Irrational Pastime


Happy Pi Day!

According to Schoolhouse Rock, three is a magic number – and it is. But just as pi is equal to a little more than three, pi itself is a little more than magical. It is downright metaphorical.

Mathematicians, scientists, and philosophers have been chasing down the elusive number for thousands of years. Pretty much since we gained awareness of numbers themselves, and round things. It didn’t take us long to figure out that the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter was a constant number or that the number was just over three, but several hundred lifetimes would pass before we got more accurate than that.

What do you get when you divide the circumference of a jack o’ lantern by its diameter? Pumpkin pi!

The true quest for pi was borne out of our desire to “square the circle”. In a literal, mathematical sense this means finding a simple – or at least consistent – way to calculate a square with equal area to any given circle. Symbolically, squaring the circle is a much deeper human desire.

Circles have always been mysterious. They represent the infinite, even sometimes defined as “a polygon with infinite corners.” With no beginning or end point, they symbolize that which is eternal and immeasurable. According to Nietzsche and Matthew McConaughey, time itself is a flat one. Even this post is circular (it ends where it begins). Circles are unknowable, spiritual.

Squares, on the other hand, are a symbol of all that is solidly defined. They are firmly knowable, easily measured, comfortably comprehensible. There is a reason one of the earliest words in our culture for the nerdy and rule bound was “square.”

To search for an exact value of pi – to seek to square the circle – is to attempt to make the unknowable known. To define the undefined. Another term for pi is the “circular constant”, or in other words a mystery that is rock steady.

What was Sir Isaac Newton’s favorite dessert? Apple pi!

Historically, some have considered this quest to understand the mysterious a dangerous game. The poet John Donne wrote the verse, “Eternal God – for whom who ever dare / Seek new expressions, do the circle square, / And thrust into straight corners of poor wit / Thee, who art cornerless and infinite,“ explicitly condemning the search for an exact value for pi. Many more, like Archimedes, devoted their entire lives to the quest. All of them died without reaching it.

Because, of course, the quest is impossible. It took us several thousand years, but eventually (by the 18th century) we humans finally proved that the number pi is irrational – its digits go on forever and never repeat. About a hundred years later, we also determined that pi is transcendent, which means it is not the solution to any algebraic equation. Irrational and transcendent – just like the human mind.

Those two vital discoveries – that the circular constant is both never ending or repeating and impossible to equate – combine to prove without doubt that we cannot find a square with equal area to a circle. The circle, quite literally, can never be squared.

“Secant, tangent, cosine, sine, 3.14159!” – MIT cheerleaders

So the number pi is simultaneously proof that some things can never be known and that there are rock-solid constants we can rely on. Constants such as our drive to always dig deeper and know more, even if we can never understand it all. No wonder pi is the most enduringly studied number in human history.

These days, pi continues to symbolically bridge the mysterious and the defined. It has become our computational bedrock, used to test computers for bugs or weakness, and at the same time our mathematicians are scouring its digits through billions of decimal places (and counting!) in search of any pattern or logic to its order. So far, we’ve found nothing. It is proving uniquely and stubbornly random.

“Knowledge is limited. Imagination circles the world.” – Albert Einstein

On March 14th, we celebrate this metaphorical number by eating pie, something both circular and delicious. We also celebrate another wonder of the universe – Albert Einstein, who was born on 3/14/1879. Einstein himself is a perfect representation of pi’s duality, as his life continuously bridged math and creativity, science and spirituality, and social consciousness with humor. He understood better than nearly anyone the perfect paradox embodied by pi: that the more we learn, the less we know.

Or, to put it in terms of the constant itself, “the wider the circle of light, the larger the circumference of darkness.” (Not an Einstein quote, but one of his favorites.)

Happy Birthday, Albert. And…

Happy Pi Day!

The Silence of the Clowns


In space, no one can hear you scream. On Earth, they also can’t hear you scream if you have laryngitis.

