Math wars: Debate sparks anti-pi day

( -- A controversial debate in the math world has led to celebrations today by opponents of the mathematical constant pi.

Tau Day, in honour of the constant some say should replace pi, is being celebrated by those who agree with US mathematicians Bob Palais and Michael Hartl. The two argue that tau, twice as large as pi at approximately 6.28, makes many calculations easier to perform.

In The Tau Manifesto, Hartl says that although pi is well- defined, it's "a confusing and unnatural choice for the circle constant...Pi is half of something. It's the something that is fundamental."

Whereas pi defines a circle as the ratio between circumference and diameter, tau defines a circle in terms of its circumference and radius.

Hartl and Palais note that tau shows up in several major - an observation, they say, that isn't simply a coincidence, but rather justifies adopting a new constant.

Supporters have taken the concept one step further by declaring June 28 Tau Day, meant to rival the more familiar tradition of Pi Day, held on March 14 each year.

Patrick Speissegger, associate professor at McMaster and Canada Research Chair in Model Theory, doesn't buy into the idea.

"It's not a question of right or wrong, but a matter of opinion," says Speissegger. "Philosophically speaking, changing the constant from pi to tau makes no difference."

Except perhaps on the issue of practicality.

Musician interprets the mathematical constant Tau to 126 decimal places.

"It would be difficult for people who are learning math because they'd have to be able to know and use both constants - pi has been used in mathematical literature for the past 2,000 years," he says.

Chris Miller, a professor in the department of mathematics at The Ohio State University who was at McMaster on Tau Day, agrees with Speissegger.

"It depends on which you believe is more important: the circumference of a circle or the area of a circle," says Miller. "I don't see how one is more important than the other, and, in any case, you'd have to convince me that all the trouble is worth it."

Despite differences of opinion, Day is well underway, with some supporters suggesting that Day be renamed "Half-Tau Day."

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Citation: Math wars: Debate sparks anti-pi day (2011, June 29) retrieved 21 September 2019 from
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Jun 29, 2011
The number of mathematicians required to change a light bulb is e(i*pi), i.e. 1.The latest trend shows the number of mathematicians required to change a light bulb is e(i*tau), i.e. 1. Are mathematicians getting weary of complexity, negative symbols etc? Or are they trying to follow the law of parsimony "Occams razor" in real situations? It is quite interesting to note that they want change at the cost of complexity. Recently I saw a notice by Clay Mathematical Institute (CMI) inviting people to use the concept of Evolutionary computation, Soft Computing, Artificial Life to solve the Millennium problems. With the latest trend of mathematicians to think simplistically by introducing tau instead of pi how far will they achieve the objective set by CMI?

Jun 29, 2011
Why cant they coexist?
As Speissegger said, all it changes is the equation, not the result. In some cases pi might be easier and in other tau. Its a matter of human logic.

Why would introducing tau make things complex? I think its a nice tool for learning, now we have PI but i do not think alot of people understand it, when introducing tau they will have to learn the difference and they will understand PI better.

My POV anyway.

Jun 29, 2011
People might say it doesn't matter, but it matters quite a bit, at least in terms of celebration. Pi is a homophone with different types of food stuff, namely pie and pizza pie. People can celebrate Pi day by baking pies with Pi baked into the pastry layer.
Tau on the other hand, does not sound very appetizing. You cant bake a Tau. Pi day is a celebration of mathematics, able to attract people with absolutely no interest in math. Tau day will not attract anyone.

Jun 29, 2011
Multiplying by two is hardly the most demanding mathematical operation. Compare this to the difficulty of updating textbooks, computer systems and people's habits throughout the world.

As well as being hugely expensive, this would cause serious accidents when inevitable mistakes were made in engineering circles (no pun intended) for example.

Jun 29, 2011
People 'might say it doesn't matter', because it doesn't!

Is this a serious suggestion for change? What possible benefit could justify its cost? It is surely a joke.

Jun 29, 2011
Slow news day?

Jun 30, 2011
LOVE the video! Math geeks are awesome.
I'd like to make a pi video like this, play it in a vaudeville style and insert clips of cream pies being thrown at pi-day dissidents. SPLAT!

Jun 30, 2011
This is gonna turn out to be like the is-Sunday-the-first-day-or-is-it-Monday thing. Give it a break!

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