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The 31 Most Interesting Comics of 2016

It’s that time again to round up the comics I consider the best and most interesting of the year. Please feel free to agree, disagree, and recommend others in the comments below. 

31. 4 Kids Walk Into a Bank

By Matthew Rosenberg and Tyler Boss
Black Mask Studios

In an end of the year list, I don’t usually include comics that are only a couple of issues into their run—but it only took one issue of this comic to make an impression on me and on many other readers, it seems, who took a chance on it. 4 Kids is one of two books on this list that fit the mold of “comics that will appeal to Stranger Things fans” even though it chooses to play with crime fiction instead of supernatural clichés. Rosenberg’s smart and funny dialogue reads like a Quentin Tarantino film starring a group of nerdy, D&D-playing kids who end up trying to pull off a bank heist while Boss’ quaint cartooning style and complex page layouts are evocative of a Wes Anderson film.

30. On a Sunbeam

By Tillie Walden
Onasunbeam.com


This September, 20-year-old Tillie Walden won the coveted Promising New Talent Ignatz award at the Small Press Expo for one of two graphic novels she released last year. Right after receiving the award, she began self-publishing a new webcomic called On a Sunbeam and within a few months had posted over 300 pages. It is a sci-fi comic that is split into two separate narratives, both about a girl named Mia, but showing her at different stages of her life: one as she begins a job restoring old buildings in space and the other as a teenager in boarding school (which is also in space). Walden draws beautiful architecture and is adept at conveying the melodramatic emotions of young love, two things her new comic gives her plenty of chances to do.

29. What Is Obscenity?

By Rokudenashiko; edited by Anne Ishii and Graham Kolbeins
Koyama Press

Megumi Igarashi (a.k.a. Rokudenashiko) was arrested and found guilty by a Japanese court for distributing obscene material when she shared a digital file online that could be used to make a 3-D printing of her vagina. This manga telling of her experience in jail is funny, engaging, and eye-opening.

28. The Nib

Edited by Matt Bors
Thenib.com

Obviously, 2016 will be remembered as the most insane election year ever, but thankfully The Nib returned from hiatus in time to see it out. Originally part of Medium.com, the progressive collective of editorial, non-fiction and journalism comics curated by Matt Bors found a new home and returned with a bang to cover and comment on the election. Some highlights include KC Green taking his “This is Fine” dog back from its fate as an overused meme, Ruben Bolling’s Calvin & Hobbes parody “Donald & John,” Sarah Glidden’s reporting on the Jill Stein campaign, and some very good non-election comics like Sarah Winifred Searle’s comic about body types and how they’re represented in media.

27. Tetris: The Games People Play

By Box Brown
First Second


Box Brown has developed a niche for making non-fiction graphic novels about 1980s pop culture starting with his 2014 biography of Andre the Giant and his latest is about of the most addictive video game ever made. It is a surprisingly complicated tale of corporate wrongdoing, creator rights issues and communism that shows how the idea came from a software engineer in Moscow who originally shared it as freeware. Once it got past the Iron Curtain it went viral and corporations like Nintendo began double-crossing each other to get the rights to it. Brown rewinds all the way back to the dawn of man to illustrate our natural fascination with creating art and playing games and shows how that fascination would eventually evolve into a multi-billion dollar industry.

26. Spider-Woman #5

By Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez
Marvel Comics

Superhero comics are usually not where you’d look for thoughtful and realistic portrayals of parenting, and Spider-Woman, a comic whose recent claim to fame was a questionable cover that caused a media backlash, may seem especially unexpected. Dennis Hopeless and Javier Rodriguez are way beyond that controversy, though. With the book’s recent re-launch, Jessica Drew is a pregnant superhero (who refuses to tell anyone the identity of the father) and in the fifth issue, it hit a high point: the baby has been born and Jessica is now adjusting to being a single, working mom. This issue is something really special, full of knowing laughs and heartwarmingly real moments that any new parent will recognize, and Jessica’s embrace of being a single mom by choice is especially unique and refreshing.

25. Deathstroke

By Christopher Priest, Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz and Jeromy Cox
DC Comics

Veteran writer Christopher Priest stepped away from comics over 10 years ago but never intended to be away that long. After becoming a fan favorite on books like Black Panther in the ‘90s, the African American writer began to continuously turn down offers to write black superheroes, finding that these were the only books he was being considered for. When DC began their “Rebirth” initiative this year, Priest got a call to write a new Deathstroke book which he found intriguing and accepted not only because Deathstroke is white but because he is not a hero.

