Any Old Pi Will Do

Make a joyful noise for today, oh happy day, is Pi Day, 3/14. As you surely know by now, either because you remember some maths or because you don’t live in in the wild, 3.14 are the first few digits of π. And, as we know, Pi are squared. Although, as my 8th grade math teacher Louise Blanchfield told us with a mischievous old-lady I’ve-been-telling-this-joke-for-forty-years grin, “Pi are not squared, Pi are round.” Meanwhile, I am proud to say that the establishment of this august day of celebration first occurred in my neck of woods, a day recognized by Larry Shaw at the San Francisco Exploratorium back in 1988. The rest is a lot of fun history.

Petaluma Pie Company celebrates pi day
Petaluma Pie Company, photo by Karin Kallmaker

Achtung Lieber! It’s a Miracle!

One particularly curious fact about Pi Day is that it also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday. He didn’t have anything to say about pi, pier se (see what I did there? that’s not the last pun I am about to inflict on you either)… anyway, Einstein wasn’t a geometer, but he was a brainy guy and did a lot of math. Actually he failed math, which is always used as an example of how you could buckle down and make something of yourself even if you start a failure.

However, I always thought it was a better example of how to successfully buck the establishment, since it’s likely that Einstein failed math because he kept telling the teachers they were wrong. And they were. It’s more like Stephen Hawking crumpling up his physics homework and throwing it in the trash because he didn’t think his proofs were elegant enough. Other students would get them out of the trash so they could understand how to do physics.

RIP Stephen Hawking–who coincidentally passed away yesterday–or maybe it was today since it’s 12 hours ahead in Cambridge. (And you know those smart people always want to be ahead of everybody else.) Stephen and Albert can now argue about the exact shape of the curvature of space-time until infinity or until the end of pi. Maybe they can borrow some of Newton’s apples to use for examples.

Guck mal, Schatzi – der ist am Pi-Tag geboren!
–Einstein’s mother

The Miracle of Pi

Pi is a shorthand definition for the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which stays the same no matter how big or small the circle gets. On the one hand, that seems like an amazing fact, a miracle of nature like the Golden Ratio or that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. On the other hand, it reminds me of the Monty Python skit where the scientist says, “If you enlarge a penguin to be the size of a human, its brain would still be smaller than a human brain, BUT–and this is the important point–the brain would be much larger than it was!”

Pi is an irrational number, which means it’s better if you don’t give it too much to drink or get it started discussing politics. It’s notoriously hard to calculate. This British dude, Wiliam Shanks, apparently spent 15 years calculating the first seven hundred digits by hand (or with an abacus or slide rule or whatever they used in 1840) but unfortunately he made a mistake at digit 528.

Sculpture Fish Pi
Sculpture “Fish Pi” in County Meath Ireland, photo by Karin Kallmaker

Mathematicians have been trying to create the right definition or series to represent pi since the Egyptians started wearing funny hats. Historians note that the Great Pyramid at Giza seems to be built in a ratio very similar to pi, so it might have originally been called a pi-ramid.

Another weird fact about pi involves the ancient city of Carthage, which is that place that brought all the elephants into Italy. There were 22 of them going down 7 mountains, and they still haven’t forgotten about that. Wikipedia points out that Lord Kelvin told this story about Queen Dido working on what’s come to be called the isoperimetric problem. She was trying to figure out how to enclose the lands bordering the sea for her new city, “using a single given oxhide, cut into strips.” As the legend goes, Aeneas came along, seduced her, and stole her treasures, which caused Dido to commit suicide by throwing herself onto a pyre. (Or was that a pi-re?) (Hey, I told you I’d leave no pun unturned.)

And so an ungrateful and unreceptive man with a rigid mind caused the loss of a potential mathematician. This was the first blow to mathematics which the Romans dealt.
–Morris Kline, Mathematics for the Nonmathematician
Isoperimetric problem of Carthage
Isoperimetric problem of Carthage, photo from Wikipedia

The Greeks went on to show that a circle would have enclosed a greater area than any polygon with the same perimeter, so Dido was avenged by pi. Pi says, you’re welcome.

Euler started using the Greek letter π, to refer to this ratio about the perimeter of a circle. Every time I hear his name, I hear Ben Stein as the teacher taking attendance in that droning voice, “Euler? Euler?

How Many Digits of Pi Does it Take to Screw in a Lightbulb?

Once computers started getting in the act of calculating digits of pi, the ENIAC calculated 2037 digits using an arctan series. The arc of the tangent is kind of like the Ark of the Covenant because it holds the mysteries of the universe, though Steven Spielberg did not make a movie about it.

