I don’t think Albert and Izzy Einstein were related, though they were both a couple of crazy guys. In Izzy’s case, numerous crazy guys.

In honor of what would be Albert Einstein’s 130th birthday (had he not succumbed to death at the age of 76 in 1955), Congress officially designated today as Pi Day, because “America needs to reinforce mathematics and science education for all students in order to better prepare our children for the future and in order to compete in a 21st Century economy.” A commendable goal.

What does Albert Einstein have to do with pi? Other than that he was a groundbreaking mathematician?

Albert Einstein was born on March 14, 1879, a Friday. The number 3.14 is pi. A happy coincidence? Or is there in fact a greater power in the universe than even the FSM? Is President Obama an acolyte of the Great Pie God?

I effectively failed algebra in high school and so my familiarity with concepts of higher math is extraordinarily thin, but let’s see if we can’t learn something.

What is pi. I am told that pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. Sounds simple enough. So what’s the big deal?

The Pi Day website provides a link to the wikipedia page on the subject. Let’s see what it says:

Pi or π is a mathematical constant whose value is the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter in Euclidean space; this is the same value as the ratio of a circle’s area to the square of its radius.

Okay, sorry, you’ve lost lost me … “Euclidean space“?

I went and looked to see what Euclidean space was but discovered I had to understand what affine space was, but in order to understand what that is I had to understand what “non-singular linear transformations and translations” mean. All of which caused my brain to seize.

Let’s ignore all that and forge on:

It is approximately equal to 3.14159 in the usual decimal notation (see the table for its representation in some other bases). π is one of the most important mathematical and physical constants: many formulae from mathematics, science, and engineering involve π.

Wow! That’s amazing! I started writing this post at 1:59 pm on March 14th! Coincidence? Or more evidence of the existence of the GPG?

Back to the pi wiki (oooh! More evidence?):

π is an irrational number, which means that its value cannot be expressed exactly as a fraction m/n, where m and n are integers. Consequently, its decimal representation never ends or repeats. It is also a transcendental number, which means that no finite sequence of algebraic operations on integers (powers, roots, sums, etc.) can be equal to its value; proving this was a late achievement in mathematical history and a significant result of 19th century German mathematics. Throughout the history of mathematics, there has been much effort to determine π more accurately and to understand its nature; fascination with the number has even carried over into non-mathematical culture.

I don’t really understand pi, but I like it.

After all, what could be more representative of the essential nature of life than an irrational number?

I felt a little better about my inability to wrap my head around pi after reading this:

If we realize that the measurement of the ratio between the diameter and the circumference of a circle is entirely theoretical and speculative, then we may also realize that the result shall always represent an approximation. In fact, the very fact that pi is always expressed in terms of an unending fraction (with mathematicians searching it to the nth number of decimal places), should cause us to accept the idea that pi can only be an approximation.

Well, there you go. I mean, if mathematicians haven’t fully figured it out, I have nothing to feel bad about.

But I would encourage all of you who have younger, more flexible brains than mine to go wrap your head around some pi. It sounds important.

For those of you who like to play with your pi, you might like this. The Exploratorium has an introduction to Pi, a demo and talk of Pi Music by composer Herb Bielawa, an interactive demonstration on the physical nature of Pi by Lori Lambertson and an introduction to Einstein and Pi.

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