Priest’s long-awaited return to comics has not disappointed. He uses a broken chronological narrative, morally shaded characters and a dry sense of humor to reintroduce this old Teen Titans villain. DC’s new “Rebirth” comics have been mostly excellent so far but Deathstroke is one of its best.

24. Rolling Blackouts: Dispatches from Turkey, Syria, and Iraq

By Sarah Glidden
Drawn & Quarterly

In 2011, Sarah Glidden traveled to Turkey, Syria, and Iraq with a group of journalist friends to interview refugees in hopes of finding a story to tell. Glidden finds her own unique hook by choosing to document the act of creating journalism, showing us the behind-the-scenes decisions journalists make, the technical process of interviewing and the hopes and fears about how their stories will impact their subjects and the people they are hoping to inform. Comics journalism has become Glidden’s passion (this year she also published a comic about her time spent traveling with the Jill Stein presidential campaign) and at a time when journalism is becoming more important than ever, this is a fascinating look at how you report the truth.

23. The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye

By Sonny Liew
Pantheon

When this book was first released, some reviewers were fooled into thinking it was really a career retrospective of a famous Singaporean cartoonist. In fact, what makes it so astounding is that it is 320 pages of comics, sketches, life drawings, and paintings convincingly created by Sonny Liew to invent a lifetime’s worth of work. Liew (Dr. Fate, The Shadow Hero) uses the fictional life of Charlie Chan Hock Chye to tell the history and evolution of mid-to-late century comics, while mixing in the social and political history of Singapore. Liew’s commentary on political activism led the government to revoke a national grant given to him to make the book yet it has sold through multiple print runs in that country.

22. Monstress

By Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda
Image Comics

Set in a steampunk 19th century Asia full of cute animal/children hybrids, talking cats, Lovecraftian monstrosities and a matriarchal society in which women have all the power and men barely factor into the story, Liu and Takeda have done an amazing amount of world-building so far in their new series. Monstress follows a young slave named Maika whose life was torn apart in a great war and she now harbors a destructive and awesome power within her body that makes her a strategic object to be sought after.

Takeda’s gothic, art-deco influenced artwork is absolutely stunning to behold and the epic fantasy that she and Liu are putting together here is complex and brutally violent.

21. Secret Wars

By Jonathan Hickman, Esad Ribic and Paul Renaud
Marvel Comics

The nine-issue mini-series at the heart of an epic event that effectively destroyed the Marvel Universe and upended its entire publishing line for over four months had the most massive scope of any crossover book Marvel has ever published. I’m not even talking about the dozens of tie-in series that supported the main story. Writer Jonathan Hickman spent 44 issues of Avengers and 33 issues of New Avengers concurrently to build up to this story, but it’s even bigger than that. He uses this series to satisfy plot points he planted in nearly every Marvel title he has written over the past seven years. If you’re a fan of the “Hickman-verse,” this was a great end to his long run in the Marvel Universe. For everyone else, Secret Wars works as a beautifully illustrated swan song for the Fantastic Four, who, once this book was complete, would find their own series cancelled for the first time in Marvel history.

20. Rules for Dating My Daughter

By Mike Dawson
Uncivilized Books

Dawson has a wonderfully relatable way of pondering and sometimes agonizing over subjects that progressively minded parents will empathize with: trying to be a feminist dad; the ethics of teaching your kids to eat meat; gun control and school shootings; there’s even one comparing the class values of Charles Dickens with the Disney Jr. show Sofia the First. Dawson has been successful shifting from writing longform narrative comics to putting out shorter, topical non-fiction pieces. His opinions are nuanced and well thought out, and his cartooning, even on pieces that he meant to be quick and loose are creative and expertly drawn.

19. Rosalie Lightning

By Tom Hart
St. Martin’s Press


 

In 2011, Tom Hart and Leela Corman experienced the worst horror a parent could ever face when their 1-year-old daughter Rosalie unexpectedly passed away. Being cartoonists, both utilized their disciplines as a coping mechanism to help make sense of this awful tragedy. Hart worked through his emotions in real time through his webcomic Rosalie Lightning which was collected this year into a hardcover and was in essence a heartbreaking sequel to his previous webcomic about being a new parent, Daddy Lightning. This is a gut wrenching read, one whose purpose seems so therapeutic it is almost as if it was not even made for others to read. The narrative jumps back and forth between memories of Rosalie and the days, weeks, and months after her death as Hart and his wife try to imagine how to move on with their lives. The images are drawn with so much raw emotion they look practically scratched and gouged onto the page.

