What Only One Person Ever Has Thought ‘Pi’ Means, And Who That Was


I’ve been reading Carl B Boyer’s The History of Calculus and its Conceptual Development. It’s been slow going, because reading about how calculus’s ideas developed is hard. The ideas underlying it are subtle to start with. And the ideas have to be discussed using vague, unclear definitions. That’s not because dumb people were making arguments. It’s because these were smart people studying ideas at the limits of what we understood. When we got clear definitions we had the fundamentals of calculus understood. (By our modern standards. The future will likely see us as accepting strange ambiguities.) And I still think Boyer whiffs the discussion of Zeno’s Paradoxes in a way that mathematics and science-types usually do. (The trouble isn’t imagining that infinite series can converge. The trouble is that things are either infinitely divisible or they’re not. Either way implies things that seem false.)

Anyway. Boyer got to a part about the early 19th century. This was when mathematicians were discovering infinities and infinitesimals are amazing tools. Also that mathematicians should maybe learn if they follow any rules. Because you can just plug symbols in to formulas and grind out what looks like they might mean and get answers. Sometimes this works great. Grind through the formulas for solving cubic polynomials as though square roots of negative numbers make sense. You get good results. Later, we worked out a coherent scheme of “complex-valued numbers” that justified it all. We can get lucky with infinities and infinitesimals, sometimes.

And this brought Boyer to an argument made by Józef Maria Hoëne-Wronski. He was a Polish mathematician whose fantastic ambition in … everything … didn’t turn out many useful results. Algebra, the Longitude Problem, building a rival to the railroad, even the Kosciuszko Uprising, none quite panned out. (And that’s not quite his name. The ‘n’ in ‘Wronski’ should have an acute mark over it. But WordPress’s HTML engine doesn’t want to imagine such a thing exists. Nor do many typesetters writing calculus or differential equations books, Boyer’s included.)

But anyone who studies differential equations knows his name, for a concept called the Wronskian. It’s a matrix determinant that anyone who studies differential equations hopes they won’t ever have to do after learning it. And, says Boyer, Wronski had this notion for an “absolute meaning of the number π”. (By “absolute” Wronski means one that not drawn from cultural factors like the weird human interset in circle perimeters and diameters. Compare it to the way we speak of “absolute temperature”, where the zero means something not particular to western European weather.)

\pi = \frac{4\infty}{\sqrt{-1}}\left\{ \left(1 + \sqrt{-1}\right)^{\frac{1}{\infty}} -  \left(1 - \sqrt{-1}\right)^{\frac{1}{\infty}} \right\}

Well.

I will admit I’m not fond of “real” alternate definitions of π. They seem to me mostly to signal how clever the definition-originator is. The only one I like at all defines π as the smallest positive root of the simple-harmonic-motion differential equation. (With the right starting conditions and all that.) And I’m not sure that isn’t “circumference over diameter” in a hidden form.

And yes, that definition is a mess of early-19th-century wild, untamed casualness in the use of symbols. But I admire the crazypants beauty of it. If I ever get a couple free hours I should rework it into something grammatical. And then see if, turned into something tolerable, Wronski’s idea is something even true.

Boyer allows that “perhaps” because of the strange notation and “bizarre use of the symbol ∞” Wronski didn’t make much headway on this point. I can’t fault people for looking at that and refusing to go further. But isn’t it enchanting as it is?

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Author: Joseph Nebus

I was born 198 years to the day after Johnny Appleseed. The differences between us do not end there.

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