Study Guide

Life of Pi Science

By Yann Martel


Part 1, Chapter 1

I never had problems with my fellow scientists. Scientists are a friendly, atheistic, hard-working, beer-drinking lot whose minds are preoccupied with sex, chess and baseball when they are not preoccupied with science. (1.1.9)

Pi has just criticized his fellow religious-studies students for being "muddled agnostics" and "in the thrall of reason." Here he praises his fellow scientists. Does Pi consider science a type of faith? What is it that he admires about his scientist friends? And why does he have such a distaste for agnosticism?

My majors were religious studies and zoology. My fourth-year thesis for religious studies concerned certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed. My zoology thesis was a functional analysis of the thyroid gland of the three-toed sloth. I chose the sloth because its demeanor – calm, quiet and introspective – did something to soothe my shattered self. (1.1.2)

Martel couldn't mix science and religion any more conspicuously: "My majors were religious studies and zoology." But he does subtly intermingle the two in the sentences that follow. Isaac Luria is a mystic but he's also obsessed with how the universe began, which happens to be a scientific endeavor. The thyroid glands of three-toed sloths clearly sounds like zoology. The demeanor of the sloth, however, adds spiritual interest. Pi can't stay away from religion. He also can't stay away from science.

Part 1, Chapter 5

And so, in that Greek letter that looks like a shack with a corrugated tin roof, in that elusive, irrational number with which scientists try to understand the universe, I found refuge. (1.5.41)

Notice how Pi names himself after an elusive and irrational number. When Pi praises science – or math and reason – these tools are never ends in themselves. Science has the workings of faith and combats agnosticism just like religion. Or, as in this passage, math brings us to the mysterious, the irrational and elusive.

Part 1, Chapter 7

[Mr. Kumar to Pi:] "When I was your age, I lived in bed, racked with polio. I asked myself every day, 'Where is God? Where is God? Where is God?' God never came. It wasn't God who saved me – it was medicine. Reason is my prophet and it tells me that as a watch stops, so we die. It's the end. If the watch doesn't work properly, it must be fixed here and now by us. One day we will take hold of the means of production and there will be justice on earth." (1.7.16)

Mr. Kumar shares – quite openly – his personal story. The story perhaps helps Pi to see why Mr. Kumar attaches himself so fiercely to science. Science saved him from polio, not God. If we want to improve our lot on earth, we need to use tools of this earth: science and reason, not divine revelation. Even though Pi must disagree with Mr. Kumar, he still takes some of it to heart. During his ordeal on the ocean Pi says, "Survival had to start with me. In my experience, a castaway's worst mistake is to hope too much and do too little. [...]. To look out with idle hope is tantamount to dreaming one's life away." (see Themes: Spirituality 2.58.9)

[Mr. Kumar to Pi:] "There are no grounds for going beyond a scientific explanation of reality and no sound reason for believing anything but our sense experience. A clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge will expose religion as superstitious bosh. God does not exist." (1.7.12)

Pi's biology teacher, Mr. Kumar, rails against religion. Pi doesn't know what to say. We know Pi admires Mr. Kumar quite a lot, but we also know Pi has a deep belief in God. When Pi takes stock of his supplies on the lifeboat, he organizes and lists with a scientific fervor. We might even say with "[a] clear intellect, close attention to detail and a little scientific knowledge" (1.7.12). For Pi, these tools don't necessarily mean that God doesn't exist. All harmonize in his democratic little noggin.

