Celebrating Pi with Pie


Pi and pie have a lot in common.

One is packed with mathematical applications, while the other is packed with tasty fruits or meats. One is an internationally known mathematical constant, while the other is a classic American culinary tradition. Both are centuries old, and both are celebrated nationwide on March 14.

Pi Day is observed on the 14th day of the third month: hence, 3.14. While the idea of pi is not new, the holiday itself is only 26 years old, founded in 1988. It was created by Larry Shaw of the Exploratorium museum in San Francisco. 

Since then, both math lovers and pastry lovers alike have been celebrating 3.14159 (etc.) with delicious baked desserts and endless puns.

Pi: A Slice of History

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“Pi goes back 4,000 years,” said Bruce Reznick, professor of mathematics. “Even before people wrote down the name of pi, they noticed that there was a proportion between the circumference of a circle and its radius and its diameter.”

According to a TechHive.com article called “A Brief History of Pi,” it is believed that pi could easily have been around since Ancient Egyptian times: “The Great Pyramid at Giza, which was built between 2550 and 2500 BC, has a … ratio of 1760/280, or approximately 2 times pi.”

Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse is believed to be the first to compute a more exact estimation of pi between 287 and 212 B.C. by using a 96-sided polygon, according to the article. 

However, it wasn’t until 1707 that the symbol of pi was actually attributed to the mathematical constant. Welsh mathematician William Jones was considered the first to call it pi, which is based off the Greek word meaning “perimeter.” 

Humble Pi: Small Symbol, Big Potential

Being an irrational number, pi has an endless number of decimal places. Some people, like Isaac Newton, don’t believe these are worth knowing. After calculating pi to 15 decimal places, he was quoted as saying, “I am ashamed to tell you to how many figures I carried these calculations, having no other business at the time.”

In contrast, several other individuals jump at the opportunity to stretch their computational limits involving pi. In 1873, according to PiAcrossAmerica.org, British math amateur William Shanks arduously calculated 707 digits of pi before the age of computers or modern calculators. Unfortunately, 72 years later, it was discovered that he had made an error after the 527th decimal place — but Shanks had since died and never learned this fact. 

As of Dec. 28, 2013, Alexander J. Yee and Shigeru Kondo, two math enthusiasts from Japan and the U.S., respectively, have managed to set a record for finding 12.1 trillion digits of pi. They needed more than 70 terabytes of data to compute and store all the numbers.

Thanks to Yee and Kondo, it is now known that the 12,100,000,000,050th digit of pi is 5. 

While a supercomputer is capable of storing this data, humans’ mental capacities are a different matter altogether. According to Pi-World-Ranking-List.com, Chinese pi aficionado Lu Chao currently holds the world record of memorizing nearly 68,000 digits of pi off the top of his head. 

A Piece of a Larger Pi

While he can’t recite thousands of digits of pi, Juan Villeta-Garcia, a Ph.D. student in mathematics at the University, has always had an interest in pi and all things math-related. He is part of a registered student organization called the Graduate Student Algebraic Geometry Seminar, whose members discuss different concepts in the two fields during weekly meetings.

“There is a very famous formula in math called Euler’s formula, and it … relates a lot of the main constants in math,” Villeta-Garcia said. “One of them is ‘e,’ Euler’s number, the exponential which governs exponential growth. And the others are ‘i,’ the imaginary numbers; zero; … one; and lastly, pi.”

Although pi may be the only constant with its own holiday (and the one most related to baked goods), “these five constants to me define a lot about what math is,” he continued.

Even after pi’s rich history, mathematicians are still researching it and learning more about it, he said.

Freshly Baked Pi Celebrations

March 14 is the ideal date to commemorate one of math’s oldest constants. Not only is the date set up perfectly as 3/14, but the holiday also involves celebrating with circular baked goods and questionable puns.

In and around campus, there is no shortage of pi enthusiasts like Villeta-Garcia. A student organization called MATRIX, or Mathematical Advancement Through Research and Idea eXchange, seeks to bring together math-loving students and faculty on campus.

Amanda Belisle, a junior in mathematics and computer science,  is the president of MATRIX. She and the other group members are organizing a Pi Day event Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. in Altgeld Hall, Room 173. The hour will include pi-related snacks, challenges and conversations, and it is open to any “math-minded people” on campus, she said.

For even more pi, Research Park will also host its own Pi Day-themed event Friday from noon to 1 p.m. in the EnterpriseWorks Atrium. 

“We do about 100 events here a year in the Research Park, and this is one … that is really just for fun,” said Laura Bleill, assistant director for external relations at Research Park. “We just feel like this is a fun opportunity to celebrate something that people use in everyday life, and something that’s really important to innovation and technology.”

This is the third year that Research Park has held a Pi Day event, which is open mainly to people affiliated with the park, but also welcomes anyone with an interest in the matter.

Pie will be served at the event, of course, and it will include various networking and social activities to get people in the mood for pi.

At on-campus Pi Day events in the past, there have been pie bake-offs, pie eating contests and even “pie walks” (instead of cake walks) around a trigonometric unit circle, Bleill said.

Incidentally, the holiday also falls on the same date as Einstein’s birthday — which makes it even more relevant to mathematics and science.

Next year, Pi Day will be on 3/14/15, the ultimate alignment, which matches up with the first four decimals in pi. This only happens once every century.

“I mean, everybody likes pie … faculty like pie, students like pie, grad students like pie,” Reznick said. “I think students always like to have fun things that are associated with their studies, and that’s not so easy with math sometimes.”

With math-related activities and tasty pies, Pi Day certainly can make mathematics more lighthearted and approachable for those who are iffy about the subject. 

“Nowadays, modern math gets so intricate and so advanced … that it’s hard to sometimes even talk about math with other mathematicians,” Villeta-Garcia said. “So Pi Day, in a way, brings it back down to earth.”

Reema can be reached at [email protected].