Friday, January 1, 2010

The stranger side of Pythagoras

He had a cult. A weird one. Not, you know, one of the average, Jesus-lives-in-a-spaceship-under-Antarctica cults. No, this was a number cult. Sure, they had all the weird rules. Have sex in the summer, not the winter, only drink water, only eat uncooked foods, don't wear wool, etc. Oh, and never ever eat beans. They make you fart and are "like the genitalia" therefore they are pure evil.

But they were also obsessed with numbers and geometry. Every number was a shape and every shape represented a number. And every number-shape had a purpose, a divine meaning, and a place in the order of everything. And Pythagoras loved them all.

Their symbol was a number-shape (of course), it was the number five, the pentagram, because the pentagram was infinite. The pentagram contained a pentagon. The pentagon, if all corners were connected, formed another pentagram, which was proportionate in every way to the original and which formed another pentagon. Pythagoras saw more numbers in music, in the ratios of the strings and the beauty of the notes. In fact, his views on philosophy can be summarized in his own words "All is numbers."

Unfortunately his idea of numbers and geometry can only allow numbers to be expressed as ratios with nice whole numbers (i.e. 2/3 instead of .66666). Decimals didn't exist. This meant that irrational numbers such as Pi, which continue forever in a non-repeating decimal fashion and can't be represented as fractions, are impossible to represent.

So when a guy named Hippasus said "hey guys, this doesn't work here..." Pythagoras did what any rational person does when someone is a threat to their beliefs. Which is to get their secret brotherhood of math nerds to kidnap him, tie him up, take him out in the middle of a lake, light the boat on fire, and disappear into the night.

That's right, they killed the guy over Pi. And he wasn't the only one. Anyone who had a proof that was a threat to Pythagoras' vision of a perfect, rational, measurable universe was to be silenced.

Pythagoras' end came when he denied a few people entry into his elite group of math nerds. They came in a mob to torch his house, and he ran away out the back with them hot in pursuit. Supposedly this continued until he came to a large field of beans. Given the option between the Angry Mob and the Bean Field, he just turned around and let them kill him.

This guy made math what it is today. Damn, eh?

No comments: