C is for Clay Balls

Inventory. Tax records. Rations of bread and beer to the workers. Storage of food during the winter. The earliest civilizations were built on keeping track of things.

Before data warehouses. Before the invention of the steam engine, calculus, banking, or even the ox-drawn plow, somewhere between the wheel and the pyramids, the Mesopotamians created tracking systems.

We tend to think about the earliest people as hunter-gatherers. But nomadic hunters are the antithesis of foragers. Gatherers figured out eventually that if they stayed in the place with lots of bushes, bare survival turns into surplus food. Domestic the cow rather than chasing after it, figure out how to plant barley, and you have farming. Farming leads to population growth, and suddenly you have 40,000 people living in the Fertile Crescent, building cities and empires. You need armies to protect your grain, which requires the farmers to give surplus to a central authority to pay soldiers. Now you’ve invented taxation and a centralized administration.

Continue reading “C is for Clay Balls”

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.

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. Continue reading “Any Old Pi Will Do”