“What Pi Has To Do with Digital Humanities”

Coming full circle: what pi has to do with digital humanities

Dallas Merritt

Dan Cohen is a history professor. He also directs the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University… and is the namesake and author of one of the most popular digital humanities blogs on the web… and organized the single biggest list of digital humanities contacts on twitter… and was a major contributor to our primary text for the class. Also, he loves pi—or at least its history and what it tells us about systems of education. In fact, if anyone were to attempt to web research what a theory of digital humanities might be defined as, they would have a difficult time avoiding Dan Cohen’s virtual presence in that conversation. Because of this, and because TED talks seem to be a class trend when theorizing about DH, I decided to use Dan Cohen’s TED talk about what the shift to digital information means, and how it is similar to the history of pi. I’m hoping to leave us where we started—in contemplation of what exactly digital humanities are, or at least what they might be.


Cohen sets out in his TED talk to discuss the possibilities of educational tradition and systems by relating the story of pi, and how it represents a shift in thinking in one particular system of learning: mathematics. He explains that the quadrature of a circle was, since ancient times, represented as a precise number that could be found if you could find the value of one side of the square within which a circle was set. Many brilliant mathematicians attempted to solve the problem and eventually, during the enlightenment a shift began to happen such that the nature of pi was contemplated as much as the solution for it was. People wondered why it was so elusive, which led to a contemplation of the nature of mathematics and the thought that possibly not everything had a solution. Then, in the late eighteenth century Johann Heinrich Lambert, a self-taught Swiss mathematician proved that Pi was an irrational number, which essentially answered the question of whether or not pi could be expressed as a simple fraction (the answer was no).

The interesting thing about that is that even though this required the revision of textbooks, because the matter was solved, the debate continued amongst mathematicians anyway. The reason for this is that the old-style mathematicians would not give up the pursuit of solving the quadrature problem although it had been proven impossible. Similarity can be found, Cohen argues, in many systems of knowledge and education that persist due to their inertia and due to the momentum they gain from tradition. He argues that new systems inherently represent something less precise and thereby chaotic. So… pi was perfect and ordered until it was declared irrational, which was troubling to those who clung to the old way of perfect and ordered mathematics. He draws a parallel between the Encyclopedia and Wikipedia, newspapers and blogs, and similar new forms of digital media.

He is most interested in what history has to tell us about how to get the people who are on the fence between the old and new systems of learning to come over to the new side, and move beyond traditional systems. He posits that when mathematicians embraced the new pi, it unlocked new possibilities. It allowed people to land on the moon because of the precision it offered. It spurred new insights into entirely new branches of mathematics that were simply not accessible before. It is still spawning new studies and leading to new possibilities that were hidden in the old system. He argues that by engaging with the possibilities of what the new has to offer, then new systems of learning might become something less than chaotic, something more settled, something that is orderly in a new way.


My response is brief for a couple of reasons, the primary being that I simply agree with him. Tradition and the systems of learning that are colliding with digital humanities do not have to be eradicated by the new. We are building upon what we’ve known but we are not done learning. There is so much more to grapple with, and ultimately there is no loss of mystery inherent in discovery. The fact is that new perspectives do not automatically offer final solutions; maybe there is not a solution for every problem. New perspectives inherently pose new challenges, and those challenges are what we should be pursuing. People who want to persist within old subsets of information, bound by perimeters that have been broken through by technology do not have to be persuaded—but they do not have to be mocked either. New systems of learning, however, are what is available to us via digital humanities. It is not a matter of what it might destroy in terms of tradition, but rather, I argue what it has destroyed in terms of limitations.

One thought on ““What Pi Has To Do with Digital Humanities”

  1. Lauren Liebe

    This TED talk seems particularly relevant here at the end of the semester. The title is especially apt and clever. The comparison between the discovery of pi as an irrational number and the developing of digital humanities feels strange at first. In this incredibly tech- and science-savvy age, we have become used to the idea that scientific and engineering fields change rapidly. Humanities, however, are generally exempt from this atmosphere of flux. Though there are some valid reasons behind this—it’s unlikely that anything truly “new” will be discovered about Shakespeare—literature, and history, and art are still being created and reevaluated, and digital media can become a large part of that, if we are willing to let it.

    I like the suggestion that if we embrace new ideas, then they will become controllable and useful rather than chaotic and disorganized. I agree, too, that digital humanities is “destroying limitations,” though it’s still unclear exactly where that leaves us, and where it is heading. While it’s wonderful to speculate on all the ways that DH might revolutionize the field, it is also a little terrifying. At what point do the humanities cease to be the humanities, and become something else? I don’t know if there is an answer. DH is still a fairly new thing, and as the world becomes more and more centralized around technology, I have no doubt that DH will continue to grow and become a more integral part of the academy.

    I do think it would be useful to add links to some of the sites you are talking about: the TED talk itself, Cohen’s blog, and the text for our class, specifically. Other than that, this review looks good.

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