18. We All Wish For Deadly Force

Leela Corman
Retrofit Comics

Like her husband, Tom Hart, Leela Corman used her cartooning expertise to explore her own grief after losing her child. In her comic “PTSD: The Wound That Never Heals” which was originally published in Nautilus and is now included in her short comics collection We All Wish For Deadly Force, she describes the pain of “coming back to life after losing my first child” and delves into the science behind Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. It is an incredibly brave and powerful short comic which, through its ultimate message of hope, offers inspiration to victims of trauma of all kinds. The other pieces in Corman's book tackle a range of subjects from her family history, Jewish identity and her experiences teaching bellydancing.

17. Superman: American Alien

By Max Landis with various artists
DC Comics

The best Superman comic since 2005’s All Star Superman once again retells the Man of Steel’s origin (thankfully without any Krypton scenes this time) in a way that manages to be contemporary and edgy yet with the heroic ideals that should always be at the heart of the character. Filmmaker Max Landis teamed with a different big name artist (Joelle Jones, Jae Lee, Nick Dragotta, Jock, Tommy Lee Edwards, Francis Manapul, and Jonathan Case) for each chapter of this mini-series. It begins with Clark Kent as a boy discovering his powers and leads towards Superman’s early days in Metropolis and the revelation to the world that he is an alien. This version of Clark Kent is not the corn-fed innocent we’re used to (he does well with girls and gets into some trouble with his high school friends) but this isn’t an overly cynical attempt to make the character more flawed and gritty for modern audiences. It’s a really enjoyable remix of the mythos with some surprising twists and interesting new relationships between Clark, Lois, and even the other heroes in the DC Universe.

16. Becoming Unbecoming

By Una
Arsenal Pulp Press

The author, working under the pseudonym “Una,” grew up in Northern England in the 1970s while the Yorkshire Ripper was on a murdering spree, killing 13 women, most of whom were prostitutes. The amount of time it took for the police to get serious about catching a serial killer that seemed to prey on sexually active women is a symptom of the problem Una delves into in this dark, brave, and creatively ambitious work. As a victim of both sexual violence and “slut-shaming” by peers at an impressionable and damaging young age, it has taken many years for Una to confront her own experiences and to find a way to talk about the violence and emotional trauma that men inflict on women. She originally never intended this book to be read by anyone else but it is brilliant, revealing and brave in a way that just may help other women.

15. Plutona

By Emi Lenox, Jeff Lemire and Jordie Bellaire
Image Comics

A group of kids hanging out in the woods stumble across a dead body that turns out to be Plutona, the world’s greatest superhero. What should they do? Who should they tell? Their disagreement about what to do next will drive a wedge between all of them. Lemire, one of the most prolific creators in comics, provides the script for a story written and drawn by Emi Lenox of the popular webcomic Emitown (Lemire also draws a backup feature about Plutona’s final adventure before her death). This is a haunting series whose strength is derived from Lenox’s clear and bold cartooning style and her perfectly realized characters, all of whom look and feel like real kids.

14. The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl

By Ryan North, Erica Henderson and Rico Renzi
Marvel Comics

Marvel’s most unique comic is also one of its most crowd pleasing. Geared towards a teen girl audience that superhero comics rarely aim for and even more rarely succeed with, it stars a female protagonist who looks nothing like comics’ usual hyper-idealized super heroines and is written and drawn with a sense of humor and irreverence that is more often found in webcomics. That’s the world where North and Henderson came from and they bring that fresh, welcome, Tumblr-friendly approach to the more mainstream Marvel. This year has featured a time travel story with Doctor Doom, a choose-your-own-adventure issue and even an original graphic novel in which Squirrel Girl’s evil doppleganger takes on every hero in the Marvel Universe.

