Pi(e) Day, and More

Pi Day:  March 14.  Get it?  3.14?  That mathematical…whatever it is.  Well, okay.  It’s the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.  Oh, yeah!  You remember now!  Teachers all over pounce on the date to introduce some fun.  Bake pies and bring them to class.  Measure all the stuff on a 10-inch pie pan, then do it over for a 9-inch pie pan.  Does it change if you use a deep-dish pie pan?  (Hint: no) Of course, this all entails sampling the pie, because you have to deal with diameter, and—horrors!—maybe even radii (that’s plural, folks).  Whatever is required, it all ends up as a mathematical triumph, as well as a gastronomical one.

Which reminds me of my personal pie triumph, which involved my Senior Girl Scout friends camping pioneer-style.  When two of us were on cooking detail, we decided to make the fresh blueberries we picked into a pie.  We had a reflector oven for use with a wood fire that had already produced successful biscuits.  But we didn’t have a pie pan.  So…we used a garbage can cover.  Yes, we washed it, and lined it with aluminum foil.  We fed a dozen of us.  Messy?  Oh, yeah.  But it tasted great, garbage can cover or not.  Of course, that was the meal we also served banana pudding, with pieces of banana floating throughout.  Only, we didn’t have bananas.  We had lumps.  How we managed to convince everyone the lumps were bananas, I have no clue.  Please don’t tell them our secret.

Then I got to thinking about pi.  It’s non-repeating, so the numbers go on forever.  I wondered if there were any zeros in pi.  Yup, out in 32nd place, there’s the first zero.  Which took me even farther afield.  Where did zero come from anyway?  That took some searching.

Turns out it started in Mesopotamia 5000 years ago.  Then moved to India, back to the Middle East, and onward all over.  Anyone familiar with the Super Bowl knows the football game uses Roman numerals.  We’re already past fifty.  That was “L.”  We write it also as “50.”  See?  Take a look. There is no Roman numeral for 0.  Weird, eh?  That’s because the Romans devised a number system for trading and pricing goods.  They used the Latin “nulla” meaning “nothing.”  Which isn’t the same as zero…

Right, you say.  Who cares?  In Rome, you couldn’t buy or sell “nothing,” so they didn’t need a zero.  But if you’re trying to show that something is missing between two numbers…well, that’s where a zero is useful.  One Middle Eastern culture put a dot underneath a number, to show that there should be a gap between that and the next number, as in the number 107.  

So now we use Arabic numbers.  Thank Signor Fibonacci from the 1200s.  Much simpler than the old Roman numerals, where you could tie yourself in knots just trying to figure out if XIX is 11+10, or 10+9.  (It’s 10+9, in case you’re wondering.)  Zero was a great place holder.  A positional, as it were.  Imagine trying to add or subtract Roman numerals!  Yikes!

Mathematics went crazy from there.  Calculus, graphs, computers, and on and on.  And I’ll leave it at that, not having a mind that works well with abstracts like…well, zero.

All this from contemplating pi.  Simple, right?  When it comes to pi, or pie for that matter, I’ll stick to Yogi Berra’s solution:  “Cut my pie into four pieces, I don’t think I can eat eight.”