Math Reads to Chew On This Pi Day

When I’m not at WPL, I’m usually thinking about math. Between my second job teaching it, a partner doing their Ph.D. in it, and good old-fashioned interest, it’s one of my great loves. In fact, the only thing that could feasibly rival my enjoyment of math is my absolute delight in puns. Needless to say, I like Pi day. A lot.

Everyone’s favorite math-based holiday is set today because writing the date in Amercian MM/DD format (03/14) gives us the first three digits of the mathematical constant π, pronounced like “pie.” You may well have seen π before in geometry, especially anything to do with circles.

Take the radius (inside-to-edge measurement) of any circle and double it before multiplying by π to find the circumference (length of the outside). Square that radius, multiply again by π and you’ve got the area! Pi emerges almost naturally from examining shapes, but it has depths. For anyone encountering it these days in about grade 7, it’ll be one of your first brushes with irrational numbers. These are decimals that go on forever, with repeating or ending. Alternatively, you can define them as any decimal number which cannot be written as a fraction of integers. Like any really good piece of math education, π elegantly leads us from the tangible to the abstract. Many a good book about math take us on similar arcs. In honor of 3/14(159265359), here are some recommendations from our catalogue discussing all our favorite numerical things.

Gödel, Escher, Bach : An Eternal Golden Braid by Douglas R. Hofstadter

Hofstadter is a physicist turned philosopher, and his 1979 Pulitzer Prize-winning treatise on everything from musical canons to artificial intelligence demonstrates his command over both fields. It’s difficult to describe this book because of its remarkable breadth, and the depth makes it worth expanding upon. Gödel, Escher, Bach can be taken to be about the relationships between mathematics, logic, art, and music. In particular, it does this by focusing on commonalities in the works of academic Kurt Gödel, abstract artist M. C. Escher, and Baroque composer Johann Sebastian Bach. This is a valid and fulfilling theme to extract, like π the book alludes to more complexity. Hofstadter has described the book in a 1995 interview as being “about how thinking emerges from well-hidden mechanisms, way down, that we hardly understand. How not just thinking, but our sense of self and our awareness of consciousness, sets us apart from other complicated things. How understanding self-reference could help explain consciousness so that someday we might recognize it inside very complicated structures such as computing machinery. I was trying to understand what makes for a self, and what makes for a soul. What makes consciousness come out of mere electrons coursing through wires.”  With the abrupt rise in conversations surrounding AI, this seminal work on consciousness feels as relevant as ever. 

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension by Matt Parker

Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension is some good old mathematics fun. Where GEB turns philosophical, this is a light treatise on interesting applications. Parker’s favorite puzzles include more equitable ways to split a pizza and optimal dating algorithms. Personally, I loved the section about actual numbers – the first chapter is all about patterns of digits and adding and you could even try doing it all in your head!  It’s less esoteric, but that’s important. Math isn’t very fun for a lot of people, for many of my students it’s a source of great anxiety and fear. Parker’s earnestness, his genuine love for the subject at hand can really bridge the gap and start someone down the road to loving math. The very structure of the book lends itself to a gentle and slow-paced adventure, each chapter can be read episodically in any order. If something doesn’t make sense or doesn’t resonate with you, Parker gives readers full permission to skip and jump and solve at one’s own pace. Things To Make and Do In the Fourth Dimension reads like the sort of loving general interest book written about history or science, but for my beloved mathematics.

The Physics of Filter Coffee by Jonathan Gagné  

This is about the midpoint of the other two books listed here! An astrophysicist turns to coffee making, and studies every little hack and tip concerning the process. Why does wetting the filter of pour-over coffee help the taste? What, physically, goes on between the flowing hot water and toasted grounds? Jonathan Gagné does an excellent job of balancing a technical book without getting too abstract. It’s actually quite a good introduction to the format of formal science writing, with its indexed and described figures. But everything you see, everything being described, takes place as you make a cup of filter coffee. 

I actually knew about this book before it was a formal part of the library catalogue! When I was being taught about how our Collections department builds the library, this was the example of a good community-requested book. A patron made a really thoughtful and exciting suggestion, and we got to bring in a fairly niche title many of us would have never heard of otherwise. There’s a kind of magic to specialized knowledge and being able to celebrate it, and that’s really what (to me!) Pi day is all about.