Professor Shiu-Kai Chin ’75, G’78, G’86 has taught courses in the College of Engineering and Computer Science for over three decades. As a Laura J. and L. Douglas Meredith Professor, Chin is recognized for his teaching excellence in electrical engineering…
3.14 Is A Great Day To Get Silly And Goof Around With Math
Pi Day will be celebrated on March 14. Pi (Greek letter “π”) is the symbol used in mathematics to represent a constant — the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter — which is approximately 3.14159.
Graham Leuschke is a mathematics professor at Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences. He answers three questions about Pi Day, and why it continues to grow in popularity.
Can you tell us more about how Pi came to be?
Leuschke says: “People have known for thousands of years that if you want to build a round corral for your animals that’s a certain distance across, then you need a little more than 3 times that much fencing. Babylonians and Egyptians around 3500-4000 years ago already knew this ratio was always the same no matter how big the corral was, and knew it was in the neighborhood of 3.12 to 3.16.
“Archimedes of Syracuse was the first to prove mathematically that π is a universal constant, and is between 3.14 and 3.142.”
Why, in your opinion, does Pi Day continue to draw worldwide attention?
Leuschke says: “Most people first meet π in school, where it’s a completely mysterious figure appearing in formulas we’re asked to memorize. Learning a little more reveals even more mystery: it’s the first number folks encounter whose digits go on forever without discernible pattern. For people of a certain inquisitive mindset, celebrating this curious complexity is a way to touch something that has hidden depths, and makes us feel connected. Plus, people have realized more and more that math can be fun, and even slightly silly sometimes. Pi Day is a great time to goof around with math.”
Many perceive math as being a cornerstone of education, but a little boring. How does this day make it more engaging?
Leuschke says: “The happy coincidence with the word ‘pie’ plays a big part in this. Everybody loves pie, of course. But there are mathematical reasons as well: you can search for your birthday in the digits of π; you can create ‘pi-kus’, which are like haikus but have 3, 1, 4, 1, 5, … syllables per line instead of the traditional 5-7-5; you can even add a further degree of difficulty by having the word lengths in your pi-ku count the digits of π. These are games that everyone can play, that connect us to each other and with math.
“It probably also has to do with the growth and flowering of ‘nerd culture’. As it becomes culturally acceptable to be smart, showing that you’re smart has more and more appeal. References to π and Pi day can be bite-sized pieces of nerdery that fit in a tweet and advertise to everyone around you that you’re a smartypants too.”
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