Some students don't
like math because they can't link it to people or places. Not
everyone gets a natural thrill from reducing fractions or solving
equations! But mathematics, just like history or literature, is
composed of real people and their extraordinary stories. Maybe the
right-brain thinker in your class will perk up when he or she hears
about some of the human history behind pi. Telling stories
from math history is an under-utilized teaching angle, on Pi Day and
every day of the year.
Here we're working to
deliver you some of the best stories of pi. Subjects of these stories include:
U.S. House Resolution 224 - Congress votes to recognize Pi Day, but not everyone is on board
William Jones -
A coffeehouse lecturer with lucky political ties and a pal named Isaac
Gaurav Raja - A high schooler in Virginia, motivated by pizza,
video games, and the record books
The Origin of the Pi Rap - An impromptu Wall Street
fundraiser, and a national conference call
Ludolph van Ceulen - A fencing coach, an
gravestone, and a lot of number-crunching
David & Gregory Chudnovsky - An apartment-sized
computer built from spare parts
Edwin J. Goodwin, M.D. - A frustrated State
legislature and a confused small-town doctor
(1675 - 1749)
mathematician to use the Greek letter π to represent the important
A brief description...
While talk of the ratio has been around for about 4,000 years, and the
number itself probably a bit longer, the symbol π is just reaching the
big 3-0-0. A fellow from the Welsh island of Anglesey, who grew up to
be a rather well-connected but unmemorable mathematician, decided to use
the Greek symbol for “p” in a math-for-beginners guide he published in
1706. He figured it would look nicer than the “p” used in prior years,
which stood for “periphery.” It probably wouldn’t have
sunken in to the math community, had it only been used by a guy who
spent most of his mathematical prime (young adulthood) teaching math
onboard naval battleships and in London coffeehouses. But when a much
bigger fish named Leonhard Euler used Jones’ new notation in his works
about 30 years later, the symbol was here to stay.
Jones attempted to secure a teaching job at an actual math school, but
even with references written by his friends, Sirs Isaac Newton and
Edmund Halley, he was rejected and stuck to his coffeehouse crowd.
He spent his later adult life serving in a variety of cushy political
jobs, which he got through some key connections after losing all
his money in a bank collapse. It's always nice to have friends in
We should be glad William Jones didn't come up with γ (or gamma,
the alphabet's third letter, like “c”) to stand for "circumference" or "circle"
in his 1706 writings. Gamma Day sounds a bit less tasty and
somewhat more radioactive.
(1990 - )
» Teenage pi reciter who broke the 27-year-old North American
record in 2006
A brief description...
There are some kids who enjoy learning 20 or 30 digits of pi to impress
their classmates. And then there’s Gaurav Raja. He made headlines in his
local Roanoke, Virginia newspapers, and later on the Today Show,
for his uncanny ability to learn and recite pi to thousands of digits.
It began with a pizza. This was his prize in Dr. Linda Gooding’s math class
when, as a freshman, he coasted to victory in a classroom competition on
about 250 digits. But his incentives grew over time. The pizza would
come easily each year, but Gaurav’s real craving was to land himself in
the record books. Or record list, rather, in the form of the austere but
authoritative Pi World Ranking List. His sights were set on the all-time
North American record, previously set in 1979 at a staggering 10,625
digits. As if this Everest-like ascent wasn’t inspiring enough, his
parents promised he’d get an Xbox 360 out of the deal. Let’s look at a
timeline of the last few years in Gaurav’s unlikely quest.
- Pi Day: Recited about
Won the school Pi Day
contest, and a pizza from Ms. Gooding.
- Pi Day: Recited
- April: Recited
This time, Dr. Gooding sprung
for not one but two large pepperoni pizzas. The April
recitation of nearly 3,000 took him 37 minutes.
Junior Year (2005-06)
- September: Knew ~7,000 digits
- Pi Day: Recited
- June: Recited
In a steadily-building year,
Gaurav reached for the record on Pi Day but fell short. An
Xbox 360 was at stake, and though his dad offered to get it for
him anyway, Gaurav refused, saying "I wouldn't play it."
That is, until he breaks the North American record, which he did
on June 12. A panel of judges, his family, and some media
were there for the one hour, 14 minutes and 28 seconds of pi.
Amazing. (The record was broken just six months later, actually!
12,887 digits by Marc Umile.)
Senior Year (2006-07)
- Expanded into other quirky
He said he was thinking about branching
out into other feats of memory. Having learned all the
world capitals two summers before, he decided to memorize every
Nobel prize winner in history. Defying these other
accomplishments, he says this about learning pi: "Generally I'd say
my memory is pretty bad. But this just kind of sticks."
