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Thoughts of Pi

By Jason Rosenhouse


A recent satirical essay in the Huffington Post reports that congressional Republicans are trying to legislate the value of pi. Fearing that the complexity of modern geometry is hurting America’s performance on international measures of mathematical knowledge, they have decreed that from now on pi shall be equal to three. It is a sad commentary on American culture that you must read slowly and carefully to be certain the essay is just satire.

It has been wisely observed that reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away. Scientists are especially aware of this, since it is sometimes their sad duty to inform people of truths they would prefer not to accept. Evolution cannot be made to go away by folding you arms and shaking your head, and the planet is warming precipitously regardless of what certain business interests claim to believe. Likewise, the value of pi is what it is, no matter what a legislative body might think.

That value, of course, is found by dividing the circumference of a circle by its diameter. Except that if you take an actual circular object and apply your measuring devices to it you will obtain only a crude approximation to pi. The actual value is an irrational number, meaning that it is a decimal that goes on forever without repeating itself. One of my middle school math teachers once told me that it is just crazy for a number to behave in such a fashion, and that is why it is said to be irrational. Since I rather liked that explanation, you can imagine my disappointment at learning it was not correct.

In this context, the word “irrational” really just means “not a ratio.” More specifically, it is not a ratio of two integers. You see, if you divide one integer by another there are only two things that can happen. Either the process ends or it goes on forever by repeating a pattern. For example, if you divide one by four you get .25, while if you divide one by three you get .3333… . That these are the only possibilities can be proved with some elementary number theory, but I shall spare you the details of how that is done. That aside, our conclusion is that since pi never ends and never repeats, it cannot be written as one integer divided by another.

Which might make you wonder how anyone evaluated pi in the first place. If the number is defined geometrically, but we cannot hope to measure real circles with sufficient accuracy, then why do we constantly hear about computers evaluating its first umpteen million digits? The answer is that we are not forced to define pi in terms of circles. The number arises in other contexts, notably trigonometry. By coupling certain facts about right triangles with techniques drawn from calculus, you can express pi as the sum of a certain infinite series. That is, you can find a never-ending list of numbers that gets smaller and smaller and smaller, with the property that the more of the numbers you sum the better your approximation to pi. Very cool stuff.

Of course, I’m sure we all know that pi is a little bit larger than three. This means that any circle is just over three times larger around than it is across. The failure of most people to be able to visualize this leads to a classic bar bet. Take any tall, thin, drinking glass, the kind with a long stem, and ask the person sitting nearest you if its height is greater than its circumference. When he answers that it is, bet him that he is wrong. Optically, most such glasses appear to be much taller than they are fat, but unless your specimen is very tall and very thin you will win the bet every time. The circumference is more than three times larger than the diameter at the top of the glass. A vessel so proportioned that this length is nonetheless smaller than its height would be physically unpleasant to drink from.

Somehow, though, when people told you there was money to be made from mathematics I don’t think this is what they had in mind!

Jason Rosenhouse is Associate Professor of Mathematics at James Madison University and the voice behind EvolutionBlog. He is author of The Monty Hall Problem: The Remarkable Story Behind Math’s Most Contentious Brainteaser, as well as two forthcoming books Among the Creationists: Dispatches From the Anti-Evolution Frontline and Taking Sudoku Seriously: The Math Behind the World’s Most Popular Pencil Puzzle. These are his cats

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