March 14, 2017
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The mathematical constant π (≈ 3.1415…) is defined as the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. In mathematical terms, this becomes C = 2πr, where C is the circumference and r is the radius of the circle (the diameter is twice the radius). Most people are probably aware of this basic relationship for a circle from school math. Fewer people, however, might be aware that the mathematical constant π shows up in a large range of different areas of science and places out in nature, from the brightness of supernovas and music to electrical engineering and rainbows. It even occurs in probability problems involving needle dropping and statistical distributions. For the naive observer, these seem to have very little to do with circles.
Many proponents of new age woo think this means that there is something deeply mysterious and supernatural going on that signals the mystical nature of reality. They shiver at the thought of these occurrences of π being well-understood from a scientific and mathematical standpoint. This mirrors the complains made by the poet Keats against Newton when the latter explained how the rainbow worked (an honor that actually goes to Theodoric of Freiberg).
Keats thought Newton robbed people of the awe and wonder of nature. In reality, science is the poetry of reality, and knowing the scientific facts about how rainbows work adds to the awe and wonder of nature. It does not, and cannot, subtract.
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