You may or may not know that Sunday this week was Pi Day in the US. This occurs on March 14th every year, is so named because in the American system* the date reads 3.14to two decimal places), and in the past has been little more than an excuse to eat lots of pie in a knowing manner. But this all changed last year, when the U.S. House of Representatives passed a non-binding resolution – whatever that means – designating it as “National Pi Day”, capital letters and all. The curmudgeons among you might argue that they should have more important things to do with their time…well, my aim in this post is to persuade you otherwise!
is probably the most famous of the mathematical constants (fixed numbers)…indeed a sure sign of its importance and ubiquity is that it is one of the few mathematical constructs that most people have actually heard of. Constants likeandhave always fascinated mathematicians and non-mathematicians alike, and for good reason. Mathematics is arguably the most pure and direct way we have of describing physical reality, and the pivotal role these numbers play in the subject hints strongly at some deep significance to us. It has been suggested a number of times in popular culture – including in Darren Aronofsky’s filmand Carl Sagan’s novel Contact – that there is a message hidden in the digits ofwhich holds the key to understanding the nature of the universe. And it is easy to see why this is such an enduring idea:is definite, fixed…yet mysterious and unknowable (in fact we will never know exactly what is). It seems like such an arbitrary number, but at the same time could not really be anything else (circles would not be circles otherwise!). Like the distribution of the prime numbers, there is no pattern contained in the digits ofbut this doesn’t stop people looking for one anyway (you might say it positively encourages some). As a race we have computed it, analyzed it, memorized it, and generally celebrated its existence ever since we first really thought about circles.
To date,has been calculated to 2.7 trillion digits – far more than the average computer even has hard disk space to store. And the record for reciting the number from memory is held by a Chinese graduate named Lu Chao, who took 24 hours and 4 minutes to reciteto the 67,890th place. This record has recently been challenged by a Japanese engineer named Akira Haraguchi, who has claimed to have recited 100,000 places – this is yet to be verified. One method of memorizing large numbers is to use a mnemonic in which each digit is replaced with a word containing that number of letters. Here is a well-known example for the first 15 digits ofattributed to the physicist Sir James Jeans:
“How I need a drink (alcoholic of course), after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!”
There is even an entire adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Raven written in this rather constraining language…quite a feat, especially as it actually reads very well.
So I suppose I should explain whatactually is before I go any further! It is simply the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. In other words, the circumference of a circle istimes its diameter. Or, if you prefer,
…etc. The decimal expansion never ends, becauseis irrational. This means that it cannot be expressed as a fraction, and that it has an infinite non-repeating decimal expansion.