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Mathematics 12 Mar 2020

What's so special about the International Day of Mathematics?

For the first time — after a decision made by UNESCO in November 2019 — the International Day of Mathematics will be celebrated on March 14, 2020. Surprisingly, until now the ‘science of the sciences’ has not had its own day of formal commemoration; and the date selected is no coincidence.

Mathematics can be considered the bedrock of many scientific disciplines, and finally it has a day of its own. The International Day of Mathematics (IDM), which this year will have the slogan, ‘Mathematics is Everywhere’ is an initiative spearheaded by the International Mathematical Union and aims to explain the essential role mathematics plays in scientific and technological innovations. Moreover, mathematics may play a key role in the fulfillment of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The choice of March 14th as the date to celebrate IDM has a lot of history behind it. More than 30 years ago, it occurred to American physicist Larry Shaw to associate π (pi) — whose first digits are 3.14 — with March 14 (in American English, the date is written 3/14). Pi Day was thus conceived to celebrate what is one of the most famous numbers of all time, given its status as one of the most frequently used mathematical constants in formulas in physics. Many mathematicians throughout history have tried to move beyond mere approximation in an effort to nail down the exact numeric equivalence of pi, but the solution remains a mystery.

Because Pi Day had already been commonly celebrated for years across numerous countries, the International Mathematical Union decided to broaden the scope of the day to cover all of mathematics; it was approved by UNESCO on November 26, 2019. But the story doesn’t end there: Pi Day (henceforth, International Mathematics Day) is not the only big scientific commemoration held on March 14; it is also a day the celebrates two of the 20th century’s most popularly embraced scientists and scientific commentators.

The first of the two was born on March 14, 1879. Originally from Ulm, Germany (although becoming a citizen of four different countries over the course of his life) Albert Einstein, at only 26, wrote four studies that would change the laws of physics forever, catapulting him onto the stage of international science. From among his vast legacy, we find his theoretical explanation of the photoelectric effect and the theory of relativity.

On the other momentous March 14th, this time in 2018, humanity lost another memorable physicist. Stephen Hawking’s 76 years represented a victory over life-expectancy for someone who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis at 21 years old. His significant scientific contributions include his theoretical research on black holes and his description of the Big Bang.

It is a coincidence of fate that the date of birth of one physics genius should coincide with the date of death of another, and that this date should correspond to one of the most important numbers in mathematics since ancient Greece. All are good reasons to mark the 14th of March as a key date on the calendar, not only for mathematics, but for science as a whole.

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