It’s the 14th day of the 3rd month of the 2016th year of the common era, and that means, of course, that it’s time to celebrate pi. And to explore the irrational constant (which arises from the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximated as 3.14159) used in calculations for everything from construction to quantum physics to space flight, we suggest a viewing of the aptly named Pi: Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film about science, math, madness, religion, and one man’s struggle to find the patterns in nature that give our universe order.
For anybody who has yet to climb down into the mind-bending rabbit hole that is Pi, it is Aronofsky’s directorial debut (before his more well-known films like Black Swan, Requiem for a Dream, and Noah), which was shot in black and white and made on a shoestring budget of about $68,000. It follows protagonist Max Cohen (Sean Gullette), a mathematical savant who is hellbent on discovering a master pattern in the stock market. Although it seems impossible to identify such a pattern, Max is convinced that there is one.
Max lives his life based on a set of principles—a set of assumptions about the way the world works—which are as follows: “one: mathematics is the language of nature, two: everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers, three: if you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. Therefore, there are patterns everywhere in nature.”
Using his computer, which he has named Euclid, Max works to figure out a way of predicting future stock market movements. But as soon as he manages one accurate prediction—offered by a 216-digit number spat out by Euclid—his life, which was already chaotic thanks to his twisted mental state and chronic use of painkillers, spirals completely out of control.
Max is threatened, coerced and bribed by Marcy Dawson and a gang of Wall St. suits. Lenny, an Orthodox Jew, as well as a group from his synagogue, kidnap Max because they believe the 216-digit number he’s found is a numerical way of interpreting the torah and providing a direct link to God. All the while Max struggles against hallucinations and blackouts as his brain goes into overdrive and takes revenge on him for staring at the Sun for too long when he was a child.
Pi is a perfect watch in celebration of Pi Day not only because it reminds us that our universe can be interpreted entirely through numbers, but also because it makes us ask profound questions about what a fully numerical interpretation of the universe means. Pi, the constant, requires us to do the same thing, as it shows up again and again and again in nature, but is, by definition, irrational. This fact, for ancient mathematicians, was “completely maddening,” as it begs the question: if God knows everything, how can God know inherently unknowable numbers? Is the universe ordered, or is it irrational? Is it both at the same time? How is this possible and what does this mean?
And, to cap it all off, there is a stellar scene in the film between Max and his mentor, Sol Robeson (Mark Margolis, a.k.a. bell-ringing grandpa from Breaking Bad) where Robeson discusses Go, and all of its implications as a game with a simple set of rules but a near-infinite amount of complexity. This is not only relevant to what’s been going on between Google DeepMind and Lee Sedol—as wetware battles hardware for the title of Go champion of the world—but also makes viewers think deeply about the parallels between the way a game plays out, and the way the universe plays out.
There are simple rules. There is maddening complexity that arises from those simple rules. There are inherent patterns in nature but also inherent irrationality. And then there’s Max, and us, in the middle of the data and the reality that the data represent (or vice versa), trying to figure out what it all means.
Or, in other words, it’s a great ride. And a great way to celebrate Pi Day!
How are you celebrating Pi Day? Do you have any favorite films that explore the numerical nature of the universe? Use what is ultimately a series of 1s and 0s to let us know your thoughts in the comments section below!