I just noticed this article on the front page of Yahoo, which discusses the pending celebrations for tomorrow, in honor of the square root function. Tomorrow is given the name “Square Root Day,” naturally enough, because the date is 3/3/09. Seeing as how there are only 9 square root days per century, apparently the sparsity of this phenomenon is enough to make some people excited when such dates do occur.
I don’t want to sound like a curmudgeon, but I’m not really sure who deemed this story worthy of inclusion on the front page of Yahoo. Similarly, I don’t know what it means when the article says that tomorrow’s “holiday” is met with great enthusiasm by “math buffs.” The article seems to suggest that a celebration like this falls within the realms of mathematics, when it more appropriately falls into the realm of numerology.
One could just as easily put significance on equally unimportant sets of dates. For example, I could decide to celebrate the “Doubling Dates” – dates in which the day is twice the month, and the year is twice the day. 02/04/08 has already passed, but it’s certainly not too late to start planning celebrations for 03/06/12, or 04/08/16.
Or, why don’t I start celebrating “Fibonacci Days,” days in which the year must be equal to the sum of the day and the month (those familiar with the process of generating the Fibonacci sequence will understand this choice of name). These days may seem quite plentiful – there will be 8 such days this year alone, for instance – but in any given century, there will be 57 years in a row with no Fibonacci Days! That must make them special, right?
The problem with these sorts of faux “math holidays” is that while they may seem to be an invitation to learn about and explore mathematics, for the general populace they simply perpetuate the stereotype that the bulk of a mathematician’s career is spent multiplying really big numbers together, or trying to find the 101010th digit of pi. This shortchanges the beauty of mathematics and the work of those who make a career out of it.
I’m all for mathematics appreciation days, but if we’re going to have them, let’s have them appreciate something substantive. Why not have appreciation days on the birthdays of some of our most famous mathematical historical figures? Rather than learning that sometimes, the square root of the last two digits of a given year is equal to both the month and day of a given date, which is both uninteresting and limited in scope, why not spend April 15th learning about the contributions of Euler, set aside April 30th to celebrate the work of Gauss, or take September 17th to gain some insight into the prolific work of Riemann? Those with less lofty ambitions could take a day to warn of the pitfalls of combining mathematics with sport by observing the tragic deaths of Galois or Gram, who died in a duel and after getting hit by a bicycle, respectively.
There are enough mathematicians in the history to supply content for every school day of the year, but most students would be hard pressed to name even a handful of important historical mathematical figures. Why this is deemed less important than the observation that 3 * 3 = 9 is slightly beyond me. But then again, maybe I’m just a curmudgeon.
Happy Square Root day, for whatever it’s worth.