The Tale of Rogue Numbers: A Pi Day Story

March 14, 2017

This Pi Day we’re unraveling the mystery behind the math—and the tale might just be worthy of the big screen.

Around the 6th Century BC, Pythagoras, the famous philosopher credited with the Pythagorean Theorem, established a school in southern Italy. The school believed in mathematics as a religious principle, declaring that “God is number.” This was the foundational ideology that guided life and worship at the Pythagorean School—similar to the ideas behind Christianity, Judaism, or Islam.  This idea led to other practices at the school, like vegetarianism and the idea that every number held special human characteristics.

One of these firm beliefs included the notion that every real number could be rewritten as a fraction or ratio, thus the term rational numbers. So, you can imagine the shock when a Pythagorean student named Hippasus first discovered that √2 doesn’t break down to a familiar fraction. When expressed as a decimal, there is no ending or pattern. It is said that this discovery of endless, patternless (thus irrational) numbers was so disturbing for Pythagorean philosophers that it resulted in Hippasus’ death.

Though no one knows for certain, many credit Hippasus with finding irrational numbers. To this very day, many compete to memorize the most digits of Pi, arguably the most famous irrational number of them all. Even with their turbulent past, Pi and other irrational numbers have had many practical implications. Pi continues to play a major role in fields that shape our future like architecture, engineering, computing, and astronomy. Hippasus and intellectual explorers like him have helped us discover sublime order in apparent chaos throughout history.

Check out this cool link to discover 1 million digits of Pi!

Photo courtesy of the University of Indiana Department of Mathematics & Computer Science.