The Joy Of Pi

David Blatner's The Joy of Pi, describes the phenomena of number fetishists' complete fascination with the number pi.

David Blatner's "The Joy of Pi," describes the phenomena of number fetishists' utter and complete fascination with the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, or as it is more commonly known, the number "pi". From as far back as Archimedes to the two guys in Manhattan who recently locked themselves in their apartment computing pi into the billions, Pi has been an elusive obsession for many a poor soul throughout time. In fact, Blatner estimates the world has spent over 4,000 years trying to solve the unsolvable mysteries of Pi.

And why not? After all, a mathematician's life is dedicated to cranking out as many digits as possible. So what if no measurement on this earth will likely ever need even 100 digits of Pi? That's beside the point when you consider that the fascination with calculating Pi doesn't stem so much a response to the usefulness of the calculations, but more from a fascination regarding its lack of usefulness. The idea that such a simple question as "what is the ratio of a circumference to a diameter?" could have such an infinitely complex answer is at the heart of Pi's allure.

The fraction 22 over 7 looks as simple and harmless as any other fraction, yet it's transcendence of logic has turned it into a philosophical enigma. The number which begins 3.142, etc. has gone into the realms of infinity, and man has not. Pi has achieved perfection, in the sense that it is the basis of nature's most perfect form; the circle. Man, though not for lack of trying, has yet to achieve perfection. So it stands to reason, as Blatner explains, that men have been driven to near frenzy over their inability to lock Pi into the confined space of logical thought.

"The Joy of Pi" captures both the mystical and the amusing aspects of this phenomenal number, humbling us in the realization of our inability to understand or explain every entity simply through employing logic. The line between the finite and the infinite has been undoubtedly blurred by the existence of Pi, a boundary which has been unable to be re-clarified despite the intense exploration of the world's greatest mathematicians, physicists, astronomers, engineers and just plain geniuses.

Certainly, if Pi were better understood, the uneasiness it causes in regard to our convictions about the physics of the universe would dissipate. Perhaps if we could uncover a notable pattern in the formation of the digits, or were able to finally comprehend why Pi appears in so many seemingly unrelated equations, the fascination with Pi would be permanently shelved. But until that day comes, minds like Blatner's will continue to explore the subject to the "nth degree". Of course now that we've calculated billions of digits of Pi on the world's fastest supercomputers and still keep coming up empty, it is beginning to look like the answers to the mysteries surrounding Pi will stay forever in the shadows.

Man's quest to understand Pi isn't much different from his reasons for wanting to climb Mount Everest. However, the proverbial "because it's there" is a tad simplistic. People have a natural drive to explore that which they cannot contain within their tangible conceptions. The non-concrete is unacceptable to the mind which craves exploration, discovery and most importantly, answers. Pi is irrational. Therefore, the elusiveness of Pi's logic both frustrates and inspires "inquiring minds who want to know", just as climbing Mount Everest is an attempt to satisfy inquiring bodies who want to know their true physical limits.

There is something almost mesmerizing about the irrationality of Pi, and with so much interest being drawn in its direction, it is only a matter of time before more useful mathematical discoveries are derived from its existence. While it is true that some "Pi fanatics" are just really bored people with a lot of extra time on their hands, we cannot forget that the allure of Pi has attracted some of the greatest thinkers of all mankind. Not just any idiot could come up with statements like "In the same way that the constancy of the Pi ratio is an unexpected property of circles, so is the fact that the length of the radius of any circle, when inscribed around the inside of its circle, will fit exactly six times." Try saying that five times fast!

The digits of Pi may appear to be random and yet their calculations are based upon the very real entity of the circle. No pattern has been determined as of yet, but the order of the digits appears to be predestined. The structure of Pi is an enigma in and of itself, even without considering all of the philosophical questions that surround it. While Blatner is able to see "the lighter side of Pi" within his many amusing anecdotes, cartoons and amusing "tricks", he appears to be quite obsessed with the subject of Pi himself. Why else would he have spent so much of his valuable time researching the subject? Not everything about Blatner's view on Pi is centered on amusement, however. There are many deep, philosophical and scientific questions wrapped up in the enigma of Pi that lead us to question certain aspects of our very own existence. But the fact remains that while Pi has been claimed to be everything from a numerical representation of the Bible to a metaphor for immortality, as Blatner assesses, it is in all reality just a series of numbers.

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