13. Nod Away

By Joshua Cotter
Fantagraphics

In the near future of Nod Away, the internet has been replaced by a telepathically streamed “innernet”; the public becomes outraged when is revealed that the network was powered by the brain of a little girl. Dr. Melody McCabe is assigned to an international space station with the task of developing a new source while somewhere on a desolate alien landscape, a bearded and disheveled man awakens and begins a journey. Cotter’s first book since 2010’s experimental Driven by Lemons, the first in a multi-part series, fuses technical sci-fi, humor, strong character development and psychedelic explorations of the nature of consciousness in a captivating way.

12. Panther

By Brecht Evens
Drawn & Quarterly

What looks on the surface to be a whimsical and colorful children’s book about a young girl and a talking panther who visits her bedroom, reveals a dark underside that will slowly get under your skin as it goes along. Young Christine is mourning the death of her cat when she receives a visit from the charming panther but it is the reader, not Christine, who begins to pick up on his unspeakable ulterior motives. The Cat in the Hat quality that Belgian artist Brecht Evens invokes belies and unsettling chaotic chill that you won’t be able to shake once you’re done reading.

11. The Creepy Case Files of Margo Maloo

By Drew Weing
First Second

One of the best webcomics of the past few years is now available in a print format ideal for reading with your kids. Tough but diminutive Margo Maloo is a monster mediator in Echo City who helps ease grievances when the local monsters lose their cool with the humans that are gentrifying their neighborhood. When Charles and his parents move to the city to restore a rundown tenement apartment, one of those monsters ends up in Charles’ closet, leading him to require Margo’s services. Kids will love Weing’s wonderful, cross-hatched monsters and Margo’s no-nonsense expertise in handling them.

10. The Flintstones

By Mark Russell, Steve Pugh and Chris Chuckry
DC Comics

Yes, I’m serious. A Flintstones comic is in the top 10. When DC Comics took on the Hanna-Barbera license, no one expected much from the comics they’d produce, especially when they seemed to be aiming for a gritty, modern spin on these classic kids cartoons. However, Russell, just off his critically acclaimed reboot of Prez the Teenage President is a breakout star who, with Pugh, a superhero artist with a style you would think wouldn’t fit the material here, took everyone off guard with this smart and darkly funny socio-political satire. So far the series has tackled subjects like marriage equality, religion, PTSD, consumerism and elections in smart and surprising ways while reintroducing all the fan-favorite characters like Dino and the Great Gazoo.

9. Black Hammer

By Jeff Lemire, Dean Ormston and Dave Stewart
Dark Horse Comics

What happens to superheroes after they’ve been retconned out of existence? The heroes of Black Hammer end up trapped in a quiet rural town in a parallel universe after a “Crisis”-like multiversal event and are forced to live for over a decade under a maddening and stifling guise of normalcy. Abraham Slam, Golden Gail, Colonel Weird, Madame Dragonfly, and Barbalien are stand-ins for a variety of recognizable comic book character types from the Golden Age through the Modern Age. Their prickly relationships with each other as they’ve devolved from heroic super team to bitter, dysfunctional family adds some dark humor to an ominous story about being trapped.

Lemire has been producing outstanding work for both Marvel and Valiant Comics this year but his creator-owned comics are even better, and this book in particular, with Ormston and Stewarts’ creepy, understated visuals is one of his best yet.

8. Sheriff of Babylon

By Tom King and Mitch Gerads
DC Vertigo

Tom King draws on his experience as a CIA officer stationed in Iraq to tell this story of an American contractor who finds himself siding with an Iraqi policeman and a former exile turned crime lord to solve the murder of an Iraqi police cadet. Set in Baghdad after the fall of Saddam, it is rich with authenticity and gravitas thanks not only to King’s expertise, but to the realism of Mitch Gerads’ artwork. Unbelievably, this is just one of the multiple excellent books King has been responsible for this year and, as part of DC Vertigo’s new wave of titles, it is bringing a renewed significance to the imprint.

7. Spidey Zine

By Hannah Blumenreich
Self-published

In today’s Marvel Comics, Peter Parker is in his 30s and is the CEO of his own research company. He’s no longer what most people picture when they think of their ideal version of Spider-man. In Hannah Blumenreich’s fan comics though (which she posts to Tumblr and compiles some of them into a PDF zine you can download for any price you choose), Peter Parker is still in high school. He falls behind in his school work, gets beat by girls in basketball, always has time for people in need, loves his Aunt May and if you give him a chance he’ll chew your ear off about Gilmore Girls or some other TV show for hours. This is just about the most perfect Spider-man you can ask for and it’s just hard to believe that Marvel hasn’t hired Blumenreich yet.

