and snarked on the younger generation doing mathematics. This was as part of the longrunning comic’s attempt to retcon the parents from being Baby Boomers to being Generation X. Scott and Borgman can do as they like but, I mean, their kids are named Chad and Jeremy. That’s only tenable if they’re Boomers. (I’m not sure Chad has returned from college in the past ten years.) And even then it was marginal.

So Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 12th is the only comic strip of some substance that I noticed last week. You see what a slender month it’s been. It does showcase the unsettling nature of seeing notations for similar things mixed. It’s not that there’s anything which doesn’t parse about having decimals in the numerator or denominator. It just looks weird. And that can be enough to throw someone out of a problem. They might mistake the problem for one that doesn’t have a coherent meaning. Or they might mistake it for one too complicated to do. Learning to not be afraid of a problem that looks complicated is worth doing. As is learning how to tell whether a problem parses at all, even if it looks weird.

We continue to be in the summer vacation doldrums for mathematically-themed comic strips. But there’ve been a couple coming out. I could break this week’s crop into two essays, for example. All of today’s strips are comics that turn up in my essays a lot. It’s like hanging out with a couple of old friends.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 17th uses the motif of arithmetic expressions as “difficult” things. The expressions Samson quotes seem difficult for being syntactically weird: What does the colon under the radical sign mean in ? Or they’re difficult for being indirect, using a phrase like “50%” for “half”. But with some charity we can read this as Horace talking about 3:33 am to about 6:30 am. I agree that those are difficult hours.

It also puts me in mind of a gift from a few years back. An aunt sent me an Irrational Watch, with a dial that didn’t have the usual counting numbers on it. Instead there were various irrational numbers, like the Golden Ratio or the square root of 50 or the like. Also the Euler-Mascheroni Constant, a number that may or may not be irrational. Nobody knows. It’s likely that it is irrational, but it’s not proven. It’s a good bit of fun, although it does make it a bit harder to use the watch for problems like “how long is it until 4:15?” This isn’t quite what’s going on here — the square root of nine is a noticeably rational number — but it seems in that same spirit.

Mark Anderson’s Andertoons for the 18th sees Wavehead react to the terminology of the “improper fraction”. “Proper” and “improper” as words carry a suggestion of … well, decency. Like there’s something faintly immoral about having an improper fraction. “Proper” and “improper”, as words, attach to many mathematical concepts. Several years ago I wrote that “proper” amounted to “it isn’t boring”. This is a fair way to characterize, like, proper subsets or proper factors or the like. It’s less obvious that is a boring fraction.

I may need to rewrite that old essay. An “improper” form satisfies all the required conditions for the term. But it misses some of the connotation of the term. It’s true that, say, the new process takes “a fraction of the time” of the old, if the old process took one hour and the new process takes fourteen years. But if you tried telling someone that they would assume you misunderstood something. The ordinary English usage of “fraction” carries the connotation of “a fraction between zero and one”, and that’s what makes a “proper fraction”.

In practical terms, improper fractions are fine. I don’t know of any mathematicians who seriously object to them, or avoid using them. The hedging word “seriously” is in there because of a special need. That need is: how big is, say, ? Is it bigger than five? Is it smaller than six? An improper fraction depends on you knowing, in this case, your fourteen-times tables to tell. Switching that to a mixed fraction, , helps figure out what the number means. That’s as far as we have to worry about the propriety of fractions.

Zach Weinersmith’s Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal for the 20th uses the form of a Fermi problem for its joke. Fermi problems have a place in mathematical modeling. The idea is to find an estimate for some quantity. We often want to do this. The trick is to build a simple model, and to calculate using a tiny bit of data. The Fermi problem that has someone reached public consciousness is called the Fermi paradox. The question that paradox addresses is, how many technologically advanced species are there in the galaxy? There’s no way to guess. But we can make models and those give us topics to investigate to better understand the problem. (The paradox is that reasonable guesses about the model suggest there should be so many aliens that they’d be a menace to air traffic. Or that the universe should be empty except for us. Both alternatives seem unrealistic.) Such estimates can be quite wrong, of course. I remember a Robert Heinlein essay in which he explained the Soviets were lying about the size of Moscow, his evidence being he didn’t see the ship traffic he expected when he toured the city. I do not remember that he analyzed what he might have reasoned wrong when he republished this in a collection of essays he didn’t seem to realize were funny.

So the interview question presented is such a Fermi problem. The job applicant, presumably, has not committed to memory the number of employees at the company. But there would be clues. Does the company own the whole building it’s in, or just a floor? Just an office? How large is the building? How large is the parking lot? Are there people walking the hallways? How many desks are in the offices? The question could be answerable. The applicant has a pretty good chain of reasoning too.

Bill Amend’s FoxTrot Classics for the 20th has several mathematical jokes in it. One is the use of excessively many decimal points to indicate intelligence. Grant that someone cares about the hyperbolic cosines of 15.2. There is no need to cite its wrong value to nine digits past the decimal. Decimal points are hypnotic, though, and listing many of them has connotations of relentless, robotic intelligence. That is what Amend went for in the characters here. That and showing how terrible nerds are when they find some petty issue to rage over.

Eugene is correct about the hyperbolic cosine being wrong, there, though. He’s not wrong to check that. It’s good form to have some idea what a plausible answer should be. It lets one spot errors, for one. No mathematician is too good to avoid making dumb little mistakes. And computing tools will make mistakes too. Fortunately they don’t often, but this strip originally ran a couple years after the discovery of the Pentium FDIV bug. This was a glitch in the way certain Pentium chips handled floating-point division. It was discovered by Dr Thomas Nicely, at Lynchberg College, who found inconsistencies in some calculations when he added Pentium systems to the computers he was using. This Pentium bug may have been on Amend’s mind.

Eugene would have spotted right away that the hyperbolic cosine was wrong, though, and didn’t need nine digits for it. The hyperbolic cosine is a function. Its domain is the real numbers. It range is entirely numbers greater than or equal to one, or less than or equal to minus one. A 0.9 something just can’t happen, not as the hyperbolic cosine for a real number.

And what is the hyperbolic cosine? It’s one of the hyperbolic trigonometric functions. The other trig functions — sine, tangent, arc-sine, and all that — have their shadows too. You’ll see the hyperbolic sine and hyperbolic tangent some. You will never see the hyperbolic arc-cosecant and anyone trying to tell you that you need it is putting you on. They turn up in introductory calculus classes because you can differentiate them, and integrate them, the way you can ordinary trig functions. They look just different enough from regular trig functions to seem interesting for half a class. By the time you’re doing this, your instructor needs that.

The ordinary trig functions come from the unit circle. You can relate the Cartesian coordinates of a point on the circle described by to the angle made between that point and the center of the circle and the positive x-axis. Hyperbolic trig functions we can relate the Cartesian coordinates of a point on the hyperbola described by to angles instead. The functions … don’t have a lot of use at the intro-to-calculus level. Again, other than that they let you do some quite testable differentiation and integration problems that don’t look exactly like regular trig functions do. They turn up again if you get far enough into mathematical physics. The hyperbolic cosine does well in describing catenaries, that is, the shape of flexible wires under gravity. And the family of functions turn up in statistical mechanics, often, in the mathematics of heat and of magnetism. But overall, these functions aren’t needed a lot. A good scientific calculator will offer them, certainly. But it’ll be harder to get them.

There is another oddity at work here. The cosine of 15.2 degrees is about 0.965, yes. But mathematicians will usually think of trigonometric functions — regular or hyperbolic — in terms of radians. This is just a different measure of angles. A right angle, 90 degrees, is measured as radians. The use of radians makes a good bit of other work easier. Mathematicians get to accustomed to using radians that to use degrees seems slightly alien. The cosine of 15.2 radians, then, would be about -0.874. Eugene has apparently left his calculator in degree mode, rather than radian mode. If he weren’t so worked up about the hyperbolic cosine being wrong he might have noticed. Perhaps that will be another exciting error to discover down the line.

This strip was part of a several-months-long story Bill Amend did, in which Jason has adventures at Math Camp. I don’t remember the whole story. But I do expect the strip to have several more appearances here this summer.

My subject for today is another from Iva Sallay, longtime friend of the blog and creator of the Find the Factors recreational mathematics game. I think you’ll likely find something enjoyable at her site, whether it’s the puzzle or the neat bits of trivia as she works through all the counting numbers.

Unit Fractions.

We don’t notice how unit fractions are around us. Likely there’s some in your pocket. Or there have been recently. Think of what you do when paying for a thing, when it’s not a whole number of dollars. (Pounds, euros, whatever the unit of currency is.) Suppose you have exact change. What do you give for the 38 cents?

