"Independent research"

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The current xkcd:

The mouseover title: "Focus of your research: EXTREME PETTINESS AND UNWILLINGNESS TO LET ANYTHING GO"

The current SMBC is a bit more transparently linguistic:

Mouseover title: "OK, if patreon is any indication, many of you are confused but four and a half of you are HOWLING."

The aftercomic:

(If you're among the confused, here's the entry from Lewis & Short for the Latin word, and the page from Wikipedia about the mathematical term. For details of the etymological history, see here.)

Update — A note from R.S.:

.. and don't forget to reunite your broken parts!


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 8:42 pm

    As the "etymological history" linked to and other sources should make clear, "mother" is a poor and misleading translation of Latin "matrix" outside of a context where the "mother" being referenced is a non-human mammal kept by farmers for breeding purposes. A more accurate "womb" or "uterus" ought to be a sufficiently unexpected word in the modern math classroom for the professor to be able to increase his enjoyment, since the metaphor that apparently seemed obvious to the late Prof. Sylvester may be opaque to most current students of the subject.

  2. cameron said,

    February 15, 2024 @ 9:06 pm

    I was reminded of when I took Linear Algebra as a college freshman quite a while ago. My Instructor was a very young Chinese man, either a grad student or very junior professor, whose English was very poor. He pronounced "matrix" and "matrices" as "mattress" and "mattresses", respectively.

  3. Peter Taylor said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 5:16 am

    @J.W. Brewer, uterus is definitely Latin-derived (and probably qualifies as "fancy" in English), but my first thought on processing the cartoon was that it should be womb instead of mother.

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 7:40 am

    @Peter Taylor: on further reflection "womb" was historically one of the senses of "matrix" as an *English* word. This sense, says one dictionary, is "now rare," which seems fair, but it may well have been obvious to the sort of Anglophone students/scholars doing this sort of comparatively advanced math circa 1850. Although of course back then virtually any Anglophone doing that level of math would also have been previously taught Latin, so it's hard to distinguish between different sources of knowledge.

    FWIW "matrix" pops up five times in the King James Version in the sense of "womb," each time as a rendering of a Hebrew lexeme (רֶחֶם / "rechem" in its lemma form) that comes out as "womb(s)" the other two dozen or so times it occurs in the Hebrew text being translated. I don't know what motivated the translators to use the Latinate "matrix" instead in those specific passages, but they were usually fairly thoughtful about things like that rather than simply flipping through a thesaurus as if introducing variation for variation's own sake.

  5. KeithB said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 9:08 am

    I had a Greek professor in college (I wasn't taking Greek, he was from Greece), and he kept confusing english and greek letters in my Electro-mechanics/motors class. That made it very hard to listen to him lecture.

  6. François Lang said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 10:45 am

    @KeithB re Greek professor:
    I wonder if the two varieties of Greek professors can be disambiguated by syllabic stress, e.g.,

    A professor who teaches Aristophanes: A GREEK professor
    A professor who hails from Athens: A Greek proFESSor


    [(myl) That's been a standard type of example for Compound Stress vs. Nuclear Stress for roughly the past century — see p. 10 of my 1975 dissertation for a relatively recent mention.]

  7. Peter Taylor said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 10:49 am

    @J.W. Brewer, this also comes through in the Lewis & Short reference, which offers matrix as one of the English translations. It's still the same word in Spanish: I hear matriz more often than útero in conversation, and it's about three times more common in CORDE (although other meanings may inflate the count).

  8. Noam said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 12:09 pm

    Somehow I never stopped to think about the relation between the math definition and the materials science use of matrix. It’s the continuous substance in a composite into which you mix in particles, fibers, etc, or the bulk part of an alloy in which you get inclusions of a different composition or structure.

    I guess in the second of these the “womb” meaning makes sense, because the inclusions often precipitate and grow from the matrix.

  9. Michèle Sharik Pituley said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 4:04 pm

    @JW: "were usually fairly thoughtful about things like that rather than simply flipping through a thesaurus as if introducing variation for variation's own sake."

    Well, that explains Rev 14:2 ("harpers harping with their harps").

  10. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 16, 2024 @ 4:39 pm

    @Michèle Sharik Pituley: The wording chosen in that particular verse mirrors the triple-repetition in the Greek ("κιθαρῳδῶν κιθαριζόντων ἐν ταῖς κιθάραις αὐτῶν"), which seems a good approach unless you have good grounds for thinking that pattern would be notably less odd or awkward-seeming in Greek.

  11. Rodger C said,

    February 17, 2024 @ 1:15 pm

    JWB: Surely the Greek of the Apocalypse is notoriously awkward, especially Semiticized? Something like that might sound less awkward in Aramaic, where the vowel structure of the three words would be different. (I admit I don't know enough to say this for sure.)

  12. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 17, 2024 @ 3:41 pm

    @Rodger C.: Well, that gets to a separate question. It's already a recurrent problem (not necessarily an easily solved one) that most Bible translations tend to smooth out or flatten the considerable differences in register, style, etc. between the varying texts contained in the original. But ideally a good translation of Revelation would be in a weird enough variety of English to convey the flavor of how notoriously weird the Greek is, although again that's easier said than done. I remember a professor telling us back in '86 that if we, in our earlier Greek classes, had done some of the things St. John was doing to his case endings, we would have gotten deservedly bad grades, because we would have just been Wrong, rather than somehow innovating our own idiolect with its own grammar. But it's very hard to come with "corresponding" grammar oddities that convey that in English without being confusing/distracting.

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