6. Patience

By Dan Clowes
Fantagraphics

Clowes’s first new graphic novel in five years combines his penchant for disaffected outsider protagonists with nostalgia for 1950s genre comics. Jack and Patience are young, just married and about to become parents when an intruder takes the life of Jack’s wife and his unborn baby. Thirty years later, Jack has the opportunity to travel back in time and stop this from happening but does his artless tinkering with Patience’s past only make things worse? Full of causal loops, trippy time travel and unabashed misanthropy, this is about as Clowesian as Clowes gets, a fun yet disturbing read.

5. Hilda and the Stone Forest

By Luke Pearson
Nobrow Press

The Hilda series of children’s graphic novels will likely get the mainstream recognition it deserves in 2018 when it becomes an animated show on Netflix. In the meantime, the fifth book in this consistently fantastic series about a precocious young girl with a healthy curiosity and empathy for the variety of creatures that populate her small village focuses on Hilda’s relationship with her single mom as the two get lost together in the troll-infested Stone Forest. Hilda’s relationship with her mom has always been the heart of this series but in this volume we see how her mom is always trying to navigate between being a friend and being a mother, a balance that most moms can probably relate to. Pearson is skilled at capturing wonderful little character moments and employing hilarious visual gags. Hilda is one of the greatest characters out there for adventurous young girls to read.

4. Paper Girls

By Brian K. Vaughn and Cliff Chiang
Image Comics

Before there was Stranger Things (and really just a few months before), there was Paper Girls, a nostalgia-driven throwback to the 1980s that trades Stranger’s boys on bicycles and horror film tropes for girls on bicycles and sci-fi tropes. Set in 1988, a group of 12-year old paper delivery girls find themselves caught up in an adventure involving time travel, aliens, monsters and the end of the world. Vaughn (Saga, Y: The Last Man) is a master at game-changing plot twists and knowing pop culture references. For Chiang, a longtime DC Comics artist, this is his first creator-owned series, and his sense of drama and characterization makes this read like one of those classic Spielbergian kids’ adventure films it is giving a nod to.

3. Ghosts

By Raina Telgemeier
Scholastic

The most popular graphic novelist of the 21st century took some chances with her highly anticipated new book. Moving away from the memoir format of the now-classic Smile and Sisters that made her a staple on the NY Times Bestseller list, Telgemeier dips into supernatural fiction with a more diverse cast of characters. Ghosts is still focused on family and particularly sibling relationships but also looks to deal with a tough subject for any all-ages book to cover: death.

When Maya and Cat’s parents move them to Northern California where the sea air will hopefully be beneficial for Maya who is suffering from cystic fibrosis. In their new town, they learn about Día de los Muertos and come face to face with the actual spirits which causes Cat to have to acknowledge her sister’s own mortality. It’s a risky book and Telgemeier is at the point in her career where she’s ready to push to new levels and bring her loyal audience along for the ride.

2. Vision

By Tom King, Gabriel Hernandez Walta and Jordie Bellaire
Marvel Comics

Tom King has had an astounding year. He has two books on this list and also became the writer for DC’s bestselling comic Batman. The 12-issue Vision mini-series is his best work yet and expands on a successful formula Marvel first landed on with 2012’s Hawekeye—a glimpse at what passes for a normal life when a superhero is off-duty. For the synthezoid Avenger, achieving a “normal” life for himself requires building a wife, two teenage children and a dog and establishing residence in the suburbs. When his wife, Virginia, murders a super villain who threatens the safety of their home, maintaining the sanctity of their domestic life gets harder and harder.

The brilliance of this book is how it uses so many familiar tropes (the often-absent and unaware father, the hyper-protective mother, the quietly rebellious daughter and the eager to please son) but coldly performed by the analytical Vision family. Even as they calculate their every move in an effort to fit in and play their parts, they inevitably succumb to the same pain and tragedy that any “normal” family would. This is a star-making book for Gabriel Hernandez Walta as well who, with Jordie Bellaire, brings a gorgeous and somber realism to King’s almost philosophical and heartbreaking script.