Likely it’s something like a 25-cent piece and a 10-cent piece and three one-cent pieces. This is an American and Canadian solution. I know that 20-cent pieces are more common than 25-cent ones worldwide. It doesn’t make much difference; if you want it to be three 10-cent, one five-cent, and three one-cent pieces that’s as good. And granted, outside the United States it’s growing common to drop pennies altogether and round prices off to a five- or ten-cent value. Again, it doesn’t make much difference.

But look at the coins. The 25 cent piece is one-quarter of a dollar. It’s even called that, and stamped that on one side. I sometimes hear a dime called “a tenth of a dollar”, although mostly by carnival barkers in one-reel cartoons of the 1930s. A nickel is one-twentieth of a dollar. A penny is one-hundredth. A 20-cent piece is one-fifth of a dollar. And there are half-dollars out there, although not in the United States, not really anymore.

(Pre-decimalized currencies offered even more unit fractions. Using old British coins, for familiarity-to-me and great names, there were farthings, 1/960th of a pound; halfpennies, 1/480th; pennies, 1/240th; threepence, 1/80th of a pound; groats, 1/60th; sixpence, 1/40th; florins, 1/10th; half-crowns, 1/8th; crowns, 1/4th. And what seem to the modern wallet like impossibly tiny fractions like the half-, third-, and quarter-farthings used where 1/3840th of a pound might be a needed sum of money.)

Unit fractions get named and defined somewhere in elementary school arithmetic. They go on, becoming forgotten sometime after that. They might make a brief reappearance in calculus. There are some rational functions that get easier to integrate if you think of them as the sums of fractions, with constant numerators and polynomial denominators. These aren’t unit fractions. A unit fraction has a 1, the unit, in the numerator. But we see units along the way to integrating as an example. And see it in the promise that there are still more amazing integrals to learn how to do.

They get more attention if you take a history of computation class. Or read the subject on your own. Unit fractions stand out in history. We learn the Ancient Egyptians worked with fractions as sums of unit fractions. That is, had they dollars, they would not look at the we do. They would look at plus plus plus plus . When we count change we are using, without noticing it, a very old computing scheme.

This isn’t quite true. The Ancient Egyptians seemed to shun repeating a unit like that. To use once is fine; three times is suspicious. They would prefer something like plus plus . Or maybe some other combination. I just wrote out the first one I found.

But there are many ways we can make 38 cents using ordinary coins of the realm. There are infinitely many ways to make up any fraction using unit fractions. There’s surely a most “efficient”. Most efficient might be the one which uses the fewest number of terms. Most efficient might be the one that uses the smallest denominators. Choose what you like; no one knows a scheme that always turns up the most efficient, either way. We can always find some representation, though. It may not be “good”, but it will exist, which may be good enough. Leonardo of Pisa, or as he got named in the 19th century, Fibonacci, proved that was true.

We may ask why the Egyptians used unit fractions. They seem inefficient compared to the way we work with fractions. Or, better, decimals. I’m not sure the question can have a coherent answer. Why do we have a fashion for converting fractions to a “proper” form? Why do we use the number of decimal points we do for a given calculation? Sometimes a particular mode of expression is the fashion. It comes to seem natural because everyone uses it. We do it too.

And there is practicality to them. Even efficiency. If you need π, for example, you can write it as 3 plus plus and your answer is off by under one part in a thousand. Combine this with the Egyptian method of multiplication, where you would think of (say) “11 times π” as “1 times π plus 2 times π plus 8 times π”. And with tables they had worked up which tell you what and would be in a normal representation. You can get rather good calculations without having to do more than addition and looking up doublings. Represent π as 3 plus plus plus and you’re correct to within one part in 130 million. That isn’t bad for having to remember four whole numbers.

(The Ancient Egyptians, like many of us, were not absolutely consistent in only using unit fractions. They had symbols to represent and , probably due to these numbers coming up all the time. Human systems vary to make the commonest stuff we do easier.)

Enough practicality or efficiency, if this is that. Is there beauty? Is there wonder? Certainly. Much of it is in number theory. Number theory splits between astounding results and results that would be astounding if we had any idea how to prove them. Many of the astounding results are about unit fractions. Take, for example, the harmonic series . Truncate that series whenever you decide you’ve had enough. Different numbers of terms in this series will add up to different numbers. Eventually, infinitely many numbers. The numbers will grow ever-higher. There’s no number so big that it won’t, eventually, be surpassed by some long-enough truncated harmonic series. And yet, past the number 1, it’ll never touch a whole number again. Infinitely many partial sums. Partial sums differing from one another by one-googol-plex and smaller. And yet of the infinitely many whole numbers this series manages to miss them all, after its starting point. Worse, any set of consecutive terms, not even starting from 1, will never hit a whole number. I can understand a person who thinks mathematics is boring, but how can anyone not find it astonishing?

There are more strange, beautiful things. Consider heptagonal numbers, which Iva Sallay knows well. These are numbers like 1 and 7 and 18 and 34 and 55 and 1288. Take a heptagonal number of, oh, beads or dots or whatever, and you can lay them out to form a regular seven-sided figure. Add together the reciprocals of the heptagonal numbers. What do you get? It’s a weird number. It’s irrational, which you maybe would have guessed as more likely than not. But it’s also transcendental. Most real numbers are transcendental. But it’s often hard to prove any specific number is.

Unit fractions creep back into actual use. For example, in modular arithmetic, they offer a way to turn division back into multiplication. Division, in modular arithmetic, tends to be hard. Indeed, if you need an algorithm to make random-enough numbers, you often will do something with division in modular arithmetic. Suppose you want to divide by a number x, modulo y, and x and y are relatively prime, though. Then unit fractions tell us how to turn this into finding a greatest common denominator problem.

They teach us about our computers, too. Much of serious numerical mathematics involves matrix multiplication. Matrices are, for this purpose, tables of numbers. The Hilbert Matrix has elements that are entirely unit fractions. The Hilbert Matrix is really a family of square matrices. Pick any of the family you like. It can have two rows and two columns, or three rows and three columns, or ten rows and ten columns, or a million rows and a million columns. Your choice. The first row is made of the numbers and so on. The second row is made of the numbers and so on. The third row is made of the numbers and so on. You see how this is going.

Matrices can have inverses. It’s not guaranteed; matrices are like that. But the Hilbert Matrix does. It’s another matrix, of the same size. All the terms in it are integers. Multiply the Hilbert Matrix by its inverse and you get the Identity Matrix. This is a matrix, the same number of rows and columns as you started with. But nearly every element in the identity matrix is zero. The only exceptions are on the diagonal — first row, first column; second row, second column; third row, third column; and so on. There, the identity matrix has a 1. The identity matrix works, for matrix multiplication, much like the real number 1 works for normal multiplication.

Matrix multiplication is tedious. It’s not hard, but it involves a lot of multiplying and adding and it just takes forever. So set a computer to do this! And you get … uh ..

For a small Hilbert Matrix and its inverse, you get an identity matrix. That’s good. For a large Hilbert Matrix and its inverse? You get garbage. Large isn’t maybe very large. A 12 by 12 matrix gives you trouble. A 14 by 14 matrix gives you a mess. Well, on my computer it does. Cute little laptop I got when my former computer suddenly died. On a better computer? One designed for computation? … You could do a little better. Less good than you might imagine.

The trouble is that computers don’t really do mathematics. They do an approximation of it, numerical computing. Most use a scheme called floating point arithmetic. It mostly works well. There’s a bit of error in every calculation. For most calculations, though, the error stays small. At least relatively small. The Hilbert Matrix, built of unit fractions, doesn’t respect this. It and its inverse have a “numerical instability”. Some kinds of calculations make errors explode. They’ll overwhelm the meaningful calculation. It’s a bit of a mess.

Numerical instability is something anyone doing mathematics on the computer must learn. Must grow comfortable with. Must understand. The matrix multiplications, and inverses, that the Hilbert Matrix involves highlights those. A great and urgent example of a subtle danger of computerized mathematics waits for us in these unit fractions. And we’ve known and felt comfortable with them for thousands of years.

There’ll be some mathematical term with a name starting ‘V’ that, barring surprises, should be posted Friday. What’ll it be? I have an idea at least. It’ll be available at this link, as are the rest of these glossary posts.

