Tom goes crazy with math and tries to make something local of it, but in the end it’s all about math

Since it's only going to happen once in my lifetime (and, I assume, most o' y'all's, as well), I must take some time to note the momentous occasion that will occur in a couple days. This Saturday, it won't be Pi Day, it will be Once-In-A-Century Pi Day. Every March 14th is Pi Day, a wink and a nod to 3.14, the most basic approximation of the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle.

The average person will generally identify π as 3.14 or its crude and inaccurate fractional equivalent of 22/7. The hipster will show off a bit by saying, "Three point one four one five..." and then his voice will trail off because he really can't remember beyond that point. Those zany pre-Christians in the Old Testament estimated it to be three. And the top Republicans in Arizona refer to it as "This many."

Since the ratio is an irrational number (one that cannot be accurately as a fraction), the non-repeating number goes on forever after the decimal point. What makes it extra-special is that π shows up in all kinds of places where it logically shouldn't. There is the most famous equation ever: e (the natural log) to the iπ power + 1 = 0. If that doesn't get your innards to do jumping jacks, you're just not human. Either that, or you attend BASIS and you're just too burned out from taking Advanced Placement tests to boost the school's fake rating that you simply can't experience joy any more.

The number π is also part of the answer to the geometrical probability problem known as Buffon's Needle. If you take a needle that is one inch long and randomly drop it onto a piece of paper with lines that are one inch apart, the probability that it will touch one of the lines is 2/π. This is strange because you're dealing with nothing but straight lines (on the paper and the needle). There is no logical reason for π to come into play.

There is a thing in physics called the fine-structure constant. It's the constant that denotes the strength of the electromagnetic interaction between elementary charged particles. (Believe me, it's way sexier than it sounds.) For some ridiculous reason, it comes out to 1/137. Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman once wrote, "It has been a mystery ever since it was discovered more than fifty years ago, and all good theoretical physicists put this number up on their wall and worry about it. It's...a magic number that comes to us with no understanding by Man. You might say 'the hand of God' wrote that number and 'we don't know how He pushed his pencil.'"

Physicists have obsessed over that number for decades (next year will mark the centennial of its discovery by Arnold Sommerfeld), none more so that Wolfgang Pauli. Someone once asked Pauli if he could ask God any question, what would it be? Pauli quickly responded, "Why 1/137?"

And physicists aren't the only ones. Members of the Kabbalah sect find references to 137 all through the Torah. They think it's some kind of mystical number. That's why it's so freaky that Wolfgang Pauli died in Room 137 of the Rotkreuz Hospital in Zurich. I mean, why tempt fate? If you were Governor Ducey and you went in to a hospital for a check-up to find out if you actually have a heart, would you want to be in Room This Many?

While a handful of super-nerds contemplate the fine-structure constant, untold millions have tried to make sense of π over the centuries. They try to prove that it's a random number or that it's not a random number. They look for patterns where none exists. (In the first 1,000 numbers after the decimal point, there are dozens of times where double numbers show up. There are five examples of triple numbers--twice it's 0-0-0 and two other times, it's 1-1-1—and there's even the mysterious six consecutive nines that show up beginning with the 762nd place.)

That prompts the retelling of the greatest math joke ever. The aforementioned Richard Feynman, knowing that π is a non-repeating, irrational number, said that he wanted to memorize π to 767 places so he could get to the nines and say, "999999...and so on." If you want to have a roomful of mathematicians rolling in the aisles, just tell them that one.

(Even weirder is that at position 36,356,642, there are actually eight consecutive nines. Mathematically speaking, that's pretty hard to do. God must be laughing His butt off.)

In honor of Pi Day, here's another knee-slapper: What is the volume of a cylinder of a yummy Italian dish with a radius of z and a height of a? Answer: pi•z•z•a.

This particular Pi Day is special, because it's 3/14/15, which takes π to four places after the decimal. In fact, if you're extra-nerdy, you can wait until 53 seconds after 9:26 in the morning and have 3/14/15 9:26:53 and take it all the way to nine places. How sweet is that?!

Anyway, on Saturday at 9:26:53, let's all celebrate math. We could jump or something.

It will be here and then gone in an instant, just like any hopes for a decent educational system in Arizona at any time in the near future.

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