Thursday, March 12, 2009
Happy Pi Day
Just in case you are looking for a reason to celebrate, be sure to mark Saturday, March 14th on your calendar. In the world of mathematics, it's known as international pi day.
Pi, not to be confused with a delicious desert, instead it is one of the most important mathematical constants known; countless formulas are dependent upon its value. Simply stated, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. For you non-math types such as myself, pi is a number which is equal to 3.14.
My first introduction to pi was not in a math class but surprisingly at Boy Scout camp in the summer 1966. We were camped at Butler Beach on Cape Cod and while huddled around the camp fire, someone noticed a blinking light in the evening sky. Immediately a couple of the older scouts proceeded to the beach to scan the sky, free of the campfire’s light. After a while my curiosity got the better of me and I proceeded to the beach to see what all the fuss was about. Alpin C. and a few of the other senior scouts had decided that the light was most definitely a UFO and they were discussing signaling the space craft using Morse code via a flash light. As I listen to the discussion, the consensus of opinion was that the message must be a series of numbers. So without missing a beat, Alpin grabbed a flashlight and began signaling deep space or as deep as the light from a flashlight might reach! Out of curiosity, I interrupted Alpin and asked what he was saying. He turned to me and announced that he was sending pi; my next question was what the heck is pi. When he finished signaling, he politely explained more than I ever wanted to know about pi. I suppose it goes without saying that Alpin was brilliant and graduated high school at the top of his class. He later attended both Brown University and MIT majoring in mathematics and computer science. I have to admit, the man certainly knew his pi!
But now back to 1966, Butler Beach, and the UFO. Even at that point in my life I had little appreciation for anything extraterrestrial. I walked away wondering why pi was the message chosen on that August night. While taking modern math in junior high a few years later, I came to learn that mathematics is considered to be the “universal language”. OK, so maybe if the blinking light actually was a UFO, presumably they would have understood the message. Years later, I still think that maybe a more neighborly message might have been to simply say hello or to invite our intergalactic friends to stop by our camp for a meal. The food as I recall was very good and we even had pie and ice cream most evenings. Surely such a treat would be fit for an intergalactic traveler!