Praeteritio and the quiet importance of Pi

pidayby James D. Stein

Somewhere along my somewhat convoluted educational journey I encountered Latin rhetorical devices. At least one has become part of common usage–oxymoron, the apparent paradox created by juxtaposed words which seem to contradict each other; a classic example being ‘awfully good’. For some reason, one of the devices that has stuck with me over the years is praeteritio, in which emphasis is placed on a topic by saying that one is omitting it. For instance, you could say that when one forgets about 9/11, the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, and the Meltdown, George W. Bush’s presidency was smooth sailing.

I’ve always wanted to invent a word, like John Allen Paulos did with ‘innumeracy’, and πraeteritio is my leading candidate–it’s the fact that we call attention to the overwhelming importance of the number π by deliberately excluding it from the conversation. We do that in one of the most important formulas encountered by intermediate algebra and trigonometry students; s = rθ, the formula for the arc length s subtended by a central angle θ in a circle of radius r.

You don’t see π in this formula because π is so important, so natural, that mathematicians use radians as a measure of angle, and π is naturally incorporated into radian measure. Most angle measurement that we see in the real world is described in terms of degrees. A full circle is 360 degrees, a straight angle 180 degrees, a right angle 90 degrees, and so on. But the circumference of a circle of radius 1 is 2π, and so it occurred to Roger Cotes (who is he? I’d never heard of him) that using an angular measure in which there were 2π angle units in a full circle would eliminate the need for a ‘fudge factor’ in the formula for the arc length of a circle subtended by a central angle. For instance, if one measured the angle D in degrees, the formula for the arc length of a circle of radius r subtended by a central angle would be s = (π/180)rD, and who wants to memorize that? The word ‘radian’ first appeared in an examination at Queen’s College in Belfast, Ireland, given by James Thomson, whose better-known brother William would later be known as Lord Kelvin.

The wisdom of this choice can be seen in its far-reaching consequences in the calculus of the trigonometric functions, and undoubtedly elsewhere. First semester calculus students learn that as long as one uses radian measure for angles, the derivative of sin x is cos x, and the derivative of cos x is – sin x. A standard problem in first-semester calculus, here left to the reader, is to compute what the derivative of sin x would be if the angle were measured in degrees rather than radians. Of course, the fudge factor π/180 would raise its ugly head, its square would appear in the formula for the second derivative of sin x, and instead of the elegant repeating pattern of the derivatives of sin x and cos x that are a highlight of the calculus of trigonometric functions, the ensuing formulas would be beyond ugly.

One of the simplest known formulas for the computation of π is via the infinite series ????4=1−13+15−17+⋯

This deliciously elegant formula arises from integrating the geometric series with ratio -x^2 in the equation 1/(1+????^2)=1−????2+????4−????6+⋯

The integral of the left side is the inverse tangent function tan-1 x, but only because we have been fortunate enough to emphasize the importance of π by utilizing an angle measurement system which is the essence of πraeteritio; the recognition of the importance of π by excluding it from the discussion.

So on π Day, let us take a moment to recognize not only the beauty of π when it makes all the memorable appearances which we know and love, but to acknowledge its supreme importance and value in those critical situations where, like a great character in a play, it exerts a profound dramatic influence even when offstage.

LA MathJames D. Stein is emeritus professor in the Department of Mathematics at California State University, Long Beach. His books include Cosmic Numbers (Basic) and How Math Explains the World (Smithsonian). His most recent book is L.A. Math: Romance, Crime, and Mathematics in the City of Angels.