From engineering to neuroscience and everything in between, pi – the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, or 3.14159 – serves as the building block for theories across every field of math and science.
So it seems only natural that on March 14, 2015 (3/14/15), we celebrate the power of pi. We spoke to several scientists and mathematicians who explained how pi is essential for solving some of the world’s biggest questions and problems.
Chandra Bajaj, a professor in the Department of Computer Science and also a member of the Institute for Computational Engineering and Sciences at the University of Texas at Austin, says pi is an necessary tool he uses everyday in her work.
“I use computer simulations to predict how well a drug might bind to a new drug target, such as finding a cure for HIV, for example,”Bajaj says. “And it’s a bit like solving a little jigsaw puzzle, this being in three dimensions. And so it’s like rotating one piece of the puzzle relative to the other. And in making sure that we rotate all the pieces … in all the right ways, we have to use pi.”
Neuroscientist Laura Colgin studies in in the Department of Neuroscience and in the Center for Learning and Memory. Colgin uses pi to study brain rhythms. “Brain rhythms are important for coordinating the activity of distributed brain cells during cognitive operations like learning and memory,” she says. “And brain rhythms are disrupted in many disease including schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s disease. So studying brain rhythms can help us to understand the cognitive deficits underlying these disorders. Brain rhythms are waves and waves can be characterized using equations involving pi. So pi plays an important role in understanding brain rhythms and therefore in understanding many brain disorders.”
Pi’s power is being used to answer other inquiries that are literally out of this world. Astronomer Bill Cochran from the McDonald Observatory of the the University of Texas at Austin is using pi to solve some Earth’s oldest questions.
“We’re trying to find planets which potentially could have life on them,” Cochran says. “In order to do this, we use a lot of geometry and the equations all involve the mathematical constant pi. So, ultimately, pi could help answer one of the most profound questions of all, which is, Are we alone in the universe?”
These interviews were produced with help from Marc Airhart, Abigail Arroyos, Reeve Hamilton and Joy Diaz.