On this day back in 1934, the world was introduced for the first time to Donald Fauntleroy Duck, when he made his first appearance in the cartoon “The Wise Little Hen”. The excitable, short-tempered but lovable duck went on to become one of the world’s favourite cartoon characters, and the de facto mascot for The Walt Disney Company.
So what does this have to do with science, you may ask? Well, Donald Duck often appeared in cartoons touching on traditionally non-cartoony subjects like politics, religion and, yes, science and mathematics.
In the 1959 cartoon “Donald in Mathmagic Land“, Donald accidentally stumbles into a magical land of mathematics – a land where trees have square roots, streams are filled with numbers, and a geometric bird recites the digits of Pi.
In the cartoon, Donald is shown that mathematics is not just for eggheads (his original opinion) and that it’s actually useful and even exciting. He meets, and plays some music with, Pythagoras and his secret band of Pythagorians, where he discovers that mathematics form the basis of musical scales. From Pythagoras he also receives a pentagram, through which he goes on to learn about the golden section and the golden rectangle, and how these appear in architecture (the Parthenon, etc) and art, such as the Mona Lisa.
Donald discovers that the golden section also shows itself in the human body and in nature, in flowers, plants and shells. He learns that mathematics even applies to sports and games, such as chess, baseball, basketball and billiards.
A cool bit of intertextuality in the cartoon comes through the inclusion of some themes from “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll, who was himself also a mathematician.
In this cartoon Donald Duck, and with him millions of children, are introduced to the wonders of mathematics in a fun and humorous way, and the cartoon closes with the wonderful Galileo quote:
“Mathematics is the alphabet with which God has written the universe”.
Here’s to you, Donald – Happy Birthday, you grumpy old duck!