Thursday, March 14, 2013

Happy Pi Day!

Every year, around March 14, the world gathers as one to celebrate, what some consider, one of the greatest intellectual achievements of the ancient world... the discovery of the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference.

Wow. When you put it like that, it doesn't sound so great.

Regardless, it is what it is.

And if anyone has taken very much math in life, Pi pops up pretty regularly. So much so, that some folks consider it almost like a mystical thing.

It's been surmised that should we make contact with any alien civilization out there, then we'd want to show them Pi... just to prove we're not morons. The assumption being that any aliens would recognize it for what it is.

Carl Sagan, it his wonderful book, Contact (I also said this was one of my favorite movies of all time a few weeks ago), wrote it into his novel as mystical thing... going so far as to having the aliens of his book ponder on it. Because if you work it out far enough, eventually (in the book, not real life), a pattern emerges. Not just a pattern, but what looks like a message. Embedded right there in the very fabric of mathematics is a message - from God? Some math obsessed ancient aliens who wrote codes all over the universe... is it a warning? What is it?

Getting back to math though, I'm no genius, really. Please don't act too shocked about that. But, when I was in college I did enter into a few math competitions. Nothing larger than a regional sort of thing... maybe 8 or 9 institutes of higher learning would send students to compete and we'd all be given problems and told to we have figure them out.

I did okay doing those. Well enough to get shiny certificates to put on my wall and enough money in winnings to buy a textbook or two. Of course, again, that's small potatoes. More than anything, it convinces me that I'm surrounded by idiots, not that I'm smart.

The point to all that, is that in doing all that math, I couldn't help but notice that Pi didn't come up that often when working through things. 2Pi came up ALL the time... so many formula for figuring out whatever it was I was trying to do involved me using 2Pi, not Pi. I recall wishing that 2Pi was a thing.

Turns out, it is. Tau <-- check that link (the ratio of the radius to the circumference) is 2Pi... 6.28...(instead of 3.14). It's a movement to try to get Pi to be replaced in mathematics by Tau, which will help simplify doing math tremendously (again, follow the link if your interested).

So, I don't have any love for Pi, really. Except that I did have to study it in school, some. Regardless, I was at work a few weeks ago and it came out that I know Pi out to... I wasn't sure, but I guessed 20 digits or so. Apparently, that was met with some skepticism, which seems weird to me because, seriously, is that something anyone would really brag about? I mean, if I were in a bar with some nerdy folks that might impress somebody, but not really, because I'd guess that if you don't know it out to 50 places or so, no real Pi nerd will take you as serious about the topic.

(I didn't take the pic either)
But...whatever. I was handed a marker and directed to a whiteboard. Where I managed to produce the hard to see string of digits to the right of the screen with three or four onlookers. I didn't bother to check to see if I was right (someone else said they did) but I counted out 29 digits before I ran out of steam. So, despite myself. I did feel a small flush of satisfaction as it managed to get some looks of impressment. After all, until the early 17th century, no one in the world had calculated Pi out as far (another time travel tip).

That feeling quickly passed as people starting asking me why I know Pi like I did. I don't have an answer for that. It just got in my head somewhere.

So happy Pi day people!


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

But were they impressed? Buy you lunch? Give you a promotion?

M.J. Fifield said...

One of my nieces came in second in her school's recite the digits of Pi contest. I don't think she quite got to 29 digits, but I was still impressed because I don't know what comes after 3.14. I mean, I looked at the picture and everything and I still can't remember.

PT Dilloway, Grumpy Bulldog said...

Mmmmm...pie. Wait, there's no pie? Dang it.

Andrew Leon said...

I never bothered with anything beyond 3.14, because it's not actually useful for anything when doing math. I always found -i- much more interesting. The idea that you had to make up a fake number to do some kinds of math just boggles my mind. Even while using it, because everything from Algebra 2 on up uses -i-, but pi just kind of goes away after geometry.

Have you seen the youtube videos of the music of pi and tau?

M Pax said...

Chocolat pi is great :)

I know what pi is and that it's used in circles and math.

Happy Pi Day!

Michael Offutt, S.F.A. said...

I used to think you were a square daddy o, but this post makes me think you are way rounder than that.

Jo said...

I am impressed anyway. Actually, some time ago I saw a movie about autism and there was one guy who could do pi out to dozens of places, don't remember how many, and he was right as well. Of course he had lots of autistic problems, but not when it came to pi. It was quite something. I think 29 places is quite something.

From a mathematical dummy.


Rusty Webb said...

@ Alex - they gave me a shrug.

@ MJ - I feel like every digit I have in my head is a waste of brainspace... but I have seen people that can recite those digits all day long. Congrats to your niece.

@ PT - There's probably Pi pie. There's chess pie, after all. And no one ever thought of eating chess before they invented the pie version of it.

@ Andrew - I wish Pi went away after geometry, but you can't do much higher math without it - I've read that at circle accurate to about 40 digits (I'm not looking it up, I'm probably off a bit there) of Pi could be blown up to the size of the observable universe and only be off from true by less than the distance of a hydrogen atom. So, yes, technically speaking, calculating Pi out more than a few digits isn't the most necessary thing humans have ever done, but it is a feat of marvelous intelligence. I think it is a big deal. I mean, anytime I sit and think how I could figure out Pi on my own, with no help from others, I don't know how I would get past a string and a quarter... and maybe figuring out 22/7 works well enough, after that, it's starts getting tougher.

And I'm right with you on imaginary numbers, actually, I've toyed with doing lots of math related posts, but I never have out of respect of the poor souls that would be forced to read. It's just Pi day was too hard to resist. If there is ever an imaginary number day then I'll be all over it. Because I, honestly, believe that math is the closest thing to magic humanity has ever discovered. But it can get very... esoteric... once you get beyond arithmetic. And to start talking about some of the more interesting stuff probably requires more expertise than I could offer.

@ M Pax - that's all you need to know.

@ Michael - I'm just happy you commented... but you could have dug deeper for a pun.

@ Jo - Thanks for being kind. I know that Pi recitation competitions are everywhere and some people are really good at them. But I think it's a test of memory way more than it is of any mathematic ability.

Andrew Leon said...

I don't really remember pi much from Calculus or advanced math or whatever that other course I had with the box things that I can't remember the name of that was after calculus. Maybe, you need pi for physics, but I didn't pursue physics that far. Maybe pi comes back -after- all that stuff I took?

Andrew Leon said...

Hmm... which could be a title... "The Return of Pi"
I think that's the sequel to "Life of Pi"

Jo said...

You know, its not really pi day in other countries, for Britain and Australia it is 14.3 and it is mostly that in Canada too. Only in the US do you do 3.14 as far as I know.


nutschell said...

I've always been fascinated by Pi. Such an amazing number. Also makes me feel hungry for some reason.

David P. King said...

I keep missing Pi day. Man! Well, a belated one to you! :)

Jay Noel said...

29 digits? Geez.

My oldest got to eat actual pie at school. That's a good way to get kids to learn (and come home crashing from the sugar high)