Last week had enough mathematically-themed comics for me to split the content. Usually I split the comics temporally, and this time I will too. What’s unusual is that somewhere along the week the URLs that GoComics pages provide switched from http to https. https is the less-openly-insecure version of the messaging protocol that sends web pages around. It’s good practice; we should be using https wherever possible. I don’t know why they switched that on, and why switch it on midweek. I suppose someone there knew what they were doing.

Tom Wilson’s Ziggy for the 6th of May uses mathematical breakthroughs as shorthand for inspiration. In two ways, too, one with a basically geometric figure and one with a bunch of equations. The geometric figure doesn’t seem to have any significance to me. The equations … that’s a bit harder. They’re probably nonsense. But it’s hard to look at ‘a’ and not see acceleration; the letter is often used for that. And it’s hard to look at ‘v’ and not see velocity. ‘x’ is often a position and ‘t’ is often a time. ‘x_{f} – x_{i}‘ looks meaningful too. It almost begs to be read as “position, final, minus position, initial”. “t_{f} – t_{i}” almost begs to be read as “time, final, minus time, initial”. And the difference in position divided by a difference in time suggests a velocity.

So here’s something peculiar inspired by looking at the units that have to follow. If ‘v’ is velocity, then it’s got units of distance over time. and would have units of distance-squared over time-squared. At least unless ‘a ‘or ‘V’ or ‘I’ are themselves measurements. But the square root of their sum then gets us back to distance over time. And then a distance-over-time divided by … well, distance-over-time suggests a pure number. Or something of whatever units ‘R’ carries with it.

So this equation seems arbitrary, and of course the expression doesn’t need to make sense for the joke. But it’s odd that the most-obvious choice of meanings for v and x and t means that the symbols work out so well. At least almost: an acceleration should have units of distance-over-time-squared, and this has units of (nothing). But I may have guessed wrong in thinking ‘a’ meant acceleration here. It might be a description of how something in one direction corresponds to something in another. And that would make sense as a pure number. I wonder whether Wilson got this expression from from anything, or if any readers recognize something that I should have seen right away.

Todd Clark’s Lola for the 7th jokes about being bad at mathematics. The number of days left to the end of school isn’t something that a kid should have trouble working out. However, do remember the first rule of calculating the span between two dates on the calendar: never calculate the span between two dates on the calendar. There is so much that goes wrong trying. All right, there’s a method. That method is let someone else do it.

Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff for the 7th uses the form of those mathematics-magic games. You know, the ones where you ask someone to pick a number, then do some operations, and then tell you the result. From that you reverse-engineer the original number. They’re amusing enough tricks even if they are all basically the same. It’s instructive to figure out how they work. Replace your original number with symbols and follow the steps then. If you just need the number itself you can replace that with ‘x’. If you need the digits of the number then you’d replace it with something like “10*a + b”, to represent the numerals “ab”. Here, yeah, Mutt’s just being arbitrarily mean.

Paul Gilligan and Kory Merritt’s Poptropica for the 7th depicts calculating stuff as the way to act like a robot. Can’t deny; calculation is pretty much what we expect computers to do. It may hide. It may be done so abstractly it looks like we’re playing Mini Metro instead. This is a new comics tag. I’m sad to say this might be the last use of that tag. Poptropica is fun, but it doesn’t touch on mathematics much at all.

Gene Mora’s Graffiti for the 8th mentions arithmetic, albeit obliquely. It’s meant to be pasted on the doors of kindergarten teachers and who am I to spoil the fun?

Scott Hilburn’s The Argyle Sweater for the 9th is the anthropomorphic-numerals joke for this week. Converting between decimals and fractions has been done since decimals got worked out in the late 16th century. There’s advantages to either representation. To my eyes the biggest advantage of fractions is they avoid hypnotizing people with the illusion of precision. 0.25 reads as more exact than 1/4. We can imagine it being 0.2500000000000000 and think we know the quantity to any desired precision. 1/4 reads (to me, anyway) as being open to the possibility we’re rounding off from 0.998 out of 4.00023.

Another advantage fractions do have is flexibility. There are infinitely many ways to express the same number as a fraction. In decimals, there are at most two. If you’re trying to calculate something that would be more easily done with a denominator of 30 than of 5, you’re free to do that. Decimals can have advantages in computing, certainly, especially if you’re already set up to manipulate digits. And you can tell at a glance whether, say, 14/29th is greater or less than 154/317th. In case you ever find reason to wonder, I mean. I’m not saying either is always the right way to go.

From the Sunday and Monday comics pages I was expecting another banner week. And then there was just nothing from Tuesday on, at least not among the comic strips I read. Maybe Comic Strip Master Command has ordered jokes saved up for the last weeks before summer vacation.

Tony Cochrane’s Agnes for the 7th is a mathematics anxiety strip. It’s well-expressed, since Cochrane writes this sort of hyperbole well. It also shows a common attitude that words and stories are these warm, friendly things, while mathematics and numbers are cold and austere. Perhaps Agnes is right to say some of the problem is familiarity. It’s surely impossible to go a day without words, if you interact with people or their legacies; to go without numbers … well, properly impossible. There’s too many things that have to be counted. Or places where arithmetic sneaks in, such as getting enough money to buy a thing. But those don’t seem to be the kinds of mathematics people get anxious about. Figuring out how much change, that’s different.

I suppose some of it is familiarity. It’s easier to dislike stuff you don’t do often. The unfamiliar is frightening, or at least annoying. And humans are story-oriented. Even nonfiction forms stories well. Mathematics … has stories, as do all human projects. But the mathematics itself? I don’t know. There’s just beautiful ingenuity and imagination in a lot of it. I’d just been thinking of the just beautiful scheme for calculating logarithms from a short table. But it takes time to get to that beauty.

Gary Wise and Lance Aldrich’s Real Life Adventures for the 7th is a fractions joke. It might also be a joke about women concealing their ages. Or perhaps it’s about mathematicians expressing things in needlessly complicated ways. I think that’s less a mathematician’s trait than a common human trait. If you’re expert in a thing it’s hard to resist the puckish fun of showing that expertise off. Or just sowing confusion where one may.

Daniel Shelton’s Ben for the 8th is a kid-doing-arithmetic problem. Even I can’t squeeze some deeper subject meaning out of it, but it’s a slow week so I’ll include the strip anyway. Sorry.

Brian Boychuk and Ron Boychuk’s Chuckle Brothers for the 8th is the return of anthropomorphic-geometry joke after what feels like months without. I haven’t checked how long it’s been without but I’m assuming you’ll let me claim that. Thank you.

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.

Stephan Pastis’s Pearls Before Swine for the 24th jams a bunch of angle puns into its six panels. I think it gets most of the basic set in there.

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.

Last week had a whole bundle and a half of mathematically-themed comics so let me finish off the set. Also let me refresh my appeal for words for my End Of 2016 Mathematics A To Z. There’s all sorts of letters not yet claimed; please think of a mathematical term and request it!

David L Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble for the 19th gives us a chance to do some word puzzle games again. If you like getting the big answer without doing the individual words then pay attention to the blackboard in the comic. Just saying.

Patrick J Marran’s Francis for the 20th features origami, as well as some of the more famous polyhedrons. The study of what shapes you can make from a flat sheet by origami processes — just folding, no cutting — is a neat one. Apparently origami geometry can be built out of seven axioms. I’m delighted to learn that the axioms were laid out as recently as 1992, with the exception of one that went unnoticed until 2002.

Gabby describes her shape as an isocahedron, which must be a typo. We all make them. There’s icosahedrons which look like that figure and I’ve certainly slipped consonants around that way.

I’m surprised and delighted to find there are ways to make an origami icosahedron. Her figure doesn’t look much like the origami icosahedron of those instructions, but there are many icosahedrons. The name just means there are 20 faces to the polyhedron so there’s a lot of room for variants.

If you were wondering, yes, the Francis of the title is meant to be the Pope. It’s kind of a Pope Francis fan comic. I cannot explain this phenomenon.

Rick Detorie’s One Big Happy rerun for the 21st retells one of the standard jokes you can always make about fractions. Fortunately it uses that only as part of the setup, which shows off why I’ve long liked Detorie’s work. Good cartoonists — good writers — take a stock joke and add something to make it fit their characters.

I’ve featured Richard Thompson’s Poor Richard’s Almanac rerun from the 21st before. I’ll surely feature it again. I just like Richard Thompson art like this. This is my dubious inclusion of the essay. In “What’s New At The Zoo” he tosses off a mention of chimpanzees now typing at 120 words per minute. A comic reference to the famous thought experiment of a monkey, or a hundred monkeys, or infinitely many monkeys given typewriters and time to write all the works of literature? Maybe. Or it might just be that it’s a funny idea. It is, of course.

In Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 22nd Hammie offers multiple answers to each mathematics problem. “I like to increase my odds,” he says. For arithmetic problems, that’s not really helping. But it is often useful, especially in modeling complicated systems, to work out multiple answers. If you’re not sure how something should behave, and it’s troublesome to run experiments, then try develop several different models. If the models all describe similar behavior, then, good! It’s reason to believe you’re probably right, or at least close to right. If the models disagree about their conclusions then you need information. You need experimental results. The ways your models disagree can inspire new experiments.

Mark Leiknes’s Cow and Boy rerun for the 22nd is another with one of the standard jokes you can make about fractions. I suspect I’ve featured this before too, but I quite like Cow and Boy. It’s sad that the strip was cancelled, and couldn’t make a go of it as web comic. I’m not surprised; the strip had so many running jokes it might as well have had a deer and an orca shooting rocket-propelled grenades at new readers. But it’s grand seeing the many, many, many running jokes as they were first established. This is part of the sequence in which Billy, the Boy of the title, discovers there’s another kid named Billy in the class, quickly dubbed Smart Billy for reasons the strip makes clear.

As I said Sunday, there were more mathematics-mentioning comic strips than I expected last week. So do please read this little one and consider it an extra. The best stuff to talk about is from Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, which may or may not count as a comic strip. Depends how you view these things.

Randy Glasbergen’s Glasbergen Cartoons for the 29th just uses arithmetic as the sort of problem it’s easiest to hide in bed from. We’ve all been there. And the problem doesn’t really enter into the joke at all. It’s just easy to draw.

John Graziano’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not on the 29th shows off a bit of real trivia: that 599 is the smallest number whose digits add up to 23. And yet it doesn’t say what the largest number is. That’s actually fair enough. There isn’t one. If you had a largest number whose digits add up to 23, you could get a bigger one by multiplying it by ten: 5990, for example. Or otherwise add a zero somewhere in the digits: 5099; or 50,909; or 50,909,000. If we ignore zeroes, though, there are finitely many different ways to write a number with digits that add up to 23. This is almost an example of a partition problem. Partitions are about how to break up a set of things into groups of one or more. But in a partition proper we don’t really care about the order: 5-9-9 is as good as 9-9-5. But we can see some minor differences between 599 and 995 as numbers. I imagine there must be a name for the sort of partition problem in which order matters, but I don’t know what it is. I’ll take nominations if someone’s heard of one.

Graziano’s Ripley’s sneaks back in here the next day, too, with a trivia almost as baffling as the proper credit for the strip. I don’t know what Graziano is getting at with the claim that Ancient Greeks didn’t consider “one” to be a number. None of the commenters have an idea either and my exhaustive minutes of researching haven’t worked it out.

But I wouldn’t blame the Ancient Greeks for finding something strange about 1. We find something strange about it too. Most notably, of all the counting numbers 1 falls outside the classifications of “prime” and “composite”. It fits into its own special category, “unity”. It divides into every whole number evenly; only it and zero do that, if you don’t consider zero to be a whole number. It’s the multiplicative identity, and it’s the numerator in the set of unit fractions — one-half and one-third and one-tenth and all that — the first fractions that people understand. There’s good reasons to find something exceptional about 1.

dro-mo for the 30th somehow missed both Pi Day and Tau Day. I imagine it’s a rerun that the artist wasn’t watching too closely.

I knew my readership would drop off after I fell back from daily posting. Apparently it was worse than I imagined and nobody read my little blog here over the weekend. That’s fair enough; I had to tend other things myself. Still, for the purpose of maximizing the number of page views around here, taking two whole days off in a row was a mistake. There’s some more discussed in this Reading The Comics installment.

Word problems are dull. At least at the primary-school level. There’s all these questions about trains going in different directions or ropes sweeping out areas or water filling troughs. So Aaron McGruder’s Boondocks rerun from the 5th of May (originally run the 22nd of February, 2001) is a cute change. It’s at least the start of a legitimate word problem, based on the ways the recording industry took advantage of artists in the dismal days of fifteen years ago. I’m sure that’s all been fixed by now. Fill in some numbers and the question might interest people.

Glenn McCoy and Gary McCoy’s The Duplex for the 5th of May is a misunderstanding-fractions joke. I’m amused by the idea of messing up quarter-pound burgers. But it also brings to mind a summer when I worked for the Great Adventure amusement park and got assigned one day as cashier at the Great American Hamburger Stand. Thing is, I didn’t know anything about the stand besides the data point that they probably sold hamburgers. So customers would order stuff I didn’t know, and I couldn’t find how to enter it on the register, and all told it was a horrible mess. If you were stuck in that impossibly slow-moving line, I am sorry, but it was management’s fault; I told them I didn’t know what I was even selling. Also I didn’t know the drink cup sizes so I just charged you for whatever you said and if I gave you the wrong size I hope it was more soda than you needed.

On a less personal note, I have heard the claim about why one-third-pound burgers failed in United States fast-food places. Several chains tried them out in the past decade and they didn’t last, allegedly because too many customers thought a third of a pound was less than a quarter pound and weren’t going to pay more for less beef. It’s … plausible enough, I suppose, because people have never been good with fractions. But I suspect the problem is more linguistic. A quarter-pounder has a nice rhythm to it. A half-pound burger is a nice strong order to say. A third-pound burger? The words don’t even sound right. You have to say “third-of-a-pound burger” to make it seem like English, and it’s a terribly weak phrase. The fast food places should’ve put their money into naming it something that suggested big-ness but not too-big-to-eat.

Mark Tatulli’s Heart of the City for the 5th is about Heart’s dread of mathematics. Her expressed fear, that making one little mistake means the entire answer is wrong, is true enough. But how how much is that “enough”? If you add together someting that should be (say) 18, and you make it out to be 20 instead, that is an error. But that’s a different sort of error from adding them together and getting 56 instead.

And errors propagate. At least they do in real problems, in which you are calculating something because you want to use it for something else. An arithmetic error on one step might grow, possibly quite large, with further steps. That’s trouble. This is known as an “unstable” numerical calculation, in much the way a tin of picric acid dropped from a great height onto a fire is an “unstable” chemical. The error might stay about as large as it started out being, though. And that’s less troublesome. A mistake might stay predictable. The calculation is “stable” In a few blessed cases an error might be minimized by further calculations. You have to arrange the calculations cleverly to make that possible, though. That’s an extremely stable calculation.

And this is important because we always make errors. At least in any real calculation we do. When we want to turn, say, a formula like πr^{2} into a number we have to make a mistake. π is not 3.14, nor is it 3.141592, nor is it 3.14159265358979311599796346854418516. Does the error we make by turning π into some numerical approximation matter? It depends what we’re calculating, and how. There’s no escaping error and it might be a comfort to Heart, or any student, to know that much of mathematics is about understanding and managing error.

Joe Martin’s Boffo for the 6th of May is in its way about the wonder of very large numbers. On some reasonable assumptions — that our experience is typical, that nothing is causing traits to be concentrated one way or another — we can realize that we probably will not see any extreme condition. In this case, it’s about the most handsome men in the universe probably not even being in our galaxy. If the universe is large enough and people common enough in it, that’s probably right. But we likely haven’t got the least handsome either. Lacking reason to suppose otherwise we can guess that we’re in the vast middle.

David L Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble for the 6th of May mentions mathematicians and that’s enough, isn’t it? Without spoiling the puzzle for anyone, I will say that “inocci” certainly ought to be a word meaning something. So get on that, word-makers.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 6th brings some good Venn Diagram humor back to my pages. Good. It’s been too long.

In today’s installment of Reading The Comics, mathematics gets name-dropped a bunch in strips that aren’t really about my favorite subject other than my love. Also, I reveal the big lie we’ve been fed about who drew the Henry comic strip attributed to Carl Anderson. Finally, I get a question from Queen Victoria. I feel like this should be the start of a podcast.

Patrick Roberts’ Todd the Dinosaur for the 6th of April just name-drops mathematics. The flash cards suggest it. They’re almost iconic for learning arithmetic. I’ve seen flash cards for other subjects. But apart from learning the words of other languages I’ve never been able to make myself believe they’d work. On the other hand, I haven’t used flash cards to learn (or teach) things myself.

Joe Martin’s Boffo for the 7th of April is a solid giggle. (I have a pretty watery giggle myself.) There are unknowable, or at least unprovable, things in mathematics. Any logic system with enough rules to be interesting has ideas which would make sense, and which might be true, but which can’t be proven. Arithmetic is such a system. But just fractions and long division by itself? No, I think we need something more abstract for that.

Carl Anderson’s Henry for the 7th of April is, of course, a rerun. It’s also a rerun that gives away that the “Carl Anderson” credit is a lie. Anderson turned over drawing the comic strip in 1942 to John Liney, for weekday strips, and Don Trachte for Sundays. There is no possible way the phrase “New Math” appeared on the cover of a textbook Carl Anderson drew. Liney retired in 1979, and Jack Tippit took over until 1983. Then Dick Hodgins, Jr, drew the strip until 1990. So depending on how quickly word of the New Math penetrated Comic Strip Master Command, this was drawn by either Liney, Tippit, or possibly Hodgins. (Peanuts made New Math jokes in the 60s, but it does seem the older the comic strip the longer it takes to mention new stuff.) I don’t know when these reruns date from. I also don’t know why Comics Kingdom is fibbing about the artist. But then they went and cancelled The Katzenjammer Kids without telling anyone either.

Eric the Circle for the 8th, this one by “lolz”, declares that Eric doesn’t like being graphed. This is your traditional sort of graph, one in which points with coordinates x and y are on the plot if their values make some equation true. For a circle, that equation’s something like (x – a)^{2} + (y – b)^{2} = r^{2}. Here (a, b) are the coordinates for the point that’s the center of the circle, and r is the radius of the circle. This looks a lot like Eric is centered on the origin, the point with coordinates (0, 0). It’s a popular choice. Any center is as good. Another would just have equations that take longer to work with.

Richard Thompson’s Cul de Sac rerun for the 10th is so much fun to look at that I’m including it even though it just name-drops mathematics. The joke would be the same if it were something besides fractions. Although see Boffo.

Norm Feuti’s Gil rerun for the 10th takes on mathematics’ favorite group theory application, the Rubik’s Cube. It’s the way I solved them best. This approach falls outside the bounds of normal group theory, though.

Mac King and Bill King’s Magic in a Minute for the 10th shows off a magic trick. It’s also a non-Rubik’s-cube problem in group theory. One of the groups that a mathematics major learns, after integers-mod-four and the like, is the permutation group. In this, the act of swapping two (or more) things is a thing. This puzzle restricts the allowed permutations down to swapping one item with the thing next to it. And thanks to that, an astounding result emerges. It’s worth figuring out why the trick would work. If you can figure out the reason the first set of switches have to leave a penny on the far right then you’ve got the gimmick solved.

Take a huge bag and stuff all the real numbers into it. Give the bag a good solid shaking. Stir up all the numbers until they’re thoroughly mixed. Reach in and grab just the one. There you go: you’ve got a transcendental number. Enjoy!

OK, I detect some grumbling out there. The first is that you tried doing this in your head because you somehow don’t have a bag large enough to hold all the real numbers. And you imagined pulling out some number like “2” or “37” or maybe “one-half”. And you may not be exactly sure what a transcendental number is. But you’re confident the strangest number you extracted, “minus 8”, isn’t it. And you’re right. None of those are transcendental numbers.

I regret saying this, but that’s your own fault. You’re lousy at picking random numbers from your head. So am I. We all are. Don’t believe me? Think of a positive whole number. I predict you probably picked something between 1 and 10. Almost surely something between 1 and 100. Surely something less than 10,000. You didn’t even consider picking something between 10,012,002,214,473,325,937,775 and 10,012,002,214,473,325,937,785. Challenged to pick a number, people will select nice and familiar ones. The nice familiar numbers happen not to be transcendental.

I detect some secondary grumbling there. Somebody picked π. And someone else picked e. Very good. Those are transcendental numbers. They’re also nice familiar numbers, at least to people who like mathematics a lot. So they attract attention.

Still haven’t said what they are. What they are traces back, of course, to polynomials. Take a polynomial that’s got one variable, which we call ‘x’ because we don’t want to be difficult. Suppose that all the coefficients of the polynomial, the constant numbers we presumably know or could find out, are integers. What are the roots of the polynomial? That is, for what values of x is the polynomial a complicated way of writing ‘zero’?

For example, try the polynomial x^{2} – 6x + 5. If x = 1, then that polynomial is equal to zero. If x = 5, the polynomial’s equal to zero. Or how about the polynomial x^{2} + 4x + 4? That’s equal to zero if x is equal to -2. So a polynomial with integer coefficients can certainly have positive and negative integers as roots.

How about the polynomial 2x – 3? Yes, that is so a polynomial. This is almost easy. That’s equal to zero if x = 3/2. How about the polynomial (2x – 3)(4x + 5)(6x – 7)? It’s my polynomial and I want to write it so it’s easy to find the roots. That polynomial will be zero if x = 3/2, or if x = -5/4, or if x = 7/6. So a polynomial with integer coefficients can have positive and negative rational numbers as roots.

How about the polynomial x^{2} – 2? That’s equal to zero if x is the square root of 2, about 1.414. It’s also equal to zero if x is minus the square root of 2, about -1.414. And the square root of 2 is irrational. So we can certainly have irrational numbers as roots.

So if we can have whole numbers, and rational numbers, and irrational numbers as roots, how can there be anything else? Yes, complex numbers, I see you raising your hand there. We’re not talking about complex numbers just now. Only real numbers.

It isn’t hard to work out why we can get any whole number, positive or negative, from a polynomial with integer coefficients. Or why we can get any rational number. The irrationals, though … it turns out we can only get some of them this way. We can get square roots and cube roots and fourth roots and all that. We can get combinations of those. But we can’t get everything. There are irrational numbers that are there but that even polynomials can’t reach.

It’s all right to be surprised. It’s a surprising result. Maybe even unsettling. Transcendental numbers have something peculiar about them. The 19th Century French mathematician Joseph Liouville first proved the things must exist, in 1844. (He used continued fractions to show there must be such things.) It would be seven years later that he gave an example of one in nice, easy-to-understand decimals. This is the number 0.110 001 000 000 000 000 000 001 000 000 (et cetera). This number is zero almost everywhere. But there’s a 1 in the n-th digit past the decimal if n is the factorial of some number. That is, 1! is 1, so the 1st digit past the decimal is a 1. 2! is 2, so the 2nd digit past the decimal is a 1. 3! is 6, so the 6th digit past the decimal is a 1. 4! is 24, so the 24th digit past the decimal is a 1. The next 1 will appear in spot number 5!, which is 120. After that, 6! is 720 so we wait for the 720th digit to be 1 again.

And what is this Liouville number 0.110 001 000 000 000 000 000 001 000 000 (et cetera) used for, besides showing that a transcendental number exists? Not a thing. It’s of no other interest. And this plagued the transcendental numbers until 1873. The only examples anyone had of transcendental numbers were ones built to show that they existed. In 1873 Charles Hermite showed finally that e, the base of the natural logarithm, was transcendental. e is a much more interesting number; we have reasons to care about it. Every exponential growth or decay or oscillating process has e lurking in it somewhere. In 1882 Ferdinand von Lindemann showed that π was transcendental, and that’s an even more interesting number.

That bit about π has interesting implications. One goes back to the ancient Greeks. Is it possible, using straightedge and compass, to create a square that’s exactly the same size as a given circle? This is equivalent to saying, if I give you a line segment, can you create another line segment that’s exactly the square root of π times as long? This geometric problem is equivalent to an algebraic one. That problem: can you create a polynomial, with integer coefficients, that has the square root of π as a root? (WARNING: I’m skipping some important points for the sake of clarity. DO NOT attempt to use this to pass your thesis defense without putting those points back in.) We want the square root of π because … well, what’s the area of a square whose sides are the square root of π long? That’s right. So we start with a line segment that’s equal to the radius of the circle and we can do that, surely. Once we have the radius, can’t we make a line that’s the square root of π times the radius, and from that make a square with area exactly π times the radius squared? Since π is transcendental, then, no. We can’t. Sorry. One of the great problems of ancient mathematics, and one that still has the power to attract the casual mathematician, got its final answer in 1882.

Georg Cantor is a name even non-mathematicians might recognize. He showed there have to be some infinite sets bigger than others, and that there must be more real numbers than there are rational numbers. Four years after showing that, he proved there are as many transcendental numbers as there are real numbers.

They’re everywhere. They permeate the real numbers so much that we can understand the real numbers as the transcendental numbers plus some dust. They’re almost the dark matter of mathematics. We don’t actually know all that many of them. Wolfram MathWorld has a table listing numbers proven to be transcendental, and the fact we can list that on a single web page is remarkable. Some of them are large sets of numbers, yes, like for every positive whole number d. And we can infer many more from them; if π is transcendental then so is 2π, and so is 5π, and so is -20.38π, and so on. But the table of numbers proven to be irrational is still just 25 rows long.