1. March: Book Three

By Rep. John Lewis, Andrew Aydin and Nate Powell
Top Shelf Comics

Each volume of Rep. John Lewis’ graphic novel memoir about his experience as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement released over the past three years has landed with increasing cultural relevance. The third and final volume came out during a bitter election year noteworthy for Black Lives Matter protests, the rise of white nationalism, and numerous incidents of unarmed black men being shot by police. Book Three begins with a shocking scene set inside the 16th St. Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 just before a bomb kills four young black girls. It retells horrific incidents of nonviolent protests being met with brutal violence and builds towards the triumph of the march from Selma to Montgomery that would lead to the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Lewis’s gripping and informative life story will be taught in history classes for years to come but it also should be noted that the way Powell depicts these events with intense drama that never sacrifices historic accuracy is so perfectly achieved that it will probably be taught in art classes as well.

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5 Ways You Do Complex Math in Your Head Without Realizing It
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The one thing that people who love math and people who hate math tend to agree on is this: You're only really doing math if you sit down and write formal equations. This idea is so widely embraced that to suggest otherwise is "to start a fight," says Maria Droujkova, math educator and founder of Natural Math, a site for kids and parents who want to incorporate math into their daily lives. Mathematicians cherish their formal proofs, considering them the best expression of their profession, while the anti-math don't believe that much of the math they studied in school applies to "real life."

But in reality, "we do an awful lot of things in our daily lives that are profoundly mathematical, but that may not look that way on the surface," Christopher Danielson, a Minnesota-based math educator and author of a number of books, including Common Core Math for Parents for Dummies, tells Mental Floss. Our mathematical thinking includes not just algebra or geometry, but trigonometry, calculus, probability, statistics, and any of the at least 60 types [PDF] of math out there. Here are five examples.

1. COOKING // ALGEBRA

Of all the maths, algebra seems to draw the most ire, with some people even writing entire books on why college students shouldn't have to endure it because, they claim, it holds the students back from graduating. But if you cook, you're likely doing algebra. When preparing a meal, you often have to think proportionally, and "reasoning with proportions is one of the cornerstones of algebraic thinking," Droujkova tells Mental Floss.

You're also thinking algebraically whenever you're adjusting a recipe, whether for a larger crowd or because you have to substitute or reduce ingredients. Say, for example, you want to make pancakes, but you only have two eggs left and the recipe calls for three. How much flour should you use when the original recipe calls for one cup? Since one cup is 8 ounces, you can figure this out using the following algebra equation: n/8 : 2/3.

algebraic equation illustrates adjustment of a recipe
Lucy Quintanilla

However, when thinking proportionally, you can just reason that since you have one-third less eggs, you should just use one-third less flour.

You're also doing that proportional thinking when you consider the cooking times of the various courses of your meal and plan accordingly so all the elements of your dinner are ready at the same time. For example, it will usually take three times as long to cook rice as it will a flattened chicken breast, so starting the rice first makes sense.

"People do mathematics in their own way," Droujkova says, "even if they cannot do it in a very formalized way."

2. LISTENING TO MUSIC // PATTERN THEORY AND SYMMETRY

woman enjoys listening to music in headphones
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The making of music involves many different types of math, from algebra and geometry to group theory and pattern theory and beyond, and a number of mathematicians (including Pythagoras and Galileo) and musicians have connected the two disciplines (Stravinsky claimed that music is "something like mathematical thinking").

But simply listening to music can make you think mathematically too. When you recognize a piece of music, you are identifying a pattern of sound. Patterns are a fundamental part of math; the branch known as pattern theory is applied to everything from statistics to machine learning.

Danielson, who teaches kids about patterns in his math classes, says figuring out the structure of a pattern is vital for understanding math at higher levels, so music is a great gateway: "If you're thinking about how two songs have similar beats, or time signatures, or you're creating harmonies, you're working on the structure of a pattern and doing some really important mathematical thinking along the way."

So maybe you weren't doing math on paper if you were debating with your friends about whether Tom Petty was right to sue Sam Smith in 2015 over "Stay With Me" sounding a lot like "I Won't Back Down," but you were still thinking mathematically when you compared the songs. And that earworm you can't get out of your head? It follows a pattern: intro, verse, chorus, bridge, end.

When you recognize these kinds of patterns, you're also recognizing symmetry (which in a pop song tends to involve the chorus and the hook, because both repeat). Symmetry [PDF] is the focus of group theory, but it's also key to geometry, algebra, and many other maths.

