The month of March brings us a multitude of celebrations, events, and observances such as Daylight Saving Time, the Ides of March, St. Patrick’s Day, Vernal Equinox, and Women’s History Month. Also this year (2011) in March we celebrate Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras), Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Purim. We should add two more things to celebrate in March- Pi Day and Einstein’s Birthday, both observed on March 14 (3.14).
Pi is one of most revered and well-known mathematical concepts, so why shouldn’t we celebrate it? If you ask anyone in the world what pi represents they can at least tell you to two decimal places- 3.14 – or use clever mnemonics to express pi to an astounding 31 decimal places
Now I, even I, would celebrate
In rhymes inapt, the great
Immortal Syracusan, rivaled nevermore,
Who in his wondrous lore,
Passed on before,
Left men his guidance how to circles mensurate.
The number of letters in each word represents the digit expressed- 3.141592653589793238462643383279. Found on page 373 of Memorabilia Mathematica or the Philomath’s Quotation- Book by Robert E. Mortiz (New York, MacMillan, 1914).
Pi has a prolific history which may have begun with the geometry used by the early Babylonians, Egyptians, and Hebrews. Some scholars suggest that these early civilizations used the number 3 as the approximation of pi. The Rhind Mathematical Papyrus (1700 BC) contains one of our first written approximations of pi- 3.1604- which is only .6% greater than the value we use today (3.1416). The geometric calculations by the ancient Greeks, Chinese, and Hindus were within hundredths of a percentage off the true value!
I wish I could list all the thinkers from Archimedes in 240 BC to Leonard Euler in the 18th century who calculated expressions of Pi. Instead, you might wish to read popular works, such as David Blatner’s The Joy of π [pi] (1997) or Alfred S. Posamentier and Ingmar Lehmann’s Pi: a biography of the world’s most mysterious numbers (2004), that present a historical overview of Pi, understandable even for the non-mathematician.
In our modern era, the first true electronic calculation of pi was done by the ENIAC computer in 1949. Its calculation of pi to 2037 decimal places took 70 hours- quite an accomplishment. Today our own personal computers can calculate pi to millions of digits in a matter of seconds, and records for calculations in billions of digits continue to get broken.
Our other most revered and well- known equation, E=mc², comes to us from Albert Einstein who was born March 14, 1879. Need I say more? Einstein is the epitome of the word genius and has changed our understanding of time and space, energy and matter.
If you want to learn more about Einstein, see our guide Annus Mirabilis of Albert Einstein, which lists publications and websites related to the ‘wonderful year’ of 1905 in which the world learns about E=mc².
If you are looking for ideas to celebrate Pi Day and Einstein’s birthday, take a look at what the Princeton community is doing: Pi Day and Genius Day at Princeton.