New records keep going to set digits of pi, using Eigen values, Fourier transformations, and Gaussian integrals. I mean, everybody knows how integral the Gaussian is. The one place you never want to get hit is in the Gaussian. Memorizing digits of pi, too, is very popular. According to the Guinness Book of World Records, Rajveer Meena recited pi to 70,000 in 2015.

The question about all this furious calculating and memorizing might be Why? If you’re at 5 trillion now, would it be better to get to 5 trillion and 3, or 5 trillion and 3.14? This seems like breaking the record for eating hot dogs. After 50 dogs, man, just stop!

Fun facts about Pi Day

The site lists a plethora of fun happenings that occur around the world on pi day. Which is a little curious, since as we know from looking at world religions and history, many other cultures use different calendar systems that don’t generate the number 3.14. Today on the Jewish calendar is the 27th of Nadar in 5778 which sounds impressive but doesn’t have the same ring to it (ring! get it?).

Running pi circle
Time to run 3.14 loops, photo courtesy Runner’s World

Many events will take place which involve the reading of the digits. I work for an educational company which hosts an annual event on Skype where they read the first 100 digits. I’m sure it’s a riveting spectacle. MIT sends out its acceptance emails today, by tradition, so geeky teenagers all over the country will be letting out whoops of joy. Runner’s World suggests people run 3.14 miles, kilometers, blocks, or circles around their house. I’m opting to just run rings around the logic of pie.

The Miracle of Pie

The other fun thing to do on pi day is, of course, to eat pie. Any kind of pie! Gooseberry pie, pizza pie, banana cream pie, steak and cheddar pie, shepherd’s pie… My wife loves shepherd’s pie, but we had some at an Irish pub the other night which had the effrontery to replace most of the mashed potatoes with cheese. The nerve! I’m still hearing about it.

The secret to a really good, flaky pie crust is the way that the butter or shortening is cut into the flour. The fat should be laid in little thickets; pea-sized would be too small and would make the crust mealy, not flaky. The fat– and there is a large debate about butter vs. shortening, but no debate about the rectangularization of the fat–should have enough size that it might even be visible blocks in the crust. When it heats in the oven, it will melt and evaporate into steam. The steam will create an air pocket in the crust. Voila! Le Flake!

As for pizza dough, one of the keys to getting a crispy enough crust on the outside is to gently brush the dough with a little olive oil before adding the toppings. Use high heat–one guide calls for over 500 degrees–to get enough crisp. Then, you can cut the pizza into either six or eight slices. It depends on whether you’re hungry enough to eat all eight; if not, just cut it into six.

Irene Belknap
Close-up from Irene Belknap’s “Numbers” on display at the Petaluma Women’s History Exhibit

All Part of the Great Cosmic Unconsciousness

Pi has come to be revered as part of the great cosmic unconsciousness, one of the mysteries of the universe. Given how many cultures have wrestled with its formulation and calculation, pi has a certain stature across the ages.

Consider that 3.14 written in mirror script spells P-I-E, and you can buy a T-shirt here that proves it. Now leet, also known as 1337, is a system of symbolic spelling and verbiage used by the mysticians on the internets, also known as nerds. They have carefully pointed out also that:

Pi x 1337%=42
–the internets

For those who are not leet-savvy, 42 is the answer to everything.

Now, I just can’t wait for 10/23, which is Mole Day.

Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow

1st U.S. black American winter Olympians
Willie Davenport & Jeff Gadley, 1st African-Americans on a Winter Olympics team, courtesy of ESPN

The achievement was a historical footnote at Lake Placid, an asterisk among the ALL CAP raves for the “big” notables like Team USA’s hockey upset of the Soviets and Eric Heiden’s five gold medals. Willie Davenport and Jeff Gadley, push men for the four-man bobsled, were the first black Americans included on a U.S. winter Olympic team. As the 2018 Winter Olympics kick off in two days, the intersection with Black History month provides a perfect opportunity to discuss diversity and to celebrate notable achievements by athletes in the Games.

