At one point or another, we’ve all had a feeling that something is not quite right in the world. It’s a huge relief, therefore, to discover someone else who shares your suspicion. (I’m also surprised that it’s taken me this long to stumble on this!)
It has always baffled me why we define π to be the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, when it should clearly be the ratio of the circumference to its radius. This would make π become the constant 6.2831853…, or 2 times the current definition of π.
Why should we do this? And what effect would this have?
Most importantly, however, this would greatly improve the intuitive significance of π for students of math and physics. π is supposed to be the “circle constant,” a constant that embodies a very deep relationship between angles, radii, arc lengths, and periodic functions.
The definition of a circle is the set of points in a plane that are a certain distance (the radius) from the center. The circumference of the circle is the arc length that these points trace out. The circle constant, therefore, should be the ratio of the circumference to the radius.
To avoid confusion we’ll use the symbol tau () to be our new circle constant (as advocated by Michael Hartl, from the Greek τόρνος, meaning “turn”), and make it equal to 6.283…, or .
In high school trigonometry class, students are required to make the painful transition from degrees to radians. And what’s the definition of a radian? It’s the ratio of the length of an arc (a partial circumference) to its radius! Our intuition should tell us that the ratio of a full circumference to the radius should be the circle constant.
Instead, students are taught that a full rotation is radians, and that the sine and cosine functions have a period of . This is intuitively clunky and fails to illustrate the true beauty of the circle constant that is supposed to be. This is surely part of the reason that so many students fail to grasp these relationships and end up hating mathematics. A full rotation should be radians! The period of the sine and cosine functions should be !
But… wouldn’t we have to rewrite all of our textbooks and scientific papers that make use of ?
Yes, we would. And in doing so we would make them much easier to understand! You can read the Tau Manifesto website to see examples of the beautiful simplifications that would bring to mathematics, so I won’t repeat them here. You can also read the original opinion piece by Bob Palais that explores this subject.
It’s not particularly surprising that the ancient Greeks used the diameter of a circle (instead of the radius) in their definition of , since the diameter is easier to measure, and also because they couldn’t have foreseen the ubiquity of this constant in virtually all sciences.
However, it’s a little unfortunate that someone like Euler, Leibniz, or Bernoulli didn’t pave the way for redefining to be 6.283…, thus missing the opportunity to simplify mathematics for generations to come.
Aside from all the aesthetic improvements this would bring, considering how vitally important it is for more of our high school students (and beyond) to understand and appreciate mathematics, we need all the “optimizations” we can get to make mathematics more palatable for them. This surely has to be an optimization to consider seriously!
From now on, I’m a firm believer in tauism! Are you?