2343: Mathematical Symbol Fight

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Mathematical Symbol Fight
Oh no, a musician just burst in through the door confidently twirling a treble clef.
Title text: Oh no, a musician just burst in through the door confidently twirling a treble clef.


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This panel imagines which mathematical symbols would be good in a fight if they were made corporeal in two (or three) dimensions. Generally, objects with longer reach and pointier ends wind up on the "more dangerous" side of the scale, and symbols with less reach and more curves tend towards the left side.

The comic invokes surreal humour by suggesting that mathematical symbols could be handled as physical objects in the real world. Another component of the humor is the implication that it is useful to prepare to use mathematical symbols in a fight, even though mathematicians, who use mathematical symbols, usually do not conduct their debates violently (though some stories suggest that Hippasus was killed by his fellow Pythagoreans for his proof that irrational numbers exist), and even if they did, they wouldn't use large reproductions of their symbols as weapons.

A straight line is farthest to the "more dangerous" side, which could possibly be a reference to the dangers posed by lines in "Flatland", because their infinitely-sharp endpoints could be difficult to see (particularly their rear end, which does not contain a gleaming eye as their front end does) and would fatally pierce whoever they chose to stab. However, taking a more literal view of the drawings, the straight line does not appear to be any thicker or thinner, or pointer, than any of the other lines.

The title text refers to a clef, which is not a mathematical symbol but rather a musical symbol. The note of concern in the text suggests musical symbols may be viewed in such fights as exotic or especially dangerous.

Symbol Meaning Notes on using in a fight
The set of real numbers Megan seems to be struggling with a giant version of this symbol.
Empty set This symbol is not very sharp, and White Hat is unable to use it in combat. It would not work as a good shield due to the hole in the symbol, but it possibly could be thrown.
> Greater than
α Alpha
π Pi
+ Plus
Ψ Psi
~ tilde, meaning "approximately"
rightwards double arrow, meaning "implies"
multiplication sign
Γ uppercase Greek letter gamma
square root sign Black Hat has chosen this symbol and is using it like a polearm, something like a shepherd's crook.
contour integral
θ Theta
union (set theory)
member of (set theory)
"for all"
partial derivative
not equal sign
# Cardinality, connected sum (knot theory), or primorial.
Δ Delta
ζ Zeta
Aleph number
𝜌 italic rho Perhaps could be wielded as an axe
Implies; X→Y means that if X is true, then Y is also true Looks like a spear
up tack or falsum, indicating a false proposition in logic Held like an axe, the top of the T could be arced towards an opponent.

Held like a wishbone, two hands could be used to try to drive the point into an opponent.

⎯⎯ Fraction bar (division) or overline (complex conjugate or mean). Held on one end, this could be used to stab the point, or hit with the edge
𝄞 Treble clef Could potentially be 'twirled' like a quarterstaff, , or other stick-fighting weapon. Loosely resembles a Klingon bat'leth.


Ambox notice.png This transcript is incomplete. Please help editing it! Thanks.


Mathematical Symbols


by how useful they would be in a fight

more useful

ℝ   ∅ > α π + Ψ ~ ⇒ ⋅ Γ √ ∮ ∫ ⇀
  θ ∞ ∪ ∈ ∀ ∂ ≠ # Δ ζ ℵ 𝜌 → ⊥ ⎯

[Below the (number?) line, eight characters fight each other, using some of the symbols mentioned above as weapons.]

[Megan is awkwardly handling a giant "ℝ".]

[White Hat is holding an "∅" with both hands, as a shield.]

[Cueball is holding an "∈" in both hands, with its "tines" pointed towards Blondie, who is swatting at him with a "#".]

[Ponytail is leaping at another (?) Megan, swinging a "ρ" like an axe, while Megan is leaning back and thrusting a "→" back at her.]

[Black Hat is swinging a long "√" like a polearm at Hairy, who is holding a long "⎯" defensively.]

− List of symbols, in order of farthest extent to the right:

− ℝ θ ∅ ∞ > ∪ α (E) ∀ π ∂ + ≠ Ψ # ~ △ (???) ⇒ (.) ℵ (hangman) (P) √ → ∮ ∫ ⊥ ⇀ ⎯

Note: Where two symbols had similar right-most edges, the overlay grid on an ASUS pro-art display was used to decide which one went further right.

