In the equation y = ax + b, y and x are the variables – the value of the former depending upon the value of the latter – while a and b are the constants that help us define the value of the variables. Constants and variables need each other badly not only in the world of numbers. The mapping of the molecular structure of a substance aims at finding a constant, regular pattern; yet the very same molecule might be effectively visualized in oh so many variations including nets of sticks, conglomerates of balls and tangles of soft ribbons. The human laws we apply to try and regulate our social behavior are designed to be as steady and unequivocal as possible on one hand, and to contain their own exceptions – although in a subtle, non-destructive way – on the other; this makes them fit better into our variable world. Even scriptures, i.e. what believers consider revealed truth, are but the result of a long process of editing where many political, historical and linguistic variables came into play before being stabilized into an official version.
Being myself a natural cold-hearted skeptic, the amount of conflicting, often freakish truths put on the market by various churches in history leaves me a bit dumbfounded. If I really must call something universal I’d rather go for an entity like the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, approximately equal to 3.14159 and also known as pi or ?. This irrational and transcendental number whose value is impossible to know in its entirety – its decimal digits are infinite and don’t present any regularity – is the superstar among mathematical constants. It has made it into the laymen world in various forms, including a song by Kate Bush, a geeky practice called piphilogy – consisting in the memorization of as many digits of pi as possible – and a wonderful late 90s movie where a talented but troubled mathematician ends up using a drill to perform a DIY lobotomy on himself. Pi occurs in many different area of mathematics and appears routinely also in physics, notably in equations such as Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle or Einstein’s field equation, that describe fundamental principles of our universe. One is tempted to fantasize about its being a number ‘written’ in nature, maybe even a common ground to start communications with hypothetical intelligent aliens.
Coming back to earth, things get more controversial in science as well if we consider constants and variables in a wider, less rigorous sense. Let’s say that well-established theories and systems such as special relativity or modern first-order logic somehow get the status of ‘constant’; we could consider as variables the ‘deviations’ from them going on at the fringe of science, or the brand new ideas coming out of strongly heterodox approaches towards them. The actors of such processes might represent a rearguard trying to regain a lost authoritative position, or an avant-garde ready and willing to broaden our horizons in a constructive way. In both cases, they could happen to contribute something interesting that wouldn’t have been possible within the mainstream.
Constants and variables are our companions also in mundane matters, their manifestations ranging from peculiar ones such as a family where all the men become good dowsers and all the women develop religious fanaticism, or apparently futile ones such as a book falling off a shelf in a very precise, unexpected moment as the result of many and to us invisible infinitesimal changes.
We’re all quite busy bringing order to the chaos of our world, thoughts, lives and desks by trying to separate what is constant from what is variable. Occulto Issue pi kindly reminds you that we will never succeed in such an endeavor, and yet we won’t quite stop trying.
Alice Cannava, May 2014