3. KNITTING AND CROCHETING // GEOMETRIC THINKING

six steps of crocheting a hyperbolic plane
Cheryl, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

Droujkova, an avid crocheter, she says she is often intrigued by the very mathematical discussions fellow crafters have online about the best patterns for their projects, even if they will often insist they are awful at math or uninterested in it. And yet, such crafts cannot be done without geometric thinking: When you knit or crochet a hat, you're creating a half sphere, which follows a geometric formula.

Droujkova isn't the only math lover who has made the connection between geometry and crocheting. Cornell mathematician Daina Taimina found crocheting to be the perfect way to illustrate the geometry of a hyperbolic plane, or a surface that has a constant negative curvature, like a lettuce leaf. Hyperbolic geometry is also used in navigation apps, and explains why flat maps distort the size of landforms, making Greenland, for example, look far larger on most maps than it actually is.

4. PLAYING POOL // TRIGONOMETRY

people playing pool
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If you play billiards, pool, or snooker, it's very likely that you are using trigonometric reasoning. Sinking a ball into a pocket by using another ball involves understanding not just how to measure angles by sight but triangulation, which is the cornerstone of trigonometry. (Triangulation is a surprisingly accurate way to measure distance. Long before powered flight was possible, surveyors used triangulation to measure the heights of mountains from their bases and were off by only a matter of feet.)

In a 2010 paper [PDF], Louisiana mathematician Rick Mabry studied the trigonometry (and basic calculus) of pool, focusing on the straight-in shot. In a bar in Shreveport, Louisiana, he scribbled equations on napkins for each shot, and he calculated the most difficult straight-in shot of all. Most experienced pool players would say it’s one where the target ball is halfway between the pocket and the cue ball. But that, according to Mabry’s equations, turned out not to be true. The hardest shot of all had a surprising feature: The distance from the cue ball to the pocket was exactly 1.618 times the distance from the target ball to the pocket. That number is the golden ratio, which is found everywhere in nature—and, apparently, on pool tables.

Do you need to consider the golden ratio when deciding where to place the cue ball? Nope, unless you want to prove a point, or set someone else up to lose. You're doing the trig automatically. The pool sharks at the bar must have known this, because someone threw away Mabry's math napkins.

5. RE-TILING THE BATHROOM // CALCULUS

tiled bathroom with shower stall
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Many students don't get to calculus in high school, or even in college, but a cornerstone of that branch of math is optimization—or figuring out how to get the most precise use of a space or chunk of time.

Consider a home improvement project where you're confronted with tiling around something whose shape doesn't fit a geometric formula like a circle or rectangle, such as the asymmetric base of a toilet or freestanding sink. This is where the fundamental theorem of calculus—which can be used to calculate the precise area of an irregular object—comes in handy. When thinking about how those tiles will best fit around the curve of that sink or toilet, and how much of each tile needs to be cut off or added, you're employing the kind of reasoning done in a Riemann sum.

Riemann sums (named after a 19th-century German mathematician) are crucial to explaining integration in calculus, as tangible introductions to the more precise fundamental theorem. A graph of a Riemann sum shows how the area of a curve can be found by building rectangles along the x, or horizontal axis, first up to the curve, and then over it, and then averaging the distance between the over- and underlap to get a more precise measurement. 

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History
The Sky Was No Limit: The WASP Women Pilots of WWII
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shirley Slade sat on the wing of a plane and looked off into an uncertain future. Slade—clad in her flight suit with pigtails guarding against Texas wind—was posing for the July 19, 1943 issue of Life magazine, and the composition between the aircraft and its operator was a juxtaposition spelled out in the cover headline: "Air Force Pilot."

Slade was one of more than 1000 women who had been solicited by the U.S. government to enter an intensive seven-month training course that would make them the first female pilots to enter the Air Force. What had been a boy's club was being forced into a kind of reluctant gender neutrality as a result of World War II and severe pilot shortages. By recruiting women, the Air Force could maintain delivery of aircraft, ferry supplies, and perform other non-combative functions that fueled the war efforts. Collectively, the group would become known as WASPs: Women Airforce Service Pilots.

While all of these women risked their lives—and more than a few lost them—they were not perceived as equals. Because they were designated as civilians, they were denied military honors and compensation. As the war wound down, men returning from combat jockeyed to take the WASPs' places as active-duty pilots. Occasionally, the women would be used in target practice. It would be decades before the women of WASP would finally get their due.

