Slice of Pi, Anyone? About Pi Day and the
Transcendental Number Pi
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...."
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
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.
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:
Near a Raven
Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap - the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber's antedoor.
"This", I whispered quietly, "I ignore".
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
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
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.