Soon there will be nothing left of my education. Not because I’ve forgotten what I was taught, mind you, but exactly because of what I was taught. I’m thinking here of Rutherford’s model not being what an atom is actually like, and of the whole conspiracy to hide the key linguistic fact that the-French-qui-is-not-the-same-as-the-English-who.
“What now?” you sigh. “Pi,” I reply. OK. Let’s do this.
Pi, perhaps the first mathematical constant I ever heard of, is the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter. Or as Sesame Street’s singing monsters might present it:
π = around/through
By the start of the 20th century, about 500 digits of pi were known.
With computation advances, thanks to computers,
we now know more than the first six billion digits of pi.
A measly six billion? Pshaw. That was in the olden days: 1999. As of about a year ago, scientists had computed a hundred trillion digits of pi. Goodness knows what AI will do with that in the next two months.
Anyway, pi is a little more than 3. How much more? Well, for the math we were doing, the two-decimal version (3.14) usually sufficed; if we needed to get fancier/closer, we went to 5 decimal places (3.14159). But if we wanted to be exact, we used the fraction form: 22/7. There. Done. Exact, even if not neatly divisible.
Imagine my surprise, then, when looking at websites for this coming Saturday’s celebration of Pi Day: the 22nd of July, or 22/7. What the heck was this about Pi Approximation Day? Clearly that name applied more accurately to the other Pi Day: March 14, or 3.14. After all, using 22/7 was to represent pi exactly, right?
Wrong. Pi is smaller than 22/7. Only just, mind you, but still. Here again I find the school system going out of its way to teach a misleadingly simplified version. It drives me crazy.
Of course, there’s another reason these little discrepancies between “what I was taught” and “what was known at the time to be true” might drive me crazy. Maybe, just maybe, the problem lies not in what I was taught, but in what I remember being taught. Just as 22/7 only approximates pi, maybe my memory only approximates the truth. Especially in math.
But here’s the thing: Based on the number of YouTube videos debunking the idea that pi is 22/7 (here and here [“Do you know that pi ≠ 22/7?”] and here [“popular and fundamental myths in mathematics”] and here [“Your school lied to you”] . . .), a whole whack of people share my memory. How many people? I don’t know. Maybe as many as the number of digits of pi that were known as of 1999. Exactly as many? Oh no. It’s just an approximation.