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Can I get aleph-null aleph-shaped throwing stars? LunarNapolean (talk) 20:18, 7 August 2020 (UTC)

I'd prefer octothorpe throwing stars. 16:19, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

Apologies to whoever added the "citation needed" that I stepped on. -- brad

That zeta looks conspicuously bad. I wonder if this comic will get a cleaned-up version uploaded. 20:51, 7 August 2020 (UTC)

Megan usually has shoulder-length hair, so the person being attacked by Ponytail is probably not Megan... except in so far as all brunettes in this comic are called 'Megan'. LtPowers (talk) 20:53, 7 August 2020 (UTC)

Is one of them Danish? And one of them Megan? 22:49, 7 August 2020 (UTC)

I think Randall is underestimating the weapon utility of psi. There's a real-world martial arts weapon that looks somewhat like it. 22:04, 7 August 2020 (UTC)

I think he’s also seriously underestimating the value of keeping your fingers attached to your hand. Swords have guards for a reason. I’d pick the contour integral over anything else there.

Considering the title text, a bass clef looks pretty formidable, close to a bat'leth. Nutster (talk) 00:31, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

Yes, but the treble clef is the one in the title text, and that’s nothing like a Klingon bat'leth. I removed the comment from the table. Adam1729 (talk) 02:09, 8 August 2020 (UTC)
If we're talking clefs/klingon weaponry, get on the viola clef. That's bat'leth AF. It's even known as a "K Clef" in some circles. You could do some pretty hefty damage with a viola clef.
Or a viola... 22:05, 9 August 2020 (UTC)
What's shown in the explanation right now is a G-clef, not a treble-clef; I believe this to be an error. (Also the G-clef symbol doesn't display reliably on mobile.) The symbol 'treble-clef' is only mentioned by name, not shown in the comic; therefore, I think we should show a symbol that is actually specifically a treble-clef. A clef note only becomes a treble-clef note if the lines are included; otherwise it could mean any clef note. U+1D11E (𝄞) is specifically a G-clef by name in its Unicode listing. The Unicode emoji U+1F3BC named 'Musical Score' is defined in Unicode as displaying a staff (or stave) with a clef note laid along the lowest of five horizontal lines, thereby forming a treble-clef. Not only is 🎼 (U+1F3BC) a Treble-clef while 𝄞 (U+1D11E) is not, 🎼 displays more universally on mobile than 𝄞 does. Therefore, I'm going to correct the error. Please discuss the issue here if you think 𝄞 should be used instead.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 19:45, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

These “weapons” seem strangely appropriate for xkcd’s stick figures... -cpl

Agreed :)

Are we sure White Hat is holding empty set? There don't appear to be points extending outside the circle in which case I think he's actually holding Theta -jc

Can I use the LaTeX mathwitch? 10:03, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

First time editor here,hope I get the notation right! Question on the pi link to wikipedia: I put in the double link to the main page and the disambiguation because unfortunately https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pi_(disambiguation)#Mathematics doesn't include the mathematical constant definition (though it is listed at the top of the page). Thoughts? Alan g (talk) 10:38, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

I think that’s the is proportional to” symbol rather than just alpha. They are similar but have different Unicode symbols. Thoughts?-- 12:01, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

You're definitely correct. (They don't even look that similar...) It's the direct proportion symbol, not the symbol for Alpha.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 18:03, 8 August 2020 (UTC)
Annnnd somebody has added 'alpha' back in despite alpha not being represented in this comic at all in any way. Even the wikipedia article on Alpha mentions that it is often mistaken for the Proportionality symbol, but the 'fish' looking symbol is not alpha, never means alpha & saying 'Proportionality or Alpha' encourages more confusion. I'm reverting the edit. PLEASE DISCUSS HERE IF YOU THINK ALPHA BELONGS FOR SOME REASON.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 19:45, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

I don't think → is "implies", particularly as we've had ⇒ earlier. → is often used for "maps to", as in f: x → f(x) 19:24, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

→ and ⇒ often mean two different kinds of "implies". The single arrow is for the boolean operator that takes in two truth values and outputs a truth value. The double one is for "things on the left justify/prove things on the right", in somewhat of a metalanguage. Here's an example of two different ways of saying Modus Ponens with the operators: ((p→q) ∧p)→q vs p→q,p⇒q Alan g (talk) 03:52, 9 August 2020 (UTC)

