By Tim Murphy:
Happy Pi Day! March 14, or 3.14 for those of you who know the formula. I confess, I do. It’s not something that I am proud of. I didn’t want to know it. I tried to suppress it, but it’s time to come out and ‘fess up: I was a math geek. I did not want to be. When I was in high school I wanted to be a baseball player. Unfortunately, I was 5 feet 4 inches tall and weighed 119 lbs when I graduated—which was not good statistics for a ballplayer. The only high school baseball record that I held—and maybe still hold for all that I know—was for most successful sacrifice bunts. That didn’t put me on the All Conference List—not even Honorable Mention. Baseball honors went to the guys with home runs, high batting averages, and RBIs, not sacrifice bunts.
I did win one award in high school, and after forty-five years I will come clean and admit it. I was All Conference in Math. To be honest, I did not sign up for it and tried to fight it all the way. I was dragged into it against my will. It was embarrassing.
Like most people in high school, I wanted to hang around with the popular kids. My size didn’t lend itself to popularity; I was smaller than most of the girls. Our high school was blue collar and academics were not held in the highest regard. So, being good at math was like being good at sacrifice bunts—not a lot of notice. There were no cheerleaders at the Math competitions. I tried to use baseball as my pass into the popular circles and kept the math thing quiet.
So, when I got to be a senior, I had a math teacher who was very young and new to the profession—Mr. Gunther. He was very enthusiastic, and this being the 70s, he was of the generation that was going to change the world. He wanted to raise the social acceptance level of the kids who were good at math and maybe not good at many of the other things that popular high school students held in high regard. So, he got together with the other high schools in the conference and set up Math Competitions—just like playing the other schools in baseball and football. Being math, they had bi-meets and tri-meets and quad-meets . . . because that was just good math. There was even an octagonal conference meet at the end. Mr. Gunther asked me to join and tried to market it by saying they were Mathletes and they were competing in Mathletics. It was a quick, “No, thanks!” from me. That was not on the list of things that I thought would raise the level of my social status. Mathletics . . . um, no, thank you.
One night at a basketball game, I was hanging around the edges of some of the more popular students. Baseball season was about to start, so they let me hang around the perimeter. Most of them had been drinking and started to cause a bit of a ruckus. Mr. Gunther was one of the teachers on patrol duty that night, and he tried to quell the youthful exuberance, taking down names and telling them they would need to report to the Dean. He saw me hanging around in the background and told me he would see me Monday in class. I wasn’t popular enough to drink; my mom saw to that. I wasn’t participating in the ruckus, so I didn’t think much of it.
When I got to class on Monday, Mr. Gunther called me aside and told me how disappointed he was in me—drinking and associating with hooligans. I told him I wasn’t drinking. He said something about culpability. I did not know what that meant. I was not a word guy, and it kills an argument when you can’t figure out what the other guy is saying, but Mr. Gunther said that he had a deal for me. If I went to the Math Competition, he wouldn’t tell the Dean or my parents about the incident. Not only was he young, enthusiastic, and going to change the world, he was also skilled in extortion and blackmail, which multiplied his effectiveness. I told him I couldn’t do it because I had baseball after school every day. He said the meet was at night . . . and weren’t my parents Jack and Sue?
The Math Meet was at our school, and I knew none of my buddies knew anything about it. I figured I would show up, do my time, and slip out. No one that I cared about would know. Slip in, slip out. I didn’t even need to do the problems; just show up was the deal. I didn’t even have to do well.
I was signed up for three events: Word Problems, Trigonometry, and Quadratic Equations. There were three problems in each event. The first one was easy. Hardly had to think about it as I wrote in the answer. The second one was a little tougher, and the third one caught my attention. I could not leave it unsolved. It was a sickness. To leave an unbalanced equation would have left the world out of balance. There was an answer, and I had to figure it out. I lost my head for a little bit, but after I regained my composure and answered it, I realized where I was, and I snuck out. Nobody that I knew saw me. No harm no foul.
The next day in Home Room—the only class that I had with any of my baseball buddies—the school announcements played over the PA system.
"In baseball last night, the Hawks beat Rich Central. Brad Partridge homered. Mike Cheval struck out 9, and Rich Doborvich went 3 for 4,” said the announcer.
There was no mention about me adding to the school record of sacrifice bunts, but I was used to that, so I kind of daydreamed my own announcements—the ones that I thought were important, even though the cheerleaders could care less.
“Tim Murphy backed up second on an overthrow to keep the runner from advancing. Tim Murphy caught two grounders on the run out in Right Field.”
All of the sudden, I was shocked back to reality.
“Tim Murphy scored three perfect 10s in the Mathletics Competition last night as the MathHawks squared up with Thornridge High.”
Oh, no, no, no, no. . . no Math . . . no Tim Murphy and Math!
