Brush Up Your Math Skills — Pi Day Is Almost Here!

By Meera Dolasia on March 13, 2017

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Entrance of the math building at the Technical University of Berlin (Photo Credit: Holger Motzkau (Own work CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)

Even if math doesn’t rank high on your list of favorite subjects, chances are you still look forward to Pi Day. That’s because though the discussions may begin with Pi — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — they invariably end with a piece or two of yummy pie! The event is commemorated on March 14 because though the irrational number (its decimal representation never ends and never repeats) has been calculated to over ten trillion digits, it is widely recognized as 3.14.

Now in its 29th year, Pi Day was started in 1988 by San Francisco’s Exploratorium Museum to acknowledge the importance of mathematics in our everyday lives. Given that March 14 is also Albert Einstein’s birthday makes the celebration extra special.

Photo Credit: Science.

While the museum was the first to honor the mathematical constant, Pi Day is now widely recognized across the country. At the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Los Angeles, students celebrate the event at 1:59 am local time with a pie-eating party that features five varieties of 26 pies each. Though the precise time and number of pies may seem random, they all serve a purpose. Line up the 3.14 (date), 159 (time), 26 (#of pies), and 5 (# of varieties), in the right sequence and you will end up with 3.14159265, or the first nine digits of Pi!

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) celebrates the event by letting prospective students know if they have a place at the institution. The e-mails are released at 6:28 pm EST in honor of Pi’s rival number Tau, which, as you may have guessed, is 6.28. The number, which is twice that of Pi, was first suggested in an article entitled “π is Wrong” by Bob Palais in 2001. The University of Utah professor argued π is confusing and therefore the wrong choice of circle constant. He instead suggested using an alternate constant equal to 2π, (or 6.283…). A few years later, Michael Hartl, a Ph.D. from Caltech published “The Tau Manifesto,” which made a similar case and even began a new celebration on June 28 (6/28) in honor of Tau.

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The town of Princeton, New Jersey, where Albert Einstein lived from 1935 until his death in 1955, goes all out with a four-day celebration that begins on March 11. The activities range from pie eating contests to Einstein look-alike competitions, concerts, movie screenings and even a Pi-recitation challenge where the grand prize winner takes home a check of $314.15 USD.

Corporations get into the Pi Day spirit as well. In 2016, Pizza Hut collaborated with mathematician John H. Conway to stage a national Pi Day math contest. The winner was awarded 3.14 years of free pizzas. There is no word if the fast food chain plans to repeat the initiative this year, but be sure to keep an eye out.

Pi in the Sky contest (Photo Credit: JPL.NASA.Gov)

For the fourth consecutive year, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory has created a Pi Day challenge featuring four math problems the agency’s scientists and engineers face in their quest to explore space. The Pi in the Sky Challenge, open to students grade six through high school, is designed to show the significance of Pi in the real world. The problems involve Mars craters, a total solar eclipse, a close encounter with Saturn, and the search for habitable worlds. Be sure check them out while noshing on a piece of delicious pie.

Though Pi Day celebrations are relatively new, the mathematical constant has been known to mankind for over 4,000 years. The ancient Babylonians were the first to calculate the area of a circle using three times the square of its radius, giving Pi the value of 3. They later got closer to the real number with an approximation of 3.124. Egyptian mathematicians overestimated the value slightly, arriving at a number of 3.165 in 1650 BC. Given that neither had even basic calculators at their disposal, the accuracy was certainly impressive! Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse was the first person to calculate Pi mathematically. However, the scholar was smart enough to realize that his number was an approximation and concluded that Pi could vary between 3 1/7 and 3 10/71. Who knew math could be so much fun?

Happy Pi Day!


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  • duckie2085
    duckie2085Monday, March 20, 2017 at 5:30 pm
    Pie is awesome
    • Tau not PiMonday, March 20, 2017 at 2:37 pm
      If anyone wants to debate just list your reasons here and I will gladly respond. (and destroy your argument sorry!)
      • Tau not PiMonday, March 20, 2017 at 2:36 pm
        We should not have celebrated Pi day and we should celebrate Tau day, 6/28.
        • Tau not PiMonday, March 20, 2017 at 2:34 pm
          Pi is to confusing to be used as a circle constant. Almost everything in trigonometry involves pi. Using Tau would make it much easier to explain certain fundamental concepts of trigonometry in an alternate universe where we use tau. For example, with pi-based thinking, if you want to designate a point one third of the way around the circle, you say it has gone two thirds pi radians. Three quarters around the same circle has gone one and a half pi radians. Everything is distorted by a confusing factor of two. By contrast, a third of a circle is a third of tau. Three quarters of a circle is three quarters tau. The opportunity to impress students with a beautiful and natural simplification is turned into an absurd exercise in memorization and dogma.For mathematicians, pi obscures some of the underlying symmetries of mathematics and muddies up what should be elegant with extraneous factors of two. There’s an admittedly grandiose idea that mathematics is the language with which we express and see certain underpinning truths to the universe. To clutter that language with superfluous twos would be as bad as littering a Shakespearean monologue with “likes” and “umms” and “whatevers.”We Americans have almost a proud tradition of using poorly chosen units because of inertia: Fahrenheit instead of Celsius, miles instead of kilometers. Even the great Benjamin Franklin inadvertently established the convention of calling positive charge negative and vice-versa as a result of his experiments with electricity.Although switching to tau when all the textbooks and academic papers use pi may sound daunting, it doesn’t need to be. There could be a transitional period of using both mathematical constants while we phase out the old and humor the intransigents who can’t or won’t change.Tau Day is approaching. It occurs, of course, on 6/28. As the Internet braces itself for the annual controversy, some lament the loss of a pun that embracing tau would entail. “But pie is yummy" remains one of the more compelling arguments for clinging to the traditional ways of 3.14. But tauists have a response for this as well: on Tau Day you get to eat twice as much pie! Hope this clears up any confusion!
          • lily jonesMonday, March 20, 2017 at 2:34 pm
            • PipieMonday, March 20, 2017 at 2:12 pm
              I want pie😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍😍!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
              • cookie monsterMonday, March 20, 2017 at 11:57 am
                cookies are better
                • cookiegirl25Monday, March 20, 2017 at 11:43 am
                  Pi day baby
                  • desert falconMonday, March 20, 2017 at 8:22 am
                    nice PI video
                    • galactial
                      galactialMonday, March 20, 2017 at 7:53 am
                      I knew pinto the 57 th digit , know I only know 3.1415926 . 😏😏😏

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