 
 

America's entry into World War II following the attack on Pearl Harbor heralded a new policy of rationing. Food, materials, and manpower were doled out carefully, but demand for pilots quickly exceeded the available personnel. By 1942, the Air Force realized they would have to tap into new sources in order to continue their campaign.

Jacqueline Cochran had a solution: A pilot in her own right and a contemporary of Amelia Earhart, Cochran knew there was a strong contingent of female fliers who had licenses and had logged air time who could be recruited for support missions. She petitioned the Air Force, including commanding general Henry Harley "Hap" Arnold, to approve a training program that would ultimately relocate volunteers to Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas. Another pilot, Nancy Harkness Love, submitted a similar proposal.

WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner looks out from her plane while on a Texas runway
WASP pilot Elizabeth Remba Gardner
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Cochran and Love were up against considerable resistance to involving women in military efforts. General Dwight D. Eisenhower once admitted he was "violently against" the idea (before concluding that none of his concerns came to light and women were an integral part of the effort). Internally, there was concern as to whether women would even be capable of handling a massive aircraft like the B-29 bomber, so superiors hedged their bets by creating two organizations.

Love was put in charge of the Women's Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron (WAFS)—an organization to ferry planes—while Cochran was put in charge of the Women's Flying Training Detachment, which did whatever the Army Air Corps required of it. A little under a year later, these two groups were merged into a single organization: the WASPs. This new group demanded that incoming women logged at least 35 hours of flight time before coming to Sweetwater. More importantly, the women would be considered civilians, not military personnel.

Roughly 25,000 women applied; around 1900 were accepted and 1100 completed training. On their own dimes, these women streamed into Texas to begin the seven-month program that taught them every aspect of military flying except for gunnery duty and formation flying. Every day in the barracks included intensive lessons, physical fitness training, and studying. At night, the women would dance, sing, or play ping-pong. Life described their ambitions as "piloting with an unfeminine purpose" and noted that some of the women needed cushions in order to sit comfortably in planes designed for male bodies. Their mascot, a tiny winged sprite named Miss Fifinella, was designed by Disney, and the patch appeared on many of their jumpsuits and plane noses.

According to Life, the Air Force reported that the women were faster on instruments while the men "had better memory for details." But in virtually every way that counted, the magazine wrote, there was no practical difference in ability.

Graduates were dispatched to bases around the country, though the most pressing job was ferrying new aircraft from factories to places like Newark, New Jersey, where the planes would make the jump overseas. The women shuttled 12,000 of these planes during the war. They also escorted military chaplains from base to base on Sundays for religious services and operated test flights for repaired aircraft to make sure they were safe to fly in combat. Sometimes, they'd be tasked with towing targets behind them so soldiers could use live ammunition for combat practice.

Simulated combat may have been nerve-wracking, but it was no more dangerous than the actual flying and the very real possibility that the WASPs would experience equipment malfunction or fuel issues. In the two years the squad was active, 38 women perished during missions. At the time—and for decades afterward—the families of those women were denied many of the basic privileges afforded to the families of their male counterparts. When a WASP died, her colleagues—not the government—would pitch in to pay for her burial. Their families were prohibited from putting a gold star in their windows, a sign of a military casualty, nor were they "allowed" to drape the American flag over their coffins.

 
 

On December 20, 1944, the WASPs were sent home. The war wasn't yet over, but men returning from the front lines were dismayed that jobs they expected to find waiting for them were being occupied by women. Despite Cochran's petition to have the WASPs permanently incorporated into the Air Force, Congress turned her down.

WASP pilots are photographed circa 1943
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The pride the women had felt serving their country turned to confusion. By being classified as "civilians," the WASPs found little respect for their efforts. When entering the workforce after the war, some even became flight attendants, as no commercial airline would hire a female pilot.

In the 1970s, the Air Force announced they'd be accepting female recruits for the "first time," a proclamation that angered the surviving WASPs. Their efforts had largely gone unheralded, and now it seemed like the government was wiping them from history completely. Petitioning for recognition and receiving aid from fellow war ferry pilot Senator Barry Goldwater, they were finally granted military status on November 23, 1977.

As the WASPs aged, a handful got the chance to enjoy another honor. In 2010, the women were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for their efforts. After flying 77 different types of planes over 60 million miles during wartime and being largely ignored for decades, it was recognition that was long overdue.

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