By Tom Ehrich
Today, it seems, is PI Day – 3/14, as in 3.14, the first digits of the seemingly infinite string of post-decimal digits that express the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter.
I was reminded of The New Yorker magazine’s brilliant profile of the Chudnovsky brothers. They had built a supercomputer from mail-order parts in their apartment near Columbia University, in New York, and were deriving pi as far as the computer would allow. They had reached 2 billion decimal places, with no end in sight other than computational horsepower.
Pi, the article said, was a truly random number. No patterns ever appeared. Digits would dance along, throw up a string of, say, eight zeroes, then return to random. If the digits were presented as a bar chart, the bars approximated the outline of the Himalaya Mountains. If one represented numbers as letters, they might reveal a verse of poetry.
I recall being fascinated by these homespun examples, though serious mathematicians might scoff at them. Beneath the hood, as it were, we were all gazing into an abyss that was utterly mystifying, tantalizing, sobering, and humbling. If science exists to explain reality, what reality was being explained by this massively random number? Chaos theory, perhaps?
News about Pi Day came in a news feed from The New Yorker, along with several articles about science. I read one on quantum computing, a mostly theoretical computing dream that would deploy quantum mechanics with minimal hardware to produce computing power almost beyond imagination.
At one point, to rest my mind for a further dive into quantum computing, I flipped over to Facebook and saw a much shorter newsfeed about a Trump follower who was shouting at protesters, “Go back to Auschwitz!” That death camp, of course, is where the lives of Jewish scientists like Albert Einstein might well have ended if they hadn’t escaped Nazi Germany.
I thought of the contrast. On one side, two Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union pursuing an odd but fascinating quest of the mind in a dumpy apartment filled with computers linked together, and an English recluse named David Deutsch pursuing his quest of the mind in Oxford, where he is so highly revered that when he emerges from his ivy-surrounded cottage to give one of his “talks” on quantum computing, people listen, because the life of a brilliant mind is worth honoring and experiencing.
On the other hand, a know-nothing shouting hatred at someone who makes him feel uncomfortable. I tried to imagine this young man being faced with the Chudnovsky brothers or Deutsch or with any of the scientists pursuing quests of the mind, and with writers and poets pursuing their quests of mind, or with young engineers trying to invent things that will make life better – and feeling alienated, as he probably felt alienated in school, when for reasons beyond his control he didn’t have the mind or curiosity or drive to explore, or the compassion to seek deep meaning.
Now comes a demagogue who harvests his alienation and turns it to bigotry and venomous shouting against the “other.” Trump could just as easily have said, “Let’s all try to grasp this amazing world in which we live. We won’t grasp it all – even the very brightest stare into an abyss beyond their full comprehension – but we will grasp something of it, and we will stand in the awesome presence of God. Your gift might not be the derivation of pi, but you know some things, you can do some things, and in you this divine spark also burns. Let us celebrate each other.”
That isn’t going to happen, of course. There’s no power or wealth to be had in celebrating the divine spark or each other. Better to throw gasoline onto the seething coals of low self-esteem and distrust and get someone shouting racist rants.
I devoted an hour to reading about quantum computing. I understood only a small portion of what I read. But my mind came alive in a fresh way. What unspeakable abuse and cruelty it is to deny that coming-alive of the mind to someone else. For wherever we fall on the IQ scale, we can come alive in mind and in spirit. But when a bully chasing his own demons and neediness churns bigotry and rage, at the expense of all else, we are witnessing the face of evil.
This evil could have killed Einstein. It didn’t because there was a nation to which he could escape and find freedom to think. What happens to the world when that nation of free thinking becomes hostile to the mind and humankind’s endless, restless, disruptive quests? That is what is at stake in this election. Not marginal wealth gains or losses, but the life of the mind and the freedom to grow as best we can.