Speaking of Pi

I knew I had read a profile in the New Yorker years ago about Pi, and then remembered that I have it in one of the New Yorker compilations that I own. It’s called “The Mountains of Pi”, and it’s from 1992, a profile of two brothers (the Chudnovsky brothers) on their quest for Pi. That makes it sound tame and intellectual. No. This is a profile of shared obsession.

I love having a library. “Wasn’t there something about Pi in one of those New Yorker books I have …?”

It’s also online – very fascinating profile of two men driven to extremes by their desire to understand pi. It’s also from a time when something like a “computer” in your house was something of a novelty, let alone a “supercomputer”, built to order. Built to serve Pi and Pi alone.

The Chudnovsky brothers claim that the digits of pi form the most nearly perfect random sequence of digits that has ever been discovered. They say that nothing known to humanity appears to be more deeply unpredictable than the succession of digits in pi, except, perhaps, the haphazard clicks of a Geiger counter as it detects the decay of radioactive nuclei. But pi is not random. The fact that pi can be produced by a relatively simple formula means that pi is orderly. Pi looks random only because the pattern in the digits is fantastically complex. The Ludolphian number is fixed in eternity – not a digit out of place, all characters in their proper order, an endless sentence written to the end of the world by the division of the circle’s diameter into its circumference. Various simple methods of approximation will always yield the same succession of digits in the same order. If a single digit in pi were to be changed anywhere between here and infinity, the resulting number would no longer be pi; it would be “garbage”, in David’s word, because to change a single digit in pi is to throw all the following digits out of whack and miles from pi.

“Pi is a damned good fake of a random number,” Gregory said. “I just wish it were not as good a fake. It would make our lives a lot easier.”

Around the three-hundred-millionth decimal place of pi, the digits go 88888888 – eight eights pop up in a row. Does this mean anything? It appears to be random noise. Later, ten sixes erupt: 6666666666. What does this mean? Apparently nothing, only more noise. Somewhere past the half-billion mark appears the string 123456789. It’s an accident, as it were. “We do not have a good, clear, crystallized idea of randomness,” Gregory said. “It cannot be that pi is truly random. Actually, truly random sequence of numbers has not yet been discovered.”

Go read the whole thing!

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3 Responses to Speaking of Pi

  1. george says:

    Sheila,
    Thanks for a fascinating read – and this from someone who’s math intolerant but now can’t get enough pi.

  2. red says:

    George – hahahaha Yeah, me too. I don’t understand half of it – but I do understand and love obsession.

  3. Pingback: Give Me Some More Pi, Please « The Last Stoic

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