SALT LAKE CITY — Bob Palais says he does his best thinking about mathematics clinging to a rock face, or racing down a ski slope.
As a research professor of mathematics at the University of Utah, Palais is always seeking how to teach math in a way that will keep his students' eyes from crossing.
"I've just continued to look for better ways to understand other topics in pure math, its applications to visualization and molecular medicine and how to teach these topics in new and better ways," Palais said.
Recently this U professor has earned a new title: a mathematics revolutionary.
Palais sparked a revolution 10 years ago while rock climbing. He realized that some of the most famous mathematics formulas not only use the circle constant π (commonly known as Pi), but that it was almost always two times Pi, or 2π. He began to wonder why. It seemed to him that there was something wrong with the number Pi (3.14...).
In 2001, Palais wrote an opinion piece, "π is wrong!" in the journal The Mathematical Intelligencer, but it has just recently taken off in popularity.
"I know it will be called blasphemy by some, but I believe π is wrong," Palais wrote. "Mathematicians have waxed rhapsodic about its mysteries, used it as a symbol of mathematics societies and mathematics in general, and built it into calculators and programming languages."
A fairly simple explanation of the difference between Pi and Tau can be found on YouTube. What Palais found was by doubling the number Pi, many math formulas were simplified and easier to understand.
The article has sparked an international movement. Mathematicians have called the new number Tau and have lobbied to have it replace Pi in math courses and even replace Pi Day (March 14 — or 3.14) with Tau Day (June 28 — or 6.28).
"Tau is more natural than Pi and brings simplicity and elegance," said University of Leeds mathematics professor Kevin Houston in the U.K. Leeds even produced a rather passionate video supporting the movement. There is even a group who translated the number Tau into a musical number, producing a rather beautiful melody.
"I just wanted to point out the fact that it was a mistake, and actually some fairly eminent mathematicians have agreed with me since. The physics community got in on it and other mathematics blogs have gotten in on it," Palais said.
Michael Hartl, a Ph.D. in theoretical physics has even created a Website dedicated to praising the virtues of Tau, including a link to buy T-shirts trashing Pi as "The (Pi) is a Lie."
Recently, his quest has been featured on BBC, in the Times of London and newspapers in Spain and Russia. MSNBC also ran a piece on him this past week.
“I think people like a controversy and like to line up on either side of things,” he said. “If people become aware of math, then that’s not a bad thing.”
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