2207: Math Work

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Math Work
I could type this into a solver, which MIGHT help, but would also mean I have to get a lot of parentheses right...
Title text: I could type this into a solver, which MIGHT help, but would also mean I have to get a lot of parentheses right...


White Hat is observing a physicist, Cueball, who is staring at some equations and diagrams on a chalkboard (unreadable in the comic). White Hat is neither a physicist nor a mathematician, but he seems to glorify those professions. He wishes he understood the mathematics in Cueball's work and "the beauty on display here." People who profess a love for mathematics often cite the beauty they see in pure math, how things work out so perfectly, as the reason they love math.

The joke here is that Cueball as a physicist is doing something instead quite simple and relatable: Avoiding hard work. Solving many kinds of constraints for two unknowns isn't necessarily difficult, but can be depending on the details. Cueball clearly thinks a solution is possible but would rather find an easier route. The same could be said about the field of mathematics in general: A proof is beautiful to a mathematician when it provides aesthetic pleasure, usually associated with being easy to understand. A proof is elegant when it is both easy to understand and correct, and mathematical solutions are profound when useful.

The title text continues Cueball's thought process, with the possibility of using an automatic equation solver to find the unknowns. Equation solvers are not often considered beautiful ways to address purely mathematical problems, even if they are often the most efficient and in that sense elegant solutions to applied problems in engineering. Using a formal solver with symbolic, numeric, or both methods requires making sure that the constraints (e.g. equations) are entered correctly, with parentheses balanced in their correct locations for the solution to succeed. This might be a further joke about Cueball's laziness, suggesting that he doesn't even have the energy to check whether his parentheses are placed correctly. At the same time it might show how far away he is from finding the real solution: Any missing, misplaced or spurious parenthesis will most likely immediately invalidate the whole equation system.


[White Hat is watching Cueball from a couple of meters away. Cueball is contemplating the formulas and diagrams that fills the blackboard he stands in front of. Cueball holds a chalk in his hand. None of the content on the blackboard is readable, but there is a diagram in the shape of a circle and a another pie shaped diagram. Both are thinking with large thought bubbles above their heads, with small bubbles connecting them and the larger bubble.]
White Hat (thinking): Amazing watching a physicist at work, exploring universes in a symphony of numbers.
White Hat (thinking): If only I had studied math, I could appreciate the beauty on display here.
Cueball (thinking): Oh no. This has two unknowns. That's gonna be really hard.
Cueball (thinking): Ughhhhhhh.
Cueball (thinking): Think. There's gotta be a way to avoid doing all that work...

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This makes me think of my profession (software engineer) - Normie: "Oh wow, that looks complicated!" Me: wires two pre-existing libraries together and calls it a day Baldrickk (talk) 09:39, 26 September 2019 (UTC)

Image of Blackboard

I was looking at the blackboard and was wondering if there were any Easter eggs on it. Here is the result of my badly cropped photoshopping skills. [1] idk if it would help to sharpen the image. --DarkAndromeda31 (talk) 01:25, 26 September 2019 (UTC)

The only thing that really jumps out at me are the wedges, as portions of pie charts where radius also controls area, evoking the climate stabilization wedge game from Princeton where the total area of the disk needing to be mitigated is something like 38 gigatons of atmospheric carbon, and the various mitigation solutions have angles representing potential and radius indicating uptake, the proportion of which represents gigatons mitigated as the wedge area. We can offer that game as an example of a bivariate optimization problem which might not have to be manually solved by anyone, if we assume that the local market for surplus potable water, carbon-neutral liquid transportation fuel, and carbon-negative composite lumber for centuries-to-millenia scale sequestration along with wood timber displacement for reforestation represents locally satisfiable economic demand for N shipping containers of Project Foghorn plants and M shipping containers of power-to-gas upgrades for natural gas power plants. That's an example of how a locally market-driven system can solve a bivariate optimization without anyone doing the actual math work in a spreadsheet or otherwise. The economic solution is not necessarily optimal, because even as powerful as the free market can be, it isn't necessarily going to find the bivariate optimums for every point on the planet (although it will likely converge asymptotically in some sense) and defectors such as fossil fuel producers are interested in delaying the optimum solution.
Is that nontangential enough? 20:49, 26 September 2019 (UTC)
Yes that was far out :-) I'm sure there is nothing interesting hidden in the image. --Kynde (talk) 08:36, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
Compare the graph at [2] with that at [3]. When will the latter overtake the former? 19:19, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
Soon one may hope, but that has nothing to do with the drawings on the blackboard...? --Kynde (talk) 21:07, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
"Soon" lacks mathematical precision. How do you feel about distributed constraint optimization? 22:56, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
P.S. I would also point out that this comic appeared during the Global Climate Strike so I stand by my interpretation of the wedges. 19:11, 3 October 2019 (UTC)

