This is not to speak ill of the legendary xkcd or SMBC. But my current favorite nerdy math comic began in the mid-1990s, before the webcomic boom. You probably know it, and you probably don’t think of as a math comic at all:
Rhymes with Orange, by Hilary Price.
Where Doonesbury bites, Dilbert groans, and Peanuts waxes philosophical, Rhymes with Orange has a lighter touch. The gags come out of nowhere, like tickling fingers.
I wasn’t thinking about math when I picked up a copy of the first collected volume (published back in 1997). But then I ran into this pretty great surface area joke:
That got me seeking more. And, with the help of Price’s admirably searchable website, I found the gallery that follows – it turns out that math is a topic she has circled back to time and again over the years.
From December 17, 1997:
(This contradicts the famous “half plus seven” rule, whereby the youngest partner a 34-year-old can consider is half 34, plus 7. In other words, 24. Price’s model looks more complicated, but may have more empirical validity.)
From May 9, 2000:
From February 17, 2013:
(I don’t know why I find this so funny, but I find it SO FUNNY.)
From August 22, 2011:
(Moore’s Law for stones?)
From January 17, 2015:
(I hope to make this order in a restaurant someday.)
From October 26, 2017:
(I assume that’s division rather than a cube root. Anyway, it’s a great gag.)
From October 17, 2013:
(True facts! Well, not about Rome’s fall – as I understand it lead pipes and bureaucratic sprawl were involved – but about the disadvantages of Roman numerals, and the efficiencies that led to the adoption of our own system!)
From December 5, 2011:
(I’ve heard tell of a problem like this: so many variables that they exhausted the English and Greek alphabets, and had to summon emergency back-ups from Hebrew.)
From October 2, 2010:
(Sounds persuasive to me.)
From April 3, 2008:
(Totally using this next time I teach inverse relationships.)
And finally, from February 17, 2010, by guest cartoonist Mo Willems:
To recap: how does Price find humor in math? In any number of ways. I find their variety instructive:
- Satirizing its inscrutability (as in the “girl years” and “run out of letters” gags);
- Playfully misapplying its concepts (“only $0.79 an ounce”; “60/40 split pea”);
- Drawing unexpected parallels (“more power in this little abacus”);
- Lamenting the experience of math education (“now we are going to learn percentages”; “no relying on the wand”);
- Playing the logical strictures of math against the illogic of emotion (“isosceles”; “couch-to-door ratio”).
Some of these take the stance of an outsider, to whom math is a blur. Others feel like jokes any math insider might make.
What I appreciate most is the coexistence, the blending, of those two perspectives. It suggests that this thing called mathematics – this exalted, despised, exoticized subject – is perhaps a human activity like any other. It’s part of our common inheritance, along with language and color and humor.
Of course, I’m sure Price intends no such grand statement through her mathematical cartoons – which is exactly why I love ’em.