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Friday, April 26, 2013

Is your life encoded in the digits of pi? Probably (but good luck finding it)

Nothing freaks out mathematical cranks - yes, they exist; and have been the subject of some wonderful books - like the infinite. They'll make up every type of pretend math to "prove" that infinity doesn't exist; it's just too counter-intutitive. Even serous mathematicians like George Brouwer find the concept of infinity so mind-boggling that they tried to avoid it entirely; in Brouwer's case, by inventing an entire new branch of math called Intuitionism.

Modern math uses the infinite like a tool - in fact, it has several different sizes of infinity (prove Cantor's Continuum Hypothesis on that topic and you'll be Geek of the Decade). But it's still a mind-boggling topic, and discussing it often dissolves into a philosophical debate that reduces people to shaking their heads and saying, "Wow."

The latest example is a meme around the Internet claiming that the infinite digits of pi code all life experience. (This could be said about any transfinite number, I think; but unless a mathematical statement has "pi" in it, nobody will pay attention.) Slate has an article about the claim today (read it here) which says that it is probably true, although it depends on assumed properties of the distribution of digits in pi that have not been proven.

Regardless, the statement isn't really significant and doesn't somehow endow pi with mystical properties.

It basically means that we could think of a way to code digits into understandable text in such a way that any sentence (probably) exists somewhere in pi's decimal expansion - but so what? That's a sort of "infinite monkeys will type Shakespeare's works" statement whose only truth is that the infinite can't be thought of "a very very large thing" but is an entirely different concept.

Come to think of it, that makes the meme pretty cool if it gets us to ponder the meaning of the infinite in a quantifiable, rather than existential, sense.

The article notes that the wonderful math video-blogger Vi Hart, who is one of the gems of the Internet, made a video about this.