Give us back In­ter­na­tional Pi Day, you fas­cists

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW - Don­ald Clarke

Why aren’t you in a ham­mock? Show some bleed­ing re­spect. July 22nd has, since 2014, been In­ter­na­tional Ham­mock Day. Peo­ple died so that you could sleep sus­pended be­tween two trees like a char­ac­ter in the Beano. Maybe you were too busy chop­ping man­goes or pre­par­ing crème brûlée. This garbage web­site tells me that to­day also cel­e­brates those things.

To­mor­row might be In­ter­na­tional Un­der­coat Day. Mon­day could, for all I know, cel­e­brate the scum that gath­ers in the mo­lars af­ter a night of vom­it­ing. There’s a day for ev­ery­thing.

Any­way, this stupid web­site is no re­li­able guide. Too taken up with stuff you can sell, it fails to men­tion the cel­e­bra­tion that re­ally mat­ters. July 22nd is Pi Ap­prox­i­ma­tion Day. No, it’s not Pie Day. That food­stuff is, ap­par­ently, cel­e­brated on Jan­uary 23rd. It’s not Pi Day, ei­ther. For rea­sons that cause us to spit and shout, that falls on March 14th.

The two ver­sions of Pi Day cel­e­brate the most beau­ti­ful of all con­stants. We call it pi. Sim­pli­fied to three sig­nif­i­cant places, the num­ber is writ­ten as 3.14. We can­not blame Larry Shaw, a physi­cist of note, for or­gan­is­ing a cel­e­bra­tion of pi on March 14th, 1988. We grudg­ingly com­mend the US House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives for recog­nis­ing that date as Pi Day. But there is a whiff of cul­tural im­pe­ri­al­ism here.

Wrong or­der

March 14th is, you see, rep­re­sented as 3/14 in the United States. That’s nice for them. Here fol­lows a com­plete list of the coun­tries us­ing the mm/dd/yyyy date for­mat: the United States. I hope that helps. March 14th makes sense as a cel­e­bra­tion of Pi in just one na­tion. The time has come to in­sist on July 22nd as the in­ter­na­tional stan­dard. It is re­dun­dant to add “ap­prox­i­ma­tion” to the day’s ti­tle. Of course, the frac­tion 22/7 (you get it now, right?) is an ap­prox­i­ma­tion of Pi. But any rep­re­sen­ta­tion in Ara­bic nu­mer­als will be an ap­prox­i­ma­tion. Pi is an ir­ra­tional num­ber. That is to say it can­not be rep­re­sented as a frac­tion and its dec­i­mal rep­re­sen­ta­tion never set­tles into a per­ma­nent re­peat­ing pat­tern. The num­ber be­gins thus: 3.141592653 . . . The dig­its go on for­ever in a man­ner that seems ran­dom. They can never be all writ­ten down.

Cor­rected to three sig­nif­i­cant fig­ures, 22 di­vided by seven also comes to 3.14. So the ap­prox­i­ma­tion sug­gested by to­day’s date is pre­cisely as ac­cu­rate as that in­di­cated by the Amer­i­can nu­mer­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tion of March 14th. Give us back In­ter­na­tional Pi Day, you fas­cists.

Do enough peo­ple care? In his 1991 book Be­yond In­nu­mer­acy, John Allen Pau­los, pro­fes­sor of math­e­mat­ics at Tem­ple Univer­sity in Philadelphia, re­calls ask­ing a group of non-math­e­mat­i­cal friends to de­fine pi. A few knew it had some­thing to do with a cir­cle. At least one was able to come up with the 22/7 ap­prox­i­ma­tion. He ex­plained: “The ma­jor­ity tried to con­ceal their ig­no­rance and/or my im­per­ti­nence with a joke. The lawyer asked me to re­cite the pro­vi­sions of a bank­ruptcy statute.”

Math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts

If you want to get a sci­en­tist an­noyed then joke about your own ig­no­rance of ba­sic math­e­mat­i­cal con­cepts in a way you would never joke about ig­no­rance of art, his­tory or ge­og­ra­phy. “Oh I’m hope­less at math­e­mat­ics,” Pau­los’s lawyer ap­pears to be say­ing. “Ha ha! Once I see an ‘x’ my head goes into a spin.” Such peo­ple are less likely to brag about not know­ing the cap­i­tal of France or the au­thor of Ham­let. Yet that is a fair com­par­i­son for the level of ig­no­rance on dis­play. “I’m such a mo­ron at book-read­ing,” they don’t say. “Any word longer than ‘horse’ and I get all a mud­dle.”

The def­i­ni­tion of pi could hardly be sim­pler. It is the ra­tio of a cir­cle’s cir­cum­fer­ence to its di­am­e­ter. If a cir­cle’s cir­cum­fer­ence is C and its di­am­e­ter is D then Pi = C/D. It doesn’t mat­ter what size the cir­cle is. It doesn’t mat­ter what units you use. The re­sult will al­ways be a num­ber that we can’t sat­is­fac­to­rily write down, but which ap­prox­i­mates to 22/7.

The pres­ence of pi in so many as­pects of math­e­mat­ics that have no ob­vi­ous con­nec­tion to cir­cles adds greatly to its ap­peal. Space pre­cludes lit­tle more than to re­fer to the state­ment of Euler’s fa­mous iden­tity.

We can, how­ever, say that it unites five key math­e­mat­i­cal con­stants in a gor­geously com­pact equal­ity. Cal­cu­la­tion of pi trig­gers sur­pris­ing math­e­mat­i­cal se­ries. It ap­pears in James Clerk Maxwell’s laws of elec­tro­mag­netism. It is buried in ev­ery piece of mod­ern tech­nol­ogy.

So, this is one of the “in­ter­na­tional days” that is worth cel­e­brat­ing. To con­nect with pi is to con­nect with the uni­verse. It is a con­nec­tion free of spir­i­tual baloney or spec­u­la­tive clap­trap.

Re­claim July 22nd. Ditch the re­dun­dant “ap­prox­i­ma­tion”. Happy Pi Day, ev­ery­one.

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