In honor of Pi Day (March 14, for the first digit and two decimal places of pi: 3.14159…), science popularizers, re-ran a story about a 2015 paper in which physicists, to their surprise and delight, “discovered” a formula for pi in some quantum theory. The way the researchers spoke initially about their discovery, and the continued popular fascination with it, invoke images of children delighted to discover colorful, plastic eggs in their gardens at Easter, naively ignorant that they were placed there before being sought after. Mathematics is, to a certain extent, the study of the unintended consequences of making a limited set of logical choices. Beautiful little connections, like the one reported between an approximation for pi that predates calculus and the energy levels of the hydrogen atom are just the sort of thing that could lead to new insights into famously confusing quantum mechanics. But to be surprised at such a connection, or to believe, as author Tamar Friedmann said, that “nature had kept this secret for the last 80 years” so that it might be “revealed,” requires forgetting that the understanding of nature she refers to has been constructed, layer-by-layer by generations of human scientists. We forget this at our peril; It opens up our concepts of reality for capture by nefarious actors who recognize that science is socially constructed and are more efficient at bending popular will to their ends [1].

I’m reminded of a description of how we have come to be ruled by capital - to believe that jobs are the absolute good and to prize the job “givers” over the job doers - in Communism for Kids, by Bini Adamczak. A person places a glass of water on a table, alongside a note with the imperative: “Drink this.” When she passes by later, she sees the note and thinks, “this note tells me to drink this water, so it must be important that I drink this water,” forgetting that it was she who wrote the note in the first place! The capitalist economy and typical scientific research are a little bit more complicated than this allegory, because they comprise a collection of people writing the note, so none knows precisely how they contributed to it. But, like the note, both require forgetting that humans set up the whole thing in the first place. Just as when we have taken a job and the factory or executive tells us, “do this,” and we think, “it must be very important that I do this,” without also thinking, “is this the right thing to do?” or “am I being treated fairly in being told to do this?” so, too, it can seem to us that nature is telling us, “research this,” and we say “it must be very important that I do this” without thinking “how is this depiction of nature constructed?” and “who does it serve?” [2]

Science, as it seems to be currently practiced, requires that our current description of nature be confused for nature itself and to forget that humans (and specifically wealthy, white, male humans), and not nature, were the loudest voices present at the outset of science. Wallis labored over an approximate expression for pi, as part of his projects contributing to infinitessimal calculus. Calculus was used to describe Newton’s physics, and leaned on heavily during the development of quantum mechanics. If it is a surprise that the mathematics we use to describe reality reasserts itself within that description, it will come as an even bigger shock to learn that there are connections between physics and the biases and prejudices of the empowered. It doesn’t have to be this way. We could practice a science that openly contends with its human and social aspects rather than quarantining it off to fester, unwatched.

Easter egg hunts, capitalism, normal science. All require that their participants forget that they are socially constructed enterprises. This is only inconsequential for one. For the others, the consequence is an abdication of personal agency and social responsibility.

[1] - Recent history is full of examples of these: the cigarette industry, opioid manufacturers, fossil fuel extractors and consumers.

[2] - I’m thinking, for example, of how measuring the effect of sea level change in dollars overemphasizes the effects on wealthy people and minimizes its effect on the poor.