Does Wolfram Alpha constitute such a problem solver? Cause both Randall and this site has used it on several occasions. But I have not ever really used such things, and do not know if Wolfram can be used as Cueball thinks about in the comic. But if it could, it could be worth mentioning as a method sometimes used by Randall. --Kynde (talk) 08:43, 27 September 2019 (UTC)

[4] is the first bivariate system of equations example. 17:51, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
Is that then a yes to my question? ;-) --Kynde (talk) 21:07, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
Do you think it's more worthwhile to include a general discussion of avoiding the work of solving for two unknowns than the climate wedges? Why do you suggest that the wedges aren't the only distinctive elements on the blackboard? 22:58, 27 September 2019 (UTC)

I only just now noticed that Randall always puts the crossbars on the I in the word "I" and not otherwise. Looking back, he has nearly always done this, even since the first few comics. That's quite a principled yet subtle stance on letterforms. (There are some exceptions, however, such as comic #87, and a period that goes at least from comic #128 to comic #180. I wonder if it would be too typography-nerdy to put them all in a category.) 14:47, 27 September 2019 (UTC)

Those "crossbars" would be serifs, whereas he normally uses a sans serif font. A sans serif would be quicker/easier to write by hand, but he probably realized early on (perhaps subconsciously) that an I by itself without serifs looks too much like a random line or a numeral 1 so he treats the solo I like a special letter, with serifs. -boB (talk) 15:16, 27 September 2019 (UTC)
Yes so not something for a category! But funny detail. I have no idea where to put this? Maybe in some part of the format of xkcd? --Kynde (talk) 21:07, 27 September 2019 (UTC)

Thank you, person who sees beauty in grammar (Jkrstrt). I thought something looked off when I said "often site the beauty they see" but I didn't catch it until you sighted the error and made it cite instead. -boB (talk) 15:10, 27 September 2019 (UTC)

We need something about the 2014 popularity spike of the phrase "They did the math" with a link to e.g. r/theydidthemath. And ask the Hashtag Research Studies group to figure out the cause of that spike. 15:29, 29 September 2019 (UTC)

This has got to be somehow related to xkcd. But how? 20:42, 29 September 2019 (UTC)

In other olds, Google Books says it started in 1988 but won't show me the 1988 book in question. I'm going to work on the drone fishing now. 05:31, 30 September 2019 (UTC)


I feel that these deletions were done without sufficient discussion of the rationales for the material given above, leaving the explanation shorter than that of almost all if not all other comics. Whatever you think of the climate change distributed optimization example, there were no objections to the well-documented "they did the math" popularity surge or to the academic references deleted. 01:16, 22 November 2019 (UTC)

How was that even related to the content of the comic? --Lupo (talk) 07:14, 22 November 2019 (UTC)
Which? The two wedges involving an optimization problem in two variables on Climate Strike Week (a strike being an intentional avoidance of work), or the phrase "They did the math" in relation to "Math work"?
I intend to replace the deleted material. 05:26, 3 December 2019 (UTC)
Why? please explain how it is relevant/related to the comic or helps in understanding it. The comic is about math being complicated and incomprehensible from outside, while from the inside it is just as complicated when you understand it. The comic does not contain the words "the math" nor does the pie chart or the wedge give any indication of being about anything specific. It is just as likely something about Pizza. --Lupo (talk) 07:24, 3 December 2019 (UTC)
I have, in detail, above. I have asked famed Bloomberg columnist and fellow economics science communication enthusiast Noah Smith to mediate this dispute. Will you accept him as mediator? 12:06, 8 December 2019 (UTC)
First a personal note: As it seems like we are discussing here, I'd appreciate if you'd create an account here, so that I can link your comments to a single commenter, instead of a changing cloudfare IP adresses. To the topic: I do not deny that a wedge can represent an optimization problem. It can also represent other things. As far as visible from the comic, Cueball could be calculating how much Pizza he has left. Even if it is about an optimization problem, there is no indication in the comic to link this to human-made climate change, apart from the apperance of the comic in climate strike week. If it was a reference to that point, it'd be very (!) subtle. How do you think some spark in the search for some term in 2014, which has a one-word-overlap (and math is the topic of the comic...) with the comic is relevant again? I, again, do not doubt the correctnes of the statements, but only their relevance/connection with this comic. Last but not least: Any registered (and therefore "unique", even though it's easy to register multiple accounts...) commenter may join this discussion, to reach consensus (by the way, I was not even the one deleting it actually). I have never heard of that famed person, nor do I care about his column in some magazine and his enthusiasm about communication. (If he should ever read this, I'd like to repeat myself: I have never heard of him, so it is not meant to disrispect him. He might be a nice guy and very qualified in whatever he writes his column about. He might also be famous to people he is relevant for.) --Lupo (talk) 07:29, 9 December 2019 (UTC)