For the last five days I have been without a voice. Speechless. Unable to make sound. It turns out that this is a long time to go without speaking; things get pretty surreal.

My mind first started to fight back with experimentation. I tried any and everything I could think of to break through the silence. Gargling salt water helps, but gargling itself is pretty weird without sound. Whiskey doesn’t help at all, but does improve morale. Hot bath – not great. Hot shower – better, but comes with guilt when living in a drought state. I drank gallons of tea, sucked pounds of lozenges, ate buckets of soup…not even headstands helped.

At a certain point, I started to wonder if maybe my voice would never come back. I also wondered if that would be such a bad thing.

Sure, there were a few moments when my lack of vocal power was distinctly frustrating. Not being able to call my cats in from outside, for example, or tell a new suitor that I heartily approved of what he just did with his tongue (hey, I wasn’t contagious). The worst was not being able to call my parents; I realized that 3-4 days is the most I want to go without hearing their voices.

The rest of life without out a voice, though, isn’t that bad. I have never liked answering the phone to begin with, so it felt pretty great to literally not be able to. It took some quick thinking when the pizza delivery guy called (some quick running, really), but otherwise I decided that it probably would be fine if I never spoke again. Heck, it might even make me better at life!

This revelation isn’t too surprising, since for the longest time I was an actual enemy of my own voice. I hated that people mistook me for a boy over the phone; I hated how high and squeaky it got when I spoke passionately; I hated that I couldn’t disguise it or control it more – though really what I lacked was the confidence to control it.

As a solution, I worked to avoid my voice as much as possible. I became afraid of the phone. In French class, I could only get so far with reading and writing, but still I refused to practice speaking. While I can sing, the idea of singing solo in front of other people was (and still is) mortifying. Even my comedy changed, as I settled comfortably into the role of straight man in my sketch groups, in order to avoid the humiliation of “doing voices”. And then, I found a way to stop speaking altogether.

This is the part where I reveal my darkest, creepiest secret: I used to be a clown.

In my high school, students had to take a semester of oration as an English credit. Most people opted for Public Speaking, but a few of us chose Theatre Production, also known as Clowning. One of the English teachers had actually been to clown college, so he taught it as a course from which grew our school’s clown troupe, which did community service around the city.

For two years, I was one of those clowns.

The goal in creating a clown character is to be completely disguised, hence the face paint and funny hair and fake noses. I loved the idea of being unrecognizable as myself – it was liberating. But in creating Harmony, my clown, I balked so badly at finding a voice that I turned to Harpo Marx for inspiration and chose to be mute.

Harmony wore bells, carried a horn and various whistles, and communicated via kazoo, but never spoke. I had to eliminate my hated voice in order to feel completely free.

Surprisingly, silence didn’t make comedy harder. I couldn’t rely quite as much on my wit, but years of children’s theater, slapstick comedy, and marching band made it pretty easy to make the joke without words. I was even comfortable humming! As a non-clown, as long as I can still whistle, whisper, clap, stomp, and bang on things, I know I could do fine without a voice.

After my clown days were over – which I admit wasn’t until after college – and I hit the real world, a funny thing (funnier than clowns) happened; through improv, sketch writing, and adulthood, I found my real voice. I became a writer. And the more I discovered that I actually had something to say, the more I got comfortable saying it, the less I hated or feared my physical voice. I’m not saying I’ll be voluntarily singing in front of people anytime soon, but I have gotten quite comfortable making noise.

Last year, at Sci-Fest Los Angeles, one of the plays depicted a world where political dissidents were punished by having their vocal chords surgically removed. They were then given a choice: life in prison, or total freedom with the promise to never write another word. A lifetime of “yes”, “no”, and “I don’t know”, nothing more. It was the most terrifying play I have ever seen.

A life without a voice box would be inconvenient, sure, but livable. A life without a voice would be a nightmare.

(I’m still pretty happy to have it back, though.)