# “Humble Pi” When Math Goes Wrong

My whole life has been centered around mathematics. It was not until much later when I was told I may, might, could have a talent for writing. It did not dawn on me then as my life’s course or desire was to be an engineer of some type. It never happened because of a little downturn in demand for engineers in the seventies. VP of Patents and Trademarks at USG convinced me then to get some type of degree in Business. I had two years of Calculus to back me up in pursuing such(?). Back to the topic . . .

In all boys high school in Chicago, each year the math department would have a contest. Each contestant would memorize as many places of Pi they could. My friend “Danny,” a brainiac of sorts could recite an ~120 places of it. I was happy with five places as it was all I needed to solve engineering mathematical problems on paper and using a calculator a quarter the size of a shoe box. Finally, the topic . . .

Blogger, “The one-handed economist,” David Zetland has a unique review of a book which conjured up my memories of pursuing a capability in mathematics for engineering which eventually fell by the wayside.

### “Humble Pi” by Matt Parker

I got this book after hearing the author (Matt Parker) a few times on various podcasts. Its perspective is captured in the subtitle: “when math goes wrong in the real world.”

The book is a page turner, moving crisply (and humorously*) from one disaster to another.

In most cases, problems arise from conversion errors (metric to imperial), mistakes in formulas (dividing by zero), disagreements on starting points (you’re “zero years old” until you’ve been alive 365 days?), misusing software (Excel is nota. database!), or things going on for longer than expected (the clock runs off a cliff). The resulting problems are sometimes funny but sometimes deadly.

Why?

This is a common theme in human progress. We make things beyond what we understand, as we always have done. Steam engines worked before we had a theory of thermodynamics; vaccines were developed before we knew how the immune system works; aircraft continue to fly to this day, despite the many gaps in our understanding of aerodynamics. When theory lags behind application, there will always be mathematical surprises lying in wait. The important thing is that we learn from these inevitable mistakes and don’t repeat them.

And then we can turn from making mistakes and learning from them to the situations where marketers are deceptive (“McDonalds: We have 6,000 meal combos!), where the “average person” doesn’t actually exist (just like the average height of a point between Mt Everest and sea level is not 4424m high), where what we see now is not what was once there (survivor bias), or where scammers or attention seekers claim big significance in spurious correlations. For example:

**David Zetland:** “If you love numbers and hate the people that abuse them, then read this book. ‘**FIVE STARS.**‘”

*This was in the end notes: “Charlie Turner fact-checked the crap out of the book and all remaining errors are hilarious jokes I’ve demanded be left in.”

“a little downturn in demand for engineers in the seventies”

Little? You mean when the Deutsch, Shea & Evans Technical Demand Index hit its all-time low?

I hit the job market in late 1971 with a MS Engineering and lots of programming expertise from my co-op jobs. It was very difficult finding a job.

Dave:

That was supposed to be the forever downturn. I do not remember how long it lasted. I remember switching horses at the time and about two years into it. Given advice at the time, I veered more towards business/economics. Disappointing then as it did come back.

The end of the Vietnam War was a disaster for Aerospace & Defense contractors, and engineers (mostly direct bodies) were let go as their projects disappeared. I started programming in 1970 for a defense contractor, and for the first two or three years almost everywhere I went I would run into a former engineer who had worked at my employer. Our facility had two office buildings in addition to the production areas. One was the “Engineering Building”, which was bigger than the admin building next to it. At one point it had been full of working engineers, but when I was there it only 1 third of the desks were occupied.

We were lucky to have some commercial contracts as well as defense ones. Otherwise the entire engineering staff would have been out of work.

I remember being told as a freshman engineering student in 1973 that an engineering degree was a meal ticket. I didn’t test that hypothesis, as I bailed on engineering the next year. But my younger sister and brother who both got engineering degrees in 1979 and 1980 both struggled to find jobs. They both were successful, but they weren’t exactly wined and dined. I traded classical engineering for genetic engineering and had no problem finding a job after getting my PhD.

Fun fact: Pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, is NOT a rational number. It seems to me that it’s the essence of one, but not so.