The Unapologetic Mathematician

Mathematics for the interested outsider

It’s that time again

I’ve made my opinion clear about today. It’s completely based on two accidents. One is the use of decimal notation, and one is the use of the Gregorian calendar. And it reduces mathematics to a caricature, with no real understanding even of its referent.

And now even Rachel is getting in on it, which I figured she probably would. Okay, so Rachel, I’ve got a deal for you: if non-public-policy geekdom is actually of interest to you beyond “One More Thing” fodder, I’d be glad to come on the show next year and explain why these celebrations are actually detrimental. I’ll be waiting for your email.

March 14, 2009 - Posted by | rants


  1. Accident number three: in the UK and at least some of the rest of Europe, today’s date is 14/3/2009.

    Over the last few years, in the UK at least, there’s been a bit of a trend of “scientists discover formula for …” news stories, where the formulae in question allow one to calculate things like the most depressing day of the year, the happiest day of the year, the most efficient way to wrap presents, the optimal way to dip a biscuit in a cup of tea, and so on. When investigated, these stories usually turn out to have been commissioned by a marketing company on behalf of a corporate client, whose name is carefully inserted into all the press releases.

    The result is that some company gets a bit of cheap advertising, and the public perception of mathematics and science takes yet another knock. All very irritating.

    The doctor and journalist Ben Goldacre often investigates and debunks these stories in his blog and associated newspaper column ‘Bad Science’ (, which I thoroughly recommend.

    Comment by Nicholas Jackson | March 14, 2009 | Reply

  2. Oh sure, this day (and the related one from the third of this month) at least is commercially untainted. But still, it bugs me enough that I can use it as an excuse for shameless self-promotion and an attempt to meet Rachel Maddow.

    Comment by John Armstrong | March 14, 2009 | Reply

  3. Another accident: the historical focus on the quantity giving the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter, rather than the (in my opinion, much more fundamental) quantity which is twice that, giving, among other things, the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its radius.

    Comment by Sridhar | March 15, 2009 | Reply

  4. Hmm. The most efficient way to wrap a present sounds like an interesting mathematical problem…

    Comment by Greg Friedman | March 15, 2009 | Reply

  5. I’m thinking half the ratio might be most interesting. As in “how much longer do I need to walk fram a point to another if I walk in a half circle rather than a straight line?”

    Comment by Val | March 15, 2009 | Reply

  6. Well, what’s interesting and what’s not is semi-subjective. But to me, 2\pi has the allure of being the period of every non-trivial solution to f” + f = 0, a rather natural property to investigate, while something like “How much longer do I need to walk from a point to another if I walk in a half-circle rather than a straight line?” seems (to me) rather more contrived an object of investigation. But, in the end, this kind of argument doesn’t matter for much; it just goes to further show the silliness of propping particular numbers up above others, granting them distinguishedly exalted status and treating them as some kind of “mascot” for mathematics.

    Comment by Sridhar Ramesh | March 15, 2009 | Reply

  7. It sounds like you guys need to celebrate 2pi day. June 28th. 😀 *duck*

    I don’t see anyone arguing that pi day is mathematically meaningful. From a mathematical perspective, it’s pretty dumb. But having observed its effect on student engagement, I’m a fan.

    Comment by Kate | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  8. Well, you’re closer to that cohort than I am, Kate, I’ll admit, so I’ll take your word about student engagement. But a little higher up the scale, the reactions I see aren’t as promising. The students who “engage” are the ones who are already into math (or computer science or physics) while everyone else dismisses it as just something those geeks do. I don’t see it doing anything to make students more interested in choosing mathematics as a major.

    Comment by John Armstrong | March 19, 2009 | Reply

  9. I wonder how much an accident decimal notation is. ie, I wonder how much of an accident it is that we evolved with 10 fingers rather than 8 (or 6 or 12).

    I just wrote a kids’ story about 8-fingered aliens, when I was thinking about how to introduce octal numbers to my math salon (people coming on a Saturday to play with math, kids, parents, and other grownups). I had looked for games involving octal numbers and hadn’t found anything.

    Something I keep noticing lately is that if we were in octal, we’d be doing that trick of adding the digits to see if 7 goes into a number, instead of 9 and 3. Getting 3 for free was an accident of being base ten.


    Comment by Sue | March 25, 2009 | Reply

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