Reflections on the Symbolism of Pi Day; or, A Various History of π and Pie

If I had really gotten it together, I would have posted this earlier, when it was actually Pi Day. But sometimes my thinking lags, and the results don’t get written down until later. In any case…

I love the symbolism of Pi Day. I love it as an example of how we can take something that is so utterly rational and mathematical — the ratio between the circumference and diameter of a circle — and turn it into something so whimsical, interpretive, and symbolic. I love how we can take something so basic as a number and use it as an occasion to post pictures of a baked good on social media. Pi Day can be an educational event, a way of helping us all appreciate the importance of mathematics; but it is also an affirmation of human beings’ ability to make meaning out of something that seems to be dry, abstract fact. And it is a glorious instance of the joy of puns.

I think it’s worth stepping back for a moment to observe carefully all the different layers of meaning that have gone into the symbolism of Pi Day.

  • First, we have the fact that many ancient cultures discovered a constant value for the ratio between the circumference and diameter of circles.
  • From that ratio is derived a number, often rounded to 3.14 in decimal representation even though the actual number continues beyond these first three digits in a non-repeating, non-terminating series.
  • Then we have the custom, apparently adopted by European mathematicians during the eighteenth century, of using the Greek letter π as a symbol of this number. It may seem odd to use a letter from the Greek alphabet to represent a number, but in fact, the Greeks did this too; they actually used the letter π to represent the number 80, although they usually wrote it as π’ to distinguish it from the more common use of π as representing a “p” sound.
  • Next, we have the custom of attributing symbolic significance to marking the fourteenth day of the third month of the year (according to the modern western calendar system, at least). In the American system of writing dates, where the month precedes the day, we therefore have 3/14. Strictly speaking, it has no mathematically significant relationship to the number π at all, but so what? The fact that the same pattern of digits or numbers can be applied both to a mathematical constant and to a given date on a calendar is completely random, but its randomness need not impair its significance. We can make meaning even where none existed before.
  • In turn, we have the quirk whereby the letter π is pronounced in modern English in the same way that we also pronounce the word “pie.” In modern Greek, the letter iota, or ι, which is the equivalent of our Roman-derived “i,” is pronounced as “ee,” and this is probably how the ancient Greeks pronounced it as well. But many dialects of English pronounce the letter “i” as “aye” or ai. So π becomes “pie,” or  /paɪ/ in the International Phonetic Alphabet.
  • Finally, and perhaps inevitably, a connection is made between the English pronunciation of pi and the baked dish known as “pie,” so that people bake pies for Pi Day and post pictures of them on the internet.

Now, I know some readers may be thinking, “well, duh, all of this is obvious. Why did you need to explain all of these steps?” But to me, it’s not obvious. Sure, anyone who sits down to think through all of the steps behind Pi Day can probably figure out the points I’ve listed above. It may also be that someone other than me can present a more detailed history of how some of these steps happened. (Take these two Slate articles by Joseph Mazur, for instance.) But what fascinates me is how we can make leaps of meaning between such incredibly divergent systems of signification — from a numerical ratio in geometry, to a letter in an alphabet, to a date on a calendar, to a conventionalized phonetic pronunciation, to a silly pun, to a familiar element of American (and European) culinary culture. I love how this entire process starts with something so logical and mathematical and then ends up being a series of almost-absurd connections of meaning that have no overall pattern or systematic coherence. The symbolism of Pi Day is a perfect example of a kind of phenomenon that I enjoy exploring on this blog — how, when you examine the history of something, you can find that its meaning sometimes emerges or evolves in varied and unpredictable ways.

In modern scientific society, we tend to pride ourselves on rationalism. We often look down on numerology and other forms of number-symbolism; we think that numbers are just numbers, that there’s no real significance to them other than mere quantity, and we often assume that people who believe in number-symbolism — fearing the number thirteen, for example — are superstitiously looking for meaning or significance where none exists. But why should we let our rationalism get in the way of appreciating the whimsical symbolism of Pi Day? (It’s worth noting, by the way, that π is an “irrational” number by mathematical standards. The mathematical meaning of the word “irrational” differs from its more common meaning, of course; but I think that’s all the more reason to consider it a great pun.) Even the blogger Vi Hart, who has argued that π isn’t as mathematically special as some believe, still has one of her satirical anti-Pi-Day videos feature the making of pies. Every year, when Pi Day comes along, we highlight the most famous irrational number in mathematics; but for me, it’s an opportunity to celebrate the not-always-rational process of how human beings make unexpectedly meaningful connections between vastly different domains of experience.

Pi_pie2

Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acousticS, from EnGLish Wikipedia
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Stock Screams, Stock Images, and Other Artistic Conventions

Several days ago, I happened to catch a few moments from the 1950’s science fiction film Them! on television. In one scene, a man and several children are trapped in an underground space, and are being threatened by gigantic, monstrous ants. The man helps the children to safety, but then one of the mutant ants comes up behind him and traps him in its jaws, causing him to scream. Almost as soon as I heard this scream, I thought to myself, “have I heard that somewhere before?” I remembered seeing internet articles within the past few years about something called “The Wilhelm Scream,” a famous movie sound effect. I had a hunch that maybe this man’s scream from a scene in Them! was an instance of this sound effect.

