Technical Insights

Four Numbers That Deserve Holidays Just As Much as Pi

2020-03-13  |  6 min read 

Every year we look forward to eating pie on pi day to celebrate the simple yet infinitely complex number we all know and love. This year’s pie excitement got me thinking about all the other important numbers in my life. Why shouldn’t they also get holidays?

Let's look at four numbers that have been very near and dear to me and countless other engineers. 

Boltzmann Constant

The Boltzmann Constant relates the kinetic energy of particles with the temperature of the particles. You’ve probably plugged this important constant into your calculator hundreds of times whether you’re an electrical engineer, chemical engineer, or mechanical engineer. In electrical test and measurement, thermal excitation of electrons is extremely important to consider, and it’s why your test area should be kept at a constant temperature.

Boltzmann’s studies of the collisions of particles led to his statistical definition of the second law of thermodynamics. By thinking of particles in a gas as billiard balls in a box, Boltzmann observed that the particles would trend toward a state of maximum disorder, or entropy. To honor Boltzmann, create some entropy of your own. Rearrange your desk. Wear mismatched socks. Do something new. The Boltzmann constant is 1.380649×10−23 J/K. We’ll use the exponent as the date for the holiday, so Boltzmann day is 10-23 or October 23rd.

messy electrical workbench
Or maybe some of you should take the opportunity to reduce the entropy of your workspace

band gap of silicon

We started with the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and Iron Age, and now we’re in the Silicon Age. Silicon’s unique semiconductor properties enabled groundbreaking compact transistor technology, bringing us all the electronic devices we use today. Anyone with an electrical engineering background has spent hours studying the physical and electrical properties of silicon, and what property is more significant than the electrical band gap?

The 1.12 eV band gap of silicon will be celebrated on January 12th (1-12) by eating layered cake. The frosting on the cake is like an oxide layer in silicon, so a layered cake is like a giant silicon wafer. You can even dope your cake with sprinkles!

layered cake like layers of silicon
All we need is some bias points and we've got a delicious transistor

Planck's constant

In the early days of quantum mechanics, physicists observed both particle and wave properties in light. So is light waves or particles? Turns out the answer is yes to both. Max Planck calculated a relationship between the energy carried by photons and their frequency, answering some of the questions that classical physics failed to address in high-frequency black body radiation. Planck’s Constant is a critical piece of electrical and optical engineering and should be programmed into every engineer’s calculator.

Before he was a Nobel-prize winning physicist, Planck was a gifted musician. So, to honor Planck’s Constant Day, we will dust of our old guitars and keyboards and work the creative sides of our brains through music. Planck’s Constant day will fall on Planck’s birthday – April 23rd.

Maxwell's equations

I’m going to stretch the rules a little for this one. Even though Maxwell’s equations are a set of equations and not a specific number, these equations are the bread and butter of electrical engineering, right up there with Ohm’s Law. By bringing photonics, magnetism, and electricity together, Maxwell’s equations are not only a pillar of modern physics, but they also represent the culmination of the work of several brilliant minds including Gauss, Faraday, and Ampere.

James Clerk Maxwell was insatiably curious his entire life. His curiosity led to some of the most important breakthroughs physics has ever seen. On Maxwell’s birthday (June 13th), celebrate his legacy by learning something new. Google a question that’s been on your mind. Get lost in a Wikipedia rabbit hole. Maybe you’ll make a breakthrough of your own.

When I studied engineering I was fascinated at the effort that had gone into deriving every equation I used. The people these constants are named after are engineering rock stars, and it was an incredible experience to see how so many people’s lifelong efforts culminated into the modern science I studied. So let’s celebrate their efforts!