Happy Pi Day!

March 14

Today isn’t the great Pi Day that we’ll have next year (3/14/15, some may prefer to round and celebrate 3/14/16), but it’s Pi Day nonetheless.

In honor of the day, I offer an old mnemonic of mine. Some of you may be familiar with the classic mnemonic How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics: count up the letters in each word, stick a decimal point after the 3, and you get 3.14159265358979. (See this page for a discussion of pi mnemonics.) How do you deal with zeroes (which crop up after about 30 digits)? Some people use ten-letter words; I decided to end the sentence. This allows you to continue until you get two zeroes in a row, which happens somewhere around 200 digits.

Here’s my version, which gets you to 167 digits after the decimal point:

How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics; but we did estimate some digits by making very bad, not accurate, but so greatly efficient tools! In quaintly valuable ways, a dedicated student — I, Volokh, Alexander — can determine beautiful and curious stuff, O! Smart, gorgeous me! Descartes himself knew wonderful ways that could ascertain it too! Revered, glorious — a wicked dude! Behold an unending number: pi! Thinkers’ ceaseless agonizing produces little, if anything! For this constant, it stops not — just as e, I suppose. Vainly, ancient geometers computed it — a task undoable. Legendre, Adrien Marie: ‘I say pi rational is not!’ Adrien proved this theorem. Therefore, all doubters have made errors. (Everybody that’s Greek.) Today, counting is as bad a problem as years ago, maybe centuries even. Moreover, I do consider that variable x, y, z, wouldn’t much avail. Is constant like i? No, buffoon!

I developed this in the mid-’90s with David Tazartes and Steven LaCombe. It was discussed in a couple of places, like Ivars Peterson’s MathLand and The Scientist Magazine. As far as pi mnemonics go, it’s far from impressive: if you want impressive, I suggest “Poe, E.: Near a Raven”, which gives you 740 digits and is part of a much larger work called Cadaeic Cadenza.

But if you really want to give your loved ones a gift for Pi Day, I recommend the following two books: Petr Beckmann’s A History of Pi, and David Blatner’s The Joy of Pi. Blatner’s book is very light reading and has the advantage of citing me, to the effect that memorizing pi is useless, but to say that math has to be useful is like saying the English language is only good for ordering pizza. Beckmann’s book is kind of dense and ranty (including rants on politics) and not everyone likes it, but it was the first pi book I read and I enjoyed it. Feel free to leave your own recommendations in the comments.

Sasha Volokh lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, and is an associate professor at Emory Law School. He has written numerous articles and commentaries on law and economics, privatization, antitrust, prisons, constitutional law, regulation, torts, and legal history.
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Sasha Volokh | March 13