A blog by Paul Wallace

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    I have discovered that most people have no one to talk to, no one, that is, who really wants to listen. When it does at last dawn on a man that you really want to hear about his business, the look that comes over his face is something to see.

    -Walker Percy, The Moviegoer

    Happy Pi Day!

    Pi (π) to 5,060 digits. Image source: The psnt.net Digital Graphics Squad (DGS)

    Dear Alert Readers, it has arrived: 3/14, Pi Day!

    So there they are, right up there, the first 5,060 digits of pi. That’s a lot of digits, sure, but you can see 10,000 here, 100,000 here or 1,000,000 here. If you’re really into it and are looking for a great Pi Day time sink, you can search the first 2,000,000,000 (that’s two billion!) digits of pi here. It’s fun; look for your birthday, your street address, even your phone number and SSN. Neither my 10-digit mobile number nor my 10-digit landline number show up, but my wife’s mobile number appears near the 879,013,003rd digit. Also: my SSN does (near the 1,178,027,450th digit) and so does my wife’s (near the 647,553,870th). Also cool: We just discovered that the first nine digits of pi, 314159265, show up again at the 1,660,042,751st place. The first 10 digits of pi do not repeat anywhere in the first 2 billion places. Just so you know.

    If you are a fan of irrational numbers in general, please note that you can find, among other entertaining things, the first 10,000,000 digits of e and of the square root of 2 at this page belonging to Robert Nemiroff, one of the editors of our beloved APOD. You can find the first 1,000,000 digits of the Golden Ratio phi (φ), the most irrational of numbers, here. Some entertaining statistics on the first 17,000,000 digits of phi have also been calculated.

    Now, there are surely those of you out there who are reading this and wondering, Why?

    Sorry, but that’s like my mom watching Monty Python and asking my brother and me to explain it to her: Her very asking meant that the whole thing had already passed her by. It can’t be explained. You just have to know that this stuff is cool, that there is no why to it. It’s just one of those crazy unstoppable human activities like dancing the limbo or building Swiss Army Knives with nearly 100 tools; people use up an unbelievable amount of CPU time calculating zillions of digits of irrational numbers because they can.*

    If you don’t resonate with the number-nerd angle, maybe you can appreciate it from a sociology-nerd perspective: Look at this human phenomenon! What does it say about us? That we’re incurably curious? That many of us have an irrational love of irrational numbers? That many of us have trouble filling the hours? However you slice it, that human beings do this kind of thing at all — play with numbers for the sake of playing with numbers — is a pretty interesting datum for those trying to figure out life, the universe, and everything.

    It is weird, though, when you think about it, that a number like pi, with its never-ending (!) string of essentially random digits, is tied up with such a simple thing as a circle. Is there a religious dimension here? We, like many of our Platonic-leaning scientist and mathematician friends, think so. Numbers and divinity were not far separated for Plato, Pythagoras, Kepler, and others smart taters of old. I mean, have you ever wondered why it is that nature can be described with such amazing accuracy with numbers? What’s up with that?

    We don’t know, but it sure is fun to think about, isn’t it? And while you’re thinking about it, if you happen to notice any live humans in your environs today, make sure to wish them a happy Pi Day.

    And if you’d like, do as they suggest on geek.com: Celebrate at 26 and a half seconds after 1:59pm (3.14159265 is pi truncated to 8 decimal places). But as for us and our household, we’ll just enjoy the whole day.

    Here’s to a great one.

    *There are actually some good uses for these zillions of digits of irrational numbers; random-number generation, which is closely approximated by these strings of digits, is a really big deal in cryptography, computer simulations, and Vegas.

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