Forget international politics — it’s International Pi Day!

Sitting here in New York, it’s hard to drag my mind away from the gluttonous attention to our state governor’s fall from grace. That’s a nice way of saying that our governor’s political career has self-destructed because he somehow decided that sex is way better if you pay over $4000 for it. His monumental stupidity aside, there’s got to be better things to think about.

And there is. It’s March 14th, International Pi Day. Not pie, the stuff you eat, but pi, the number that has held the attention of mathematicians, philosophers, artists, and conspiracy theorists for several millenia. You might vaguely remember it from school as approximately 3.14 (hence the day of celebration, 3-14) or 22/7, the number you need to find the area of a circle, the symbol π … its mystery comes partly from the fact that it is one of the rare mathematical numbers impossible to pin down (if you divide 22 by 7 the digits go on past 3.14 to infinity, although there are computer banks devoted full-time to calculating further digits of pi) and therefore honored with being represented by a symbol. The BBC today has an excellent article on pi, summing up both the history and mystery of this enigmatic number. (For a much more mathematical history, try the Wikipedia article.)

The Babylonian and Egyptian cultures we think of as ancient were obsessed with pi, and it is said to be incorporated into the design of the pyramids of Giza. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the Golden Ratio, although it often is. The Golden Ratio is the proportion used for thousands of years to build temples and create art in what people thought were the most harmonious and pleasing proportions to the human eye. When you travel around the world, remember that the Golden Ratio was used (sometimes unintentionally) to make the following sights most attractive to you: the Parthenon, the Great Mosque of Kairouan, much of the art of both Leonardo da Vinci and Mondrian, the sculptures of ancient Greece, and in the Western harmonic scale of music.

The Golden Ratio doesn’t have some of the playful and easy attractions of pi. It seems that the International Pi Club is now defunct, but entry used to require reciting the number from memory up to 100 decimal places in the presence of the president. In 1998 I met someone who did it while skydiving from a plane. Lucky thing the president was an adventurous sort of guy.

On this International Pi Day there are celebrations by math geeks around the world, from pie-eating contests to pi-inspired music. Whether you attend or not, remember pi, and remember that there are things that, compared to a human time scale, last forever. And if that’s not enough to quirk your imagination, it’s also Albert Einstein’s birthday.

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