[Another guest blog entry by Dr. Gene Chase.]
You’ve heard the old joke.
Teacher: Pi R Squared.
Student: No, teacher, pie are round. Cornbread are square.
The purpose of this Pi Day note two days early is to explain why is indeed a square.
The customary definition of is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. But mathematicians are accustomed to defining things in two different ways, and then showing that the two ways are in fact equivalent. Here’s a first example appropriate for my story.
How do we define the function for complex numbers z? First we define for integers and b. Then we extend it to rationals, and finally, by requiring that the resulting function be continuous, to reals. As it happens, the resulting function is infinitely differentiable. In fact, if we choose a to be e, the not only is infinitely differentiable, but it is its own derivative. Can we extend the definition of to complex numbers z? Yes, in an infinite number of ways, but if we want the reasonable assumption that it too is infinitely differentiable, then there is only one way to extend .
The resulting function obeys all the expected laws of exponents. And we can prove that the function when restricted to reals has an inverse for the entire real number line. So define a new function which is the inverse of . Then we can prove that obeys all of the laws of logarithms.
Or we could proceed in the reverse order instead. Define . It has an inverse, which we can call , and then we can define as . We can prove that is the above-mentioned limit, and when this new definition of is restricted to the appropriate rationals or reals or integers, we have the same function of two variables a and b as above. can also be extended to the complex domain, except the result is no longer a function, or rather it is a function from complex numbers to sets of complex numbers. All the numbers in a given set differ by some integer multiple of
With either definition of , Euler’s famous formula can be proven:
But where’s the circle that gives rise to the in  and ? The answer is easy to see if we establish another formula to which Euler’s name is also attached:
Thus complex numbers unify two of the most frequent natural phenomena: exponential growth and periodic motion. In the complex plane, the exponential is a circular function.
Here’s a second example appropriate for my story. Define the function on integers in the usual way. Now ask whether there is a way to extend it to (some of) the complex plane, so that we can take the factorial of a complex number. There is, and as with , there is only one way if we require that the resulting function be infinitely differentiable. The resulting function is (almost) called Gamma, written . I say almost, because the function that we want has the following property:
Obviously, we’d like to stay away from negative values on the real line, where the meaning of (–5)! is not at all clear. In fact, if we stay in the half-plane where complex numbers have a positive real part, we can define by an integral which agrees with the factorial function for positive integer values of z:
If we evaluate we discover that the result is .
In other words,
Pi are indeed square.
I suspect that the arises because there is an exponential function in the definition of , but in other problems involving it’s harder to find where the comes from. Euler’s Basel problem is a good case in point. There are many good proofs that
One proof uses trigonometric series, so you shouldn’t be surprised that shows up there too.
comes up in probability in Buffon’s needle problem because the needle is free to land with any angle from north.
Can you think of a place where occurs, but you cannot find the circle?
George Lakoff and Rafael Núñez have written a controversial book that bolsters the argument that you won’t find any such examples: Where Mathematics Comes From. But Platonist that I am, I maintain that there might be such places.