When I first heard the US House of Representatives passed HRES 224 in support of National Pi Day (March 14th), I became very excited. Visions of apple, cherry, Dutch chocolate and banana cream pies danced in my head. Then Ray Caswell explained, “The number pi is a mathematical constant, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, commonly approximated as 3.14159.” I was so disappointed, but also intrigued.
In fact, there are two national holidays for the number pi. March 14th – which represents the first three digits of pi: 3.14, and July 22nd which is national Pi Approximation Day, (22/7 is commonly used to approximate pi.) But why is there a national holiday for a number in the first place?
Pi is a crucial constant in so many formulae in trigonometry and geometry. For example, imagine you are trying to make a table cloth for your new round kitchen table. You will need to use pi (3.14159 …) to compute the area to cover your table (πr2) and you’ll need to use pi to figure out how big around your new kitchen table is (circumference = π × diameter = 2 × π × radius). Mathematicians also point out pi is both irrational (it’s decimal representation never ends and never settles into a permanent repeating pattern) and transcendental (“a number that is not the root of any non-zero polynomial having rational coefficients” – ask Ray).
Over the centuries, mathematicians have competed to solve pi. (You can try it yourself by dividing a circle’s circumference by its diameter. The result will be 3.141592653589793 and on and on and on.) In 2015, using a super computer, scientists solved pi to over 13.3 trillion (1013) decimal places! And that brings up the sad case of amateur British mathematician, William Shanks (1812 – 1882).
In the days before computers, William Shanks spent 27 years calculating the value of pi, by hand, to 707 decimal places. Each new calculation was based on the results of his previous calculation. At long last, Shanks published his results in 1873. However, in 1944, D.F. Ferguson, using a mechanical desk calculator, checked Shank’s math and made a horrific discovery. Unfortunately, Shanks had made a mistake in his math at the 528th decimal place and spent the last years of his life calculating the next 179 decimal places in vain.
Poor Mr. Shanks’ mistake has caused me to wonder about spiritual matters. It is essential we keep an open mind in our interpretations and sometimes examine our assumptions. Could it be we made a mistake somewhere in the past that has dangerous consequences for our interpretations in the present? A fundamental principle of the Restoration Movement is: each generation has the responsibility to examine the Bible’s teachings for itself.
I remember a speaker from my youth who pointed out how a movement can only last for five generations. He held up his hand with fingers spread as he ticked off each generation. The first one “discovers” a basic truth. The children, the second generation, are nearly equally excited about the principles their parents unearthed, but by the time we get to the third generation, tradition begins to take over. We begin doing things because we have always done them that way. By the time we reach the fifth generation the discoveries have grown cold and it is time to resume the quest again.
Jesus warned the church in Ephesus: “I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first,” (Revelation 2:4, 5).