June 4, 2006

I am not a mathematician, but I once wrote a silly song about pi. That, presumably, is the reason why Reddivari Sarva Jagannadha Reddy, an Indian zoology teacher whom I do not know, keeps sending me articles in which he argues that pi equals 3.1464466… rather than the universally accepted value of 3.14159…. His latest mailing arrived this week, and it’s a doozy: a self-published 228-page book, “The Untold Story of the True Value of Pi,” containing over 50 distinct “proofs” supporting the value of 3.1464466….

Part of me admires Reddivari Sarva Jagannadha Reddy for his earnest and enthusiastic pursuit of knowledge, and part of me wants to believe that his work has some merit. But another part of me — the part that isn’t as nice — is inclined to dismiss him as a freak.

So what should we do when encountering someone like Reddivari Sarva Jagannadha Reddy? Options include (A) avoidance, (B) polite acknowledgment, (C) concise unilateral rebuttal, and (D) patient give-and-take. (D) has the advantage of conceding that I might learn something from the man if I give him a chance to explain himself. Still, given his extreme confidence that pi equals 3.1464466…, and my extreme confidence that it equals 3.14159…, what are the odds that either of us could change the other’s mind? Why waste his time and mine on a conversation that seems destined to go on and on without resolution, like the digits of an irrational number? Then again, how can we expect to change anyone else’s mind about anything if we are unwilling to listen to those who disagree with us?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I think the questions are important.

If you’re reading this, Mr. Reddy, I hope you’ll forgive my patronizing tone. I bet you’re dead wrong about pi, but I may learn something from you yet.


  1. Greg,have you and Mr Reddy seen "Pi" the movie? If not http://www.pithemovie.com but i am sure you can find a vhs or dvd somewhere…

  2. I can't speak for Mr. Reddy, but I have seen it. As I recall, it was a very good but very intense look at the sometimes-thin line between genius and insanity.

  3. I saw it a long time ago and within the boundaries of fiction, it seemed to be more about a math GENIUS being driven INSANE by people with strong agendas, and from the pain inside his skull (caused by brain matter pressing on the cranial bone…)I saw it more of a film about pain and relief, correlated to the difficulty of taking responsibility for your actions. In short, the pain and relief of making decisions especially very, very difficult ones.

  4. Your interpretation may well be valid. I think my view of the film is a more conventional one, as exemplified by Roger Ebert's review (see http://www.rogerebert.com if interested), but "more conventional" certainly does not mean "better." The aspect of the film that interested me most was the idea of functional tradeoffs. For example, if one's brain is wired to be exceptionally good at detecting complex, hard-to-spot patterns — a form of genius — that wiring might also lead it to detect patterns where there are none — a form of insanity. I see this as sort of the cognitive equivalent of the fast-twitch/slow-twitch tradeoff: muscles that are built for speed tend to be deficient in endurance, and vice versa. It seems to me that special talents often come at a price.

  5. You have my complete sympathy.

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