If you measure the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of any circular object you get the number Pi (π). Everyone who has done any maths or physics at all knows this. Some people who have gone on to do more maths knows that Pi is an irrational number, which is, looked at one way, merely the category into which Pi falls.
There are other irrational numbers, for example the square root of the number 2, which are almost as well known as Pi, and others, such as the number e or Euler’s number, which are less well known.
Anyone who has travelled further along the mathematical road will be aware that there is more to Pi than mere circles and that there are many fascinating things about this number to keep amateur and professional mathematicians interested for a long time.
Pi has been known for millennia, and this has given rise to many rules of thumb and approximation for the use of the number in all sorts of calculations. For instance, I once read that the ratio of the height to base length of the pyramids is pretty much a ratio of Pi. The reason why this is so leads to many theories and a great deal of discussion, some of which are thoughtful and measured and others very much more dubious.
Ancient and not so ancient civilisations have produced mathematicians who have directly or indirectly interacted with the number Pi. One example of this is the attempts over the centuries to “square the circle“. Briefly squaring the circle means creating a square with the same area as the circle by using the usual geometric construction methods and tools – compass and straight edge.
This has been proved to be impossible, as the above reference mentions. The attempts to “trisect the angle” and “double the cube” also failed and for very similar reasons. It has been proved that all three constructions are impossible.
Well, actually they are not possible in a finite number of steps, but it is “possible” in a sense for these objectives to be achieved in an infinite number of steps. This is a pointer to irrational numbers being involved. Operations which involve rational numbers finish in a finite time or a finite number of steps. (OK, I’m not entirely sure about this one – any corrections will be welcomed).
OK, so that tells us something about Pi and irrational numbers, but my title says “Why Pi?”, and my question is not about the character of Pi as an irrational number, but as the basic number of circular geometry. If you google the phrase “Why Pi?”, you will get about a quarter of a million hits.
Most of these (I’ve only looked at a few!) seem to be discussions of the mathematics of Pi, not the philosophy of Pi, which I think that the question implies. So I searched for articles on the Philosophy of Pi.
Hmm, not much there on the actual philosophy of Pi, but heaps on the philosophy of the film “Life of Pi“. What I’m interested in is not the fact that Pi is irrational or that somewhere in its length is encoded my birthday and the US Declaration of Independence (not to mention copies of the US Declaration of Independence with various spelling and grammatical mistakes).
What I’m interested in is why this particular irrational number is the ratio between the circumference and the diameter. Why 3.1415….? Why not 3.1416….?
Part the answer may lie in a relation called “Euler’s Identity“.
This relates two irrational numbers, ‘e’ and ‘π’ in an elegantly simple equation. As in the XKCD link, any mathematician who comes across this equation can’t help but be gob-smacked by it.
The mathematical symbols and operation in this equation make it the most concise expression of mathematics that we know of. It is considered an example of mathematical beauty.
The interesting thing about Pi is that it was an experimental value in the first place. Ancient geometers were not interested much in theory, but they measured round things. They lived purely in the physical world and their maths was utilitarian. They were measuring the world.
However they discovered something that has deep mathematical significance, or to put it another way is intimately involved in some beautiful deep mathematics.
This argues for a deep and fundamental relationship between mathematics and physics. Mathematics describes physics and the physical universe has a certain shape, for want of a better word. If Pi had a different value, that would imply that the universe had a different shape.
In our universe one could consider that Euler’s Relation describes the shape of the universe at least in part. Possibly a major part of the shape of the universe is encoded in it. It doesn’t seem however to encode the quantum universe at least directly.
I haven’t been trained in Quantum Physics so I can only go on the little that I know about the subject and I don’t know if there is any similar relationship that determines the “shape” of Quantum Physics as Euler’s Relation does for at least some aspects of Newtonian physics.
Maybe the closest relationship that I can think of is the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. Roughly speaking, (sorry physicists!) it states that for certain pairs of physical variables there is a physical limit to the accuracy with which they can be known. More specifically the product of the standard deviations of the two variables is greater than Plank’s constant divided by two.
In other words, if we accurately know the position of something, we only have a vague notion of its momentum. If we accurately know its velocity we only have a vague idea of its position. This “vagueness” is quantified by the Uncertainty Principle. It shows exactly how fuzzy Quantum Physics.
The mathematical discipline of statistics underlay the Uncertainty Principle. In a sense the Principle defines Quantum Physics as a statistically based discipline and the “shape” of statistics determines or describes the science. At least, that is my guess and suggestion.
To return to my original question, “why Pi?”. For that matter, “why statistics?”. My answer is a guess and a suggestion as above. The answer is that it is because that is the shape of the universe. The Universe has statistical elements and shape elements and possibly other elements and the maths describe the shapes and the shapes determine the maths.
This is rather circular I know, but one can conceive of Universes where the maths is different and so is the physics and of course the physics matches the maths and vice versa. We can only guess what a universe would be like where Pi is a different irrational number (or even, bizarrely a rational number) and where the fuzziness of the universe at small scales is less or more or physically related values are related in more complicated ways.
The reason for “Why Pi” then comes down the anthropological answer, “Because we measure it that way”. Our Universe just happens to have that shape. If it had another shape we would either measure it differently, or we wouldn’t exist.