On Saturday night, friends wished me a happy pie day the next day.
Naturally, my response was to ask them what the hell they were talking about.
It turns out they weren’t talking about pie day. They were talking about Pi Day. And I quickly made the connection – the next day would be March 14, or 3.14, the beginning of the magical number Pi (3.1415926535…) that holds the key to the universe (like, how to figure out the circumference and area of a circle from its radius, and probably even more amazing stuff than that). The one thing that remained a mystery: How long has Pi Day been going on, and how come nobody ever told me about it before?
Apparently, the whole world has been celebrating Pi Day on March 14 every year, and I didn’t know. And learning that now is something like leaving your house one morning to discover you’re in Albuquerque when you always thought you lived in Chicago, and everybody else managed to keep it a secret from you. Or using your driver’s license as I.D. and having the guy tell you, “Excuse me, sir, but the name on this license isn’t Theodore Naron, it’s Ingemar Johansson.” Or finding out that the American Civil War happened not between 1861 and 1865 as you always thought, but under the administration of Chester A. Arthur from 1881 to 1885. Or that your fly has been open for the last seven hours. If it is possible for me to have lived on this planet for decades without knowing about Pi Day, what else don’t I know?????
Well, as Donald Rumsfeld once expressed with exquisite eloquence, it isn’t possible to know what the things we don’t know are, because we don’t know what they are. (Department of Defense news briefing on February 12, 2002: “As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”) But on the question of what the rest of the world knew about Pi Day and when it knew it, I have been able to find some accountability.
Different sources trace it to 1987 and 1988, but it was definitely one of those years. And it was definitely the idea of physicist Larry Shaw, who worked at the San Francisco Exploratorium at the time. From that epicenter the idea spread, until everyone in the world knew about it except me.
In the last 48 hours, I’ve seen references to Pi Day everywhere—references that have been artfully hidden from me for the last twenty-two or twenty-three years of my existence. More than a third of my entire life has been spent in ignorance of Pi Day. But I forgive you, world. Let’s move on from here. At this point, I just need to know: What else haven’t you told me? Come on. Just one thing. Throw me a bone here.
If you want to consider another mind-boggling fact about how little time has really elapsed since “ancient times,” try this one on for size. It’s something I came up with to tell my Sunday School kids at the beginning of each school year (our subject is Jewish history), and it concerns a whole different Abraham than in the blog post just below.
My grandfather (whom I knew well) was born in 1896. I (whom my grandfather knew well) will live till about 2035, most likely. That’s a distance of 139 years, but let’s be conservative and take it down to 125. So—125 years is the unit that spans that part of human history that is familiar to us in immediate personal, sensory terms. (I can smell the bowl of hard candies in my grandfather’s house right now.)
The original Abraham (father of monotheism, and of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, shown sacrificing his son Isaac in the Rembrandt above) is thought to have lived roughly 2000 BC. So, about 4000 years ago. Seems like a long time. Let’s just see how many of our 125-year personal family-knowledge units it would take to get us back that far.
Do the long division. There are exactly 32 units of 125 in 4000. 32 pieces of the timespan occupied by the thumb-to-index-finger space that is my grandfather and me. 32 of those. That’s all it takes to get all the way back to Abraham.
We moderns like to imagine a chasm separates us from our ancient forebears, from all that crazy stuff that went down in ancient Babylon, Egypt, Judea, the Greek Empire, the Roman Empire, the Dark Ages, Medieval Europe, the Middle Ages, etc. But it doesn’t. 32 grandparent-to-you units get you to the beginning of what we call civilization. Think about that the next time you despair that our world hasn’t come further than it has. I think we’re doing quite well for our tender age.