Do you know what pi is?

May 8, 2003
No, the headline is not a question asking whether or not you know pi to more decimal places than 3.14159. My query concerns whether you know how pi is used in a mathematical sense. Of what utility is it?

Do you know what π is?

by Ronald Khol, Editor

No, the headline is not a question asking whether or not you know π to more decimal places than 3.14159. My query concerns whether you know how π is used in a mathematical sense. Of what utility is it? My reason for asking is that a team of academics led by Prof. Yasumasa Kanada at Tokyo University set a world's record for the number of decimal places to which π has been calculated, establishing it to 1.24 trillion places.

Now let's look at the opening paragraph of an article about the event written for the Associated Press. The article begins with: "To most people, it's a funny-looking Greek letter that has something to do with circles. To Professor Yasumasa Kanada, however, pi is an obsession."

Good grief! So the Associated Press feels that most people think π is just a funny-looking Greek letter having something to do with circles. I couldn't believe the general public is so uninformed about math, and I thought the comment was just another example of dumb-and-dumber reporting in the mass media. So I did an informal survey, asking several people if they knew how π is used in mathematics.

Unfortunately, the Associated Press was right. None of the people I asked knew what π was despite the fact that this level of math is typically taught in the eighth grade of elementary school. This illustrates the low profile technical knowledge has in society. Being ill-educated isn't fashionable, but being a goofus about math and science is viewed as perfectly acceptable. There is no shame in not understanding the bare essentials of technical matters, even among college graduates.

This is especially true among people who have college degrees that aren't in hard sciences like math, engineering, or physics. What pains me is that most of these people don't think an ignorance of math and science keeps them from being thoroughly educated. They resolutely and almost defiantly take pride in the fact that they haven't cluttered their minds with technical minutiae. Although they can't figure out how much wallpaper they need to redecorate a room, or how much it will cost to install new carpeting, they still see themselves as "aware" and qualified to shepherd society toward correct views on the environment, product safety, politically correct thinking, or whatever field of activism strikes their fancy.

The high regard in which they hold themselves was brought home to me after I wrote a column about cellular telephones. I had just bought a scanner radio so that I could monitor aircraft communications and police calls. But one of the ancillary benefits of the radio was that it also picked up cellular-telephone conversations. Today, you can't buy a scanner that can intercept cellular frequencies, but just a few years ago, cellular calls were fair game for eavesdropping.

Interestingly, most people using cellular phones didn't realize their conversations were broadcast by radio. I don't know how they thought their voice got from Point A to Point B without wires, but radio never occurred to them. And I was amazed by how people discussed intimate and confidential matters on cellular phones. I heard businessmen discussing how they were going to cheat their customers. I heard men and women reviewing their amorous episodes. I even heard parents making plans to do dope after they picked up their kids from school.

I described all this in my column and pointed out that people were clueless if they didn't realize cellular calls were easily intercepted. As expected, I received critical letters saying I should be ashamed of myself for eavesdropping. But in some of the mail, what hurt readers the most was being called clueless. One woman indignantly said there is no reason anyone should know that a cellular telephone is a radio, and that the matter is too technical for the average person to understand.

The letters showed how much some people value their egos. When they look in the mirror, they see an "aware" person staring back. To suggest they are clueless is the most grievous insult you can hurl at them, as their letters plainly reveal. Yes, not knowing a cellular phone is a radio makes them clueless. But so does not remembering the math they were taught in elementary school.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor

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