Pi Day: Celebrating an Irrational Number

Why does a number describing the ratio between a circle's circumference and its diameter inspire its own day?

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The number pi—written out here to 33 decimal places—is celebrated the world over on March 14 every year.

Number geeks—and pie aficionados—around the world have an excuse to indulge themselves today. It’s Pi Day, when the calendar reflects one the world’s most important mathematical constants. 

Pi is a circle's circumference—the distance around it—divided by its diameter, or the distance through its center. The relationship holds no matter the size of the circle: The rim of a soup can and a planet's equator both yield a ratio of pi. (See pictures of circles in nature.)

This rather simple-sounding description belies some rather fascinating qualities, says Ron Hipschman at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Museum staff held the first Pi Day celebration in 1988 by eating pie, and have carried on the tradition every year since, adding a Pi Day "shrine" and a procession. (Read about what they did when Pi Day turned 25.)

"Pi is interesting because it goes on forever [and its sequence] never repeats," Hipschman says. That's probably part of the reason why people are so enamored of it, he adds.

Ever More Accurate

People have known about this number for thousands of years—it even shows up in the Bible. And the fascination cuts across cultures. The Babylonians, ancient Greeks, and even the Chinese have tried their hand at calculating ever more accurate versions of pi.

The famous mathematician Archimedes attempted an exact calculation of pi in 250 B.C. using two 96-sided polygons—one drawn inside a circle and a second one drawn outside. He argued that the value of pi would lie between the lengths of each polygon's perimeter. His was the first theoretical, and most accurate, calculation of pi at the time.

Through the years, people have calculated pi to greater accuracy. But the hunt for even more decimal places really got cracking with the development of computers. Two American mathematicians calculated pi out to 1,120 digits in 1949 using a desk calculator. Currently, pi has been calculated out to 13.3 trillion decimal places, Hipschman says.

A Plethora of Pi

People express their love of this unique number in myriad ways, from memorizing and reciting as many digits as they can—the current record-holder got to 67,890 decimal places—to eating pie or composing haikus and songs.

In 2009, the U.S. Congress declared March 14 as Pi Day with a vote of 391 for and 10 against. "Ron Paul voted against it," says Hipschman, "among others." (Why does pi deserve its own day?)

Even bastions of higher learning celebrate in their own way. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology releases its admissions decisions every March 14. And this year, they will let lucky future freshmen know at 9:26 a.m. EST (3.1415926).

The Exploratorium will go four digits better, says Hipschman. They will take the first 58 people in line for the museum on March 14 and have them participate in a special procession around a pi plaque at 9:26:53 a.m. PST, honoring pi to 11 digits (3.14159265358). There will also be breakfast pie, he says, which will be served on gold-colored plates.

"People like celebrating," says Hipschman, "especially when pie is involved."

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