Pi and I Scream

With Spring Break upon us and there’s nowhere to go because everything’s cancelled and everything’s closed, what better way to spend the cooped-up hours than thinking about something equally irrational and never-ending:


Happy Pi Day, folks. When math geeks the world over consider the almost mystic ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

Why today? Because today is March 14. Or 3.14. It also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday.

For so-called “memory athletes,” today is a high holiday. Though this year will likely be different — of all the good reasons to gather in numbers right now, crunching numbers isn’t high on the list — competitions are typically held the world over to showcase one of the purest demonstrations of brute cognitive horsepower: reciting pi to hundreds, even thousands, of places. At the elite level, this is a full-day enterprise. The current competitive record is 100,000 digits, held by Akira Haraguchi, who is to pi what Takeru Kobayashi is to hot dogs. It took him sixteen hours.

If you’re considering taking this sport up as a hobby — and there are worse ways to spend your time, given the likely brain benefits—here’s a hint. Most people who do this seriously use a phonetic code that substitutes letters for numbers. From this you create words, sentences, even little short stories — which are way easier to remember than random digits.

An easier variant is “to create sentences where the length of each word gives us the next digit of π,” writes Arthur Benjamin in his book The Magic of Math.

For example:

How I wish I could calculate pi’ (which yields seven digits: 3.141592). Or ‘How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics’ (which provides fifteen digits).”

“A most impressive example was written in 1995 by Mike Keith, who generated 740 digits in an amazing parody of Edgar Allan Poe’s poem ‘The Raven.’ The first stanza, along with the title, generates 42 digits.”

But as the memory athletes flex their wetware today, elsewhere, people will be celebrating less strenuously.

You can go online and buy pi-related paraphernalia:

There are feasts of actual pie.

And some people will play a game with toothpicks called “Buffon’s Needles.” It’s based on the discovery, by 18th Century French mathematician Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, that you can — astonishingly enough — estimate pi by scattering toothpicks over a hardwood floor and figuring the probability that they cross a line. This is about as much fun as a quarantined family can have.

There’s an old Star Trek episode called “Wolf in the Fold,” where Spock hamstrings an evil computer by tricking it into calculating pi to the last digit. This is what’s sometimes called a snark hunt — sending some one — or some thing — off on an impossible mission. These days it feels a bit like we’re on an impossible mission ourselves. Here’s hoping this thing we’ve never encountered resolves itself in a happy way we can’t quite predict — like the cosmic symmetry of pi. 

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.