Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Understanding Pi

We all take Pi for granted. It’s loaded into our computers and calculators for us, and we use it in equations all the time without ever thinking of it beyond it formulaic utility. Some years ago, while working as an estimator of utilities, I found it necessary; or maybe desirable; to understand the exact meaning of Pi and how it worked in relation to the circle.

Having failed at the subject all through high school, and even before that, I had this “fear” of math brought on by my parent’s assertions that I was not able to understand the subject. I was, like my mother; and remember, it was my mother who said it; used to tell me, “You take after me and I could never understand math. But you can read well, and your brother can’t.” What a stupid statement to make to any child, even your own! Water under the bridge. Having navigated around the world, by sextant, in the days before Nav Sats etc., I can truly say that I am perfectly capable of working out any mathematical problem thrown my way. The failure was in the teaching method.

Had they wanted to really engage my passion all they would have had to do was make the problems relevant to real life. Like, you are on a ship and headed in this direction for 8 days at so many mils per hour. How far have you gone? That would have got me interested. And by high school, rather than the mundane tasks of geometry and trigonometry, nautical astronomy would have proven more effective at teaching not only both of those subjects, but given the student a true perspective of just where we were on the terrestrial plane, and also how insignificant we actually are; individually, or collectively, in the grand scheme of things.

What is Pi? 3. 14159 is the most common answer. Then browse Wikipedia for what that means. Ask the “math” student in your family. The answers you get will all be concerned with the number rather than what it really means, or stands for. That was the purpose of charting it, as I did above, almost 30 years ago while estimating the volume of pipe necessary to hold a specific amount of water. I used a 6” pipe for the example, mostly because it was easily equated to decimal form, and I had a boatload of 6” pipe on hand.

But I kept running into Pi while figuring it out, and then rechecking my figures. So, I did what Captain Ellison used to tell us at the Baltimore School of Navigation; “Draw it out!” So, I did. And while putting some of my papers in order the other evening; I am actually doing that; I ran across this and decided to post it for posterity. Forgive the non-pun. Hope someone finds this useful and lets me know! Pi for now!

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