The Tech - Online EditionMIT's oldest and largest
newspaper & the first
newspaper published
on the web
Boston Weather: 43.0°F | A Few Clouds


The Scent of Math

Julia C. Lipman

Forget pocket protectors, floodpants, and all of the other fashion faux pas attributed to mathematicians. It’s time to take a look at how badly fashion types can blunder when presented with the simplest mathematical ideas. I’m referring to the tony fashion house Givenchy’s efforts to sell everyone’s favorite constant as an overpriced cologne. Pi, which, they helpfully inform us, “is more than a name -- it’s a symbol,” is the name of their new men’s fragrance. I haven’t seen anyone get this excited about a constant since my calculus class learned Euler’s formula (e i=-1).

Euler’s formula is a little above the heads of the fashionistas, but Givenchy tries to provide some background where it can. They inform us that [PI] (that’s how they write it) is “used in mathematics to express the constant ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, i.e., 3.1416.” They let us know that it was “discover[ed]” by “Archimede [sic].” The ad copy gushes, “Resonant with history and mystery, [PI] is a link between past, present and future. [PI] is the universal number, the transcendental number, the ruling number.” (This is the part where e starts to feel a little left out.)

Not only is pi the transcendental number; it’s also “eternally masculine.” No longer the province of pencil-necked nerds, math has been transformed by fashion into the domain of macho men who, we’re told, “have always endeavored to push back the frontiers of the known world and reveal the mysteries of the unknown.” According to Givenchy, men are “still seeking to establish [PI]’s unlimited decimals.” They don’t mention what women are doing; perhaps they’re baking [PI]es.

It’s hard to say whether we’re approaching a time when advertisers promote “Differentiable Color” lip gloss (“for those times when continuous just isn’t enough.”) Of course, pseudoscientific jargon has been around for years -- remember the doctors who told everyone about the healthful effects of smoking Camels? But math seems to be in fashion now, and perhaps mathematical jargon will replace scientific jargon in advertising.

What’s really different about the new mathematical jargon is its dependency on the information age to give people some prior concept of what they’re hearing. Advertisers can assume that most people have a good enough idea of what pi is that they won’t be intimidated by a product bearing its name. They can assume that people will be flattered by the idea that they are somehow part of this mystical constant, and that they are capable of understanding such a deep mathematical concept. The results are a lot closer to numerology than mathematics. At least Pi, the movie, tempered its mysticism with fairly realistic depictions of what it’s like to do mathematics.

Furthermore, rather than using science to sell a product by explaining, in pseudoscientific terms, why the product is better than its competitors, Givenchy is using the very idea of math to sell its product. Douglas Coupland coined the term “status substitution” to refer to “an object with intellectual or fashionable cachet to substitute for an object that is merely pricey: ‘Brian, you left your copy of Camus in your brother’s BMW.’” [PI], the fragrance, is both: a pricey object that’s associated with math, which is now apparently fashionable as well as intellectual.

At a Tuesday forum at MIT entitled “Creating the Consumer Culture,” advertising consultant Eric Almquist discussed the effort that goes into creating a brand name. He described Harley-Davidson as an example of a brand that relies on emotional effect rather than a perception of the product itself. Is Givenchy doing the same thing with pi? Soon, we’ll be willing to pay more for certain brands of pi than others. Maybe we’ll be seeing designer constants someday, or designer copyrights on existing constants.

Will pi no longer be arcane enough for the fashion crowd in a few years? Will people try to demonstrate their intellectual superiority by associating themselves with more and more obscure constants, like e (a woody scent, since it has to do with logs) or even i (an imaginary fragrance)? But even when no one in the fickle realm of couture is returning pi’s phone calls anymore, the math world will still welcome it back with open arms after its brief flirtation with fame, as a much wiser and more world-weary constant.

Oh, and if you were wondering what pi smells like, it has “head notes” of “citrus, green, and floral” and “heart notes” of “magnetic wood.”