The Most Irrational Number | Future Tense - Slate Magazine

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. 

This article is adapted from Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else by Jordan Ellenberg. © Penguin Press 2021.

One of the great charms of number theory is the existence of irrational numbers—numbers like the square root of 2 or π that can’t be expressed as the ratio of any two whole numbers, no matter how large by Jordan Ellenberg, professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and the author of Shape and How Not to Be Wrong. He blogs at Quomodocumque.

Photo: Getty Images Plus

The legend goes—probably false, but hey, it makes a point—that the discovery of the irrationality of√2 was so disconcerting to the Pythagoreans, who wanted all numbers to be rational, that they threw the discoverer into the ocean.

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