Math in the Comics – part 4

Another comic with a math angle, from yesterday:

countaing-grains-of-saltThough there is no mention of any mathematical operation, no equations, no multiplication, no variables, no diagrams – there is some math going on in the unsaid, whether counting or estimating, resulting in a big number.  The big number is then spoken, communicating something.  Exactly what is being communicated?  It seems safe to assume that most of what is communicated is again in the unsaid.  Both parties are communicating something, yet one doesn’t even say a word.  In the last panel Janis responds, in words, to something Arlo didn’t even say out loud in the third panel.

My interest in relaying this comic strip here, in a math blog, is to venture a guess as to the importance of Janis quantifying the amount of salt.  For one thing, I don’t assume you would take the number 2376 literally, as being the true accurate count of the number of grains of salt.  And yet there is something oddly precise about the number 2376 which somehow we react to differently than if she had said 2400 or 2000, and certainly provokes a very different reaction than if she had said “lots” or “tons”.

Bandying about a precise number like 2376, even if the source of the precise number is highly suspect, invokes the tradition and authority and the finality of a whole big slice of human endeavor, and throws its weight in support of an argument or a concern.  What the argument is we’re left to guess.  In the last panel, Janis tells us she cares.  I take this to be literally true.  She cares.  What it is she cares about is left unspoken, and the author relies on a vast amount of shared cultural background in us so we can each fill in the rest.

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3 Responses to Math in the Comics – part 4

  1. Dawn White says:

    Loved the dissertation on Janis and Arlo-how to look at comics with new perspective. Maybe too much salt not good and her way of making the issue fun. My favorite FB or FW by Lynn Johnston (Canadian) has retired and her daughter picked it up with today’s point of view -lots of anger and violence.

  2. Bert Speelpenning says:

    Dawn,
    Thank you for your comment.

    Since comic strips have to convey a lot with just a few pictures and just a few sentences, they offer a rich view into the culture they arise in. They help make explicit what, in that culture, can be assumed in the background. This particular comic strip is an extreme example of that.

    Though in this blog I’m primarily looking at comics for what they reveal about how mathematics is viewed in the culture, the approach has wider application – as you note.
    I remember arriving in the United States over three decades ago with a curiosity about root beer, which I assumed to be some kind of light alcoholic beverage – purely on the strength of the Charles Schultz strip!

  3. Pingback: Math in the Comics: The Series « Learning and Unlearning Math

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