Pi and I

One Slow Winter

By Les Tanner

This story is available free in its entirety for the first part of June.

A Boise television station’s evening newscast last March contained a short piece about the efforts of the Mathematics Club at The College of Idaho to set a record for possible entry into Guinness World Records. If they could get more than 520 people wearing numbers on their T-shirts and standing in just the right order, they would break a current yet little-known record held by the citizens of Città di Todi in Italy. The Idaho club got more than 650 people to turn out but had only six hundred T-shirts.

The people were arranged to “spell out” the first six hundred digits of the mathematical constant Pi. I’ll tell you more about Pi shortly, but the most important (?) part of that newscast, at least from my point of view, showed an old guy saying, “Three point one four one five nine two six five three five eight nine seven nine three two three eight four six.” Well, I’m that old guy and what I was putting into words was the number 3.14159265358979323846.

My twelve seconds of fame. One has to take what one can get.

That string of twenty-one numerals is just the first part of the decimal representation of the number known as Pi, which is one of the most important numbers in all of mathematics. Basically, Pi is the ratio of the circumference of any circle to its diameter. It has many other applications, but I won’t go into that. What I will say is: Pi has an infinite number of digits in its expansion; it was calculated to 2.7 trillion decimal places in 2010; there is no pattern to the digits in the expansion of Pi; as a consequence, no matter how far out Pi is calculated, it is impossible to know what the next digit will be.

Les (3) joins a recent effort in Caldwell to set a world Pi display record. Kaycee Holton Porter photo.
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The author shows Pi expanded to one hundred thousand places. Les Tanner photo.
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As with any challenge, memorizing the most digits of Pi is an ongoing battle. Chao Lu, who memorized Pi to one hundred thousand decimal places but made a mistake reciting the 67,891st place, held the Guinness record at 67,890 places, but that was broken ten years later by Rajveer Meena, who memorized seventy thousand places. Akira Haraguchi had earlier memorized one hundred thousand places, but it wasn’t made official by Guinness.

I have no idea where that stands today, but it all makes my string of twenty-one places look pretty pathetic, doesn’t it?

Large numbers have always fascinated me for some reason. Virtually no one (including me) has any real notion of how big a number such as a million is. Or a billion or a trillion. Or any other -illion.

In order to show folks (including me) a million things, I once obtained a list of Pi expanded to a million decimal places. Our son Michael had found it somewhere on the Web. I had a bit of spare time one winter, so I went about printing those million and one numbers (including the lead 3) onto regular 8-1/2 by 11-inch copy paper, in ordinary size-twelve type. It took a bit of doing to get things just right on the pages, but I finally got that done, and then I got to work gluing the pages together to make a chart. Took a while, as you might imagine, because there were almost two hundred pages. The result: A chart that is forty feet long and three feet wide. That’s my own “world record.”

I know: “Get a life, Les.”

Incidentally, a billion is a thousand times a million, so if I had made a similar chart of a billion and one digits, it would be forty thousand feet long, which is a more than seven miles. And a similar chart of Pi to a trillion places—a trillion is a thousand times a billion—would be over seven thousand miles long.

Go ahead, take a deep breath and relax. It gives me a headache, too.

By the way, the Mathematics Club at the college has not yet heard from the Guinness people.  If—and when—they do get good news, I’m sure you’ll be able to hear their hollering.

Last but not least, you may wonder why March 14 was chosen for the club’s attempt to set that record. The date, which can be written as 3/14, is known as “Pi Day”. 3.14. Get it?

I guess you could call April 24 “Square Root of 18 Day”, too, but I don’t think I’ll go there.

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