03/11/2013 03:52 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Life of π

The fascination with Pi, the most famous number in human history, is as limitless as its own digits. Thousands of years ago, Pi was born out of pure desire to perfect the measurement of geometrical shapes, such as circles.

However, since its birth Pi has evolved to an entity, more than just a number, which is often linked to mysticism. As Pi celebrates another day, some mathematicians are calling for its demise -- sending shock waves through the Pi fans community.

Pi day, observed on March 14, was founded by physicist Larry Shaw, a tradition that began at the San Francisco exploratorium. Not surprisingly, 3/14 represents the first three digits of the never ending digits of Pi (3.14159....). In the shadow of these celebrations, many forget the fact that March 14 is known for another reason -- Albert Einstein's birthday.

The relation between the circumference and diameter of a circle has been known for thousands of years. The ancient Babylonians calculated the area of a circle by multiplying the square of its radius by three, indicating a value close to three for Pi. Nonetheless, it was the ancient Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse who calculated the value of Pi somewhat accurately. He concluded an average value of 3.1485 for Pi -- somewhat close to the current known value. Yet the symbol π, to represent this important ratio between circumference and diameter of any circle, appeared in mathematics a great deal later. Some approximations such as 22/7 and 355/113 had also been used to express this ratio.

Pi being an irrational number, the above fractional representations are mere approximations, and the endless digits that make up Pi do not show any patterns. Pi is also transcendental as it cannot be the solution of an algebraic equation of any degree with rational number coefficients.

A relatively unknown mathematician William Jones is credited with using the symbol for the first time around 1706. However, the symbol got the universal acceptance when the great Swiss-born mathematician Leonhard Euler put π into much wider use in mathematics. Since then, more and more digits of Pi have been calculated, with the current world record reaching 10 trillion digits. The irrational Pi will continue to leave a trail of digits with no end in sight.

Why would someone care about the long list of random numbers in Pi, knowing that they will continue infinitely? The obsession with Pi is more mysterious than Pi itself. There are events ranging from Pi procession to annual Pi party on March 14. Some recite Pi digits to claim the best record and some others write in Pilish or even Pi-Poems known as "Piems."

Simply put, some people are just crazy about Pi. Some see beauty and uniqueness in the non-ending digits of Pi. The idea of writing of successive words in a sentence with length that represents the digits of the number π (=3.14159265358979...) is termed as Pilish. An example of such a writing, believed to have been composed by the English physicist Sir James Jeans:

How I need a drink, alcoholic in nature, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics!
(3. 1 4 1 5 9 2 6 5 3 5 8 9 7 9 )

In 2009, the U.S. Congress voted to officially recognize March 14 as Pi Day to encourage schools and educators to observe the day with appropriate activities that teach students about Pi and engage them about the study of mathematics. Although the vote was not quite unanimous, luckily there was no filibuster or sequester on the proposal.

Whereas the devotion to Pi is displayed and felt like religious zeal for some, there are questions raised about its own existence.

In the article titled Pi is Wrong!, mathematician Bob Palais argued that the true circle constant must be the ratio that represents circumference and radius. In other words, Pi must be replaced by 2Pi which would make a full circle to turn Pi radians instead of the current 2 Pi radians.


The idea of replacing Pi with another Greek letter Tau ( τ) that represents 2Pi gained some momentum when Michael Hartl, physicist and mathematician and author of "The Tau Manifesto," claimed many advantages of using Tau over Pi. However, Pi remains as an object that is embedded so strongly in our popular culture and is not ready to retreat anytime soon.

Whilst I await your responses, remember Pi day is on Thursday, March 14.