HAVE you stocked up on fresh batteries? Have you thoroughly dusted your calculator, and put your computer through its most taxing calisthenics?
If not, I fear for your ability to celebrate the 20-year-old event that takes place worldwide next Saturday, March 14th -- International Pi Day. A non-believer, I will be ignoring it myself, but as your weekly correspondent, I’m here to make sure you don’t.
You understand that this isn’t about the kind of pie that calls for lard, flour and a 400-degree oven. Rather, this is the day on which the Giant Pi, a talking pi symbol, is dropped like a New Year’s Eve disco ball for the tens of thousands of computer screens poised to catch it.
The Giant Pi is just a kitschy image, though, like those of Santa or the Easter Bunny. The day is actually a celebration of the magical number 3.14159 -- it’s infinite, but I’m going to stop there, for fear of boring you. If you look on Yahoo Answers for the significance of pi, here’s the explanation: “The value of pi is a constant which equals the circumference of a perfect circle divided by its diameter. It is a transcendental number, meaning that the number of decimals is infinite, yet all the numbers are defined.” Translation: Pi is that sequence of numerals where, if you understand anything about it, you’re smart.
Naturally, I still have no idea what the fuss is about, or why a ratio that defines the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter is more important than any other ratio you could name. Not that I could name any. But reporter Holly Fletcher at Columbia University’s Columbia News Service obviously can. According to her story about it, International Pi Day is a big round deal that will draw math mavens to the site Piday@pidayinternational.org next Saturday at precisely (and you can bet on that) 1:59 p.m. Get it? Pi Day takes place in the third month, on the 14th day, at 1:59 -- 3.14159. Well, I don’t blame you. My kids had to explain it to me -- several times.
In Fletcher’s story, one numeric whiz describes the event as the “Christmas of cyberspace,” pointing out, “There are math nerds and geeks in all walks of life, not just in schools. There are some math wonks on Wall Street too.” (Obviously not very good ones.)
“For hard-core mathematicians, pi, which is central to many equations, represents a numerical marvel that is similar to the famous conundrum, Which came first, the chicken or the egg?” writes Fletcher. “To the math world, the question is, Which came first, the circle or the ratio?”
Oy, my brain hurts. I had already sprained it with that chicken and egg thing, and now this.
Apparently if you’re truly into insurmountable mathematical challenges, you’ll spend hours a day searching for repetition -- or, better yet, a denouement -- in pi. In 1666, for example, pi nut Isaac Newton confessed, “I am ashamed to tell you to how many figures I carried these computations, having no other business at the time.” Thank God he eventually found some real work.
As time wasters go, pi appears to be highly seductive. By 2002, the number had been figured out to more than 1.2 trillion decimal places by its countless sycophants. One retired engineer from Japan famously memorized 100,000 digits of pi -- in order, duh! -- and then rhymed them off publicly for a solid 16 hours. Needless to say, there were no shouts of “Encore!”
For some of my slower readers, I know an explanation of pi’s grip on the mathematician’s imagination will be necessary. Unfortunately, I am not the one to provide it. Yet I will try. That’s the sort of conundrum I’m all about. Here it is: Trying to figure out what pi is and where it’s going is the numerical equivalent of you listening to me repeating variations of “well, it’s kind-of like, like, well, it’s kind-of, kind-of it’s well, like …” into infinity. You know, profound. After a while, you, the listener, lapse into a Zen-like coma. The good news is that eventually one of us dies.
This may seem unbelievable, but the concept of feting a never-ending number beloved of mathematicians never struck anybody until the late 1980s. Apparently that’s when a physicist -- and, presumably, party hound -- called Larry Shaw decided that staff at the San Francisco Exploratorium ought to kick it ancient-school in the Greek symbol’s honour. San Fran’s Exploratorium is the place to be next Saturday for the funfest, where visitors can dine on pies of various persuasions while adding to a string of colour-coded beads that each represent a number standing in for a decimal place.
Elsewhere in the world, Pi Day has its own hucksters, who hawk everything from T-shirts to pi-shaped baking pans, so, as Fletcher writes, “people can literally take a bite out of π.” While biting, they might want to crank up one of the “pi” rap tunes featured on YouTube. The one by “Pi Diddy” based on Eminem’s Lose Yourself is pretty catchy.
Visit the website www.piday.org and you’ll be asked about your own plans. One part-time magician and math teacher responds that he’ll be performing at a magicians’ convention on March 14, so he’ll celebrate by presenting “a card trick that gives a result of pi, accurate to five decimal places.” He’ll also encourage his audience members to eat something round, like a doughnut, and to sing a round -- “and hopefully they will be giving me a round of applause.” Another Pi Day enthusiast writes in with a joke you can tell while wearing your pi togs, which is this: “Oh, I’m such a slob. I’ve got pi on my shirt.”
Honestly, I have no idea why people make fun of the arithmetic-minded.
It’s seen as significant -- mostly by those who wear wizards’ robes decorated with math symbols even when it’s not Pi Day -- that Albert Einstein was born on March 14. Some pi hounds deliberately choose the date for their nuptials. I have nothing to say about this, if you know what I’m not saying, except that in a world where people raised on Harry Potter now train owls to deliver the rings at wedding ceremonies, one can hardly roll an eyeball without hitting something.
How would I use pi to measure a rolled eyeball, I wonder -- but not for long.