Marc Chamberland: Why π is important

On March 14, groups across the country will gather for Pi Day, a nerdy celebration of the number Pi, replete with fun facts about this mathematical constant, copious amounts pie, and of course, recitations of the digits of Pi. But why do we care about so many digits of Pi? How big is the room you want to wallpaper anyway? In 1706, 100 digits of Pi were known, and by 2013 over 12 trillion digits had been computed. I’ll give you five reasons why someone may claim that many digits of Pi is important, but they’re not all good.

Reason 1
It provides accuracy for scientific measurements

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This argument had merit when only a few digits were known, but today this reason is as empty as space. The radius of the universe is 93 billion light years, and the radius of a hydrogen atom is about 0.1 nanometers. So knowing Pi to 38 places is enough to tell you precisely how many hydrogen atoms you need to encircle the universe. For any mechanical calculations, probably 3.1415 is more than enough precision.

Reason 2
It’s neat to see how far we can go

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It’s true that great feats and discoveries have been done in the name of exploration. Ingenious techniques have been designed to crank out many digits of Pi and some of these ideas have led to remarkable discoveries in computing. But while this “because it is there” approach is beguiling, just because we can explore some phenomenon doesn’t mean we’ll find something valuable. Curiosity is great, but harnessing that energy with insight will take you farther.

Reason 3
Computer Integrity

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The digits of Pi help with testing and developing new algorithms. The Japanese mathematician Yasumasa Kanada used two different formulas to generate and check over one trillion digits of Pi. To get agreement after all those arithmetic operations and data transfers is strong evidence that the computers are functioning error-free. A spin-off of the expansive Pi calculations has been the development of the Fast Fourier Transform, a ground-breaking tool used in digital signal processing.

Reason 4
It provides evidence that Pi is normal

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A number is “normal” if any string of digits appears with the expected frequency. For example, you expect the number 4 to appear 1/10 of the time, or the string 28 to appear 1/100 of the time. It is suspected that Pi is normal, and this was evidenced from the first trillion digits when it was seen that each digit appears about 100 billion times. But proving that Pi is normal has been elusive. Why is the normality of numbers important? A normal number could be used to simulate a random number generator. Computer simulations are a vital tool in modeling any dynamic phenomena that involves randomness. Applications abound, including to climate science, physiological drug testing, computational fluid dynamics, and financial forecasting. If easily calculated numbers such as Pi can be proven to be normal, these precisely defined numbers could be used, paradoxically, in the service of generating randomness.

Reason 5
It helps us understand the prime numbers

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Pi is intimately connected to the prime numbers. There are formulas involving the product of infinitely numbers that connect the primes and Pi. The knowledge flows both ways: knowing many primes helps one calculate Pi and knowing many digits of Pi allows one to generate many primes. The Riemann Hypothesis—an unsolved 150-year-old mathematical problem whose solution would earn the solver one million dollars—is intimately connected to both the primes and the number Pi.

And you thought that Pi was only good for circles.

SingleMarc Chamberland is the Myra Steele Professor of Mathematics and Natural Science at Grinnell College. His research in several areas of mathematics, including studying Pi, has led to many publications and speaking engagements in various countries. His interest in popularizing mathematics resulted in the recent book Single Digits: In Praise of Small Numbers with Princeton University Press. He also maintains his YouTube channel Tipping Point Math that tries to make mathematics accessible to a general audience. He is currently working on a book about the number Pi.