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).

Calculus predicts more snow for Boston

Are we there yet? And by “there,” we mean spring and all the lovely weather that comes with it. This winter has been a tough one, and as the New York Times says, “this winter has gotten old.”

snow big[Photo Credit: John Talbot]

Our friends in Boston are feeling the winter blues after seven feet of precipitation over three weeks. But how much is still to come? You may not be the betting kind, but for those with shoveling duty, the probability of more winter weather may give you chills.

For this, we turn to mathematician Oscar Fernandez, professor at Wellesley College. Professor Fernandez uses calculus to predict the probability of Boston getting more snow, and the results may surprise you. In an article for the Huffington Post, he writes:

There are still 12 days left in February, and since we’ve already logged the snowiest month since record-keeping began in 1872 (45.5 inches of snow… so far), every Bostonian is thinking the same thing: how much more snow will we get?

We can answer that question with math, but we need to rephrase it just a bit. Here’s the version we’ll work with: what’s the probability that Boston will get at least s more inches of snow this month?

Check out the full article — including the prediction — over at the Huffington Post.

Math has some pretty cool applications, doesn’t it? Try this one: what is the most effective number of hours of sleep? Or — for those who need to work on the good night’s rest routine — how does hot coffee cool? These and other answers can be found through calculus, and Professor Fernandez shows us how in his book, Everyday Calculus: Discovering the Hidden Math All around Us.

This book was named one of American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Books for General Audiences and Young Adults” in 2014. See Chapter One for yourself.

For more from Professor Fernandez, head over to his website, Surrounded by Math.

 

Photo Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/laserstars/.

Paying It Forward, Using Math: Oscar Fernandez’s ‘Everyday Calculus’ Donated to Libraries in Franklin County, PA

Everyday Calculus, O. FernandezWhat a week!

It was recently announced that one of our books, Everyday Calculus by Oscar Fernandez, is to be donated by the United Way of Franklin County, in partnership with the Franklin County Library System, to public libraries all throughout Franklin County. The decision recognizes the 2013 Campaign Chair, Jim Zeger, who has demonstrated a dedication to service and a “willingness to teach others” during the course of his four-year tenure on the board of directors.

But the choice of text was far from random; Everyday Calculus was selected “because of the need for materials that support financial and mathematical literacy within our library systems,” says Mr. Zeger. He’s one to know; before coming to United Way, Zeger studied math at Juniata College and taught mathematics at the Maryland Correctional Institute. He also served for a number of years as part of the Tuscarora School District school board, and “is very supportive and understanding of the value of relating and connecting applied math to students.”

Bernice Crouse, executive director of the Franklin County Library System, accepted the books and has found them a place in each County library, including the bookmobile, in order to make them more accessible to readers. According to Crouse, this book fits perfectly with Pennsylvania Library Association’s PA Forward initiative, which “highlights Financial Literacy as a key to economic vitality in Pennsylvania.”

Mr. Fernandez is reportedly “delighted” and “honored” by the decision, and looks forward to further collaborating with United Way.