Pi in the Sky

I was staring and dreaming eight thousand feet up, when a beeping noise interrupted my reverie. Hey Dad, said my twelve year old son from the seat next to me on the chair lift, Happy Pi Day ! It was 3/14/1:59. Ha, said me, I know all about Pi Day. It was on Tom’s Astronomy Blog already.

Son smirked. He was teasing me for being a dork, just because I happened to mention that when I was his age I passed the time by memorising Pi to a hundred places. But I am not even that good. A kid at his school managed five hundred and three. And all this pales into insignificance next to Michael Rowan-Robinson’s Stakhanovite achievement. When Michael was ill as a child, he memorised the entire book of log tables, and to this day uses his arcane knowledge for the Force of Good. Or was it for amusing parlour tricks ? One of those.

Ah. If only one still had the patience and the lesiure for such beautiful pointless labours.

Pardon the drivel. I’m plum tuckered after a long drive. Maybe by about Wednesday I will serve up a sharp analysis of the State of Science. If I can find time in my schedule.

28 Responses to Pi in the Sky

1. Michael Merrifield says:

If MRR really chose to spend his time on such an unimaginative pursuit, it rather confirms my prejudices. Not least because anyone smart would just have memorized the logarithms of the prime numbers, and learned to factorize and add…

2. Steve W says:

OK MM you memorise them your way. And then I invite you to a public logarithmic duel against MRR. When will you be ready?

3. Michael Merrifield says:

Actually, I shouldn’t take any credit — it was my next-door neighbour’s party piece when I was growing up (what can I say — it was a strange neighbourhood!). He was amused when I finally figured it out and started trying to catch him out with large prime numbers.

But I am afraid that, unlike MRR, I lack the facility or the inclination to even memorize the primes. So I am happy to concede the title of Least Logarithmically Challenged to him.

4. andyxl says:

Of course MRR is also the kind of person who already knows what a Stakhanovite is

5. Michael Merrifield says:

I hope you aren’t suggesting that MRR’s political activism involved working toward a Great Leap Forward…

6. I can testify to Michael R-R’s arithmetical skills. Michael, Seb Oliver and I were sitting round a workstation when during our conversation we needed to calculate something. Seb started up IDL and tapped away, but came third. I pulled out my calculator but came second. The clear winner was Michael who – in less time than it took me to type the numbers in – said something like “Oh but the log of this is about so-and-so, and the log of that is about so-and-so, so the answer is clearly this.”

I’m told they don’t learn times tables at school any more. (Grumpy old man? Me?)

PS – I got to 31 digits of pi, got bored and memorized the English frequency alphabet, ETAONRISHDLFCMUGYBWPVKXJQZ, which came in handy when, er, well never actually.

7. Michael Merrifield says:

Hi Stephen — I can confirm that times tables still much in evidence at my six-year-old’s school.

My version of the alphabet is just as arcane, but does at least have a reason behind it: I once spent a summer assembling keyboards by sticking the keys into place (having soldered the switches onto a circuit board first!), so can tell you in my sleep which key goes where.

8. SimonR says:

The hardest thing is trying to forget something like this once you’ve learned it (50 digits of pi).

9. Phil Uttley says:

Harumph! You’re all too precise to be real astronomers – everyone knows that pi is 3!

10. Aneta Siemiginowska says:

Phil, 3! is clearly not equal to pi…

but who, how and when have calculated the value and digits of pi? Wikipedia has answers to all questions and gives three historical periods. Now of course it is easy – just type the key on your computer and you have the numbers, but even 50 years ago somebody needed to calculate the numbers by “hand”. What about the Royal Society studies of the log tables… these were the days…
I’m glad I can use my computer and enjoy watching the
sky …

11. Phil – you reminded me of the old joke: pi equals three, for small values of pi and large values of three.

12. Michael Merrifield says:

Isn’t pi defined to be a ten-millionth the number of seconds in a year?

13. MikeW says:

dunno, but sounds like a good approximation

but do you know what a “micromort” is (without Googling it)?

14. Tony says:

No, but I did Google it (which invited me to Wikipedia it): would be interested to know if a millimort is 1000 times a micromort.

And how on earth did you come across it, Mike?

