PUP math editor Vickie Kearn: How real mathematicians celebrate Pi Day

Who doesn’t love Pi (aka Pie) Day? Residents here in Princeton, NJ love it so much that we spend four days celebrating. Now, to be honest, we’re also celebrating Einstein’s birthday, so we do need the full four days. I know what I will be doing on 3.14159265 but I wondered what some of my friends will be doing. Not surprisingly, a lot will either be making or eating pie. These include Oscar Fernandez (Wellesley), Ron Graham (UCSD), and Art Benjamin (who will be performing his mathemagics show later in the week). Anna Pierrehumbert (who teaches in NYC) will be working with upper school students on a pi recitation and middle school students on making pi-day buttons. Brent Ferguson (The Lawrenceville School) has celebrated at The National Museum of Mathematics in NYC, Ireland, Greece, and this year Princeton. Here he is celebrating in Alaska:


The Princeton University Math Club will be celebrating with a party in Fine Hall. In addition to eating pie and playing games, they will have a digit reciting contest. Tim Chartier (Davidson College) will be spending his time demonstrating how to estimate pi with chocolate chips while also fielding interview requests for his expert opinion on March Madness (a lot going on this month for mathematicians). Dave Richeson (Dickinson College) goes to the local elementary school each year and talks with the fifth graders about pi and its history and then eats creatively rendered pi themed pie provided by the parents.

You might be wondering why we celebrate a mathematical constant every year. How did it get to be so important? Again I went back to my pi experts and asked them to tell me the most important uses of pi. This question is open to debate by mathematicians but many think that the most important is Euler’s Identity, e(i*pi) + 1 = 0. As Jenny Kaufmann (President of the Princeton University Math Club) puts it, “Besides elegantly encoding the way that multiplication by i results in a rotation in the complex plane, this identity unites what one might consider the five most important numbers in a single equation. That’s pretty impressive!” My most practical friend is Oscar and here is what he told me: “There are so many uses for pi, but given my interest in everyday explanations of math, here’s one I like: If you drive to work every day, you take many, many pi’s with you. That’s because the circumference of your car’s tires is pi multiplied by the tires’ diameter. The most common car tire has a diameter of about 29 inches, so one full revolution covers a distance of about 29 times pi (about 7.5 feet). Many, many revolutions of your tires later you arrive at work, with lots and lots of pi’s!” Anna is also practical in that she will be using pi to calculate the area of the circular pastry she will be eating, but she also likes the infinite series for pi (pi/4 = 1 – 1/3 + 1/5 – 1/7 etc.). Avner Ash (Boston College) sums it up nicely, “ We can’t live without pi—how would we have circles, normal distributions, etc.?”

One of the most important questions one asks on Pi Day is how many digits can you recite? The largest number I got was 300 from the Princeton Math Club. However, there are quite a few impressive numbers from others, as well as some creative answers and ways to remember the digits. For example, Oscar can remember 3/14/15 at 9:26:53 because it was an epic Day and Pi Time for him. Art Benjamin can recite 100 digits from a phonetic code and 5 silly sentences. Ron Graham can recite all of the digits of pi, even thousands, as long as they don’t have to be in order. Dave Richeson also knows all of the digits of pi which are 0,1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,and 9.

No matter how you celebrate, remember math, especially pi(e) is useful, fun, and delicious.

Vickie Kearn is Executive Editor of Mathematics at Princeton University Press.