Numbers change everyone’s lives. Some people are changed by the number of children they have, others by the number of deities they recognize. Some people are changed by four years in college, others haven’t changed until all 93 years of their lives are spent. Yet when I say my life was changed by π, no one understands. At best I get polite nods, at worst I get mocked for being a math nerd.
There is no better day to explain my passion, or perhaps obsession, with this innocuous transcendental number than “Pi Day.” On March 14th, nerds in America applaud our date convention as it yields the magical combination of 3/14. It’s one of my favorite days of the year (along with May 4th). So here goes.
When I was 11 or 12 years of age, my mom received a package in the mail. It was labeled with strange markings. “Amazon.com… what could that be?” Hidden under this now-familiar packing label were two books. Contact and Cosmos, both by a man named Carl Sagan, which whom I was totally unfamiliar. The books were for me! I’m still not sure why my mother thought I should have them (Mom? any insight?) but with my first exposure to amazon.com came a different life.
I devoured Contact. The movie is remarkable but the book is ingenious. It follows a woman named Ellie, who showed an early aptitude for mathematics, as she grows up and becomes a recognized scholar in astrophysics. She works on a project called SETI, which is now widely known as the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence. She pushes past bureaucracy, politics and religious intolerance to keep funding available for those who sought alien life.
Her project succeeds, and she intercepts a radio signal from a star called Vega that she knew couldn’t be natural in origin because it came encoded in prime numbers. She works with a team of experts to decode the message, ultimately revealing architectural plans to send five humans, of which she is one, to Vega.
Anyone who has seen the movie can tell you that much. But it fails in truly showing what a remarkable human Ellie was. I read that book and I thought, “wow! I want to do this. Ellie did it. Why not me?” Growing up in the 90’s, women were becoming more commonplace in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) but there weren’t the programs to entice young women to go into those fields like there are today. When boys had only recently metamorphosed away from being infested with cooties, it was daunting to think of pursuing a field that they “owned.”
Even with role models like Ellie (and Sally Ride and Ada Lovelace and many other amazing women) I might have let it slip away. But something else in Contact stuck with me. π. There are allusions to this amazing number throughout the book. In the pages of Contact I learned that it ties together all circles, all triangles, and all waves, not to mention the implications in highly advanced mathematics that I’d discover later. It was one simple number that tied the entire universe together. One commonality.
The book ends with Ellie still searching for a signal. But this time the signal isn’t from the heavens, it’s right in front of her eyes. She’s looking for a message in π. If you go far enough out in the number and you examine it in enough dimensions, maybe, just maybe, it’ll show uniformity that can be decoded. Sagan really says it best,
“Mathematics isn’t arbitrary. I mean pi has to have the same value everywhere. How can you hide a message inside pi? It’s built into the fabric of the universe.”
This blew me away. Raised atheist, I scorned the thought of a deity. But this just made sense to me. It’s so perfect. It’s all tied together. How could this observation not be the sole topic of conversation everywhere? No one but me cared!! I changed overnight. I knew I had to pursue some magical world where people wanted to talk about this. 10 years later found me graduating college with a degree in Abstract Mathematics; the magical world was real.
Learning to believe in myself as a woman in a world that boasts such magnificently intelligent people was a lesson that π taught me. I like to think I’ve maintained that vision as I’ve continued to grow and understand myself. While I remain a rabid space and physics enthusiast, I now work in my dream job at my dream technology company. Still a male-dominated environment, I continue to push myself and never settle for “good enough.” I am unbelievably happy.
I’ve had amazing things happen to me; after reading Contact I naturally went on to devour all of Carl Sagan’s work and still mourn his loss every day. Cosmos, in both it’s literary form and PBS rendition, became commonplace in my house. Carl Sagan is my hero in the true sense of the word. I’ve been to the Carl Sagan Center and met wonderful scientists who carry out his dream at SETI. The character of Ellie is based on a woman named Jill Tarter; I’ve met her and was able to tell her how much she has meant to me. I’ve seen Space Shuttles launch and watched the Mars Curiosity Rover descent from a space crane.
I know that I’ve had these experiences because of this funny little number, and I don’t ever want to forget that. I have a tattoo of π (with the infinity symbol winding through it) in honor of Carl Sagan and Contact. I wear a π necklace that I never take off. I have a vanity license plate with “Pi” in it. I’ve “enhanced” the logo of my Mazda3 and added the chrome digits “141592653589793” so now I proudly drive a Mazda π . The number of π t-shirts that I have is frankly alarming.
Now today I watch as America rallies around this number that has changed my life. I’m so glad that mathematics are becoming exciting to people, but part of me resents the attention it gets. The Exploratorium hosts a “π Procession.” Hot Topic is co-sponsoring a contest with Her Universe to select a lucky entrant, who creates the most creative video about π, to win tickets to ComicCon (for which I’d do just about anything). I just don’t think these people can understand what monumental feelings someone can have for this number.
So that’s the story of how π changed my life. I don’t have 200 digits memorized and I don’t want to fight about “pi vs tau.” That’s not the point. The point is that it’s more than a number, it’s an idea and an ideal, and I thank Carl Sagan for giving it to me.