Students from the Maurice J. Tobin School in Boston make a human pi symbol on March 13, 2007, during a celebration of Pi Day.
(DelawareOnline.com) -- If mathematics is the language in which the universe and the Earth
speak to us, then the diminutive constant pi would be an important
component for that language.
"That's a very good way of
looking at math and pi," said Tom Fernsler, of the Math Science
Educational Resource Center at the University of Delaware. "Everything
today that's made that is round or requires a calculation involving a
circle, sphere or curved surface involves the use of pi."
even got its own "Day." March 14 is designated as Pi Day, as the
calendar day representation of 3/14 matches the first three digits of pi
just the tip of the geeky iceberg, but we'll circle back to that in a
moment. It was Greek geek Archimedes who first correctly identified the
ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter as 22/7.
circle regardless of size contains precisely that ratio," said
Fernsler. "If there is any other ratio calculated other than 22/7 for
the spherical entity you are measuring, then it's not a circle."
other words, an oval or an ellipse does not have a ratio of 22/7, and
may be considered circular, but are most definitely not circles. But
22/7 is but a crude representation of the precise measure of pi.
"Pi is an irrational number," Fernsler explained. "That means its decimal representation does not end, nor is it repeated."
example, 1/2 is .5 decimally stated. 1/8 is .125. Both end and contain
no repetition of decimal places. Such numbers are called "rational"
numbers. The fraction 1/3, however, is .3333333, etc. Its decimal
equivalent repeats and doesn't end. That makes it an "irrational"
number. ("Rational" is a mathematical term and does not in any way
suggest a rational number to be sane, or an irrational number to be
Pi is irrational, and that's where the fun begins, as
long as fun for you includes memorizing and reciting pi out to
thousands of decimal places. That turns out to be one of the many events
that have been taking place in Princeton, N.J., each year on March 14.
idea came from doing something to commemorate Albert Einstein's
birthdate of March 14," said Mimi Omiecinski, founder of Princeton's Pi
Day, now in its fifth year. She was surprised how that inaugural event
caught on. "We would have been happy with a handful of attendees," said
Omiecinski. "But 1,500 people filled the library building on a day a
Nor'easter was pounding the area."
This year's events over a
six-day period, which are expected to draw a crowd of 6,000 plus, will
include the pi recitation contest, along with an Einstein look-a-like
contest, pie- (not pi) eating and judging contests and a walking tour of
"It's a celebration during which a geek can feel like a rock star," said Omiecinski.
Barry Renner, chair of the Department of Mathematics at Wilmington
University, puts Pi Day into a larger, more significant context.
"Anything which popularizes math and helps to show it as something fun is a worthwhile activity."
The skinny on pi
•World famous. Pi is the most recognized mathematical constant in the world.
•Around the Earth. If the circumference of the Earth were
calculated using pi rounded to only the ninth decimal place, an error of
no more than one quarter of an inch in 25,000 miles would result.
•Pi baby. Albert Einstein was born on Pi Day (3/14/1879) in Ulm, Germany.
•Are you a piphilologist? Piphilology is the study and
creation of mnemonic techniques for memorizing the never-ending string
of decimal digits of pi. The technique of memorizing lines of poetry
(known as a "piem") or prose is one of the best known. When the letters
in each of the words in the phrase "How I want a drink, alcoholic of
course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics" are
counted, they correspond to the numerical 3.14159265358979 (carrying pi
to 14 decimal places) and you become a hit at geek parties.
•Is pi carried to one trillion digits overkill? While
modern computers are capable of calculating pi to one trillion decimal
places, it doesn't do much practically for science. According to
mathematicians Jörg Arndt and Christoph Haenel, 39 digits are sufficient
to perform most calculations, because that is the accuracy necessary to
calculate the volume of the known universe with a precision of one
•Pi cheers. School spirit at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology has been memorialized in the cheer: "Cosine, secant,
tangent, sine 3.14159."
•You can't get there from here. UD's Tom Fernsler says pi
was essential to the calculations that landed a man on the moon.
"Reaching the moon required the rendezvous of two separate spacecrafts,"
Fernsler said. "That meant the intersection of two spherical orbits
required calculations involving pi." In other words, without Archimedes,
there would be no Neil Armstrong.
•Pyramid scheme. Egyptologists have been fascinated for
centuries by by evidence that suggests the Great Pyramid at Giza seems
to approximate pi. The vertical height of the pyramid has the same
relationship to the perimeter of its base as the radius of a circle has
to its circumference.
•Pi and the arts. "The Little Constant That Could" has
wound its way into artistic expression. Carl Sagan used the digits of pi
to suggest a secret message from God in his novel "Contact." The 1998
movie "Pi" concerns a mathematician looking for a number to explain the
meaning of existence. The Oscar-winning film "Life of Pi" actually has
nothing to do with the constant's calculation or possible hidden
meanings. (Though the movie does feature a cool CGI tiger that probably
used pi in its design computer calculations.)
•The granddaddy of all Pi Days? San Francisco's
Exploratorium is hosting its 25th annual Pi Day. Its website
(www.exploratorium.edu/pi/index.html) states the annual celebration has
grown into an international and online event. Included are pie-making
and -throwing exhibitions.
•Trekkie pi. In the Star Trek episode "Wolf in the Fold,"
Spock foils the evil computer by commanding it to "compute to the last
digit the value of pi."