Saturday, March 15, 2014

The infinite pi in the sky

So Pi Day has just come and gone. I wouldn't ordinarily notice, seeing as this "holiday" is not really celebrated in my country and nobody in my (admittedly very small) social circle gives even half a shit about it. And even though I could write for days about how its appointed date can only be applicable in the backwards crazy-ass American date notation where for whatever reason you put the smallest unit in between the largest two, or about what's even the point of celebrating pi as it will be there whether you like it or not and how doing so gives you about as much "geek cred" as knowing what that Nintendo thing is, I can generally let stupid people have their stupid rituals and go on with my life. At least, that was until I came across this.

It appears as a pretty harmless article. Okay, so it's Pi Day and you want to celebrate pi? Well, here's ten ways to do it. Alright, that seems harmless enough... uh... What's that in the headline? Pi is infinte?


Okay, that's a pretty dumb thing to say, but this is just a news story and Bob knows that journalists don't really hold all that much factual knowledge. Surely this is a mistake no actual pi fan would make. Right?


Okay, guys, listen closely. I know this will come as a shock to you and you won't believe me at first, but you need to hear it. Ready? OK, here goes:

Pi is not infinite. And we know it's not infinite because its value lies between the two very finite values of 3.14 and 3.15. We know this because every circle in the universe has a finite non-zero radius and circumference. We also know this because we know that infinity is technically not a number.

Words have meanings, especially in the scientific world, and "infinite" is one of them. Using it to describe pi is about as big a boner as calling gravity "just a theory" - that word just doesn't mean what you think it means, Charlene. Do you want to talk about how "the digits just go on and on forever"? We already have a term for that, and you already used it. Irrational. Now, granted, that definition is a bit more strict than that, but having a nonterminating decimal notation is a direct consequence of its primary properties.

What? You still don't believe me? In that case, allow me to shatter your very perception of the number by using a little mathemagic. For my next trick, I shall transform this ugly 3.141592654... into a neat little 10. How did I do that? Simple, I wrote the number pi... in base-pi. Wow, look at that! We have pi, and it's not infinite! It only has two digits, a sleek 1 and an imposing 0! What sorcery is this?

I understand why you celebrate the Pi Day. I don't necessarily agree with it, but I understand it. You are enthusiastic about this mathematical phenomenon, this number that is so simple and yet so advanced, it's so easy to understand, but has just so many ramifications, not just for mathematical calculations, but even the real world. You want to show off your enthusiasm to the world and share it with others. But you're not helping anybody by spouting misinformation about this magical constant.

One of the goals of Pi Day is to encourage people to learn more about mathematics. Maybe you could start by getting your facts about its mascot straight.