28 Jun '11 22:22

Debra Black

Staff Reporter

Michael Hartl believes the mathematical symbol Pi (or 3.14) is a “confusing and unnatural choice” for characterizing the geometry of a circle.

And he wants the world to embrace the mathematical symbol Tau (6.28) instead.

Hartl, who has a bachelor degree in physics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Caltech, got the idea after reading a two-page argument by Bob Palais of the University of Utah that was published in 2001 in The Mathematical Intelligencer.

He was so fired up he decided to write his own manifesto supporting and expanding Palais’ ideas.

And thus the life of Tau was born, so to speak. And its birthday is today – Tuesday, June 28 (6.28, or 3.14 times two) – the calendar version of its mathematical value. It has its own Facebook page and is accessible on Twitter.

Not to be outdone. And for those who care about such things, Pi also has its own day – celebrated on March 14 (or 3.14).

It was created by Larry Shaw in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium where Shaw worked as a physicist.

In 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution recognizing March 14, 2009 as National Pi Day.

For Hartl and his supporters, though, Tau trumps Pi. And so Tau Day this year will culminate with a lecture/party at California Institute of Technology where a band of fellow Tau enthusiasts will eat (what else) pie with whipped cream and ice cream.

There Hartl will discuss the elegance of Tau. He and his supporters will be wearing Tau Day t-shirts, described as a way to tell the world that Pi is a lie.

For the non-mathematical among us, here’s a quick explanation of the debate, according to Hartl.

Pi traditionally is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Tau is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius. For Hartl and others, this is crystal clear. For many of the rest of us, not so much.

So here’s the nugget of the issue: “The problem is, a circle is more naturally characterized by its radius,” Hartl explained in a phone interview with the Star. That makes Tau a more natural tool to characterize a circle.

“The diameter (of a circle) is equal to twice the radius by definition. So what Pi really is is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to twice its radius.”

And that’s where all mathematical hell breaks loose, according to Hartl. That factor of two makes Pi confusing, Hartl argues.

Simply put: “Pi is not beautiful. It’s not elegant, and it’s confusing.

Tau on the other hand, says Hartl, is much better at characterizing the geometry of a circle because it is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius.

Hartl, a 37-year-old California physicist and entrepreneur who makes videos and writes books for Web development, believes strongly in his cause and has the academic cred to back up his remarks.

“There’s no question in my mind from the aesthetic point of view Pi is ugly and confusing. The real problem is Pi is an ambassador for people outside mathematics. If they know anything, they know about Pi.

“But if you’re going to elevate a number to that status, you should be really sure it’s up to the task. The problem is it doesn’t respond to scrutiny.”

Staff Reporter

Michael Hartl believes the mathematical symbol Pi (or 3.14) is a “confusing and unnatural choice” for characterizing the geometry of a circle.

And he wants the world to embrace the mathematical symbol Tau (6.28) instead.

Hartl, who has a bachelor degree in physics from Harvard University and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Caltech, got the idea after reading a two-page argument by Bob Palais of the University of Utah that was published in 2001 in The Mathematical Intelligencer.

He was so fired up he decided to write his own manifesto supporting and expanding Palais’ ideas.

And thus the life of Tau was born, so to speak. And its birthday is today – Tuesday, June 28 (6.28, or 3.14 times two) – the calendar version of its mathematical value. It has its own Facebook page and is accessible on Twitter.

Not to be outdone. And for those who care about such things, Pi also has its own day – celebrated on March 14 (or 3.14).

It was created by Larry Shaw in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium where Shaw worked as a physicist.

In 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution recognizing March 14, 2009 as National Pi Day.

For Hartl and his supporters, though, Tau trumps Pi. And so Tau Day this year will culminate with a lecture/party at California Institute of Technology where a band of fellow Tau enthusiasts will eat (what else) pie with whipped cream and ice cream.

There Hartl will discuss the elegance of Tau. He and his supporters will be wearing Tau Day t-shirts, described as a way to tell the world that Pi is a lie.

For the non-mathematical among us, here’s a quick explanation of the debate, according to Hartl.

Pi traditionally is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Tau is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius. For Hartl and others, this is crystal clear. For many of the rest of us, not so much.

So here’s the nugget of the issue: “The problem is, a circle is more naturally characterized by its radius,” Hartl explained in a phone interview with the Star. That makes Tau a more natural tool to characterize a circle.

“The diameter (of a circle) is equal to twice the radius by definition. So what Pi really is is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to twice its radius.”

And that’s where all mathematical hell breaks loose, according to Hartl. That factor of two makes Pi confusing, Hartl argues.

Simply put: “Pi is not beautiful. It’s not elegant, and it’s confusing.

Tau on the other hand, says Hartl, is much better at characterizing the geometry of a circle because it is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its radius.

Hartl, a 37-year-old California physicist and entrepreneur who makes videos and writes books for Web development, believes strongly in his cause and has the academic cred to back up his remarks.

“There’s no question in my mind from the aesthetic point of view Pi is ugly and confusing. The real problem is Pi is an ambassador for people outside mathematics. If they know anything, they know about Pi.

“But if you’re going to elevate a number to that status, you should be really sure it’s up to the task. The problem is it doesn’t respond to scrutiny.”