On this years pi-day, it is time to come to terms with the idea that humans are somehow relevant to this universe. Both science and religion are guilty of putting humans right at the center, as if we somehow matter. We can deal with religion in a few words.
God is at the basis of religion. Humans are shaped after their Gods. QED.
But science is marginally less transparent. I could go through every branch of science and demonstrate that their syllabus has a one-one relationship with humans. Biology is the science of life in and around us. Physics is the science of phenomena that affect us, such as apples falling on our head due to gravity. Chemistry finds its roots in Alchemy which was about making a substance named gold which for a long time equated to human wealth. Some people will tell you it was about making humans eternal! I’ll throw in astronomy as a bonus: the science of making sense of universe and how it relates to us. The popularity of the search for exoplanets that could sustain human-like life only proves my point.
Science is anthropocentrically biased. QED. It took a few more words than for religion.
But the greatest, the sleekest and the best hidden culprit of anthropocentric arrogance is mathematics. And the number “pi” is right there at the center of it.
I’m not going to build up to a grand finale in which I reveal the basis for my accusation. Maths is based on the human body, starting with our fingers.
Ten fingers across two hands, including the thumbs.This evolved in a number system of 10 digits – from the Latin word digitus which means finger or toe…! If humans only had 4 fingers on each hand then pi would be 3.1103 instead of 3.1415. If cats would have developed maths, and perhaps they have, then their 18 toes would have led them to believe that pi is 3.29FD using a duodevigne number base.
But it doesn’t stop there. Geometry is based on the human eyes. Depending on whether we keep one or two eyes open during math class, we see a world in two or three dimensions. Elsewhere on this blog, I entertain you with four dimensional perception for which a third eye would have been jolly handy. Since we don’t have a third eye, these not-so-funny-but-serious blog posts are all but incomprehensible.
And don’t start me on circles which supposedly define pi. pi equals the the circumference of a circle divided by its diameter. Tell me, my distinguished friend, when is the last time you have seen a circle? Whatever you are about to say, keep in mind that your human mind is playing tricks on you. The circles you claim to see are almost certainly ellipses. When you see a round beer mat – and I’m not suggesting that this was the first thing that came to your mind – you are seeing an ellipse that your brain interprets as a circle seen from an inclined angle. This isn’t helped by the strange fact that many beer mats are cut in an elliptical shape!
And guess what, when you divide the circumference of an ellipse by the diameter of an ellipse, you may as well drink beer instead because an ellipse doesn’t have a single diameter. It changes depending from which point you start. To make matters worse, mathematicians can’t even calculate the exact circumference of an ellipse, only approximately so.
I could go on but I won’t. I intended to hit the “publish” button on 3/14/15 at 9:27 exactly (Taiwan time) in honor of the anthropocentric pi = 3.1415927 but I’m already 10 minutes late (read two hands plus zero fingers)
Putting all the cheap maths humor aside (who even likes this?), I deeply revere pi. In my pi-day post last year I explained that pi goes back to the creation of the universe and still holds untold secrets. My point on this not so auspicious day in 2015 is that our obsession with the precise digits of pi, 3.14159265359… is based on a the fact that we have 10 fingers. This is the tail wagging the dog. It would be more accurate to say that we have just over pi x pi fingers.
Perhaps we – mathematicians and cosmologists – should build theories of the origin of the universe in measures that relate to concepts that were present at the time – which definitely excludes human fingers. Then perhaps we might unlock a few more secrets. And just perhaps, we may even get to understand what Pi really means.
Happy pi-day from a glorious Taipei!