Number Munching


There need to be more math-inspired food holidays, and together you and I can make that happen.

Wasn’t Pi Day fun? Even though this year (3/14/15 at 9:26:53) was the Pi Day of the Century, March 14th is a great excuse to eat pie in any year. But, just as they say that there are 10 types of people in this world: those who understand binary and those who don’t, the world is also divided into those on team pie and team cake.

As much as I love the number pi, I am decidedly a cake girl. It was the source of great friction in a relationship once, even after I baked a Cherpumple to bridge the gap with my pie guy. (A Cherpumple is a cherry pie baked inside a chocolate cake on top of a pumpkin pie baked inside a spice cake on top of an apple pie baked inside a vanilla cake. It is a foot tall, weighs 18lbs and feeds about forty. Epic.)My Cherpumple

So what other math-food holidays can we celebrate, preferably without sparking dessert wars?

We can stick to the irrational number world and celebrate “e Day”. Since e is the natural log, we could eat ants on a log, cheese logs, yule logs (the cake kind) and basically any other roulade. But e is approximated as 2.7, and February 7th has come and gone.

Famous ratios might be the answer, like the Pythagorean Theorem’s “a squared plus b squared equals c squared” relationship between the sides of a right triangle. This gives us the classic 3:4:5 triangle ratio, so we could have eaten triangular foods (pizza, baklava, candy corn) on March 4, 2005 (3/4/5) or June 8th, 2010 (6/8/10). Unfortunately, Pythagorean Theorem days require all three numbers, and even though the next one is September 12th, 2015 (9/12/15), I’M HUNGRY NOW.

Square root dates have the same need for three numbers that makes them rare – such as 2/2/4, 3/3/9, and next 4/4/16 – and besides, do we want an entire meal made up of root vegetables?

There is always the Fibonacci Sequence (my personal favorite), which runs 1,1,2,3,5,8,13… etc., adding the preceding two numbers into infinity. This number is traditionally celebrated on November 23rd (11/23), but could also be feted on 1/1/23 when it comes. Since Fibonacci formulated the sequence after a thought experiment about mating bunnies, we should all make like Elmer Fudd and hunt some wabbit.

Or, since the Fibonacci Sequence also defines the Golden Ratio – another irrational number, roughly 1.618 – we can celebrate the hell out of it on January 6, 2018. The rich can eat foods dusted in gold flakes and gold powder; the rest of us can meet up at McDonald’s.

Still, these dates are years away. I want math-inspired food NOW!

Our answer is the humble mole. Not the blind, hole-digging insectivore, nor the irritating, cancer-threatening skin growth; I mean the massive constant defined by the number of molecules in 12 grams of Carbon-12 – specifically 6.022 times 10 to the 23rd power.

Think about it: a mole is a unit of measurement in chemistry, and mole (“mo-lay”) is a delicious Mexican sauce made with chocolate and spices, so the food tie-in is natural and fantastic. Plus, the number of things in one mole of anything (6.022 x 10^23) is also known as Avogadro’s Constant; ‘Avogadro’ is so close to ‘avocado’ it’s like the food gods are daring us NOT to do this. A mole dish with avocado? Yes, please!

Finally, Amedeo Avogadro (for whom the number is named) was an Italian Count born in 1776 (freedom!) who studied and practiced law (litigiousness!) before inheriting his father’s title and enough money to retire and dick around with science (financial privilege!). What’s more American than that? This should absolutely be a national holiday.

Oh, sure, I know people already celebrate Mole Day on October 23rd at 6:02, but just as some people celebrate Pi Day on July 22nd (because it can also be approximated as 22/7 and Europeans write their dates day/month), we can certainly have two Mole Days. And, yes, it would make more sense to do it on June 2nd instead of June 22nd, but I missed that day, so screw it.

JOIN ME on June 22nd at 10:23 (am or pm is your choice) in eating a delicious Mexican dish of any type so long as it is slathered in mole sauce and accented with avocado.

It will be MOLE-ecular gastronomy at its finest. Bon appetit!


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!