Referendum pie

This is by Mike Grannell, and is published here with his permission. Enjoy!


It was 2025 when the trouble really began. There had been some muttering prior to this, but in July 2025, Microsoft introduced Windows 25. Every time users of Office-Infinity entered the consecutive characters pi, the system automatically started to produce the decimal digits of π to unlimited accuracy. Previous versions had a similar bug, but this could be turned off with a simple expletive to the voice-recognition system. Windows 25 was different – it had a mind of its own and would shout back in highly offensive terms.

At this point, demand began to grow for a referendum on the true value of π. Older people seemed to prefer 22/7, but there were vigorous arguments in support of alternative values. The Sun newspaper was strongly in favour of taking the value to be 3 on grounds of simplicity, and it didn’t care for the symbol π either, decrying it to be a foreign import. The Daily Mail and the Daily Express felt that their readers had had enough of so-called experts, particularly mathematicians and the like. Many of these people, it was alleged, were wasting a fortune computing π to billions of decimal places – in fact over 350 million digits per week on some reckoning. Overseas mathematicians were especially vilified as corrupting the innate simplicity of the English character by their slavish addiction to spurious accuracy. The public were informed that many foreign symbols had been imported into mathematics and the expense of dealing with these became a key issue. The president of the LMS inadvertently let slip that many numbers in common use were irrational, and some even transcendental! Papers were uncovered relating to surreal numbers and even to imaginary numbers. The prime minister eventually conceded that a referendum would be held on 14th March 2026.

A close colleague of the LMS president, a person with ambition for this post, suddenly switched sides and wrote extensive articles to the effect that a few decimal places would suffice, including one for the Times entitled “Cutting π down to size”. He confessed that he had secretly felt this way for years, but had been unwilling to offend his erstwhile friend. Televised debates followed between the “Pi is finite” and the “Hands off π” camps. Foreign mathematicians were aghast. The “Pi is finite” camp vigorously pushed the concept of simplicity and promised to replace π by p (to be pronounced pee). They were challenged to specify how many decimal places they would use, but their answers were evasive and varied considerably. It was also pointed out that although π was a foreign (Greek) letter, p itself was a Roman import. But none of this seemed to stick. The Star ran a leader with the headline “Pee off pi”. The “Hands off π” group promised catastrophic disaster if π were to be redefined. They were portrayed in most of the media as elitist snobs and know-alls. Probably this was not helped by articles in the Guardian with headlines such as “Why π will affect future generations and why its redefinition will lead to untold economic disasters in the distant future”.

The result of the referendum was narrow but, nevertheless, there was a clear victory for the “Pi is finite” campaign, now renamed the “P is finite” group. Media pundits analysing the result opined that the great English public had finally taken revenge for the mathematics that they had been forced to endure at school. The president of the LMS resigned and there was a considerable revolt at the IMA, whose president was regarded as having been insufficiently supportive of the “Hands off π” campaign. Some backtrackers demanded a second vote, while others reluctantly agreed to settle for 355/113.

By 2040 we still don’t have a definitive value for π, or p as it is now called. However, it is now illegal hate-speech to claim that it has infinitely many decimal places. A popular choice is p=22/7, and the “P is finite” team are constantly assuring people that things like wheels not being completely circular are merely transitional problems. England was forced out of the World Cup in 2038 for using a ball judged insufficiently spherical, and was beaten in the Mathematical Olympiad by the Vatican City youth team. Most international scientific societies expelled the English representatives, although this was hailed as a triumph by the English press. The Research Excellence Framework was revised to promote the National Excellence category above the International Excellence category.

Meanwhile, at Heysham nuclear power station, and unknown to everyone, the non-circular reactor containment vessel has just developed the tiniest of cracks.

Mike Grannell, June 2016.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
This entry was posted in guest posts and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Referendum pie

  1. omarlakkis says:

    How very true. Send it to Simon Jenkins.

  2. telescoper says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    From distinguished mathematician Peter Cameron (no relation)…

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