Friday, March 14, 2008

Happy Pi Day!

Since 1988* people have been celebrating the number pi (π) on March 14th, or 3.14. Some celebrants are more precise, and wait for 1:59 PM and 26 seconds to begin their festivities, as pi approximates to 3.1415926.

Of course, any numerical expression of pi is approximate, as pi is an irrational number (it cannot be expressed as a ratio of two integers), and thus it never stops and never repeats itself. Pi is also a transcendental number. As I hope all of you know, pi (pronounced like "pie", hence the visual pun to the upper-right) is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. The history of mathematical progress in finding more precise values for pi is a fascinating one (In the Bible, 1 Kings 7:23-26 gives the value as 3), and pi currently has been calculated to over a trillion places. You can see pi up to a million places here. Pi (π) is a greek letter, an abbreviation for the greek word for perimeter.

Pi has long held a sentimental value for me. When I was in fourth grade, my dad (who is a high school math instructor), offered extra credit to students who could memorize 35 places of pi. He and I decided to have a contest to see who could learn the most places, and I (with my 9 year old plastic mind) was able to memorize 105 to his 65 (I can currently rattle off 120 from memory). This has served no practical purpose in my life, but it has been an excellent conversation starter and ender. The closest it came to being useful was in high school, when my good friend Frank told Brian, his fellow football team member, that I knew 105 places. Brian was skeptical, saying I was probably bluffing and offered a $10 bet to prove it. Frank took the bet, and Brian approached me with a printout from the internet. Frank won the $10. Pi memorization is an age-old nerd exercise, and the Guiness Book of World Records tracks the individuals who have memorized the most. Apparently Daniel Tammet is the current record holder, with 22,514 places.

(More on Pi and Pi Day at Wikipedia, and Science Friday's tribute to Pi Day here.)

*I was not aware until I started writing the post, but Pi Day began in 1988 at the San Francisco Exploratorium! You can see video of their 20th annual celebration here. The Exploratorium was one of my favorite places to go as a kid, with interactive science demonstrations that you weren't just allowed to touch, but encouraged to touch! Highly recommended if you're in the SF area.

Awkward Bible Passages Part VI

"If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, "Let us go and worship other gods" (gods that neither you nor your fathers have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to him or listen to him. Show him no pity. Do not spare him or shield him. You must certainly put him to death. Your hand must be the first in putting him to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone him to death, because he tried to turn you away from the LORD your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. Then all Israel will hear and be afraid, and no one among you will do such an evil thing again."
- Deuteronomy 13:6-10 (NIV)

This one starts out so nicely, evoking images of our closest loved ones. Ah yes, my brother, my son or daughter, the wife I love, my closest friend. But it's all down hill from there. We are instructed by Yahweh that if anyone, no matter how close to us or loved by us, should try to lead us away from him to worship other gods, then it's okay - nay, necessary - to murder her. And not just to hand her over for others to murder - we ourselves must be the first to put her to death (and then everyone else gets to join in).

Once again we see the jealous Yahweh (he freely admits as much - see here, here, here, here and here for a few examples) throwing a hissy fit because his tiny creations might worship some other god. There are quite a few problems with this, but I will mention some of the most salient:

1) Why the insecurity? Why does Yahweh need to be so jealous, anyway? He has lots of followers; is it really such a big deal if a few go astray? I'm not sure if his feelings are just hurt, or he doesn't feel appreciated, or what - but this seems awfully petty (and anthropomorphic) for the supposed creator of the universe. As Roy Zimmerman says in his brilliant song Jerry Falwell's God, "...If people are jealous and judgmental and vengeful and violent, maybe it's because you made them in your image."

2) Where's the free will? I thought the reason God allowed suffering was because he wants us to have free will. But how free can our wills be if we are threatened by force to remain believers? "You have two choices... you can believe in me, or you can DIE AT THE HANDS OF YOUR LOVED ONES!!" That's not really much of a choice. And it's rather immature. It's like telling your children, "You have two options... you can stop arguing, or I'll drive this van off the cliff." The subtext is clear... there's only one option.

3) Why does he remain hidden? If God is so insistent on being believed, then why doesn't he act like he exists? Why make the world seem chaotic and indifferent? Why let good things and bad things happen to good and bad people without any overriding pattern or justice? Why let there be other gods to worship? Why not just show up on a regular basis and confirm your existence? If blind faith is required, and punishment is death, then it just seems like Yahweh's trying to lure people in by entrapment.

4) There are other ways. Immediately killing a person to stave off deconversion is hardly the best option here. If I were a god, I could devise a better, moral way to handle the situation. First of all, I'd trust in my believers to think for themselves. I wouldn't be worried that someone else's mere suggestion could turn them away from me, especially because I wouldn't make myself so hard to believe in in the first place. Perhaps I'd give my follower the words to entice the loved one to believe in me instead, rather than killing her.

Of course, modern Christians and Jews do not adhere to this passage, and I've never heard it mentioned, let alone endorsed, in a sermon or Sunday School class. But here lies the rub: if we can all recognize this command as immoral, then why would Yahweh attribute it to himself in his word? And why would anyone persist in saying the Bible is a source of morality if we must purposefully ignore this kind of nonsense? If the Bible is the word of God, then God is as immoral as it says he is.

The image above is one I created after getting the idea that it would be funny to have an inspirational photo (like one of the Footprints in the Sand pictures) that looks like a beautiful scripture verse until you actually read it. I figured the Deuteronomy passage was ideal, because the first few lines sound so sweet and gentle. I've already given this, in a 5x7" frame, as a gag gift to some of my Christian friends, and they've gotten a kick out of it (or so they told me). The photo was taken by my wife, and shows the cliffs in Santa Cruz just down the street from where I was raised. I added the cross (it was actually just a sign warning people to stay away from cliff edges), for extra effect. I'll make prints available on a future site I'm building.