Sunday Science Poem: The Number Pi

“The Number Pi”, Wisława Szymborska (1976)

While in Chicago for the Drosophila genetics conference last weekend, I managed to visit some Polish bookstores. My haul included a volume of poems by the late Nobel laureate Wisława Szymborska. Many of Szymborska’s poems engage with scientific ideas and their connection to our experiences of the world, and as it turns out, she wrote a poem about the number Pi.

The poem grapples with the mind-blowing idea of an infinite sequence of digits. Pi is woven into the poem, where it interrupts the narrator’s effort to draw comparisons to snakes, bird nests, comets, and stars. These comparisons fail as the number flows on, and they are replaced with numbers and fragments of the real world, including phone numbers, pocket change, and quotes from the Polish poet Mickiewicz and the bible.

And so, to finish off Pi day weekend, here is probably the only poem about this number by a Nobel Laureate.

The Number Pi

Admirable number Pi
three point one four one.
All its following digits are also initial,
five nine two, because it never ends.
It won't allow itself to be embraced six five three five by sight
eight nine by calculation
seven nine by imagination,
and even three two three eight by jest, or by comparison
four six to anything
two six four three in the world.
The longest snake on earth, after a dozen or so meters peters out.
Likewise, though a little later, do fairy-tale snakes.
The procession of digits that make up the number Pi
doesn't halt at the margin of the page,
it manages to pull itself over the table, through the air,
through the wall, a leaf, a bird's nest, the clouds, straight to heaven,
through the entire inflated and bottomless heaven.
O how short, downright mouse-like, is the braid of a comet!
How frail the star beams, that bend around the bounds of space!
And here two three fifteen three-hundred nineteen
my phone number your shirt size
the year nineteen seventy three the sixth story
the number of residents sixty-five grosz
hip circumference two fingers a charade and a code,
in which my little nightingale, fly, crow
as well as you are requested to keep calm,
and also heaven and earth shall pass,
but not the number Pi, no way no how,
it is continually its still not too bad five,
that no mean eight,
the not final seven,
urging, yes, urging a slothful eternity
to persist.

Translated from the Polish by Michael White

Pi Day 2014

Pi DayAs you may know, it is my firm and unflinching belief that our math & science “holidays” should be scheduled so that they actually teach something about the number being celebrated. Sure, 3.14 is a reasonable estimate of π, and March 14th does represent that number in typical US calendar notation (which has no respect for the hierarchical organization of dates).

But, that says nothing about what π represents. It represents the relationship between the radius (r) of a circle and both its circumference (C=2πr) and area (A=πr2). When it comes to expressing this relationship using dates, I prefer circumference because both the radius and circumference are lengths. Also, expressing the year as a circle makes sense to me (and, based on their mythologies, a large number of human cultures).

If C is 365.25 days and π is π, then 2r is approximately 116 days, which makes r approximately 58 days.

Which is why, at The Finch & Pea, 27 February is Pi Day.

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””

Happy Pi Day (Area)

pidayTraditionally, Pi Day is 14 March, because that is 3-14 and π~3.14 (except in Indiana where it was 3 for a short time – also mythically in Alabama and Tennessee). That tells you the approximate number as our calendar does not handle irrational numbers well. It also does not work in Europe where they sensibly order their dates hierarchically day-month-year.

It also does not describe at all is how we get to that value. π describes the relationship between the radius of circle (r) and its area (A) or circumference (C): Ar2 and C=2πr. If we set the length of the year (365.25 days) as the area, the radius of our year circle is 11 days. The 11th day of the year is, not surprisingly, 11 January.

I personally prefer to celebrate Pi Day as recognized by the circumference tradition on 27 February (r=58), but to each their own.

1 Pie = 2 Pi

If you would like to know how to make an actual pie, check out Ben’s recipe for Pumpkin Pie.

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