In the 14th century, Pope Benedict XI sent a letter to Giotto di Bondone, Florentine painter, architect and sculptor, requesting a drawing to demonstrate his skills for a potential commission at St. Peter’s Basilica.
As the story goes, Giotto walked over to a canvas, dipped his brush in red paint and proceeded to draw a circle without the aid of a compass. He handed it to the Pope’s courier as a sample of his mastery and then told him to bugger off. The circle was perfect.
The story symbolizes the simplicity and majesty of being able to draw a perfect circle freehand. As humans, we are imperfect. Creating a circle or a disk or a sphere requires the utmost precision since every degree of the circle is an important component in creating that constant radius. Compared to a square, which is 4 straight lines, a circle is infinitely more complex. There are no cutting corners when making a circle.
Even the Babylonians and Egyptians knew there was something special about the circle and knowing its constant. The Ancient Greeks believed the circle was the symbol of divine symmetry. The wheels is one of the most important human inventions that got us up and moving on a massive scale.
What is pi?
Pi is a ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. SNOOZE!
Ummm, a ratio is a comparison. Pi is a comparison of two measurements of a circle:
And we deal with numerical comparisons every day:
- Running 4 hours of errands on a Saturday morning vs. 2 more hours of sleep
- Keeping 2 unruly kids vs. 1 good dog
- 1 chile con queso to eat by myself at the bar vs. 2 more margaritas to drink by myself at the bar
We make comparisons based on the hard truths we face every day. They’re related items that require some thought to quantify their relationship.
Comparing the circumference to the diameter always yields the number pi. Knowing pi means we can instantaneously know the distance around the circle as well as the diameter intersecting the radius since they’re inextricably linked by this number. (For me, that constant is always knowing that I’ll both order the 1 chile con queso AND the 2 margaritas and then I’ll hate myself for the lack of self control later.) Also, since radius and area and volume are directly related to diameter, we can know all those numbers by knowing pi.
So, pi is one of those beautiful, naturally occurring constants that make calculations and contortions of modern life easier. But you probably don’t realize how useful it is in your everyday lives.
- Your GPS uses pi.
- TVs, telephones and radios use pi.
- Ultrasound machines of a baby in the womb use pi.
- Astrophysicists calculating the hyper-specific seconds in a year use pi.
- Any engineer who uses pillars, wires and pipes in their construction uses pi.
- Statisticians trying to figure out how many births and deaths there are in a given year use pi.
So pi powers our lives on a daily basis, in mostly hidden ways.
But why pi?
As we compare pi to other numbers, there’s something special with it. Officially, it’s an irrational, transcendental number that we’ve yet to finish calculating. This basically means it exists and will continue infinitely without repetition or pattern.
Like, me, I unnecessarily know 50 digits of pi. It’s stupid. No one should know an irrational number to that many digits. I’ll never be in a situation where that’s even necessary to use. Like, really.
Even if nuclear war with North Korea brings the Nuclear Winter the likes of which we’ve never seen and the only sum of human knowledge lies within the aggregate of firing neural synapses furrowed deep within our white and grey matter, it will still be stupid to know that many digits of pi since we’ll probably not have the technology to do anything with that level of precision. But, I think math is dope, so I subjected myself to knowing a pretentious amount of pi.
And why are we subjected to pi so often?
Polymaths of all cultures love to espouse their passion for pi because it so closely mirrors the delightful disk of the pumpkin, berry or apple variety. They love making that connection despite the fact that Welsh mathematician William Jones cut corners on writing out the word “periphery” and used the Greek symbol “ π” instead. But who cares? The damage was done. Nerds gon’ nerd. I say we let them.
For the less curious, pi is just something else that doesn’t make any sense and also “YAY, FREE PIE RIGHT BEFORE ST. PATRICK’S DAY.”
But our circle-lauding language demonstrates our innate understanding that circles are important.
“We get this all year round.”
“Be center of attention.”
“Just circle the block.”
“Circle of Life.”
“Knight of the Round Table.”
“That’ll be like squaring the circle.”
“Love makes the world go round.”
“You want to be affect your circle of influence.”
“Welcome to the winner’s circle.”
“Everything is coming full circle.”
“As a nation, we rally around the flag.”
Circles are inherently important to humans. Pi represents a wider view of our multi-verse. It works underneath the surface, aiding our modern society.
Some people couldn’t care less about the number and its implications. For others, pi is a portal to the world of mathematics. Pi is just the beginning for those people. (If they got there through a tasty pastry, then more power to them.)
But we will never be done calculating more digits in pi. Pi will never end, the same as our ceaseless search for human knowledge. We’ll never fully know pi, only what’s “good enough” for The Now.
Pi is a symbol of something we know exists but cannot fully see.