Are we sure that is the multiplication sign (center dot)? The placement makes it seem more a decimal point. 21:51, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

Confusingly, math conventions in some countries use a low dot for multiplication, though it's not as common as it used to be. That's in addition to all the other things that bare dots can represent in math. Personally I can't "see" any particular set of semantics for that symbol, I just see a dot. 22:51, 8 August 2020 (UTC)

We see a greater-than, but no less-than. Where would that appear? I think >≠<, in fact ><<, if wielded properly. Though if thrown, either/both could be a multi-use projectile... 09:08, 9 August 2020 (UTC)

Took me a little bit to figure out what you meant, but I think it hasn't been clarified which side is the point or sharp side, so until that is clarified "<"=">"

Anyone else think the title text is hinting at a pun? "I got scared because his weapon looked like treble" sort of thing?

Where is the opening parenthesis? 21:43, 9 August 2020 (UTC)

Here! (: 09:33, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

If I could implement a line integral as a machine rather than a symbol, I'd use that to encircle my enemy. WIN! Cellocgw (talk) 13:15, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

i'm sure that the radix symbol could be used in a manner similar to sly cooper's crook 13:32, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

The partial derivative could be used as a grappling hook, which is possibly why it's ranked where it is. I think Delta is higher than the A shape, because there isn't a chance of damage from push-back - both ends of the latter are pointy. 18:20, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

I'm kind of shocked that no one has mentioned that the WhoWouldWin subreddit had a couple of threads which likely inspired this comic: https://www.reddit.com/r/whowouldwin/comments/epm3tf/which_number_would_make_the_best_weapon/ and https://www.reddit.com/r/whowouldwin/comments/eq1ezq/which_letter_in_the_alphabet_would_make_the_best/. Of course, xkcd took it one step farther, but I wouldn't be surprised if those threads got the ball rolling. 19:31, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

I think you're right! It's a shame Reddit threads lock in less than a year... I hope someone created a new thread based on this comic, linking the only old threads for reference.
ProphetZarquon (talk) 21:22, 10 August 2020 (UTC)

The treble clef at the bottom should probably be standardized, not that colorful clip art thing. Dogman15 (talk) 09:33, 12 August 2020 (UTC)

Would anyone else like to join me in creating an anti-Gamma interest group?

Just asking. 21:47, 9 August 2020 (UTC)

I hate the U+0393 "Γ" symbol for Gamma as rendered in sans-serif, as it too closely resembles the Extended ASCII code 218 line-drawing character "┌". The lowercase "ɣ" is more distinctive, but it just doesn't look like a voiced-velar fricative "gh" sound to me. The IPA symbol "ɤ" for a close-mid back unrounded vowel actually looks more like a "g" sound to me for some reason, but that's taken & I don't think this situation is worth fighting for it. When shown with serifs as Randall drew it, the uppercase "Failed to parse (PNG conversion failed; check for correct installation of latex and dvipng (or dvips + gs + convert)): \Gamma " Gamma symbol ([1]) is plenty distinctive enough for me to identify visually. The sans-serif version bears very little resemblance to the symbol displayed in this comic. I would go so far as to say that displaying this symbol without its serifs is a bad practice. How do we go about getting some serifs shown on that symbol for more devices\fonts?
ProphetZarquon (talk) 21:22, 10 August 2020 (UTC)
Russian Г is basically a "beck-de-corbin"; but, again, you have to make sure you use Russian "Cyrillic" uppercase symbol Г, not, for.ex., lowercase "г". RELEASE!!! 21:06, 14 August 2020 (UTC)

What about... digits?

I thing, Ein, Dos, Troix, Ne, Fem, Lu... E, Eight, Kyuu, Ten would do better.

1 is literally a spear 2 is quite a matcatcher-like hook. 3, unlike ballets, also has hook-like uses 4 is not just a spear. Its an "alspiece": a Swiss sword-made-of-broken-lance. 5 is a sickle. 6 is a... padlock. Attached to a chain, its being able to do damage 7 is a scythe 8 is... a chain. Combine 6 and 8 to fight in bludgeon fashion 9 is... I know, it's almost like 6. But in some fonts, 9 has serifs 6 doesn't get (9-corner 9, opposed to 6-corner 6) -- 9 would be a hammer.