Sure enough, upon researching the Wilhelm Scream on Wikipedia, I found that the sound effect was indeed used in this scene of Them! The Wilhelm Scream is a highly dramatic recording of a man screaming — actually, it probably sounds melodramatic and exaggerated to many modern ears — and it has been used in a number of different movies since the 1950’s. (The first Star Wars movie is one example of a popular modern film that uses it.) Until reading the Wikipedia article on this sound effect, it never really occurred to me that films would use stock sound effects in the same way that visual media sometimes use stock images. But once you think about it, it actually makes sense. Stylized or conventionalized images or sounds can be a convenient shortcut for filmmakers putting together the details of a movie. If a scene in your film requires an agonized male scream, and a pretty dramatic one has already been recorded and is available as a stock sound effect for you to use, why go to the trouble of recording your own when you can just use the stock effect and save money and other resources? Of course, if many films use the same effect, then it becomes very easy to parody it or use it as an inside joke, and it’s not surprising that this ended up happening in the case of the Wilhelm Scream.

But whether it’s used for parody or whether it’s played straight, the Wilhelm Scream fascinates me as an example of a conventionalized technique that is used in an artistic medium that people often associate with individualism, realism, or (supposedly) non-symbolic storytelling. It seems to me that modern audiences typically expect all the voices in a movie to be “realistic” or reflective of individual people (usually the actors who are playing the characters). According to this logic, the sound of a character screaming will be perceived as more “realistic” if you actually go to the trouble of recording the actor screaming in a moment specifically arranged for the film, making the scream sound as individual and as “true to the character” (or at least to the actor) as possible. But the use of the Wilhelm Scream suggests that this assumption does not always hold true. Under certain circumstances, a conventionalized, prerecorded scream can stand in place of an actual “real” scream.

Modern audiences often bristle at the idea that art involves such conventions. We tend to look down on clichés or any other element in a work of art that we’ve seen somewhere before, because our culture has a notion that great art is supposed to be original. The more that we are made aware of conventions at work in a book, or a movie, or a piece of music, the more we tend to judge that piece of art as unrealistic or unoriginal. We also tend to assume that only a very inferior or untalented artist would descend to using stock techniques like a prerecorded sound effect or a piece of stock film footage. The most common way of recognizing conventions is to parody them, a response that usually involves a negative value judgment on both the conventions and the works of art that use them.

And yet, once you start looking for them, conventions and stock techniques are everywhere, and even the most famous artists use them. Michelangelo Buonarroti is often seen as a paragon of artistry in western culture, a prolific genius and embodiment of inspired creativity. According to some observers, part of the secret of his prolific output is that he often re-used many of the same elements of his depictions of the human anatomy in different pieces. Michelangelo’s work on the Sistine Chapel is sometimes seen as a triumph of western art, an extraordinarily elaborate design crowded with tremendous detail and many different human figures. But Ross King argues that “it was precisely because Michelangelo had a most retentive memory that he was able to generate, in a short space of time, so many hundreds of postures for the Sistine’s ceiling.” King contends that various details of the ceiling’s painting of the Delphic Sibyl, for example, are based on diverse elements cobbled together from many different depictions of the Virgin Mary that were painted by Michelangelo before he worked on the Sistine Chapel.¹ Understanding that Michelangelo sometimes reused elements from earlier pieces when crafting a new work of art need not lessen his achievement as an artist; on the contrary, it can make it easier to understand and appreciate the sources of his creativity. Sometimes creativity involves reusing or repurposing what is old, rather than simply creating something “original” out of nothing.

Bloggers, too, sometimes make use of conventions or stock techniques. My blog currently uses WordPress’s “Syntax” theme to organize its layout and set its visual style; this theme is relatively new, but my blog is hardly the only one that uses it. And on at least one occasion, WordPress’s “Blogging 101” course that gives new bloggers advice on the craft of blogging has offered pointers on how to use stock images on a blog. (Unfortunately, I can’t find that particular post right now, or I would link to it.) I myself have not yet managed to work specific images onto my blog. I’m not too worried about it, since my blog emphasizes writing and text as the most important elements anyway, but I do plan to incorporate images and visuals in some future posts. Using stock images isn’t something that I really thought about before I started blogging, but I can see how they might be useful, especially if you’re not a professional or highly talented photographer or visual artist. Again, creativity need not be a matter of whipping up something out of nothing; sometimes it’s a matter of making good use of materials you’ve already been given.

So, there are definitely reasons to use conventions and stock techniques from the point of view of someone creating a film, or a blog, or a painting. But to me, the use of these elements also reflects the social and symbolic aspects of art. Our culture tends to have a view of art as the creation of lone geniuses who toil in isolation to produce works of towering originality. Maybe there is some truth to this picture; many people who do creative work need some time alone in order to concentrate on their craft. But artists also borrow a great deal from the societies in which they live, and so they necessarily draw on conventions that are shared with other people. And when many different works of art incorporate the same conventions, they create a shared symbolism, a pattern of meaning that recurs throughout a wide variety of works by different authors or artists. If we always insist on realism and individualized authenticity, then we might get to the point where we are able to appreciate a conventionalized technique like the Wilhelm Scream only when we’re making fun of it. To me, that’s unfortunate, because shared symbolism and shared conventions help to remind us of our common humanity and the social bonds that draw us together. I would even argue that realism and individualism are themselves a kind of conventional thinking, one that resists acknowledging its own conventionality; but that’s a subject for another post. In the end, I think that modern technology helps feed our desire for realism and individualism, but it can also give us tools to make it easier for a wide audience of people to discover conventions and other recurring patterns in art, as sites like Wikipedia and TV Tropes demonstrate. With these kinds of tools, we can remind ourselves of how artists create, and why we appreciate what they make.

1. Ross King, Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling (New York: Walker & Company, 2003): 171.