Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Humble π

 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510...Am seeing references this morning to today -- 3/14 -- being “Pi day” or “π day.” You remember π, right? The ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, something we learned of in geometry way back when and most of us have forgotten about since. Also useful in computing the area of a circle, which can be figured out by multiplying the square of the radius times π.

All of the π talk reminds me of Kate Bush’s outrageous song “Pi” in which she sings the number to more than 100 decimal places. It’s one of the tracks I like most on Aerial (2005), actually, as I’ve had difficulty getting into her later discs despite all the critical acclaim that has been showered on them. Still think her 1985 LP Hounds of Love is one of the best arty-pop suites ever pulled together, which has kept me from giving up entirely on the more recent, slower-paced stuff.

The song begins with a preamble introducing a man obsessed with numbers -- in particular π -- then comes the long sequence of Bush singing the number itself although apparently she omits a few digits in the sequence along the way, which I suppose is something the man she’s singing about might notice.

Like the man in the song, I’ve always been fascinated with numbers, although by the time I tried a second semester’s worth of calculus in college it was obvious to me that I had a better shot at success with the study of words.

Indeed, when the textbook pages started to be populated more and more with symbols like π and ∑ and e and i and exclamation points and so on and the discussions started including references to numbers that were irrational or imaginary or transcendent... well, that’s when I realized I was much better off trying to get meaning from a poem or a novel than the mostly mysterious-seeming problems and exercises I was being assigned.

In other words, count me among the many conquered by little old π.

Poker is, of course, a great game for those who love words or numbers or both. I would assume most who gravitate toward the game have at least some interest in math or probability -- enough to keep the calculating of odds or bet sizes or other poker puzzles from causing too many headaches, anyway.

Something satisfying in numbers like 52 or 13 or 4, I think. Or 1,326 or 169 even. Or your chances of flopping a set or two pair or the relative strength of ace-king versus a pair of queens to be best by the river. Or knowing there are eight outs to fill your open-ender, or nine to fill your flush, and by putting your outs with the unknown cards being able to rate your chances of success and weigh risk and reward.

I never much liked the way π eludes us, receding into the distance like that.I say Kate Bush’s song is “outrageous” because it starts something we know cannot be finished. No, I never much liked the way π eludes us, receding into the distance like that. Although I know for some that’s precisely why it interests them.

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