J. Richard Gott: What’s the Value of Pi in Your Universe?

Carl Sagan’s sci-fi novel Contact famously introduced wormholes for rapid transit between the stars. Carl had asked his friend Kip Thorne to tell him if the physics of wormholes was tenable and this led Thorne and his colleagues to investigate their properties. They found that traversable wormholes required exotic matter to prop them open and that, by moving the wormhole mouths one could find general relativity solutions allowing time travel to the past. A quantum state called the Casimir vacuum whose effects have been observed experimentally, could provide the exotic matter. To learn whether such time machines could be constructible in principle, we may have to master the laws of quantum gravity, which govern how gravity behaves on microscopic scales. It’s one of the reasons physicists find these solutions so interesting.

But in Contact there is lurking yet another fantastic sci-fi idea, which gets less publicity because it was not included in the movie version. In the book, the protagonist finds out from the extraterrestrials that the system of wormholes throughout the galaxy was not built by them, but by the long gone “old ones” who could manipulate not only the laws of physics but also the laws of mathematics! And they left a secret message in the digits of pi. In his movie Pi, Darren Aronofsky showed a man driven crazy by his search for hidden meanings in the digits of pi.

This opens the question: could pi have been something else? And if so, does pi depend on the laws of physics? Galileo said: “Philosophy is written in this grand book…. I mean the universe … which stands continually open to our gaze…. It is written in the language of mathematics.” The universe is written in the language of mathematics. Nobel laureate Eugene Wigner famously spoke of the “unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining physics. Many philosophers take the Platonic view that mathematics would exist even the universe did not. And cosmologist Max Tegmark goes so far as to say that the universe actually is mathematics.

Yet maybe it is the other way around. The laws of physics are just the laws by which matter behaves. They determine the nature of our universe. Maybe humans have simply developed the mathematics appropriate for describing our universe, and so of course it fits with what we see. The mathematician Leopold Kronecker said, “God created the integers, all the rest is the work of man.” Are the laws of mathematics discovered by us in the same way as we discover the laws of physics? And are the laws of mathematics we discover just those which would have occurred to creatures living in a universe with physics like ours? In our universe, physics produces individual identical particles: all electrons are the same for example. We know about integers because there are things that look the same (like apples) for us to count. If you were some strange creature in a fractal universe containing only one object—yourself—and you thought only recursively, you might not ever think of counting anything and would never discover integers.

What about π = 3.14159265.…? Might it have a different value in a different universe? In our universe we have a fundamental physical dimensionless constant, the fine structure constant α which is related to the square of the value of the electric charge of the proton in natural geometrical Planck units (where the speed of light is 1 and the reduced Planck constant is 1 and Newton’s gravitational constant is 1). Now 1/α = 137.035999… Some physicists hope that one day we may have a mathematical formula for 1/α using mathematical constants such as π and e. If a theory for the fine structure constant could be developed giving a value in agreement with observations but allowing it to be calculated uniquely from pure mathematics, and if more and more digits of the constant were discovered experimentally fulfilling its prediction, it would certainly merit a Nobel Prize. But many physicists feel that no such magic formula will ever be discovered. Inflation may produce an infinite number of bubble universes, each with different laws of physics. Different universes bubbling out of an original inflating sea could have different values of 1/α. As Martin Rees has said, the laws of physics we know may be just local bylaws in an infinite multiverse of universes. String theory, if correct, may eventually give us a probability distribution for 1/α and we may find that our universe is just somewhere in the predicted middle 95% of the distribution, for example. Maybe there could be different universes with different values of π.

Let’s consider one possible example: taxicab geometry. This was invented by Hermann Minkowski. Now this brilliant mathematician also invented the geometrical interpretation of time as a fourth dimension based on Einstein’s theory of special relativity, so his taxicab geometry merits a serious look. Imagine a city with a checkerboard pattern of equal-sized square blocks. Suppose you wanted to take a taxicab to a location 3 blocks east, and 1 block north of your location, the shortest total distance you would have to travel to get there is 4 blocks. Your taxi has to travel along the streets, it does not get to travel as the crow flies. You could go 1 block east, then 1 block north then 2 blocks east, and still get to your destination, but the total distance you traveled would also be 4 blocks. The distance to your destination would be ds = |dx| + |dy|, where |dx| is the absolute value of the difference in x coordinates and |dy| is the absolute value of the difference in y coordinates. This is not the Euclidean formula. We are not in Kansas anymore! The set of points equidistant from the origin is a set of dots in a diamond shape. See diagram.

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Image showing an intuitive explanation of why circles in taxicab geometry look like diamonds. Wikipedia.

Now if the blocks were smaller, there would be more dots, still in a diamond shape. In the limit where the size of the blocks had shrunk to zero, one would have a smooth diamond shape as shown in the bottom section of the diagram. The set of points equidistant from the origin has a name—a “circle!” If the circle has a radius of 1 unit, the distance along one side of its diamond shape is 2 units: going from the East vertex of the diamond to the North vertex of the diamond along the diagonal requires you to change the x coordinate by 1 unit and the y coordinate by 1 unit, making the distance along one side of the diagonal equal to 2 units (ds = |dx| + |dy| = 1 + 1 units = 2 units). The diamond shape has 4 sides so the circumference of the diamond is 8 units. The diameter of the circle is twice the radius, and therefore 2 units. In the taxicab universe π = C/d = C/2r = 8/2 = 4. If different laws of physics dictate different laws of geometry, you can change the value of π.

