Today is Not Pi Day

Pi Day should be 27 February. For reasons. Math reasons.

Count Like An Egyptian: More fun than you think!

Greg Gbur is an associate professor of physics, specializing in optical science, at UNC Charlotte.

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I’ve been a fan of ancient Egyptian history and culture since I was a kid. My Dad would take me to the Field Museum in Chicago and we would browse the beautiful Egyptian art and artifacts.  When King Tutankhamun’s treasures reached the Field Museum in 1977, I was there to see them, standing in lines that rivaled those of Star Wars, which opened earlier that same year.

One aspect of ancient Egyptian culture that I failed to pay much attention to, however, is mathematics.  Conventional wisdom for years has suggested that, although ancient Egypt had a functioning mathematics system, it was rudimentary and flawed in many ways. I assumed that this was the case without k10197looking too much into it – besides, what sort of insight could one gain from learning an antiquated system of mathematics?

Now a book has come out that aims to correct these flawed opinions of ancient mathematics: Count Like an Egyptian by David Reimer, an associate professor of mathematics at the College of New Jersey. Continue reading “Count Like An Egyptian: More fun than you think!”

Happy Phi Day! Take 3

Note: What follows is pretty much fluff, like a great deal of my writing. I want the world to be a “funner” place. Over the past several days, however, events in the area (St. Louis) I used to call home have been anything but fun. I started this post last week and decided to finish it this morning as a break from staring impotently at the news in my Twitter feed.

Today marks the third anniversary of my quixotic quest to get 14 August recognized as Phi Day.

I am all for cheesy, sciencey holidays like Pi Day and Mole Day. Holidays are fun. When they are at their best, they also teach us something. Religious and civic holidays are meant to transmit lessons – think of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, Passover, Memorial Day, and Christmas. Some do a better job than others (I’m looking at you Columbus Day). Why shouldn’t our sciencey holidays also convey meaning about the thing they are representing?

Think about this exchange:

Me: Happy Phi Day!

You: What is “Phi Day”?

How we respond depends on which day we choose for Phi Day. Continue reading “Happy Phi Day! Take 3”

Sunday Science Poem: Abstraction is crucial in science and poetry

Newton-WilliamBlakeI recently heard a presentation by the Caltech biophysicist Rob Phillips, in which he issued a challenge to those who claim biology, in contrast to physics, is too complex and messy to be understood with mathematical theories: take a look at Tycho Brahe’s 16th century astronomical data, and see if you can make sense of it without math. Take a look at the data, and see if you can demonstrate, without a mathematical theory, that the orbit of Mars is an ellipse.*

In order to understand the messy real world, scientists use abstractions that can be quite distant from our everyday experiences. The historians of science Stephen Toulmin and June Goodfield explain how this was crucial to Newton’s method:

[W]here Aristotle’s theory of motion was based on familiar, everyday principles, Newton’s was stated in terms of abstract mathematical ideals. The circling heavens, a falling stone, smoke rising from a fire, the steady progress of a horse and cart: these were the objects by comparison with which Aristotle explained other kinds of motions. For Newton, on the other hand, the explanatory paradigm was a kind of motion we never encounter in real life. Nothing ever actually moves uniformly and free of all forces, at a steady speed and in a constant Euclidian direction. Yet Newton was able to bring together the threads left loose by his predecessors by systematically applying just this abstract idea of ‘natural’ motion. So far from being guided by experience alone, he could not afford to be too much tied down to the evidence of his senses, or to the results of experiments: it was, rather Aristotle who stuck too closely to the facts. Newton was ready to imagine something which was practically impossible and treat that as his theoretical ideal.

Musicians, artists, and poets have also found that abstraction is crucial. The abstract features make it tough for most of us to grasp modern works. Jacques Barzun explained it this way:

Like the would-be purist in art, the scientist takes a concrete experience and by an act of abstraction brings out a principle that may have no resemblance to the visible world… Poets and prosaists, whether Abolitionist, Decadent, or Symbolist, found that to create works adequate to their vision the language must be recreated.

If we recognize the common role of abstraction in art and in science, the baffling poetry of someone like Arthur Rimbaud begins to make much more sense.

Continue reading “Sunday Science Poem: Abstraction is crucial in science and poetry”

Today is NOT “Pi Day”

pidayIt may officially be Pi Day, but that doesn’t make it right1. The 14th of March is perhaps the least educational date we could pick for Pi Day. True, π=3.14; and, true, today’s date is 3-14 (using nonsensical American notation). That tells us what π is, approximately, it does not teach us what π means. Continue reading “Today is NOT “Pi Day””