The After Life of Pi

Happy Pi Day!

Pi Day is celebrated on March 14th (3/14) around the world. Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.

Pi has been calculated to over one trillion digits beyond its decimal point. As an irrational and transcendental number, it will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern. While only a handful of digits are needed for typical calculations, Pi’s infinite nature makes it a fun challenge to memorize, and to computationally calculate more and more digits.

The idea of and for Pi Day is to celebrate Pi (which also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday). In elementary schools and university Mathematics departments, students and teachers celebrate with anything associated with the number 3.14….. and eating pies, and probably watching the movie The Life of Pi (which has nothing to do with figuring out how many digits follow 3.14159 or the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter). For the young students, Pi Day can be an introduction to geometry, ratios, and noticing numbers and the significance of patterns. For the university level (and beyond), Pi Day is celebrated with contests and the joy of playing with numbers and seeking to go beyond our current level of calculations. For the rest, those beyond the early education years and not serious math enthusiasts, Pi Day is cute, and reminds us of the very basic math concepts and rules that our younger students are celebrating today. For too many, our abilities and interests  in Math do not extend beyond the elementary Pi Day.

If Pi Day (or Black History Month, or Women’s History Month), or any other demarcated subject celebration, is to truly have an impact, we must go beyond the superficial celebrities of the celebrations. Pi Day (and Black History Month and Women’s History month etc…) may have initially raised awareness and interest in subjects and important personalities associated with the subjects, but when we keep these celebrations as peripheral to our everyday learning, we limit our abilities to expand .

Too often, after the early years, Math is taught as a series of rules, and those who are not particularly interested in using these rules, often miss opportunities to connect the rules to other applications, or developing mathematical awareness. So many people who are not driven toward studying or working in STEM fields, somehow get through their math courses without acquiring much mathematical knowledge. Few develop the appreciation to see mathematically.

As one who has more of an artistic temperament and appreciation than a mathematical habit of mind, I encourage others to learn more about seeing mathematically. One of my favorite writers on the subject of math is Steven Strogatz. He wrote a series in the New York Times entitled “The Elements of Math”, where he made mathematical concepts available to anyone by real life examples that were expressed in delightful prose. It was like being a tourist with a personable, interesting, caring, and joyful tour guide through some mathematical terrain.  I also recommend Strogatz’s book The Joy of x: A Guided Tour of Math, From One to Infinity.

Whether it’s Pi Day or any other subject celebration, we need to use these reminders that rather than superficial celebrity celebrations or simple associations, these are starting points. We can integrate these important lessons into other subjects and contexts and develop greater understanding and appreciation, as well as cultivate new habits of mind that we may have missed along the way.

So, Happy Pi Day!  And may you explore infinite possibilities!

One thought on “The After Life of Pi

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