Gaurav has told
TeachPi.org that he is done memorizing pi, and expects only the first
200 digits or so to remain burned into his memory forever. He now
needs room in his brain for other things, as a hard-working student at Virginia Tech. We wish Gaurav all the best in
college! Thanks for the memorization memories.
(1540 - 1610) (Sing about him
Tireless hand-calculator who took pi to 35 digits & had them engraved on
A brief description...
He spent a lifetime number-crunching, and all he wanted was to carve it
into stone. Ludolph van Ceulen was a German mathematician in the
late 1500s who moved to the Netherlands to escape oppression. He
had two passions: math and sword-fighting. Well, fencing, to be
more precise. In his fifties, he began teaching both of these arts
at a Dutch university. But his real life's work was in calculating
that unnamed ratio. (Recall that the Greek letter wasn't used for
another 100 years.)
In mounting his assault on the number, Ludolph used the same weapons
that the Chinese and the Greeks (like Archimedes) had both used more
than a thousand years earlier. In other words, it was a pretty
old-fashioned method. He used what we now learn in high school
geometry to compute the area of shapes with more and more sides.
Think of a circle as a regular polygon with an infinite number of sides.
Ludolph came pretty close to that -- 32 billion. Imagine him
spending years hand-calculating the area of a 32 billion-gon.
Whew! At one point, he published 20 digits in a math book, and by
the end of his life of geometry and swords, he had found the first 35.
So proud was Ludolph of this grand accomplishment that he had the
numbers engraved on his tombstone. Sort of a personal Guinness
record book. But the grave was actually swapped by his widow
(presumably for something less nerdy) shortly after his death, and the
stone changed hands a few times and was eventually re-cut to fit into a
pillar in the nearby St. Pieter's Church. It's a good thing we
didn't need that grave for mathematical purposes; just 11 years after
his death, a Dutchman named Willebrod Snell found a much, much faster
way to do the same calculations that it took Ludolph a lifetime to do.
As the 1600s marched on, Isaac Newton started up calculus, and fancy
trig functions (arctangents) became the new style for pi calculation
(100 digits were known by 1706). Oh, how time flies. But to
honor Mr. van Ceulen's painstaking devotion, Germans still sometimes
refer to it affectionately as "the Ludolfian number." Next time
you're in a fencing competition in Germany and someone asks you what you
call that one circle ratio, keep this in mind.
The Origin of the Pi Rap
Three days of focus, ending with a sudden command performance in front
A brief description...
It was Monday, March 8th. The sixth Pi Day of Luke's speaking
career was approaching, but he hadn't yet been invited to return to his
college for his annual presentation. When he finally got the call
that afternoon, he decided it was time to add something to his act.
Each year since 1999, he'd given a lecture about the history and mystery
of pi, always ending with the recital of 250 digits from memory, and a
cheesy piano love song about the number. He wanted to spice things
up in '04, so he decided to write a rap.
Luke worked at an investment bank at the time, in a 10-hour-a-day job.
For the next 72 hours, he filled every spare moment, from lunchtime to
his bus commutes to his evenings at home, with pondering and writing the
lyrics. He was a big fan of Eminem's recent hit, "Lose Yourself,"
and the song's theme of performing under pressure lent itself quite well
to the idea of reciting that elusive number in front of a crowd.
Luke finished the rap on Thursday, and performed it for a few coworkers
that afternoon. His boss overheard the mini-concert, and he
confronted Luke about it the next morning. No, he wasn't upset; in
fact, he wanted Luke to perform it on the company's trading floor, in
front of a couple hundred people, as a charity fundraiser! The
company was about to launch a two-week drive to raise money for a local
foodshelf, and Luke's boss thought this would be a great way to kick off
the event. Raise $2,500 by noon, he challenged the company, and
Luke will rap live in front of everyone. And if other branches of
the investment firm were to donate, then Luke would wear a headset and
turn the performance into a national conference call!
The money poured in, and in just three short hours, people had given
well over $4,000 to the cause. Luke didn't even have his own words
quite memorized yet, but he donned his now-famous Pi Diddy hat and gave
it all he could. Hundreds of traders and analysts dropped what
they were doing and stared (or listened) as Luke stomped back and forth
across desks, singing about how possessed he was by a number. It
was a hit. In the end, the company matched many of the donations,
raising the total to about $7,300... not bad for an impromptu
hip-hop benefit concert on a trading floor.
Luke went on to perform his rap at his alma mater that afternoon, March
12th, and would later sing it for dozens of middle school classrooms.
He recorded it professionally in late 2005, and in early 2006 it became
the most popular feature on TeachPi.org. In 2007, his song and
classroom presentations were covered by local and national media, and he
was even quoted in Newsweek talking about the celebration of his
very favorite number.
More to come!