This taxicab geometry applies in the classic etch-a-sketch toy (Look it up on google, if you have never seen one). It has a white screen, and an internal stylus that draws a black line, directed by horizontal and vertical control knobs. If you want to draw a vertical line, you turn the vertical knob. If you want to draw a horizontal line you turn the horizontal knob. If you want to draw a diagonal line, you must simultaneously turn both knobs smoothly. If the distance between two points is defined by the minimal amount of total turning of the two knobs required to get from one point to the other, then that is the “taxicab” distance between the two points. In Euclidean geometry there is one shortest line between two points: a straight line between them. In taxicab geometry there can be many different, equally short, broken lines (taxicab routes) connecting two points. Taxicab geometry does not obey the axioms of Euclidean geometry and therefore does not have the same theorems as Euclidean geometry. And π is 4.

Mathematician and computer scientist John von Neumann invented a cellular automaton universe that obeys taxicab geometry. It starts with an infinite checkerboard of pixels. Pixels can be either black or white. The state of a pixel at time step t = n + 1 depends only on the state of its 4 neighbors (with which it shares a side: north, south, east, west of it) on the previous time step t = n. Causal, physical effects move like a taxicab. If the pixels are microscopic, we get a taxicab geometry. Here is a simple law of physics for this universe: a pixel stays in the same state, unless it is surrounded by an odd number of black pixels, in which case it switches to the opposite state on the next time step. Start with a white universe with only 1 black pixel at the origin. In the next time step it remains black while its 4 neighbors also become black. There is now a black cross of 5 pixels at the center. It has given birth to 4 black pixels like itself. Come back later and there will be 25 black pixels in a cross-shaped pattern of 5 cross-shaped patterns.

Come back still later and you can find 125 black pixels in 5 cross-shaped patterns (of 5 cross-shaped patterns). All these new black pixels lie inside a diamond-shaped region whose radius grows larger by one pixel per time step. In our universe, drop a rock in a pond, and a circular ripple spreads out. In the von Neumann universe, causal effects spread out in a diamond-shaped pattern.

If by “life” you mean a pattern able to reproduce itself, then this universe is luxuriant with life. Draw any pattern (say a drawing of a bicycle) in black pixels and at a later time you will find 5 bicycles, and then 25 bicycles, and 125 bicycles, etc. The laws of physics in this universe cause any object to copy itself. If you object that this is just a video game, I must tell you that some physicists seriously entertain the idea that we are living in an elaborate video game right now with quantum fuzziness at small scales providing the proof of microscopic “pixelization” at small scales.

Mathematicians in the von Neumann universe would know π = 4 (Or, if we had a taxicab universe with triangular pixels filling the plane, causal effects could spread out along three axes instead of two and a circle would look like a hexagon, giving π = 3.). In 1932, Stanislaw Golab showed that if we were clever enough in the way distances were measured in different directions, we could design laws of physics so that π might be anything we wanted from a low of 3 to a high of 4.

Back to the inhabitants of the von Neumann universe who think π = 4. Might they be familiar with number we know and love, 3.14159265…? They might:

3.14159265… = 4 {(1/1) – (1/3) + (1/5) – (1/7) + (1/9) + …} (Leibnitz)

If they were familiar with integers, they might be able to discover 3.14159265… But maybe the only integers they know are 1, 5, 25, 125, … and 4 of course. They would know that 5 = SQRT(25), so they would know what a square root was. In this case they could still find a formula for

3.14159265. . . =
SQRT(4) {SQRT(4)/SQRT(SQRT(4))}{SQRT(4)/SQRT(SQRT(4) + SQRT(SQRT(4)))}{SQRT(4)/ SQRT(SQRT(4) + SQRT(SQRT(4) + SQRT(SQRT(4))))} …

This infinite product involving only the integer 4 derives from one found by Vieta in 1594.

There are indeed many formulas equal to our old friend 3.14159265… including a spectacular one found by the renowned mathematician Ramanujan. Though every real number can be represented by such infinite series, products and continued fractions, these are particularly simple. So 3.14159265… does seem to have a special intimate relationship with integers, independent of geometry. If physics creates individual objects that can be counted, it seems difficult to avoid learning about 3.14159265… eventually—“If God made the integers,” as Kronecker suggested. So 3.14159265… appears not to be a random real number and we are still left with the mystery of the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics in explaining the physics we see in our universe. We are also left with the mystery of why the universe is as comprehensible as it is. Why should we lowly carbon life forms be capable of finding out as much about how the universe works as we have done? Having the ability as intelligent observers to ask questions about the universe seems to come with the ability to actually answer some of them. That’s remarkable.

UniverseGottJ. Richard Gott is professor of astrophysics at Princeton University. His books include The Cosmic Web: Mysterious Architecture of the Universe. He is the coauthor of Welcome to the Universe: An Astrophysical Tour with Neil DeGrasse Tyson and Michael A. Strauss.