Slice of Pi, Anyone?
By: John Shepler
"For a time I stood pondering on circle sizes. The large computer mainframe quietly processed all of its assembly code. Inside my entire hope lay for figuring out an elusive expansion. Value: pi...."
is a transcendental figment of mathematics. It is a number that has been chased by scholars for almost 4,000 years. Its precision has been calculated to over two billion decimal places without an end in sight. Examine those digits and the frequency of the numbers is no more than random. Yet, pi is everywhere around us. There is pi in pie. Cut a pie in half. Pi is the number of times the length of that cut will go around the outside of the pie. Pi pie? That would be one each for three of us with some left over.
Ah, but how much left over? That is the very question that has agonized mathematicians throughout the centuries. The supercomputers crunch and crunch and crunch those numbers until somebody cries "enough" and moves on to something more pressing, like trying to predict next week's weather. Like that's a more likely problem to be solved. There may be issues seemingly more pressing to humankind, but the pursuit of pi has always had a romance that captivated mathematicians...sometimes to obsession.
The Bible tells us that pi has a value of around 3. Oh, yes. It's there in the specifications for the great temple of Solomon, describing the pouring of what seems to be a large brass casting. "And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it about." (I Kings 7, 23).
Al'Khwarizmi, who lived in Baghdad around the year 800, calculated a more precise value of 3.1416 for pi. His name lives on in the term "algorithm." The title of one of his books, "al jabr" gave us the word "algebra." Over the intervening centuries, famous mathematicians such as Leibniz, De Morgan and Euler worked on expanding the precision of pi. Ludolph Van Ceulen, who lived from 1540 to 1610, spent most of his days tediously performing the calculations for the first 35 decimal places of pi. In honor of his tenacity in sticking with pen, paper and fingers in lieu of even something as rudimentary as a 386SX, pi is sometimes referred to a Ludolph's Constant. It's 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288...something.
Find that hard to remember? Well, if the truth be known, mathematicians and most everybody else does too. You can look it up, but you might not have your weighty reference book handy. You can get a rough value by dividing 355 by 113 on your calculator, if your calculator is handy. Or you can be infinitely more clever by converting pi into words.
Consider the opening lines of the story "Circle Digits" written by Michael Keith, which I've quoted at the beginning of this article. Notice the number of letters in each word. The first is "for" with 3 letters. The second is "a" with 1, followed by "time" with 4. That's 3.14 or pi. Michael's complete story provides the first 402 decimals of pi and is called a pimnemonic. Here's another of his:
Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Still too much? You can just go with the title and be close for most purposes, or do what the insiders do and remember this catchy phrase: "How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics." One has to wonder how much alcohol was involved in advancing the science of pi over the years. The popularity of this expression might just tip-it, so to speak.
Why all the fuss about pi ? You didn't know? You missed it? Oh, my gosh. Pi Day is March 14 or 3-14. The official celebrations are scheduled for 1:59 PM, just to make it an appropriate 3-14 1:59. There are Pi Day songs, Pi Day games, the history of pi...all sponsored by the San Francisco Exploratorium, an interactive museum of science, art and human perception. It's on the Web at the link shown below. Push the button marked "The Ridiculously Enhanced Pi Pages" and join in the hoopla.
I used the pi birthday calculator at a site called "Am I in Pi?" I'll bet you are, too. The calculator checked over a million digits of pi and found my birth date starting at a location some 15,000 into the pi decimal places. Since pi goes to infinity (no one has proven otherwise), it's likely EVERYTHING is in pi. And you thought it was only four and twenty blackbirds.
Hmmm. All this PI talk is making me hungry for some reason. Cherry or blueberry?
Special thanks to Barbara Shepler for carving out this delicious information on Pi Day!
Wait! There's more. March 14, Pi Day, is also the birthday of that most famous mathematician of them all, Albert Einstein. Coincidence or...? Here's a fascinating story about his childhood: Einstein's Compass
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Books of Interest:
History of Pi by: Peter Beckman. Here's the life and times of Pi, if you will, including the world background in which the development of Pi took place. Suitable for readers of all ages.
The Joy of Pi by: David Blatner. Blatner explores the many facets of Pi and humankind's fascination with it--from the ancient Egyptians and Archimedes to Leonardo da Vinci and the modern-day Chudnovsky brothers.
Pi Print - Illustration of a boy leading against the symbol Pi.
Also visit these related sites:
PhysLINK.com - The Ultimate Physics & Astronomy Reference & Education Online Source.
Copyright 1999 - 2015 by John E. Shepler. Linking to this article is welcome, but no online republication is permitted. Print media republication rights are available at reasonable rates. Contact me at: John (at) JohnShepler.com
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First Published: March 15, 1999 as part of A Positive Light
Last Updated: February 23, 2015
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