Saturday, March 14, 2009

On the ratio of the diameter of a circle and its circumference

Back around the time that Star Trek: The Motion Picture came out, they did what I always considered a spectacular book called Spaceflight Chronology, which was supposedly a historical look at the evolution of Earth's manned spaceflight program, starting with the (actually factually) Sputnik, Gemini, Apollo missions, and on through fictional advances like the first manned Mars lander, up through First Contact and on to the Enterprise-A.

In it, they feature what was supposedly the first meeting between Earthlings and people from Alpha-Centauri. One of them was Zefrem Cochrane, the scientist who was partially responsible for the math that would result in the Warp Drive.

(Yeah, I know it's wildly out of continuity now, as TNG's first season and the flm First Contact set Cochrane's story in stone - shut up, that's not why I'm telling the story. Even thought I think the timeline they set down in the book to be pretty damn good, but hey, who am I, right?)

The earth scientist and Cochrane are sitting in a room, having no idea how to communicate. Cochrane takes a piece of paper, draws a circle, then a diameter line through the center. He points to the circle, then the diameter, and then draws a symbol from his language. The Earth scientist immediately understood that this was their symbol for pi. The language barrier was broken, and they started chatting in mathematics. Eventually they got the actual languages working and the work actually started getting started. But the idea of using math as a mode of first contact always impressed me as a neat concept.

Even in TOS, the magical number makes an appearance. In Wolf in the Fold, the entity known as (among other things) Red Jack (played on screen by John Fiedler, the voice of Piglet) transfers itself into the Enterprise's computers. In an attempt to keep him helpless and occupied, Spock commands the computer to try to solve for pi, causing the computer to divert massive amounts of its CPUage to the problem, and trapping Red Jack.

The idea of getting a computer or a robot to solve for pi is such a classic cliche that I'm sure that when they finally get sentient computers and robots built, they'll put in a unofficial Fourth Rule Of Robotics: "None of that 'Solve for pi' crap".

Daren Aronofsky, years before he did The Wrestler, did a magnificent nightmare of a film called Pi which featured a young mathematic savant who suffered from cluster headaches and spent most of his time popping painkillers and building a Rube Goldbergian computer out of hand-built boards and custom programs in an attempt to calculate pi to the last digit. He believes there's a mathematical version of the Unified Field Theory that could be applied to any model, like the Stock Market, and used to prodict its changes. As he works on it, he is found and courted by both powerful brokerage houses and a band of Hassidic Jews who are engaged in massive studies of the Kabbalah and believe his research may unveil the true name of God. It's an amazing piece of work, about as impressive a fictional movie about math as has come down the pike as I can recall.

Now you've got David Krumholz in Numb3rs (Or as recovering luddite and fellow blogger Elayne Riggs and I both call it, "Numthreers") giving a better public face to the sexiness of math than we've had since daVinci. He's come so far since Addams Family Values and the TV pilot of the Justice League.

Considering all the zero issues, .5 issues and all the other numbers they've tried, has no one done a pi issue of a comic? Seems like it'd be cool.

Nah, that'd just be irrational.

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