There are even mysteries about obvious numbers. π is transcendental. So is e. We know that at least one of π times e and π plus e is transcendental. Perhaps both are. We don’t know which one is, or if both are. We don’t know whether π^{π} is transcendental. We don’t know whether e^{e} is, either. Don’t even ask if π^{e} is.

How, by the way, does this fit with my claim that everything in mathematics is polynomials? — Well, we found these numbers in the first place by looking at polynomials. The set is defined, even to this day, by how a particular kind of polynomial can’t reach them. Thinking about a particular kind of polynomial makes visible this interesting set.

I discussed continued fractions recently, and with some controversy. So I imagine people might be interested in another view.

Friday’s post on the MathsByAGirl blog is on the subject. Continued fractions get more discussion than I offered about how to represent them, and what those representations might tell us.

There are fashions in mathematics. There are fashions in all human endeavors. But mathematics almost begs people to forget that it is a human endeavor. Sometimes a field of mathematics will be popular a while and then fade. Some fade almost to oblivion. Continued fractions are one of them.

A continued fraction comes from a simple enough starting point. Start with a whole number. Add a fraction to it. . Everyone knows what that is. But then look at the denominator. In this case, that’s the ‘3’. Why couldn’t that be a sum, instead? No reason. Imagine then the number . Is there a reason that we couldn’t, instead of the ‘4’ there, have a fraction instead? No reason beyond our own timidity. Let’s be courageous. Does even mean anything?

Well, sure. It’s getting a little hard to read, but is a fine enough number. It’s 3.8. is a less friendly number, but it’s a number anyway. It’s a little over 0.526. (It takes a fair number of digits past the decimal before it ends, but trust me, it does.) And we can add 1 to that easily. So means a number a slight bit more than 1.526.

Dare we replace the “5” in that expression with a sum? Better, with the sum of a whole number and a fraction? If we don’t fear being audacious, yes. Could we replace the denominator of that with another sum? Yes. Can we keep doing this forever, creating this never-ending stack of whole numbers plus fractions? … If we want an irrational number, anyway. If we want a rational number, this stack will eventually end. But suppose we feel like creating an infinitely long stack of continued fractions. Can we do it? Why not? Who dares, wins!

OK. Wins what, exactly?

Well … um. Continued fractions certainly had a fashionable time. John Wallis, the 17th century mathematician famous for introducing the ∞ symbol, and for an interminable quarrel with Thomas Hobbes over Hobbes’s attempts to reform mathematics, did much to establish continuous fractions as a field of study. (He’s credited with inventing the field. But all claims to inventing something big are misleading. Real things are complicated and go back farther than people realize, and inventions are more ambiguous than people think.) The astronomer Christiaan Huygens showed how to use continued fractions to design better gear ratios. This may strike you as the dullest application of mathematics ever. Let it. It’s also important stuff. People who need to scale one movement to another need this.

In the 18th and 19th century continued fractions became interesting for higher mathematics. Continued fractions were the approach Leonhard Euler used to prove that e had to be irrational. That’s one of the superstar numbers of mathematics. Johan Heinrich Lambert used this to show that if θ is a rational number (other than zero) then the tangent of θ must be irrational. This is one path to showing that π must be irrational. Many of the astounding theorems of Srinivasa Ramanujan were about continued fractions, or ideas which built on continued fractions.

But since the early 20th century the field’s evaporated. I don’t have a good answer why. The best speculation I’ve heard is that the field seems to fit poorly into any particular topic. Continued fractions get interesting when you have an infinitely long stack of nesting denominators. You don’t want to work with infinitely long strings of things before you’ve studied calculus. You have to be comfortable with these things. But that means students don’t encounter it until college, at least. And at that point fractions seem beneath the grade level. There’s a handful of proofs best done by them. But those proofs can be shown as odd, novel approaches to these particular problems. Studying the whole field is hardly needed.

Will continued fractions make a comeback? Maybe. It might take the discovery of some interesting new results, or some better visualization tools, to reignite interest. Chaos theory, the study of deterministic yet unpredictable systems, first grew (we now recognize) in the 1890s. But it fell into obscurity. When we got some new theoretical papers and the ability to do computer simulations, it flowered again. For a time it looked ready to take over all mathematics, although we’ve got things under better control now. Could continued fractions do the same? I’m skeptical, but won’t rule it out.

Postscript: something you notice quickly with continued fractions is they’re a pain to typeset. We’re all right with . But after that the LaTeX engine that WordPress uses to render mathematical symbols is doomed. A real LaTeX engine gets another couple nested denominators in before the situation is hopeless. If you’re writing this out on paper, the way people did in the 19th century, that’s all right. But there’s no typing it out that way.

But notation is made for us, not us for notation. If we want to write a continued fraction in which the numerators are all 1, we have a brackets shorthand available. In this we would write as [2; 3, 4, … ]. The numbers are the whole numbers added to the next level of fractions. Another option, and one that lends itself to having numerators which aren’t 1, is to write out a string of fractions. In this we’d write . We have to trust people notice the + sign is in the denominator there. But if people know we’re doing continued fractions then they know to look for the peculiar notation.

My love and I saw Only Yesterday recently. It’s a 1991 Studio Ghibli film, directed by Isao Takahata. It hasn’t had a United States release before, which is a pity; it’s quite good. The movie is about a woman, Taeko, reflecting on her childhood as she considers changing her life. One of the many wonderfully-realized scenes is about ten-year-old Taeko’s struggles with arithmetic. You probably guessed that, as otherwise the movie would seem outside the remit of this blog.

In the scene Taeko has had a disastrous arithmetic test. Her older sister is trying to coach her through how to divide fractions. It goes lousy. Her older sister insists it’s just a matter of inverting and multiplying. This is a useful tip if you understand how to divide fractions and need to keep straight what you’re doing. If you don’t understand, then it’s whatever the modern equivalent is for instructions on how to set a VCR.

Taeko tries to understand one problem, . [Edit, 25 April 2021: for years now I had the problem as which is wrong. Â And several people wrote to tell me of this and I somehow did not parse what they were writing about. Â I apologize for all this confusion.]. She pictures it as an apple and draws a circle, blacking out a third of it. She cuts the rest into four equally-sized pieces and concludes that you could fit six slices into the original apple. Her sister stammers over this and fumes. She declares “that’s multiplication!”. She complains her sister isn’t doing the right thing, she’s not inverting and multiplying. I recognize her sister’s panic. It’s the bluster of someone trying to explain something not actually understood, on watching someone going far off the script.

The scene’s filled with irony. Taeko has a better understanding of what she’s doing than her sister has, but never knows it. Her sister understands a procedure but not what fractions dividing signifies. She can’t say why one wants to invert anything or multiply something. Taeko knows what the question she’s asked means, but not how to relate that to what she’s asked to do.

I don’t want to undervalue learning procedures. They’re worth knowing. They are, once you master them, efficient ways to compute. But there are many ways to master a procedure. I can’t believe there is one way to learn anything that works for everyone. One of many challenges teachers face is exploring the different ways their students best learn. Another is getting close enough to how they best learn that most of the students can understand something. It’s a pity when real people akin to Taeko can’t get that little bridge to connect their drawings of an apple to the page of fractions to be worked out.

This week Comic Strip Master Command ordered the mention of some of the more familiar bits of mathematical-premise stock that aren’t students resisting word problems. This happens sometimes.

Rick Stromoski’s Soup to Nutz for the 18th of February finds a fresh joke in the infinite-monkeys problem. Well, it uses a thousand monkeys here, but that hardly matters. If you had one long-enough-lived monkey at the typewriter, in principle, we could expect them to type the works of Shakespeare. It’s how long it takes that changes. In practice, it’s going to be too long to wait for anyway. I wonder if the monkeys will ever get computers to replace their typewriters.

Carol Lay’s Lay Lines for the 19th finds a fresh joke in Zeno’s Paradoxes. Lay particularly uses the most famous of Zeno’s Paradoxes. That’s the one about not being able to get anywhere because you have to get halfway there first, and halfway to that, in infinite regression. The other of Zeno’s Paradoxes that anyone who hasn’t just read the Wikipedia article on them can remember is Achilles and the Tortoise. It’s the question of how one can catch up to something. By the time you get to where the thing ahead of you is now, it’s gotten farther ahead still. And it does so again, in infinite regression. The third of the Paradoxes is about motion, depicted here as an arrow trying to fly through the air. Allow that speed is the distance travelled versus the time it takes to travel. But suppose time can be divided into infinitesimally tiny units. Then the distance the arrow travels in that time will also be infinitesimally tiny. So how can its speed have any meaningful definition? And the last is a hard-to-follow thing about three rods moving relative one another. I don’t feel confident describing it because I only intermittently feel like I understand what the paradox is getting at. I believe it’s supposed to be a problem with understanding how speeds can add together.

