Where would we be without Pi?

Pi Day, the annual celebration of the mathematical constant π (pi), is always an excuse for mathematical and culinary revelry in Princeton. Since 3, 1, and 4 are the first three significant digits of π, the day is typically celebrated on 3/14, which in a stroke of serendipity, also happens to be Albert Einstein’s birthday. Pi Day falls on Monday this year, but Princeton has been celebrating all weekend with many more festivities still to come, from a Nerd Herd smart phone pub crawl, to an Einstein inspired running event sponsored by the Princeton Running Company, to a cocktail making class inside Einstein’s first residence. We imagine the former Princeton resident would be duly impressed.

Einstein enjoying a birthday/ Pi Day cupcake

Einstein enjoying a birthday/ Pi Day cupcake

Pi Day in Princeton always includes plenty of activities for children, and tends to be heavy on, you guessed it, actual pie (throwing it, eating it, and everything in between). To author Paul Nahin, this is fitting. At age 10, his first “scientific” revelation was,  If pi wasn’t around, there would be no round pies! Which it turns out, is all too true. Nahin explains:

Everybody “knows’’ that pi is a number a bit larger than 3 (pretty close to 22/7, as Archimedes showed more than 2,000 years ago) and, more accurately, is 3.14159265… But how do we know the value of pi? It’s the ratio of the circumference of a circle to a diameter, yes, but how does that explain how we know pi to hundreds of millions, even trillions, of decimal digits? We can’t measure lengths with that precision. Well then, just how do we calculate the value of pi? The symbol π (for pi) occurs in countless formulas used by physicists and other scientists and engineers, and so this is an important question. The short answer is, through the use of an infinite series expansion.

NahinIn his book In Praise of Simple Physics, Nahin shows you how to derive such a series that converges very quickly; the sum of just the first 10 terms correctly gives the first five digits. The English astronomer Abraham Sharp (1651–1699) used the first 150 terms of the series (in 1699) to calculate the first 72 digits of pi. That’s more than enough for physicists (and for anybody making round pies)!

While celebrating Pi Day has become popular—some would even say fashionable in nerdy circles— PUP author Marc Chamberland points out that it’s good to remember Pi, the number. With a basic scientific calculator, Chamberland’s recent video “The Easiest Way to Calculate Pi” details a straightforward approach to getting accurate approximations for Pi without tables or a prodigious digital memory. Want even more Pi? Marc’s book Single Digits has more than enough Pi to gorge on.

Now that’s a sweet dessert.

If you’re looking for more information on the origin of Pi, this post gives an explanation extracted from Joseph Mazur’s fascinating history of mathematical notation, Enlightening Symbols.

You can find a complete list of Pi Day activities from the Princeton Tour Company here.

Lawrence Stone Lectures with Chris Clark this April

At the end of April, Chris Clark of St. Catharine’s College, University of Cambridge, and author of the international bestseller The Sleepwalkers, is giving the Lawrence Stone Lectures, jointly sponsored by the Princeton History Department’s Shelby Cullom Davis Center and Princeton University Press. The lectures are on Power and Historicity in Germany, 1648-1945. They are open to the public and held at 4:30 pm, 010 E. Pyne, with a reception to follow.

On Tuesday, April 28, “The State Makes History”

On Wednesday, April 29, “The State Confronts History”

On Thursday, April 30, “Nazi Time: The Escape from History”

Check the Davis Center’s website for more information on this lecture series.

Lawrence Stone Lectures


John Nash wins Abel Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters

John Nash

Princeton University mathematician, John Nash, has won one of the highest honors in the field, an Abel Prize from the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters. Nash will share the prize with colleague Louis Nirenberg. The academy stated, “Their impact can be felt in all branches of the theory…[T]he widespread impact of both Nash and Nirenberg on the modern toolbox of nonlinear partial differential equations cannot be fully covered here.”

Read more about Nash’s work and the award, which includes an $800,000 prize, here.

2014 Lawrence Stone Lecture Series to Feature Lorraine Daston

This year’s Lawrence Stone Lecture Series, featuring Lorraine Daston, will be held April 29 thru May 1. Entitled “Rules: A Short History of What We Live By,” the lecture will feature three different sessions:

April 29 — Rules of Iron, Rules of Lead: A Prehistory of an Indispensable and Impossible Genre

April 30 — Rules Go Rigid: Natural Laws, Calculations, and Algorithms

May 1 — Rules, Rationality, and Reasonableness

The events will be held in 010 East Pyne Building at 4:30 p.m.

The lecture series is co-sponsored by Princeton University Press, Princeton University’s History Department, and the Shelby Cullom Davis Center for Historical Studies. The Center was founded by former chair of the History Department, Lawrence Stone (1919-91). Each year, the lecture series features Princeton’s Lawrence Stone Visiting Professor, and the professor’s three lectures are then included in a book published by Princeton University Press.

