June 6: The Feast of Arithmetic

As owners of the 2012 Wondermark Calendar know, today, June 6, is the date of the Feast of Arithmetic — the latest of this year’s new holidays. Each year it falls on a date in which the month and day add to the common abbreviation of the year (i.e. 6/6/12, 6 + 6 = 12). Last year it fell on August 3; next year’s will be March 10.

The date is determined by the Council of Arithmetic, an ever-changing group of theoretical mathematicians from around the world. Every seven years, a secret cabal of shadowy unknowns gather in Switzerland to create a new math problem, known each session as the Rocker Dilemma after the chairs said to be sat in during its devising. The Rocker Dilemma is then printed on extremely fragile paper and disseminated to colleges, universities, think tanks, Mensa groups and xkcd meetups around the world. The problem is deliberately designed to have no solution — usually it requires the creation of a new form or dimension of mathematical theory.

Answers to the Rocker Dilemma are accepted for one week only (the duration that the paper itself is expected to withstand handling) and the cabal then meets to review the submissions. They do not seek to match the answers against some key of correct solutions; instead they evaluate the new mathematical theories devised by the submitters for cogency, theoretical rigor, creativity, and applicability to the known practices of molecular gastronomy.

From these submissions, the group names members to the Council of Arithmetic. (The precise number of Councilors varies depending on the responses to the evaluation question; very occasionally, as in Dr. Thelma Ranbatter in 1958, only a single Councilor is named.) Nominated Councilors may not refuse the position under any circumstances, and in some cases serving on the Council has caused dire economic hardship for Councilors. (One reason for Bo Jackson’s retirement from baseball in 1994 was so that he could serve on the 1995-2001 Council.)

The Council serves for seven years, and its duties include: deriving the date of the Feast of Arithmetic, performing various ceremonial duties including the awarding of (usually chocolate) medals and the granting of non-binding knighthoods, and coming up with new puns involving “pi.” This year, several of the puns include:

• The unpopular parody song “Pi Pi Pi” by “N Cyrcular” (Councilor Kevin Dalen of Scotland)
• “Finding pyrite may be fool’s gold, but getting pi right is essential!” (Councilor Bernard Halstetter of Austria)
• Something comparing “pi[e] in the face” as a form of mockery, to Charlie Brown’s circular head (work-in-progress by Councilor Emma Jadsik of Slovenia)

Most of each session’s puns are not released to the public, but are kept in the Council archives for the edification of future Councilors.

To date, four thousand countries globally recognize the Feast of Arithmetic. Usually on this day people eat food, do work, and perform simple calculations such as figuring out a restaurant tip, or counting out change. The identities of the group members who create the Rocker Dilemma are kept highly secret to keep the process impartial, but an investigative committee from the television show 60 Minutes found a link connecting several of the members to a certain orphanage in Burlington, Vermont. Whether it was discovered that the members were orphanage workers, orphans themselves, or parents who abandoned children was never disclosed — and now that Mike Wallace has passed away, it likely never will be.

Enjoy the Feast of Arithmetic! If you have fun on this day, shame on you. People have worked very hard to prevent that.