On Tuesday, July 22nd, author David Blatner came to Ada’s to celebrate Pi Approximation Day.
The word of the night? “Wonder”
David used the process he underwent while publishing his most recent book Spectrums: Our Mind-Boggling Universe from Infinitesimal to Infinity, which “blends narrative and illustration to illuminate the variety of spectrums that affect our lives every day: numbers, size, light, sound, heat, and time,” to provide the foundation upon which he took us through a score of abstract and complex concepts alike, pausing frequently so we could all catch our breath and make sure our feet were still on the ground. David set the tone for the evening by stating, “I like weird stuff,” and proceeded to show us all that is not only true, but that same “weird stuff” is very much a part of all our daily lives.
The first topic of the night was, appropriately, pi. As David said, pi is as much a number, and mathematical approximation as it is “a symbol for the intersection of the known and unknown.” Pi hooks people, being both mysterious and associated to something that is a bit easier to grasp: the circumference of a circle. David pointed out how the 20th century was all about knowing, understanding, and measuring. It saw the rise of the murder mystery novel, STEM, and all things associated to solving the problems at hand with the solutions and the mantra “If we can get all the data, we can solve anything!”
Pi fits nicely into the box of tools used to solve. Yet, under a bit more scrutiny, pi is, well, pretty freakin’ crazy. First off, the digits after the decimal are infinite. Secondly, as far as mathematicians can currently tell, the numbers following the decimal in pi don’t fall into any kind of pattern. (Note the caveat–Some people think there is a pattern in pi, we just don’t see it…yet). As David said, Pi is a case of something which seemingly says to humans “You can get close, but you can never know me.”
The preceding quote seemed to drive David’s decision to research and write Spectrums in the first place. It basically started with his interest in a series of, ah hem, spectrums: numbers, sizes, light, sound, heat, and time, looking first at their extremes and then moving to considering everything in between. Being an InDesign and print document buff, it makes sense that David would make a book filled to the brim with charts, graphs, comparisons, and other data-filled images to help suss through the madness, seeking the ever-elusive “truth” of measurements and spectrums (spoiler–there isn’t one).
While with some things, like the scope of our national debt, we can “just kind of ball park it” to demystify the huge number and get a sense of perspective (and those are amongst the kinds of things David discusses in Spectrums), other things, however, like dark energy, which may be responsible for the “growth” of space as it continuously expands, or mass and gravity and how they work (another thing we don’t really know, despite being able to measure both, and the presence of different theories which attempt to explain both) are not quite as easy to wrap your head around. The point to which David continued to return throughout his talk was that “We don’t know as much as We think We do, and that can be simultaneously amazing and terrifying.”
A particular quote from David which resonated with me then and continues to echo through my mind is: “Ignorance keeps us curious and curiosity keeps us inspired and guessing.” With that in mind, here is a taste of the kind of facts and questions David discussed more in-depth during his talk and ones that can be further explored in his as well as many other books about the mysteries of our universe.
- There are 16 billion, trillion stars (+/- 4), and there are the same number of molecules in 10 drops of water.
- Are humans unbelievably huge, or tiny?
- There are 50 trillion cells in your body, and in 1 cell, there are more atoms than there are stars in the Milky Way.
- We have something that is absent from size–consciousness–in which we are able to dream, strive, and learn.
To close his presentation, David gently poked at the topic of time, “The greatest mystery of our universe is a phenomenon so precious it is considered by some to be holy, but so common that it is for the most part ignored” (Blatner, Spectrums 135). David pointed to the reality that, when it comes to time, we really don’t know just what it is or how it works, despite having both abstract and somewhat concrete modes of measuring and quantifying time’s passage. Yet, the consideration of time and its constituency is not a new past-time (zing), as evident in the musings of St. Augustine circa 400 AD: “What then is time? If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know” (Augustine, Confessions Book XIV.17). And again, from Dan Falk’s In Search of Time, time is, for most everyone, “at once intimately familiar and yet deeply mysterious: nothing is more central and yet so remote” (Falk 3). Not unlike pi, time is a mystery that fascinates, stumps, intrigues, eludes, and otherwise dazzles those of us with an appetite for the mind-boggling.
In that spirit, I’ll close this post with the same words David used to close his talk: “Celebrate trying to know ‘the unknowable.”