I was somewhat bewildered immediately in seeking information. First, while data on medal winners came easily, detail about the first Olympic participants was harder to find. Boxer George Poage was cited as the first black medal winner at the summer Olympics in 1904, only the third time the Games had been staged. Whether he was also the first participant is hard to determine. It took quite a bit of digging to ferret out the ESPN analysis that showed Davenport and Gadley as the first winter participants.  Secondly, it was a bit shocking to realize that while only eight years passed before African-Americans were added to the summer U.S. teams, a full 56 years occurred before blacks were included on TeamUSA in the winter. Continue reading “Black American Pioneers on Ice and Snow”

Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams

I Tonya movie still, broken skate
I, Tonya
courtesy of Entertainment Weekly

The Olympics start in nine days, but this is not–strictly speaking–a post about the Olympics. This is a reflection prompted by seeing the movie, I Tonya, which cleverly insinuated itself into movie screens early enough to put itself in Oscar contention for 2017 but late enough to be seen right before the start of the Pyeongchang Games. The mockumentary-style film is worth seeing as a drama even if you’re not a skate fan. It also reveals the quirks in skate judging that result in odd results, perhaps to Harding, but to so many more that Olympic skate results are practically a conveyor belt of unfair outcomes.

Bashing Someone’s Hopes

Margot Robbie is terrific as Tonya Harding*, the powerful but feisty skater who won the U.S. Nationals but wanted more. Her manipulative and abusive husband launched a plot to scare her competition and his cretinous cohorts improvised with a crowbar to Nancy Kerrigan’s knee. Harding became a national joke and an international disgrace. I thought the film clearly showed Harding’s culpability in covering up the plot after the fact, lying to the FBI, and suing to keep her Olympic spot.

But afterward I heard some say that they thought the movie showed Harding was robbed, that she should have won a medal, shouldn’t have been pilloried by the press, and deserved more. Harding’s interview with the New York Times this month suggests she still thinks she was mistreated. The film–assuming its accuracy–does make one thing clear: when you are abused by your loved ones, as Harding was by her mother and husband, you come to feel that the world is against you and that you bear no responsibility for whatever happens. Continue reading “Figure Skating’s Trail of Broken Dreams”

‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?

Sherlock Holmes playing the violin while puffing on a pipe, gray smoke misting the air like thoughts of inductive reasoning… Hercules Poirot sipping on his tisane while musing with his little gray cells…Mr. Monk framing the room with his hands… Columbo, hand to his forehead, dripping cigar ash on his raincoat…such detectives have captured popular imagination for centuries and are among the most famous of our modern heroes. Mysteries have nearly eclipsed novels as popular reads. Agatha Christie is called the world’s best-selling author with two billion sales of her 66 detective novels.

How did we get here?

Most discussions of the history of the mystery define the universe as related to detective fiction — a premise I grant — and suggest that Poe’s “Murder in the Rue Morgue” was the beginning of the mystery. But let’s go back a little further. How does Poe’s 1841 short story about a detective, C. August Dupin, arise into existence? What were detectives before then? Didn’t anyone write short stories? Didn’t anyone write stories about people who investigated things? Continue reading “‘Tis a Mystery: Where Do Mysteries Come from?”

I Didn’t See That Coming

Why don’t we anticipate large scale events better? Giant hurricanes (again, the 3rd in ten years)…500 year floods (again, the 3rd in Houston in three years by at least one account)… the crash of the economy… the election of crazy people… the list is getting pretty darned long.  People’s inability to see the coming tsunami wave is analyzed quite well in a book I recently read: The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb.

The human mind suffers from three ailments as it comes into contact with history, what I call the triplet of opacity. They are:
a. The illusion of understanding…
b. The retrospective distortion…
c. The overvaluation of factual information and the handicape of authoritative and learned people
The Black Swan

Taleb’s book is only ten years old but already a classic. I read it on the mini-bus driving around the quiet hills of Ireland, and I can’t imagine a better way to absorb such an indictment of our human myopia. It’s very readable; there are some numbers in it, but mostly in the footnotes or the appendix. Most of it is anecdotes and stories, which is kind of ironic, since one of Taleb’s main points is that we rely on anecdotes to understand things because we can’t cope with the math. As it turns out, that’s probably okay, because we aren’t using the math properly anyway.

The Illusion of Understanding–Don’t Be the Turkey
One way Taleb says we fail to predict properly is in our inability to understand the world in front of us. The world is complicated and large; it’s hard to take it all in. As a result, we either (a) conclude that we can’t predict anything because it’s too complicated or (b) we rely on simply models and create quasi-statistical understandings entirely based on the present. These models fall apart if what our scope is limited. The best example of this is Taleb’s Turkey analogy.

The turkey, born on January 1st, for example, learns to look forward to the chef. The chef feeds him every day, lovingly popping the tastiest grains and morsels into his little mouth. For 330 days, he sees that chef come over and knows, from experience, that something good’s gonna happen.

Until it doesn’t. Continue reading “I Didn’t See That Coming”