The patterns of pi

It’s still Pi Day here in Toronto, 3/14 according to North American notation. π–an irrational number, roughly 3.14159…, a mathematical constant with the value of the ratio of any Euclidean plane circle’s circumference to its diameter–seems to be an object of some affection.

“Musician Michael John Blake shows us “What Pi Sounds Like” by transposing the number (out to 31 decimal places) to musical notes. A charming little ditty results.”

Human beings like patterns, and numbers of meaning, and like to extend this meaning as far as it can go. That came out clearly in a book I reviewed today, David Blatner‘s 1999 The Joy of Pi, an engaging book dedicated to the human history of π: its uses, its refinement, its iconic role in our culture. This mysterious number–why an irrational number? why 3.14149…?–is frequently seen as the key to a code, something that if deciphered could reveal the world’s truth.

David Blatner, The Joy of Pi

The number has permeated our culture so far that it even made a secondary appearance in a McSweeney’s humour article by Daniel Casey, one that’s still being shared on Facebook pages and Twitter status updates, describing H.P. Lovecraft’s first day on the job as a substitute teacher in an Arkham high school, warning about the existential dangers of the number. You can always learn too much.

[L]et me also inform you that your usual substitute arithmetic teacher, Mr. McAuliffe will not be with us either. Two days ago, the police, who broke down Mr. McAuliffe’s door after complaints from the neighbors of bloodcurdling screams during the night, found a notebook on his kitchen table that seemed to indicate that he had worked out pi to the last place. McAuliffe was nowhere to be found, but the distinct odor of sulfur and the neatly piled stacks of clean, dried animal bones in the corner gave them pause. That, and they found two cats in the microwave, only one of which was partially devoured.

Poor cats.

And as one Twitterer noted: “Don’t think Pi is important? Pi x 1337% = 42 Now that should blow your mind.” 42, of course, is the number revealed in Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy to be the Answer to the Ultimate Question of Life.

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