Pi and I

One Slow Winter

By Les Tanner

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.

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