Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Math & Science: Π

Kate Bush: Π

As I wracked my brain for another topical track to write about, I discarded a few ideas, mostly because I didn’t have anything personal to write about. I looked at lists of songs, but none called out to me. So I decided to find a song that had an interesting story, and I remembered that Kate Bush had written a song called “Π.” This being a Math & Science theme, I decided to do a little research on the song, to see whether there was anything there.

I remember when the song came out, hearing that it consisted of Bush singing π to some large number of digits. But that’s not all it is. It is actually a song about a mathematician who is obsessed with the number, somewhat irrationally (sorry), and Bush, a notorious musical eccentric with a remarkable voice, does sing many digits of π in a way that is not at all boring.

But if that was all I found, I’d probably be looking for another, meatier topic. Instead, guess what? A couple of math types posted stuff about the song.

Let’s start with the less strange. Chris McEvoy, a self-described “rabble rousing programmer who hates technology but loves people” pointed out in a blog post on November 11, 2005, that Kate got it wrong. As he wrote:

All was well for the first 53 decimal places but then Kate sang "threeeeee oneeeee" when she should have sang "zeeeeeeerooo" instead. She recovered for the next 24 digits but then it went to hell in a handbasket when she missed out the next 22 digits completely before finishing with a precise rendition of her final 37 digits. (Note—McEvoy later amended his statement, agreeing that she said “zeeeeeeerooo" and not "threeeeee oneeeee").

Which led to a bunch of somewhat hostile comments, because apparently π, and Kate Bush, are not to be trifled with. On the other hand, there’s also a positive comment from someone identifying as “Kate Bush,” but it’s the Internet, so you never know.

On March 14, 2006, McEvoy took to the blogosphere to point out that while that day is considered “Pi Day” in the United States, in countries that use a “Month/Day” system, “Pi Day” should be April 31 (31/4), a date that doesn’t exist, so he suggested May Day as the solution. Also, he cited to a number of British newspapers and radio programmes (as he spells it) that referred to his π digit “Gotcha!” Apparently in England, Kate Bush and π are big deals.

Now, let’s discuss Steve Luttrell, who has a degree in “theoretical physics and [a] PhD . . . in quantum chromodynamics (QCD).” Luttrell was convinced that Bush’s “errors” were actually a deliberate creation of a number puzzle. He put together an entire website devoted to this puzzle, A Great Big Circle, which sadly appears to be gone, but discussed his findings in a series of blog posts, here. In essence, he “solved” the puzzle, to find the exact location of an “artefact built out of stones to resemble a steam locomotive.” And, of course, “The locomotive theme is part of an extended metaphor that runs throughout π, consisting of tunnels, columns, chimneys, mine shafts, and generally anything and everything to do with sex.”

Me, I’m more of a fan of Occam’s Razor, but not in the way that Luttrell interprets it. Although I don't have a PhD in quantum chromodynamics, which according to Wikipedia is is the theory of strong interactions, a fundamental force describing the interactions between quarks and gluons which make up hadrons such as the proton, neutron and pion.  I still don't know what that means, but I did wedge a little more science into this piece.

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