Traditional Values

by John Derbyshire


While wonks, pundits, and bores obsess over sovereign default, collapse of the financial system, economic implosion, mass social disorder, and the nuclearization of the Middle East, some at least of us keep our eyes fixed on higher matters: the τ-π controversy, for example.

This all started back in 2001 when Bob Palais published an opinion piece in Mathematical Intelligencer arguing that we have fixed on the wrong value for the most fundamental of all mathematical constants. They key number is not, as they mis-taught you in school, a smidgeon over 3.1415926535897932384626433832795. In Prof. Palais’ words: “The proper value, which does deserve all the reverence and adulation bestowed upon the current impostor, is the number now unfortunately known as 2π.”

Prof. Palais’ partisans subsequently proposed τ (the Greek letter “tau”) for the true and proper universal constant, whose value is of course a tad north of 6.283185307179586476925286766559. They issued a manifesto. Indignant mathematical conservatives brought out a counter-manifesto in defense of traditional values, or at of least this one particular traditional value. Bitter conflict then broke out, with marriages destroyed, friendships sundered, and brother making war against brother.

With passions thus inflamed, the controversy is bound to have some impact on the political life of the nation. May we know where presidential candidates stand on the issue? Will they defend a number that has been a core component of Western Civilization and the key to our scientific and technological development? Or will they take sides with those wreckers and levellers who would put at naught the accumulated wisdom of centuries? We should be told.