Anyway, the point of the paradoxes is not something as trite as “silly Ancient Greeks didn’t understand calculus”. They had an awfully good understanding of what makes calculus work. The point is that either space and time are infinitely divisible or else they aren’t. Either possibility has consequences that challenge our intuitions of how space and time should work.

Dave Blazek’s Loose Parts for the 19th uses scientific notation. It’s a popular way to represent large (and small) numbers. It’s built on the idea that there are two interesting parts to a number: about how big it is, and what its leading values are. We use some base, nearly always 10, raised to a power to represent how big the number is. And we use the rest, a number between 1 and whatever the base is, to represent the leading values. Blazek’s channel 3 x 10^{3} is just channel 3000, though. My satellite TV package has channels numbering from 6 up through 9999, although not all of them. Many are empty. Still, it would be a more excessive number of options if he were on channel 3 x 10^{6}, or 3,000,000.

Russell Myers’s Broom Hilda for the 22nd shows Nerwin trying to learn addition by using a real-world model. I tend to be willing to let people use whatever tool they find works to learn something. But any learning aid has its limits, and trying to get around them can be challenging, or just creepy.

Dave Whamond’s Reality Check for the 22nd is another version of that rounding-up joke that’s gone around Comic Strip Master Command, and your friends’ Facebook timelines, several times now. Well, I enjoy how suspicious the sheep up front are.

Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott’s Baby Blues for the 23rd I include mostly because I wanted some pictures to include here. But mathematics is always a reliable choice when one needs scary school work to do. And I grant that fraction are particularly unsettling. There is something exotic in being told 1/2 is much bigger than 1/6, when one knows that 2 is so much smaller than 6. And just when one’s gotten comfortable with that, someone has you subtract one fraction from another.

In the olden days of sailors and shipping, the pay for a ship’s crew would be in shares of the take of the whole venture. The story I have read, but which I am not experienced enough to verify, depends on not understanding fractions. Naive sailors would demand rather than the offered 96th (or whatever) share of the revenues a 100th or 150th or even bigger numbers. Paymasters would pretend to struggle with before assenting to. Perhaps it’s so. Not understanding finance is as old as finance. But it does also feel like a legend designed to answer the question of when will someone need to know mathematics anyway.

David L Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble for the 24th is not necessarily a mathematics comic. It could be philosophy or theology or possibly some other fields. Still, I imagine you can have fun working this out even if the final surprise-answer jumped out at me before I looked at the other words.

This has got me closer to the number of comics I like for a Reading the Comics post. There’s two comics already in my file, for the 14th of December, but those can wait until later in the week.

David L Hoyt and Jeff Knurek’s Jumble for the 11th of December has a mathematics topic. The quotes in the final answer are the hint that it’s a bit of wordplay. The mention of “subtraction” is a hint.

Greg Evans’s Luann Againn for the 11th of December reprints the 1987 Luann. “Geometric principles of equitorial [sic] astronomical coordinate systems” gets mentioned as a math-or-physics-sounding complicated thing to do. The basic idea is to tell where things are in the sky, as we see them from the surface of the Earth. In an equatorial coordinate system we imagine — we project — where the plane of the equator is, and we can measure things as north or south of that plane. (North is on the same side that the Earth’s north pole is.) That celestial equator is functionally equivalent to longitude, although it’s called declination.

We also need something functionally equivalent to longitude; that’s called the right ascension. To define that, we need something that works like the prime meridian. Projecting the actual prime meridian out to the stars doesn’t work. The prime meridian is spinning every 24 hours and we can’t publish updated star charts that quickly. What we use as a reference meridian instead is spring. That is, it’s where the path of the sun in the sky crosses the celestial equator in March and the (northern hemisphere) spring.

There are catches and subtleties, which is why this makes for a good research project. The biggest one is that this crossing point changes over time. This is because the Earth’s orbit around the sun changes. So right ascensions of points change a little every year. So when we give coordinates, we have to say in which system, and which reference year. 2000 is a popular one these days, but its time will pass. 1950 and 1900 were popular in their generations. It’s boring but not hard to convert between these reference dates. And if you need this much precision, it’s not hard to convert between the reference year of 2000 and the present year. I understand many telescopes will do that automatically. I don’t know directly because I have little telescope experience, and I couldn’t even swear I had seen a meteor until 2013. In fairness, I grew up in New Jersey, so with the light pollution I was lucky to see night sky.

Peter Maresca’s Origins of the Sunday Comics for the 11th of December showcases a strip from 1914. That, Clare Victor Dwiggins’s District School for the 12th of April, 1914, is just a bunch of silly vignettes. It’s worth zooming in to look at. It’s got a student going “figger juggling” and that gives me an excuse to point out the strip to anyone who’ll listen.

Samson’s Dark Side of the Horse for the 13th of December enters another counting-sheep joke into the ranks. Tying it into angles is cute. It’s tricky to estimate angles by sight. I think people tend to over-estimate how big an angle is when it’s around fifteen or twenty degrees. 45 degrees is easy enough to tell by sight. But for angles smaller than that, I tend to estimate angles by taking the number I think it is and cutting it in half, and I get closer to correct. I’m sure other people use a similar trick.

Brian Anderson’s Dog Eat Doug for the 13th of December has the dog, Sophie, deploy a lot of fraction talk to confuse a cookie out of Doug. A lot of new fields of mathematics are like that the first time you encounter them. I am curious where Sophie’s reasoning would have led, if not interrupted. How much cookie might she have cadged by the judicious splitting of halves and quarters and, perhaps, eighths and such? I’m not sure where her patter was going.

Shannon Wheeler’s Too Much Coffee Man for the 13th of December uses the traditional blackboard full of symbols to denote a lot of deeply considered thinking. Did you spot the error?

And now, I think, I’ve got caught up on the mathematics-themed comics that appeared at Comics Kingdom and at Gocomics.com over the past week and a half. I’m sorry to say today’s entries don’t get to be about as rich a set of topics as the previous bunch’s, but on the other hand, there’s a couple Comics Kingdom strips that I feel comfortable using as images, so there’s that. And come to think of it, none of them involve the setup of a teacher asking a student in class a word problem, so that’s different.

Mason Mastroianni, Mick Mastroianni, and Perri Hart’s B.C. (February 21) tells the old joke about how much of fractions someone understands. To me the canonical version of the joke was a Sydney Harris panel in which one teacher complains that five-thirds of the class doesn’t understand a word she says about fractions, but it’s all the same gag. I’m a touch amused that three and five turn up in this version of the joke too. That probably reflects writing necessity — especially for this B.C. the numbers have to be a pair that obviously doesn’t give you one-half — and that, somehow, odd numbers seem to read as funnier than even ones.

Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff (February 21) decimates one of the old work-rate problems, this one about how long it takes a group of people to eat a pot roast. It was surely an old joke even when this comic first appeared (and I can’t tell you when it was; Gocomics.com’s reruns have been a mixed bunch of 1940s and 1950s ones, but they don’t say when the original run date was), but the spread across five panels treats the joke well as it’s able to be presented as a fuller stage-ready sketch. Modern comic strips value an efficiently told, minimalist joke, but pacing and minor punch lines (“some men don’t eat as fast as others”) add their charm to a comic.

I’ve finally got around to reading one of my Christmas presents, Alfred S Posamentier and Ingmar Lehman’s Magnificent Mistakes in Mathematics, which is about ways that mathematical reasoning can be led astray. A lot, at least in the early pages, is about the ways a calculation can be fowled by a bit of carelessness, especially things like dividing by zero, which seems like such an obvious mistake that who could make it once they’ve passed Algebra II?

They got to a most neat little erroneous calculation, though, and I wanted to share it since the flaw is not immediately obvious although the absurdity of the conclusion drives you to look for it. We begin with a straightforward problem that I think of as Algebra I-grade, though I admit my memories of taking Algebra I are pretty vague these days, so maybe I missed the target grade level by a year or two.

Multiply that 4 on the right-hand side by 1 — in this case, by — and combine that into the numerator:

Expand that parentheses and simplify the numerator on the right-hand side:

Since the fractions are equal, and the numerators are equal, therefore their denominators must be equal. Thus, and therefore, 11 = 7.

