Postmodern people love numbers. We trust them. Unlike words, the numbers are not slippery or difficult, or so we like to believe. The data will save us!
But on Pi Day – March 14 or 3.14 in the United States – we celebrate an irrational number, an infinite number that has long confused humanity’s greatest minds and will probably always do so. A transcendental whole so extraordinary as to make mathematicians mystical.
Meditate more and put all the other numbers in perspective, especially in this moment of frantic pandemic monitoring, to read metrics like tea leaves. It offers comfort and philosophical lessons.
Numerically, pi is 3.14159265358979323846, plus some. This represents the relationship between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. For whatever circle, the distance around the edge is slightly greater than three times the distance across. It is constant.
However the decimal expansion has no end. Pi continues indefinitely. So far, the count is in the trillion digits.
In addition, the sequence as it unfolds never repeats. This endless variety cannot be divided by a rational number. This is what mathematically makes it “transcendental”.
David and Gregory Chudnovsky, Russian brothers who developed an algorithm for pi that broke computational records at the end of the 20th century, meditated that his figures contain a hidden rule that could reveal clues about the mind of God, “a subtle and fantastic order. “It seems incomprehensible to man but perhaps it is in the vision of a creator, a perfect expression, precisely because of its complexity.
In Taoist terms, pi is like “the way” that cannot be named or explained. It is paradoxically reliable and unpredictable, everywhere but invisible. The use cannot exhaust it.
Counting of closures, cancellations and infections
Pi is not solved or resolvable. He will not submit to humans or supercomputers. It is an eternally probed mystery with which we must live.
Because you can never make sense of the more – the less you contemplate it – the infinite number illuminates existence and the universe. His philosophical offerings are all the more touching now, as the world struggles to contain the spread of the coronavirus without any idea of what the possible relapse could be.
Pi represents the unknowable, which is something we continually live with but which we desperately try to ignore or control by planning, creating graphics, ensuring, covering and guessing. However, we cannot anticipate any development, not even the super consequential ones, as the rapid global spread of a new disease indicates.
So far it has been an alarming week in an alarming year. 2020! A figure so easily divisible by such a turbulent time.
The unimaginable continues to happen.
The death toll from the virus is on the rise. Italy is basically closed to trade (but not to newsstands). Flights from most of Europe to the United States are suspended. Markets are plummeting from New York to Nigeria and from Mumbai to Madrid. A global recession is looming. Workers from all over the world are sent home, many to work alongside children who don’t go to school. Entertainment, sport and culture are largely erased and the wisdom of institutions that continue as usual is highly questionable. In the meantime, world leaders are struggling: there is no global approach, only a slow awakening, position by position, to the severity of the pandemic.
In short, there are a lot of things to understand, a lot of data to sift through and little apparent consolation at the moment. In fact, looking for the company of others is discouraged, so here we are all in some form of quarantine, however hard, waiting for the worst, which is said to be yet to come.
But don’t despair!
The Chudnovsky brothers – who by the way worked in a cramped Manhattan apartment that also served as a residence, practically as in quarantine – never thought of solving it anymore. But they studied it for the rules, reading numbers like literature, trying to discern what can be learned. They tried to find the creator’s style, essentially, as if the universe had a writer. They turned the mystery into data, despite the futility of any interpretation that revealed a manufacturer’s secrets and advanced math.
The limits of discovery did not deter them. If anything, this seemed to inspire.
Importantly, the brothers acknowledged that the fog would never rise. Numbers alone will never really tell us the whole truth. You can read the forecasts of the experts on incoming deaths, but the figures extracted from the context are only figures that distract and every educated hypothesis is necessarily incomplete.
Not as simple as a cake
Life is mysterious and complex. We all already know and we take care of this. Pi is a prism, a lens that magnifies an aspect of existence that we assiduously avoid but that in reality we are perfectly able to manage.
The irrational number makes it easy to see that we are perpetually rationalizing our way through chaos. If the greatest thinkers of the ages have spent years on this figure throughout history and have never been able to explain infinite variation, infinite calculation – and never expect to – why would anyone imagine they could understand, much less anticipate , what the universe will spit after?
It seems stressful but it is also the saving grace of life. Not knowing is all glory. Anything can happen, but one thing is certain. Things will change.
The infinite calculation will continue to unfold unconsciously and sometimes in our favor. Occasionally, we – you or I individually or collectively humanity – take a break and rarely see it coming. Just like we didn’t foresee unimaginable disasters.
The mystery that is unfolding will bring all things, including the positive aspects to the coronavirus. Seriously.
A predictor of design trends already predicts that the pandemic could provide a global correction of the environmental pathway that could help save the planet. The shame of last year’s flight has now just passed because everyone is too busy canceling travel plans and figuring out if their reservations were insured. We won’t go anywhere for a while and maybe it’s okay. Who knows what delights could still manifest in the four corners of our rooms, transformed into offices, gyms and schools?
Potential silver lining aside, always not knowing totally what is next makes existence exquisite. We are all gamblers, no matter how confident we can play, every moment of life throws the dice on survival, persecuted, knowingly or not, by the awareness that – unlike most – we are limited.