This was not cool. Talk about baseball. Backing up the over throws. Don’t say, "Tim Murphy and Mathletics!" I could feel the heat rising from my red face as I looked around the room. All my baseball buddies were looking at me like they used to when I was still wearing my pocket protector and had the white tape holding my black rimmed glasses together. They started giving me the business with Math jokes. There was nowhere to hide.
Later in the day, I got to Mr. Gunther’s Math class, and he was giddy with the attention over his Math Competition. I wasn’t so giddy, but I had done my deal and could fade into obscurity. Mr. Gunther said the next competition would be a quad. The thing was multiplying, and this event would even have gold medals that I could win.
"Oh, no," I said. "It was just one competition.”
“THE Math Competition,” emphasized Mr. Gunther. It was the whole season.
I protested, but he said he would be glad to run it by my parents, Jack and Sue. He was turning into a fraction of a man.
This went on for several weeks and culminated with all the schools in the conference getting together for the OctoMath Fiesta. The results were the same, and Home Room stunk. Guys gave me their math homework. Some girls did too—which started ok, but they didn’t even know my name was Murph. They kept calling me "Burt."
It should have been over except that three of us qualified for a Tri-State Meet. The states of Illinois, Wisconsin, and Indiana were holding an even bigger freaking Math Fiesta, and on a Saturday no less. But I had an out. The baseball team had a doubleheader that day. Mr. Gunther told me he had already taken care of that. He had talked to Coach Valiska—a fellow Math teacher. They had decided that I would play in the first game and a bus would pick me up and take me to the math competition.
“Oh, no. I couldn’t let my team down,” I said.
Mr. Gunter said if I didn’t, Coach Valiska had agreed to sit me on the bench for both games. He was a negative square root to me now.
After the first game, Coach Valiska called the team together and told them that I would not be playing in the second game because I was going to compete in the Tri-State Mathletics Competition. He wanted the team to give me a spirited sendoff—three cheers and all. You can imagine the ribbing I got when I turned around and saw my ride was the small bus. There are only three of us going, so we rode off to the Tri-State Math Meet in the small school bus with me still in my powder-blue spandex baseball uniform with bright-red “HAWKS” on the front and my white batting helmet that Coach Valiska thought would be a cool alternative to regular baseball hats. The fellas on the baseball team seemed to get a pretty good laugh.
So, Happy Pi day! March 14 . . . or 3.14 as the Mathletes would say.
Pi – an irrational and transcendental number that will continue without repetition or pattern to infinity beyond its decimal point.
That sounds like a politician. Maybe that’s what the Pi stands for: politically ignorant. It is the world’s most recognized constant—which is ironic because it doesn’t have an end.
Infinite, irrational, and transcendental; who doesn’t love Pi?
So, what’s your favorite recipe? Mine is dividing the circumference of a circle by its diameter. That can get you going. A little infinite loop. The circle of life.
What we grow up dreaming ends in reality, and what we grow up avoiding turns out to be our most valuable skill. The popular fades to the finite, and the infinite constant is change.
So go ahead. Celebrate Pi. Heck, you can even hang an "e" on the end of it. Change the recipe. Whoever came up with the "e" was an Einstein. So celebrate Pi with pie or pizza or anything that fits in a circular glass and ponder the irrational. We certainly seem to have an infinite amount of that going around. Carry it out to the 10,000th decimal. We got it out to the 28th decimal in college with our slide rules—whew that was a big night! Or, shorten it up to the 3.14. In fact, that calls for a song—a little number by the transcendental Dean Martin.
"When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza Pi, that’s amore.”
Because love is infinite and perhaps a bit irrational, go ahead, hug your favorite mathematician, but be careful . . . it can lead to multiplication.
This story was inspired by my late cousin, Rita, and pointed out to me by my cousin Shannon. Rita was the most gifted mathematician I ever knew. She had a PHD and taught Math and Statistics at Marquette University and the University of Illinois and was a Dean at Illinois Central. She also drove a school bus—the big bus. She used to walk around with goofy hats on and her socks never matched; I attributed that to the eccentricities that come with the brilliance of Mensa. But she confided in her granddaughter that she wore them that way so that she would remember every day to not take herself too seriously. That was a story that needed to be told. So, to RITA—a Pi in the sky.
I apologize for the length of this one, but we’re talkin’ ‘bout Pi. It should be 3.14159265359 pages.
Tim Murphy grew up on the south side of Chicago in a home filled with Catholic Irish traditions. He has kissed the Blarney Stone and been given the gift of storytelling. He attended Catholic Grade School, public high school and a Lutheran College—which perhaps has shaped his somewhat irreverent style. In his sixty-four years, he has received many blessings, and despite his misbehavior, they seem to keep coming.