I’m still getting back to normal after the Christmas and New Year’s disruption of, well, everything, which is why I’m taking it easy and just doing another comics review. I have to suppose Comic Strip Master Command was also taking it easy over the holidays since most of the subjects are routine genres — word answer problems, mathematics-connected puns, and the like — with the Bloom County reruns the cartoons that give me most to write about. It’s all part of the wondrous cycle of nature; I’m sure there’ll be a really meaty collection of topics along soon.

Gordon Bess’s Redeye (January 8, originally run August 21, 1968) is an example of the student giving a mischievous answer to a word problem. I feel like I should have a catchy name for this genre, given how much it turns up, but I haven’t got anything good that comes to mind. (I don’t tend to talk about the drawing much in these strips — most of the time it isn’t that important, and comic strips have been growing surprisingly indifferent to drawing — but I did notice while uploading this that Pokey’s stance and expression in the first panel is really quite good. You should be able to open the image in a new tab and see it at its fullest-available 1440-by-431 pixel size and that shows off well the crafting that went into the figure.)

Well, I thought it’d be unlikely to get too many more mathematics comics before the end of the year, but Comic Strip Master Command apparently sent out orders to clear out the backlog before the new calendar year starts. I think Dark Side of the Horse is my favorite of the strips, blending a good joke with appealing artwork, although The Buckets gives me the most to talk about.

Greg Cravens’s The Buckets (December 28) is about what might seem only loosely a mathematical topic: that the calendar is really a pretty screwy creation. And it is, as anyone who’s tried to program a computer to show dates has realized. The core problem, I suppose, is that the calendar tries to meet several goals simultaneously: it’s supposed to use our 24-hour days to keep track of the astronomical year, which is an approximation to the cycle of seasons of the year, and there’s not a whole number of days in a year. It’s also supposed to be used to track short-term events (weeks) and medium-term events (months and seasons). The number of days that best approximate the year, 365 and 366, aren’t numbers that lend themselves to many useful arrangements. The months try to divide that 365 or 366 reasonably uniformly, with historial artifacts that can be traced back to the Roman calendar was just an unspeakable mess; and, something rarely appreciated, the calendar also has to make sure that the date of Easter is something reasonable. And, of course, any reforming of the calendar has to be done with the agreement of a wide swath of the world simultaneously. Given all these constraints it’s probably remarkable that it’s only as messed up as it is.

To the best of my knowledge, January starts the New Year because Tarquin Priscus, King of Rome from 616 – 579 BC, found that convenient after he did some calendar-rejiggering (particularly, swapping the order of February and January), though I don’t know why he thought that particularly convenient. New Years have appeared all over the calendar year, though, with the start of January, the start of September, Christmas Day, and the 25th of March being popular options, and if you think it’s messed up to have a new year start midweek, think about having a new year start in the middle of late March. It all could be worse.

My spouse, the professional philosopher, was sharing some of the engagingly wrong student responses. I hope it hasn’t shocked you to learn your instructors do this, but, if you got something wrong in an amusing way, and it was easy to find someone to commiserate with, yes, they said something.

The particular point this time was about Plato’s Analogy of the Divided Line, part of a Socratic dialogue that tries to classify the different kinds of knowledge. I’m not informed enough to describe fairly the point Plato was getting at, but the mathematics is plain enough. It starts with a line segment that gets divided into two unequal parts; each of the two parts is then divided into parts of the same proportion. Why this has to be I’m not sure (my understanding is it’s not clear exactly why Plato thought it important they be unequal parts), although it has got the interesting side effect of making exactly two of the four line segments of equal length.

It’s a good time for another round of comic strip reading, particularly I haven’t had the time to think in detail about all the news in number theory that’s come out this past week, and that I’m not sure whether I should go into explaining arc lengths after I trapped at least one friend into trying to work out the circumference of an ellipse (you can’t do it either, but there are a lot of curves you could). I also notice I’m approaching that precious 10,000th blog hit here, so I can get back to work verifying that law about random data starting with the digit 1.

Berkeley Breathed’s Bloom County (May 2, rerun) throws up a bunch of mathematical symbols with the intention of producing a baffling result, so that Milo can make a clean getaway from Freida. The splendid thing to me, though, is that Milo’s answer — “log 10 times 10 to the derivative of 10,000” — actually does parse, if you read it a bit charitably. The “log 10” bit we can safely suppose to mean the logarithm base 10, because the strip originally ran in 1981 or so when there was still some use for the common logarithm. These days, we have calculators, and “log” is moving over to be the “natural logarithm”, base e, what was formerly denoted as “ln”.

I’ve got my seven further comic strips with mentions of mathematical topics, so I can preface that a bit with my surprise that at least some of the Gocomics.com comics didn’t bother to mention Pi Day, March 14. It might still be a slightly too much of a This Is Something People Do On The Web observance to be quite sensible for the newspaper comic strips. But there are quite a few strips on Gocomics.com that only appear online, and I thought one of them might.

(I admit I’m a bit of a Pi Day grouch, on the flimsy grounds that 3/14 is roughly 0.214, which is a rotten approximation to π. But American-style date-writing never gets very good at approximating π. The day-month format used in most of the world offers 22/7 as a less strained Pi Day candidate, except that there’s few schools in session then, wiping out whatever use the day has as a playfully educational event.)

Gene Weingarten, Dan Weingarten and David Clark’s Barney and Clyde (March 4) introduces a character which I believe is new to the strip, “Norman the math fanatic”. (He hasn’t returned since, as of this writing.) The setup is about the hypothetical and honestly somewhat silly argument about learning math being more important than learning English. I’m not sure I could rate either mathematics or English (or, at least, the understanding of one’s own language) as more important. The panel ends with the traditional scrawl of symbols as shorthand for “this is complicated mathematics stuff”, although it’s not so many symbols and it doesn’t look like much of a problem to me. Perhaps Norman is fanatic about math but doesn’t actually do it very well, which is not something he should be embarrassed about.

I hit the seven-comics line without quite realizing it, because I’d been dividing my notes between my home computer and one I can access from work. (I haven’t quite taken to writing entries on my iPad, much as I told myself that’d be a great use for it before I bought it, mostly because it’s too annoying to enter all the HTML tags by hand on the iPad keyboard. I’m of the generation that tries to hew its own HTML, even when there’s no benefit to doing that.) This is also skipping a couple strips that just mentioned the kids were in math class because that felt too slight a link to even me.

Carla Ventresca and Henry Beckett’s On A Claire Day (February 15) discusses the “probability formulas” of a box of chocolates. Distribution functions are just what the name suggests: the set of the possible outcomes of something (like, picking this candy) with the chance of each turning up. It’s useful in simple random-luck problems like gathering candies, but by adding probability distributions to mechanics you create the tool of statistical mechanics, which lets the messy complicated reality of things be treated.

Pascal Wyse and Joe Berger’s Berger and Wyse (February 18) uses one of the classic motifs of the word problem: fractions as portions of apples, and visualizing fractions by thinking of apple slices. (I tend to eat apples whole, or at least nearly whole, which makes me realize that I probably visualize fractions of apples as a particular instance of fractions rather than as particular versions of apples.)

Tom Thaves’s Frank and Ernest (February 22) uses the tolerably famous bit of mathematical history about negative numbers being unknown to the ancients and tosses in a joke about the current crisis in the Greek economy so, as ever, don’t read the comments thread.

William Wilson’s Ordinary Bill (February 22) possibly qualifies for entry into the “silent penultimate panel” family of comic strips (I feel like having significant implied developments in the next-to-the-final panel violates the spirit of the thing but it isn’t my category to define) for a joke about how complicated it is to do one’s taxes. I suspect this is something that’s going to turn up a lot in the coming two months.

Marc Anderson’s Andertoons (February 24) (I’m wondering whether this or Frank and Ernest gets in here more) pops in with a chalkboard full of math symbols as the way to draw “something incredibly hard to understand”.

Brian and Ron Boychuk’s The Chuckle Brothers (February 26) has a pie joke that’s so slight I’d almost think they were just angling for the chance for me to notice them. But the name-dropping of the Helsinki Mathematical Institute, and earlier strips with features like references such as to Joseph Henry, make me suspect they’re just enjoying being moderately nerdy. That said, I’m not aware of a specific “Helsinki Mathematical Institute”, although the Rolf Nevanlinna Institute at the University of Helsinki would probably get called something like that. They wouldn’t consider hiring me, anyway.