The Unapologetic Mathematician

Travel Day

Since I’m driving for a Google-projected nine hours tomorrow, I’m going to leave an open thread again. As with last time, any questions, comments, requests, shout-outs, or disturbing insinuations are welcome. I say again: who the heck are all you people?

March 15, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | 2 Comments

That Greek constant

I evidently can’t say “$\pi$” in the title to a post. Today I’ve seen a lot of people talking about “$\pi$ Day”, though, so I suppose I’m expected to do so as well. So I will.

I hate $\pi$ day. Hate hate hate hate hate this day. Hate it. Hate every simpering stupid vacant mathematics-insulting moment of it. Hate the sensibility that thinks anyone will like it. Hate the implied insult to mathematics by its belief that anyone would be entertained by it.1

Let me put it this way: why don’t we have a “The Sky Is Blue Day”? It’s about as obvious. The constant $\pi$ shows up everywhere for very good reasons, and once you’re really comfortable with it you’re just not that impressed. There has to be some constant satisfying any one of its definitions, and those all have to be the same thing. Beyond that, the decimal expansion — 3.1415926535… — is purely an accident of our notation for real numbers. When I see the same taped-glasses pedants who whine that the year 2000 is only an accident of base ten turn around and join in this silly fetishization of $\pi$ it’s incredibly depressing.

And then there’s the argument that this sort of thing acts as a springboard for mathematical interest. Listen carefully here: the only people who care about $\pi$ Day are already interested in at least applications of mathematics. That $\pi$ has such-and-so a value isn’t going to win any converts, and recitations of its decimal expansion make nonmathematicians think we’re all some sort of social outcasts who have nothing better to do with our time than that — if that’s what mathematics is, why bother going into such a dry and boring subject? Besides which, Lore Sjöberg said it best: “A value of pi that’s accurate to the 31st digit is good enough to measure the circumference of the entire universe within one proton, so anything beyond that is bordering on the mathsturbatory.”

Anyway, $\pi$ works the way it does for all sorts of good reasons, and it’s very well understood why. There are other constants with just as complicated expansions that we have very little idea why they work the way they do. Why not come up with a day for Feigenbaum’s constant?

So, mathematicians throw off the shackles of $\pi$ Day.

1 With apologies to Roger Ebert

March 15, 2007 Posted by | rants | 14 Comments