A Slice of Pi Trivia

Congress cannot work together to solve critical issues facing the nation (like the national budget, hunger, poverty, education, etc.) — all of which costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year; but, they can adequately address the more frivolous matters — like establishing Pi Day. The esteemed members of the House of Representatives, having nothing better to do on March 12, 2009, passed a resolution that recognized March 14 (3.14) as National Pi Day. What members of Congress really deserve for their efforts is a pie in the face — a topic for another day.

National Pi Day is celebrated with pride by math nerds and the geeks that religiously watch “The Big Bang Theory.” However, a number that has evoked such fascination through the centuries should not be relegated to the sidelines of geekdom; it is worth taking a closer look at this seemingly trivial number. “No number has captured the attention and imagination of people throughout the ages as much as the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter,” writes David Blatner, author of The Joy of Pi, “Pi is infinite… and infinitely intriguing.” Blatner’s short book is an inspired and witty exploration of the life of pi. Since its publication, many of the records have been broken; however, here are some of the more interesting facts about pi from Blatner’s book and the internet: 

Albert Einstein was born on Pi day in 1879 (3.14.1879).

The height of an elephant (from foot to shoulder) – 2 x pi x (diameter of the elephant’s foot).

While March 14 (3.14) is Pi Day, May 14, 2013 (5.14.13) is reverse pi day.

Most people are satisfied rounding pi to two decimal places (3.14); however for years, mathematicians have attempted to calculate pi to the highest number of decimal places. On October 17, 2011, Shigeru Kondo with the help of Alexander Yee, succeeded in calculating pi to  an astronomical 10 trillion decimal places — now that’s accuracy! The calculation took 371 days to complete on a custom home computer (made from commercially available computer parts), and was verified twice (the first verification process took 1.8 days, the second took 4.9 days).

Earlier calculations of pi by hand calculations took years. For example, William Shanks took 15 years to calculate pi to 707 decimal places (he published his work in 1874). About 70 years later, it took D. F. Ferguson two years, using a desk calculator, to calculate pi to 808 decimal places (published in 1947). In the course of his work, he discovered that Shanks had made a mistake after the 527th place, so the digits that followed were incorrect. It didn’t matter much to Shanks — he had passed away in 1882 satisfied that he had conquered the Mount Everest of math. With the advent of supercomputers that could handle millions of calculations per second, the time to compute thousand and millions of decimal places decreased exponentially. By 1954, calculating pi to 3,092 digits took just 13 minutes; by 1958, calculating pi to 10,000 digits took 17 hours; by 1982, pi was calculated to 8.3 million digits in just under 7 hours; and by 1983, pi was calculated to 16.7 million digits in 30 hours. That’s certainly a lot of pi.

The earliest written record of the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter was written by Ahmes, an Egyptian scribe, in what is known as the Rhind Papyrus, written in circa 1650 BC. The papyrus is exhibited at the British Museum.

The ratio of the length of one side of the Pyramid of Giza to its height is approximately pi/2.

The human brain is very capable of memorizing chunks of information, especially 6-8 discrete pieces of information at a time (the reason that phone numbers are 7 digits long). Not limited to the memory of most mortals, Hiroyuki Goto, of Japan set the world record for reciting 42,195 decimal places of pi from memory back in February 18, 1995. Although that number is impressive, it pales in comparison to the current record holder, Chao Lu, who recited 67,890 decimal places of pi in 24 hours and 4 minutes on November 20, 2005. Lu, a chemistry student (and not a math major), practiced for four years to deliver his amazing performance.

The digits of pi are extremely random. There are no occurrences of the sequence 123456 in the first million decimal places of pi. The sequence 012345 occurs twice. The sequence 3333333 appears at the 710,100th and 3,204,765th decimal places.

The first 144 digits of pi add up to 666. Note that 144 also equals (6+6) x (6+6).

For further reading: The Joy of Pi by David Blatner, Walker Publishing (1997)


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