Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Happy PI Day!

Today is pi day. For those unaware, the following Yahoo News AP wire excerpt will show, in minute detail what is happening due to this mysterious number on this day...

This is a story about love. About inscrutable complexity and remarkable simplicity, about the promise of forever. It is about obsession and devotion, and grand gestures and 4,000-word love letters.

It is about a curious group of people with an almost religious zeal for a mind-numbing string of numbers. Actually one number, made up of a chain that is known — so far — to be more than one trillion digits long. They are the acolytes of the church of pi.

And once a year many of them gather to talk about pi, rhapsodize about it, eat pi-themed foods (actual pie, sure, but so much more), have pi recitation contests and, just maybe, feel a little less sheepish about their unusual passion. That day falls on Wednesday this year: March 14. Or 3.14. Obviously.

See? It all coheres...

The question is why, of course. And if you ask the fans of pi why, a startling number of them will come back with the same question: "Why climb Mount Everest
?" Because it's there.

But then they start talking about some very simple ideas. Like the beauty of a number that seems to go on forever and yet has no discernible pattern to it. Or about the valor of the memorization gymnastics, challenging oneself always to know more.

This is how Akira Haraguchi, a 60-year-old mental health counselor in Japan, puts it: "What I am aiming at is not just memorizing figures. I am thrilled by seeking a story in pi." He said this one day last fall after accurately reciting pi to 100,000 decimal places. It took him 16 hours. He does not hold the Guinness world record, only because he has not submitted the required documentation to Guinness. But he has his story. (Incidentally, the world record belongs to Chao Lu, a Chinese chemistry student, who rattled off 67,890 digits over 24 hours in 2005. It took 26 video tapes to submit to Guinness.)

A brief math refresher: Pi a simple concept, the relationship between a circle's circumference and diameter: Multiply the diameter by pi — 3.14159, to use a crude approximation that would make many of the people in this story blanch — and you get the circumference.

Supercomputers have computed pi to more than a trillion decimal places, looking always for a pattern to unlock its mystery. And for centuries the number has fascinated mathematicians.

More than a trillion decimal places?!? Damnation Vincent, but that is some crazy cipherin'! But wait! There's more...

There are logical gathering places for people like this, and one of them is the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where, on March 14, students have been known to wish each other — out loud — a happy Pi Day.

The school plays a role in encouraging this: In the past it has tried to mail its acceptance letters on March 14. (It didn't work out this year. And last year, when an MIT official wrote on an admissions blog that it probably wouldn't work out then either, he was greeted with disappointment. "Pi Day seems so romantic," one prospective student wrote.

There's a popular chant, an MIT rallying cry, that includes "3.14159." (It rhymes with "Cosine, secant, tangent, sine!" And Bryan Owens, an MIT senior, says the ability to recite pi is a sort of bragging right, a coin of the realm.

"It's like how much money you have," he says. "But you never win. You always find somebody who knows it to more digits than you do. I think the basic idea is we like to celebrate things, kind of celebrate who we are."

And that is why, like the Irish on St. Patrick's Day or Italians on Columbus Day, this Wednesday, 3-14, in many cases at 1:59 p.m., pi enthusiasts will have their moment in the sun.

At the Exploratorium in San Francisco, there will be pies to eat, people wearing pi jewelry, more beads — color-coded by digit — added to the pi string. And the celebrants will gather at a sort of pi shrine, a brass plaque engraved with pi's first 100 digits.

Okay, I think we get the idea. So maybe it's not on a par with James Joyce impersonators running around the parks, pubs and streets of Dublin on Bloomsday (June 16th, the date Joyce chose for his classic novel Ulysses), but it's not too shabby. And who knows?!? Maybe one of these people will one day unlock the mystery of this fantastic number.

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