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Some incredibly important scientific news

Given the sorry state of the world we live in today and the numerous challenges we face — global warming, sustainable energy, hunger, disease, poverty — you might think that scientists have plenty of important subjects to occupy their time. You would be wrong.

Actually, let me quantify that statement. You wouldn’t be wrong so much as slightly deluded. I’m sure that there are some scientists who are working on solving the world’s big problems, but I’m equally sure that there are also many scientists who have way too much time on their hands. How do I know this? Two news stories from earlier this week have erased any shadow of doubt.

The first story concerned Dr. Vito Franco, a professor of pathological anatomy at Italy’s Palermo University. A renowned expert in a field that “pertains to the gross and microscopic study of organs and tissues removed for biopsy or during postmortem examination,” according to an online medical dictionary, Dr. Franco should be one of the world’s leaders in combating diseases and infections.

So what was the gist of his presentation to a recent medical conference in Florence? Did he announce that he’d found a cure for cancer or an AIDS vaccine? Hardly. Dr. Franco, addressing a room full of Italy’s brightest and most experienced medical practitioners, broke the earth-shattering news that Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa suffered from high cholesterol.

According to the good doctor, the 16th century portrait’s famous face “shows clear signs of a build-up of fatty acids under the skin,” and “there seems to be a lipoma, or benign fatty-tissue tumor, in her right eye.” Wow. If that isn’t news you can use, I don’t know what is. Just think of all the practical applications this revelation could have.

It wasn’t just Mona Lisa who received Dr. Franco’s diagnosis, however. He also offered up his take on the artist Michelangelo as depicted in Raphael’s “The School of Athens.” In Dr. Franco’s studied opinion, Michelangelo’s swollen knees “indicate excessive uric acid” and show that “he could have been suffering from renal calculosis.” I don’t know what that is, but I’m sure it doesn’t feel too good when you’re lying on your back painting a ceiling.

In all fairness, though, someone as experienced as Dr. Franco could have come up with those ideas rather quickly and not expended an inordinate amount of effort researching them. To find proof that some scientists need better ways to occupy their time, we should move on to the story of computer scientist Fabrice Bellard.

Bellard, working on his desktop computer, claims to have computed the mathematical constant pi to nearly 2.7 trillion digits, breaking the old record by about 123 billion digits. Using a method he says is 20 times more efficient than existing methods, the French scientist took 131 days to complete and check his results. Of course, the former record of 2.6 trillion digits, set in August 2009 by Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi, took just 29 hours, so I’m not sure what part of Bellard’s method is so efficient.

Furthermore, I have my doubts that Bellard could actually compute and check his results in a mere 131 days. If he were to try to read a printout of his new pi out loud at a rate of one digit per second, it would take him more than 85,000 years to finish. So is it possible that he might have fudged a digit here or there between 2.6 trillion and 2.7 trillion? I’d say it’s a distinct possibility, but I can promise you I won’t be the one to find out.

Bellard’s new pi computation forms part of a branch of mathematics known as arbitrary-precision arithmetic, which is a fancy way to say knowing a given number to any amount of decimal places. And while the practitioners of this type of math might strike the layperson as among the most boring people on the planet, you should know that they’re not just calculating giant numbers for a lark.

“It’s more than just for the fun of it,” claims Ivars Peterson, publications director for the Mathematical Association of America. “Pi is a way of testing a method, and then the method can be used for other purposes.”

That sounds all nice and good, Ivars, but you can admit it. We all know the truth. You and Bellard and the rest of the arbitrary-precision arithmetic community are just in it for one reason: the chicks, especially the ones with high cholesterol.

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