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Commentary: Pi(e) are round

You remember the ancient math joke, right? The one where a teacher tries to tell a student with an attitude about “pi r squared”? The student comes back with “No, pie are round.”

Not to be outdone by middle schoolers, high level mathematicians have come up with a similar conclusion. This morning’s "Crossword Fiend" (one of my favorite stops on the way to Linkedin, Facebook, and my per-click statistics on Examiner), noted an article in the Scientific American on June 25 that also takes issue with pi as everybody’s BFF.

But not to be outdone by some future unforeseen theory, in Commentary: Circle gets the square, published June 4, 2010, I worked out my own feelings about pi by using it to comment on social psychology.

If you take a compass—not the kind we used to use before everyone got a GPS, but the metal kind that we nerdy types used to while away time with in study hall after finishing the Latin 4 homework—and open it just a tiny bit bigger at the top, you get a much bigger circle when you draw with it.

What’s important is that this is not a case of an unintended consequence. It is predictable every time. Note the following:

This is also true of seemingly small changes in lifestyle, education, decisions, policies, laws or wars that mirror or revise social contracts. The potential for social change happens all at once when there is the slightest degree of change at the hinge...

But social change has many branches. Adjustments in laws and policies, wars and domestic programs cover more ground than we sometimes consider. Changes at the top always do, because the change below—what is encompassed—is always bigger than a simple area, by the factor of pi.

That helps account for the often unexpected muddle among ordinary citizens that seemingly small changes can make, even though it should be obvious in advance that this will happen.

This is not to say that small, good changes can't have big, good consequences, too. Kids can be resilient if they have even one caring person in their lives. Take-home laptops in third-world countries can educate an entire family if just one of its children goes to school. And since this ratio of small change to big change should be obvious, it should make deciding to offer it the clear choice.

At the end of the day, the quarrel is not with the constancy of the value of pi, says the perhaps inauspiciously named The Tau Manifesto. But, mathematicians now say, there is a simpler, better factor dubbed “tau,” because tau is a factor of the entire circle while pi refers to only one-half of it (because it is most often about the radius, not about the diameter).

The Scientific American article notes that the University of Oxford devoted a conference to it: “Tau versus Pi: Fixing a 250-Year-Old Mistake.” Wow. That could have been the title of my commentary instead of “Circle gets the square.” I was also thinking of “The Tao of Pi” as a title, but I wasn’t sure anyone would get that. Maybe they would have after all.

Linda Chalmer Zemel teaches in the Communication Department at SUNY Buffalo State College. She also writes the Buffalo Books column. She is the publisher and editor of Person, Place, Thing, a literary journal.