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VALERIE SCHULTZ: Any way you slice it, Pi Day is sweet

Valerie Schultz

Valerie Schultz

March 14 is known in some circles as Pi Day, because 3.14 is the decimal amount used to solve equations involving pi. I think the fractional expression of pi is 22/7. I don’t really know what I’m talking about: I remember learning something about pi as a useful formula to solve problems in math class in the last century, but I can verify that I have never once in my adult life had a problem for which I needed to avail myself of this knowledge. As the plain-speaking, time-traveling Peggy Sue tells her algebra teacher when she lands back in high school from her future in the movie "Peggy Sue Got Married," “Well, Mr. Snelgrove, I happen to know that in the future I will not have the slightest use for algebra, and I speak from experience.” 

And as the class clown in every math class comments on hearing the teacher pronounce "pi-r-squared" that “No, pie are round.”

Which brings me to the most personally relevant tradition of Pi Day: eating actual pie.

Our local bakery has been closed for renovations since just after Christmas, so my chance for indulging in a fresh-baked pie is nil. I know many ambitious people have embarked on mastering a new skill such as pie-making during the pandemic, but I am not one of them. I am an indifferent chef and an even less successful baker. I will have to wait for my celebratory pie, which I can only hope will be marionberry, until our bakery’s grand reopening.

But Pi Day won’t wait for me. Pi Day must go on! As you may know, pi is the 16th letter of the Greek alphabet, and it looks like a wavy two-legged table with a pompadour when you write it. When you type it on a keyboard, it looks like this: π. (Believe me, that took some research and several false starts by this writer.)

The symbol pi represents a constant that is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number, so the decimal 3.14 is merely the first three numbers in a never-ending sequence of decimal places to the right. The written character pi was chosen to represent this number because it is the first letter of the Greek word for "perimeter." You can look it up. I did.

The first Pi Day was promoted by the San Francisco Exploratorium in 1988. Pi Day, of course, is not to be confused with National Pie Day, which is Jan. 23, and went by without mention in my house. In 2009, the U.S. House of Representatives recognized Pi Day with a non-binding resolution. In 2014, Pi Day extended into Pi Month for all 31 days of March, since 3/14 denoted that special month and year. 

Pi Day activities may include pie-eating contests, pie-baking contests, and the fun challenge of the longest recitation from memory of the digits of pi. In Princeton, N.J., Pi Day is celebrated in tandem with the happy coincidence of Albert Einstein’s birthday. Since Einstein lived and worked there for over 20 years, Princeton adds an Einstein look-alike contest to its annual festivities. I would love to get a look at those contestants with my belly full of pie.

I suspect I sound a bit disrespectful of the serious and cosmic importance of pi, or π. But I’m just messing around in good fun with the lovers of π. I actually love the Pi Day party animals and the math nerds and the science geeks among us, because they remind us that humanity is a messy, holy, wondrous mix of people. We are as different from each other as we are unique unto ourselves, aren’t we? We have our individual gifts and our peculiar limitations. I can’t say a single intelligent thing in a conversation with mathematicians or physicists, but I appreciate that their ardor for discussing their subject matter is as fierce as my passion for debating the Oxford comma or the split infinitive (for the record, YES and NO).

I am grateful that we have diverse opportunities like Pi Day to share our enthusiasm for the things that excite us and to honor the callings that get us moving every morning.

And I am always down for any occasion that comes with a piece of pie.

Email contributing columnist Valerie Schultz at vschultz22@gmail.com. The views expressed here are her own.

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