Mathematicians love the mighty equals sign. At its best, it’s a symbol of achievement, those two little parallel lines encoding hours, days, weeks or years of blood, sweat and coffee.
On a bad day, though, those lines can hide anything from innocent hand-waving to full-blown intellectual skullduggery. The plot further thickens when equals’s less precise cronies show up, blending truth and fiction in a whirlwind of non-kosher comparisons and inferences.
To help guide you through the corrupt streets of the Mathropolis, I’ve assembled a rap sheet of its five most dangerous characters. Learn them well: it could save your career one day.
The gang boss. Purports to tell you when two things assume precisely the same value, but like a crooked pawn broker he may be hiding impurities under unassuming jargon like “higher order terms”. He likes to torture innocent bystanders with unsolvable problems, and what he says one day may be far from the truth the day after.
Less Than and Greater Than
Identical twins brought up in separate homes, the Than sisters developed opposing views on life to one another. This doesn’t stop them working together to effect highly lucrative scams. One may give you a dead cert tip only for the other to suddenly step in after a seemingly innocuous retelling of the status quo, obliterating any basic intellectual savings you may have built up.
Approximately is the oddball cousin of gang boss Equals. She can often be found in bars talking up her encounters with the great powers of the world, but don’t believe a word she says. Her stories can be very convincing, but if she claims to have met Gandhi it’s almost certainly a wild elaboration on having merely seen the film. Don’t accept any of her advice without second, third and tenth opinions.
The cagey futurist of the bunch. His approach to day-to-day life is tinged with pessimism; he is wont to avoid spur of the moment deals for seemingly better ones further down the line. While this makes him more trustworthy than the others, he is also more cantankerous, and will rarely help those in immediate need.
A seemingly respectable politician, this chap harbours many deep prejudices. Some groups of citizens receive equal treatment under his policies, while others are left at the side of the road. He keeps his distance from the criminal element, but, like a dirty cop in Prohibition Chicago, everyone knows where his allegiance really lies.