He was a regular visitor who read the labels and descriptive notices in their entirety and approved of every animal he saw. Each to him was a triumph of logic and mechanics, and nature as a whole was an exceptionally fine illustration of science. To his ears, when an animal felt the urge to mate, it said "Gregor Mendel", recalling the father of genetics, and when it was time to show its mettle, "Charles Darwin", the father of natural selection, and what we took to bleating, grunting, hissing, snorting, roaring, growling, howling, chirping and screeching were but the thick accents of foreigners. When Mr. Kumar visited the zoo, it was always to take the pulse of the universe, and his stethoscopic mind always confirmed to him that everything was in order, that everything was order. (1.7.2)

Pi's biology teacher sees the world in a certain way: as ordered, and alive with the precepts of science. Pi revels in the various and contradictory worldviews of his friends and teachers: the other Mr. Kumar sees God's sacred creation in the zoo. The animals must see something entirely different. Pi's father sees a business. For Pi, science, like religion, is a system of thought we place on the world to understand it. Pi delights in all these systems of thought and creates relgio-scientific patchwork of belief. Sounds complicated, but Pi simply delights in all forms of faith – and he thinks science is no different than religion.

Part 1, Chapter 20

His name was Satish Kumar. These are common names in Tamil Nadu, so the coincidence is not so remarkable. Still, it pleased me that this pious baker, as plain as a shadow and of solid health, and the Communist biology teacher and science devotee, the walking mountain on stilts, sadly afflicted with polio in his childhood, carried the same name. [...]. Mr. and Mr. Kumar were the prophets of my Indian youth. (1.20.2)

In yet another example where Pi equates religion and science, the biology teacher and the Muslim holy man have the same name. Why is it wondrous and unexpected for an Indian boy from Tamil Nadu to have a Muslim and a biologist as the prophets of his youth? Is there anything odd about that? Shouldn't Pi at least have a Hindu teacher as one of his prophets?

Part 3, Chapter 99
Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Your island is botanically impossible."

[Pi:] "Said the fly just before landing in the Venus flytrap."

[Mr. Okamoto:] "Why has no one else come upon it?"

[Pi:] "It's a big ocean crossed by busy ships. I went slowly, observing much."

[Mr. Okamoto:] "No scientist would believe you."

[Pi:] "These would be the same who dismissed Copernicus and Darwin. Have scientists finished coming upon new plants? In the Amazon basin, for example?" (3.99.51-56)

To Pi, Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba have a limited view of science. The Japanese investigators think that science's method of rational inquiry discredits the miraculous. However, Pi thinks of science differently. He sees science as yet another gateway to the wondrous and miraculous. Perhaps it's not so hard to see his point. When Copernicus removed the earth from the celestial center of the universe, people must have been shocked. Because science brings us to new and undiscovered things, Pi's thinks science encourages our faith in the "hard to believe" (see Themes: Spirituality 3.99.109-113).

[Mr. Okamoto:] "We're just being reasonable."

[Pi:] "So am I! I applied my reason at every moment. Reason is excellent for getting food, clothing and shelter. Reason is the very best tool kit. Nothing beats reason for keeping tigers away. But be excessively reasonable and you risk throwing out the universe with the bathwater." (3.99.114-115)

Nice rebuttal, Pi. Mr. Pi Patel admits to reason's effectiveness: it helped him get food and water; it helped him train Richard Parker; all said, it let him fight for his own survival. But Pi also thinks Mr. Okamoto and Mr. Chiba should be careful with reason. Sure, it's an effective tool. Perhaps because reason is so effective, it tempts us to use only it to understand the world. However, if we limit our understanding of the world to what reason can explain, we'll miss some amazing things. For Pi, those include God, the miraculous, and his story.

The pink boy got the nod from the Rhodes Scholarship committee. I love him and I hope his time at Oxford was a rich experience. If Lakshmi, goddess of wealth, one day favours me bountifully, Oxford is fifth on the list of cities I would like to visit before I pass on, after Mecca, Varanasi, Jerusalem and Paris. (1.1.11)

Oxford is a world center for scholarship. Jerusalem is the holy city for Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Mecca is where the prophet Muhammad was born. Hindus regard Varanasai as a holy city. Paris houses the pool Pi was named after. How do these cities relate to Pi's obsessions? Do these cities inform each other? For example, does the juxtaposition of Oxford next to these holy cities give science and scholarship a little bit of a halo? Just a tiny one?