from the president
Constant. Infinite. Irrational. Transcendental.
What does this combination of qualities evoke
in your mind? An account of the divine, per-
haps? The story of a perfect love? The mysti-
cal state of undifferentiated oneness with the
If I were to tell you that what I have in
mind is a commonplace relationship we have
all encountered, what would you think? And
what if I were to tell you it’s also a number?
The fact is, this is a column about all of
those things—and about a letter, too—the
number from geometry we have for centuries
expressed by a Greek letter (
and called by
a Latin name:
As we all learned very early
on in school, pi represents the ratio that exists
between the circumference and the diameter
of a circle—a number that is irrational and
infinite because its decimal representation
never ends, incalculable because its sequence
of numbers never repeats a pattern, transcen-
dental because it is not the root of any non-
zero polynomial having rational coefficients.
That last one I had to look up.)
I haven’t mentioned the word “ubiqui-
tous” yet, but
is not only infinite, it’s every-
where—silently inscribed in the dimensions
of any circle or ellipse we encounter. As it
happens, mathematicians have set out across
millennia to deepen our understanding of
Innumerable (ahem) dissertations and books
and articles have been dedicated to the subject.
In 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives
declared March 14 Pi Day, to celebrate its
mysteries and amazing properties. And now
there is an award-winning novel and Academy
Award-winning movie with the title
Life of Pi.
Which is what got me thinking about this
inscrutable calculation. First, I loved the plot
of the book—for all kinds of reasons, but in
part because it is a story about how essential
the act of telling stories is to being human
and I am a literary guy by trade), to being
alive, to finding our place in the world, defin-
ing an identity. The book introduces us to a
novelist who is looking for a good story to tell,
since the novel he had planned to write didn’t
work out. He gets a tip about a man who has a
great story and decides to interview him. The
man’s name is Pi. (You knew that was com-
ing, didn’t you?) This individual from Pondi-
cherry, in India, had been given the name
Piscine, after a particular swimming pool in
Paris (Piscine Molitor), where his father’s
good friend loved to swim. But when young
Piscine’s schoolmates persisted in referring
to him as “Pissing,” he shortened his name to
Pi,” with a long “i,” bringing with it all the
dignity and elevation of the great mathemati-
cal concept.
The name fit Pi for a lot of reasons. Or,
more to the point, Pi came to fit his name.
Early on, it seems, he took a profound interest
in the infinite and transcendental. Living in
a secular Hindu family, he became a devout
Hindu himself, mesmerized by Krishna and
Vishnu and the cycles of the universe. His
encounters with Christianity and Islam,
respectively, affected him just as deeply, and
he became enthralled with their stories of
incarnation and sacrifice, redemption and sal-
vation—managing to somehow hold all these
tales together in a single mythology.
His story is about a shipwreck that left
him drifting for 227 days on a lifeboat in the
Pacific in the company of a fierce Bengal tiger
named Richard Parker (which is a whole other
story). Escaping alone from a storm-tossed
ship that carried a cargo of all the animals
from his father’s zoo, Pi’s account to the nov-
elist evokes the biblical story of a Noah’s Ark
saved by grace and the castaway tale of a Rob-
inson Crusoe enduring by his own inventive-
ness. His account of confronting the vicious
cruelty of the great tiger elicits at once the
tough truths of Darwin’s survival of the fittest
Fox 2000 Pictures