For several years now, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has been so upfront about its math-loving, maybe-a-little-geeked-out, also beautifully loopy genius that it offers admissions to students on a day of great math symbolism: Pi Day, 3.14.
But this year is HUGE for those who love pi, which officially goes by the mathematical, Greek-letter symbol of π. The 2015 calendar brings a special gift to π lovers: The “15” in 2015 continues out pi’s decimal string in the constant number that is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.
Skip Fennell, a professor of education at McDaniel College, loves teaching kids about pi, because “there’s always that ‘Wow!’ factor, when they see circles of all different sizes and begin to understand there’s a constant.” In math, he said, “we need all the ‘Wows!’ we can get.”
Because the number is infinite, the decimals often get cut short in casual conversations about pi — somewhere a long way before forever. Tiberi, a high-school senior dreaming of MIT, has memorized pi to “only” (her words) 79 decimal points.
She can do it on command, and, when asked to, responded incredulously, laughing: “Do you really want me to?” Hear her do it in this clip:
The fact that pi is infinite is fascinating to children learning math, Fennell said. He will show them his calculator, and the Es — for “error” — since the calculator’s mind is blown, and its tiny screen can’t take it.
“That’s the mystery of mathematics,” he said.
To add to the circular joy in this “perfect pi” year, an MIT video announcement included MIT’s admissions dean striding purposefully into a hangar and handing a silvery tube to a drone. The drone rises, surrounded by a swarm of other drones, to deliver good news to smart applicants all over the world.
It concludes with a momentous date: 3.1415. (That’s Saturday, to you and me.)
To be more precise, the admissions decisions will be issued on 3.1415 at 9:26 a.m., which, of course, is the next three digits in pi’s numerical string: 3.1415926 …
Why? “Pi Day is a fun day for those interested in math,” said Stu Schmill, MIT’s dean of admissions. “Pi is a mathematical constant that shows up in a lot of different applications.”
Not college applications. Scientific applications.
Schmill knows how stressful the admissions process can be — the school received 18,306 applications this year — and they want to lighten up the decision-point some, he said. Last year, just 8 percent of MIT’s very self-selecting applicants got in.
“What we liked, my daughter, and I, was that they’re not taking it so seriously,” when there’s already so much pressure on college admissions, Diane Tiberi said. “They’re having fun with it, embracing the fun and quirky part of learning.”
But wait, another question: Why did Tiberi memorize those dozens of digits, anyway?
Doesn’t she want to be an aerospace engineer and lead interplanetary research missions? Yes, she does.
But oftentimes, on slow summer nights, she starts to miss math. So she thinks about π, a transcendental number, and an irrational one. A constant. And she thinks about the rhythm in the number as it plays out. A classical pianist, she can remember the numbers by hearing the music, or at least cadence, that they make when she says them aloud:
She had just finished a hike through the Colorado Rockies, where she lives, as she explained it.
Sure, she remembers teachers bringing out a soup can, and then a much bigger circle, and pondering the wonders of pi as a kid. Then when she got into calculus and using the trigonometric substitution, “it just becomes so much more valuable,” she said.
“I like it a lot! It’s useful,” she said. “That’s why I’m so excited for it. I have a ‘Happy Pi Day!’ shirt that I’m going to wear.”
What if you wouldn’t know a trigonometric substitution from a hole in the wall, you ask? Luckily, there’s always the other side of Pi Day: PIE DAY.
As for those who, like Tiberi, can say that math is their most difficult class and that’s the way they like it, MIT this year offers the ultimate, Fennell said.
“‘I got accepted on a Perfect Pi day,'” 3.14/15, he marveled, thinking of what future college students will be able to boast. “Are you kidding me? Who else can say that?”
Tiberi said she will set her alarm, take a picture of the time, then open her admissions decision. Here’s hoping that takes 53 seconds and she finds out — at exactly 3.141592653 — that she gets into MIT. Just the beginning of something that could last forever.