Pi: A Window into the World of Mathematics

Mathematicians have always been fascinated by Pi, the famous never-ending never-repeating decimal that rounds to 3.14. But why? What makes Pi such an interesting number? Every mathematician has their own answer to that question. For me, Pi’s allure is that it illustrates perfectly the arc of mathematics. Let me explain what I mean by taking you on a short mathematical adventure.

Picture yourself in a kitchen, rummaging the pantry for two cans of food. Let’s say you’ve found two that have circular bases of different diameters d1 and d2. Associated with each circle is a circumference value, the distance you’d measure if you walked all the way around the circle.

Were you to perfectly measure each circle’s circumference and diameter you would discover an intriguing relationship:

In other words, the ratio of each circle’s circumference to its diameter doesn’t change, even though one circle is bigger than the other. (This circumference-to-diameter number is  (“Pi”), the familiar 3.14-ish number.) This is the first stop along the arc of mathematics: the discovery of a relationship between two quantities.

Where this story gets very interesting is when, after grabbing even more cans and measuring the ratio of their circumferences to their diameters—you seem to have lots of free time on your hands—you keep finding the same ratio. Every. Time. This is the second stop along the arc of mathematics: the discovery of a pattern. Shortly after that, you begin to wonder: does every circle, no matter its size, have the same circumference-to-diameter ratio? You have reached the third stop along the arc of mathematics: conjecture. (Let’s call our circumference-to-diameter conjecture The Circle Conjecture.)

At first you consider proving The Circle Conjecture by measuring the ratio C/d for every circle. But you soon realize that this is impossible. And that’s the moment when you start truly thinking like a mathematician and begin to wonder: Can I prove The Circle Conjecture true using mathematics? You have now reached the most important stop along the arc of mathematics: the search for universal truth.

One of the first thinkers to make progress on The Circle Conjecture was the Greek mathematician Euclid of Alexandria. Euclid published a mammoth 13-book treatise text called Elements circa 300 BC in which he, among other accomplishments, derived all the geometry you learned in high school from just five postulates. One of Euclid’s results was that the ratio of a circle’s area A to the square of its diameter d2 is the same for all circles:

This is close to what we are trying to prove in The Circle Conjecture, but not the same. It would take another giant of mathematics—the Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse—to move us onto what is often the last stop on the arc of mathematics: thinking outside the box.

Archimedes went back to Euclid’s five postulates, all but one of which dealt with lines, and extended some of Euclid’s postulates to handle curves. With these new postulates Archimedes was able to prove in his treatise Measurement of a Circle (circa 250 BC) that the area, circumference, and radius r of a circle are related by the equation:

(You may recognize this as the area of a triangle with base C and height r. Indeed, Archimedes’ proof of the formula effectively “unrolls” a circle to produce a triangle and then calculates its area.) Combining Archimedes’ formula with Euclid’s result, and using the fact that r = d/2, yields:

Et Voilà! The Circle Conjecture is proved! (To read more about the mathematical details involved in proving The Circle Conjecture, I recommend this excellent article.)

This little Pi adventure illustrated the core arc of mathematics: discovery of a relationship between to quantities; discovery of a more general pattern; statement of a conjecture; search for a proof of that conjecture; and thinking outside the box to help generate a proof. Let me end our mathematical adventure by encouraging you to embark on your own. Find things you experience in your life that are quantifiable and seem to be related (e.g., how much sleep you get and how awake you feel) and follow the stops along the arc of mathematics. You may soon afterward discover another universal truth: anyone can do mathematics! All it takes is curiosity, persistence, and creative thinking. Happy Pi Day!

 

Oscar E. Fernandez is associate professor of mathematics at Wellesley College. He is the author of Calculus Simplified, Everyday Calculus, and The Calculus of Happiness (all Princeton).