Irrational Pastime

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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!

List-Less

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There are a plethora of reasons why I love Louis C.K. He is smart and funny, a good dad, and definitely satisfies my addiction to redheads. But his biggest “pro” is that his television show is beautiful and brilliant.

To avoid getting “spoil-y”, I won’t go into detail about the episode I watched last night. Suffice it to say it involved “Louie” having and RDT (relationship defining talk) with his Eggplant of the moment. Upset because any and all sincerity is met with defensive humor, he wants her to express an honest emotion for once. She says, “I can’t do that. Can’t it be okay that there are just some things I can’t do?” And then the scene ends.

Leaving the question unanswered is beautiful because… well, because that is a big question for any potential couple, isn’t it? How each of us would choose to answer it says a lot about what we value in relationships, and ending the scene there lets each viewer answer it for herself. Louis C.K. accomplished a Sopranos-finale-type litmus test, except without being a dick to his fans.

I would have to answer that question with a sad, “no”, or at least a “probably not”, and it is all because of what my girlfriend and I defined several years ago as “The Three F’s” of a good relationship.

At the time, she was dating a guy we both adored (though not in a romantic way for me; that would have been messed up). On paper they were perfect for each other. He had everything she was looking for in a guy: he was tall, he was handsome, he was funny; he had a budding career and did well at parties; he had a good car, good friends, and made good money. Everything on her list was checked off. And yet…she was unhappy.

The thing is, in addition to having everything on her list, this guy also had an inclination to “keep it light”, meaning when shit went down, he went away. Career trouble, sick parents, his own family drama – no matter the issue, his answer was to close his eyes and plug his ears until it was over. Still, she stayed with him, because…the list.

“Forget the list,” I told her. Lists are for grocery shopping and little kids at Christmas. There is no relationship Santa, despite what Christian Mingle and the creepy eHarmony guy would have us believe. People need to lose their lists.

She countered that it is probably not a good idea to have no criteria for a mate; at the very least “no scrubs” should be a goal. So we compromised with a new list: one with the only three things that matter (and we added alliteration, because alliteration makes everything better).

Here are The Three F’s: Feed me, Fuck me, Fascinate me. If a partnership has all three, nothing else matters. Without even one of them, it will never work.

Fuck me: duh. This one is pretty self-explanatory. There must be sexual chemistry for a relationship to survive. I have been with a few men who, for various reasons (medication, Catholicism, homosexuality), were not that into being intimate, and it doesn’t take long for the dynamic to get irreparably weird.

Fascinate me: beauty fades, bodies sag, and even with sexual chemistry two people will eventually need to find each other interesting. Pretty but dumb is great in the short term, but for the long haul there needs to be a mind at work. If you don’t make me think, or laugh, or see things differently, I have no use for you. If you don’t find me interesting, ditto.

Feed me: aye, there’s the rub. For me, this has been the hardest criterion to satisfy, and to my detriment the one I have been most willing to overlook. In the literal sense, yes, it can mean “have a job” (or at least be able to feed yourself), but here it means feed each other emotionally. Be able to have a conversation about feelings, no matter how awkward. Be able to care about my life and my day. Be able to be there for me, even when I’m too stupid to know I need you (especially when I’m too stupid to know I need you).

My friend’s boyfriend was incapable of feeding her, and that is why no amount of height, handsome, or humor could make her happy. I have suffered from an unfortunate fondness for artists, narcissists, and depressives – which are three different ways of saying “emotional cripples”. And as much as I want “Louie” to be happy, I want him to say, “No, it’s not okay” to his Eggplant, because two out of three isn’t enough.

Look at it this way: the Suitable For Work version of The Three F’s is the mnemonic PIE (physical, intellectual, emotional). Without the Emotional support, all you have is PI. Any good math teacher will tell you that pi is irrational.