15. DaveW says:

Micromort was derived from Dan Reeves at Yahoo … link this through to a masters thesis on harlequin ducks by Howard Bruner, then Bruner & Watson who are Doubles Tennis partners, and then on to a paper on the Mechanism of Aphid Transmission of Potato C and Potato aucuba Mosaic Viruses by Watson & Serjeant, then a 16 March Pi in the Sky article bringing together Serjeant & Merrifield, and you begin to get the picture that this whole correspondence is in fact a complete cosmic conspiracy by your respondents … and yes you guessed it – there is also a 2003 paper with Uttley and Lawrence … small world guys!

16. MikeW says:

I heard it on the Radio 4 news …

17. Alan Heavens says:

Ha! You’ll have to learn Pi all over again – its value is changing due to leakage into extra dimensions:

http://xxx.soton.ac.uk/abs/0903.5321

18. And any real astronomer knows that Pluto is a full fledged planet. Hopefully, your son knows this even if you don’t. 🙂

19. andyxl says:

Laurel : I just asked him “is Pluto a planet”. He said “no” immediately. Sorry. Even number four child, eight years old, said “no” and gave me that “what are you dumb or what” look. Game over.

20. Sorry, but game not over. There’s always teenage rebellion, when kids realize they’ve been brainwashed to hear only one point of view. Instead of rejecting their parents’ religion, you kids might instead recognize the irrationality of four percent of the IAU. My five-year-old nephew already knows that the IAU is a group that did things all wrong when it comes to planets.

Then there’s always the movement underway to get Pluto reinstated. At the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate on March 10, in the American Museum of Natural History, even Neil de Grasse Tyson admitted the debate isn’t over and that it may be too soon to define planet. The dynamicists there even rejected the IAU definition.

To help get the rebellious stage started, your kids can always visit my blog–unless you block it along with the age inappropriate ones! 🙂

21. andyxl says:

Laurel. For the nine hundred and seventeenth time, the “four percent” thing is a ridiculous argument. It was a random sample of astronomers and that four percent voted OVERWHELMINGLY against Pluto being a planet. Go away and take a statistics class. Or if you have already taken one, stop making dishonest arguments.

Oooooo wasn’t that tough ?

22. Michael Merrifield says:

Personally, I would be worried if even 4% of astronomers has so little real science to think about that they cared very much about which page of the stamp album to stick Pluto on.

23. andyxl says:

Mike – that was pretty much why the vote won, is my reading. After a week of ridiculous squabbling by the planetary folk, a large number of astronomers-general looked at the resolutions, said “that looks reasonable : done : can we do something else now ?”

24. Sorry, Andy, all joking aside, the IAU violated its own bylaws by introducing a resolution on the floor of the General Assembly without prior vetting by the appropriate committee. Most of the participants left the conference before the vote thinking that the previous, 12-planet resolution was the one to be voted on. Also, many who voted on resolution 5a, establishing the categories of classical planets, dwarf planets and small solar system bodies also voted for 5b, which, had it passed, would have established both classical and dwarf planets under the umbrella of planets. 5b did not pass overwhelmingly, and the notion that dwarf planets are not planets goes against the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are a type of stars, and dwarf galaxies are a type of galaxies.

I disagree that the four percent was a random sample; it was a “revolt” by dynamicists with their own agenda. If you’re so confident that vote is representative of the astronomy community, you should have no problem with re-opening the issue and holding another vote and allowing electronic voting for those who for various reasons cannot be present in one room on one day. From being in regular contact with astronomers determined to overturn the demotion, I can assure you that you have not seen the last of this issue.

25. andyxl says:

Ah silly me, four hundred dynamicists with a secret agenda deliberately booked an extra day in their hotels, and also bought all the other hotel rooms in Prague, so that nobody else would be there. They were all Trotskyites too. Oh hang on, there were only about twenty dynamicists in the room. Oh wait a minute now I remember. They bribed all the rest of us, using a secret fund set up by the Vatican, who are gradually working towards their goal of there only being five planets, just like the good old days. I believe it was Opus Dei who demoted Ceres from planethood too. Why isn’t there a save Ceres campaign ??

26. There is a save Ceres campaign. It’s part of the campaign to establish dwarf planets as a subclass of planets–you know, what resolution 5b would have done. Almost every astronomer who advocates Pluto’s planet status supports the concept of hydrostatic equilibrium as the defining standard for planethood. That would make Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris planets of the dwarf planet subcategory.

The Vatican is innocent here; Brother Guy Consolmagno voted for 5b.

27. Michael Merrifield says:

And yet still the World turns…

28. Vosburgh says:

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