Lorraine Daston is the executive director of the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin as well as a visiting professor on the Committee on Social Thought at the University of Chicago.

april 15 lecture


Bender_Paleoclimate “Michael Bender, a giant in the field, fits the excitement, rigor, and deep insights of paleoclimatology into a succinct text suitable for a semester-long course introducing this indispensable branch of environmental science.”–Richard B. Alley, Pennsylvania State University

Michael L. Bender

In this book, Michael Bender, an internationally recognized authority on paleoclimate, provides a concise, comprehensive, and sophisticated introduction to the subject. After briefly describing the major periods in Earth history to provide geologic context, he discusses controls on climate and how the record of past climate is determined. The heart of the book then proceeds chronologically, introducing the history of climate changes over millions of years–its patterns and major transitions, and why average global temperature has varied so much. The book ends with a discussion of the Holocene (the past 10,000 years) and by putting manmade climate change in the context of paleoclimate.

The most up-to-date overview on the subject, Paleoclimate provides an ideal introduction to undergraduates, nonspecialist scientists, and general readers with a scientific background.


Watch Michael Bender discuss Paleoclimate at the Fundamentals of Climate Science Symposium at Princeton University

Request an examination copy.


“I found the first ballistic capture orbit to the moon with a painting,” Ed Belbruno

Ed Belbruno’s life and discoveries are the subject of a new documentary titled Painting the Way to the Moon by Jacob Akira Okada. Belbruno, a trained mathematician, discovered new ways to navigate the universe by taking advantage of gravitational pulls of various celestial bodies. Because of his work, space missions now use less fuel to traverse the stars and planets. And millions of Angry Birds Space fans should also thank Belbruno because his research is what determines the birds’ trajectories around space bodies and through gravitational pulls to eventual pig annihilation.

In the documentary, Belbruno, a brilliant painter in addition to mathematician and space scientist, credits his discovery to a Van Gogh-style painting he made of possible travel routes through space for his inspiration. Enjoy the complete trailer below:

Curious about Belbruno’s research? Please check out these Princeton University Press titles. Fly Me to the Moon is intended for general audiences, while Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics is a specialized textbook.



Fly Me to the Moon
An Insider’s Guide to the New Science of Space Travel
Edward Belbruno
With a foreword by Neil deGrasse Tyson



Capture Dynamics and Chaotic Motions in Celestial Mechanics
With Applications to the Construction of Low Energy Transfers
Edward Belbruno

Introducing a Collection of Essays by Some of Today’s Best Writers and Journalists

From a Swedish hotel made of ice to the enigma of UFOs, from a tragedy on Lake Minnetonka to the gold mine of cyberpornography, The Princeton Reader brings together more than 90 favorite essays by 75 distinguished writers. This collection of nonfiction pieces by journalists who have held the Ferris/McGraw/Robbins professorships at Princeton University offers a feast of ideas, emotions, and experiences–political and personal, light-hearted and comic, serious and controversial–for anyone to dip into, contemplate, and enjoy.

The volume includes a plethora of topics from the environment, terrorism, education, sports, politics, and music to profiles of memorable figures and riveting stories of survival. These important essays reflect the high-quality work found in today’s major newspapers, magazines, broadcast media, and websites.

The book’s contributors include such outstanding writers as:

• Ken Armstrong of the Seattle Times
• Jill Abramson, Jim Dwyer, and Walt Bogdanich of the New York Times
• Evan Thomas of Newsweek
• Joel Achenbach and Marc Fisher of the Washington Post
• Nancy Gibbs of Time
• Jane Mayer, John McPhee, Alex Ross and John Seabrook of the New Yorker
• Alexander Wolff, senior writer at Sports Illustrated
• Michael Dobbs, formerly of Washington Post, now a Cold War historian and author
• Barbara Demick, Los Angeles Times‘ Beijing Bureau Chief
• James V. Grimaldi, Washington Post, Pulitzer prize-winner
• Roberta Oster Sachs, formerly ABC, CBS, and NBC news and Emmy Award winner, now University of Richmond School of Law
• Joel Stein, columnist and a regular contributor to Time
• Claudia Roth Pierpont, staff writer at New Yorker
• Greil Marcus, music and culture critic, author, has been a columnist for the New York Times, The Believer

For a complete listing, visit:

The perfect collection for anyone who enjoys compelling narratives, The Princeton Reader contains a depth and breadth of nonfiction that will inspire, provoke, and endure.

John McPhee’s many books include Annals of the Former World, for which he was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1999. Carol Rigolot is executive director of the Humanities Council at Princeton University.

We invite you to read chapter one online:

The Princeton Reader:
Contemporary Essays by Writers and Journalists at Princeton University

Edited by John McPhee & Carol Rigolot