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Contact: Alexander Volokh, 213-653-7274
WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 28, 1996
Mathematics Buff Develops New Way
To Remember Value of Pi
Mnemonic gives 167 digits of famous geometric constant
MARCH 4, 1996 -- LOS ANGELES, Calif. "How I need a drink, alcoholic of course,
after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics." The slogan of
mathematics fraternities? The tormented cry of the disgruntled physics student?
Not quite. It's the standard way scientists remember the value of pi, one of
the most important constants in all of mathematics. Count the number of letters
in each word, and you get 3.14159265358979.
Now, Alexander Volokh, a writer and amateur mathematician living in Los Angeles,
has developed a system for easily remembering the first 167 digits of pi, which
he says may change the way mathematics students worldwide remember their
Pi is approximately equal to 3.14 and represents the ratio between the
circumference of a circle and its diameter. "For almost as long as
mathematicians have been studying pi, they've been making up mnemonics, or cute
ways of remembering its digits," Volokh explains. "Unfortunately, the 32nd
digit after the decimal point is a zero, which has usually nipped this method in
the bud. Even mathematicians don't know any words with no letters in them."
But Volokh claims to have solved this problem by using many sentences, with the
end of each sentence representing a zero.
Volokh's mnemonic goes as follows:
"How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving
quantum mechanics; but we did estimate some digits by making very bad, not
accurate, but so greatly efficient tools! In quaintly valuable ways, a
dedicated student -- I, Volokh, Alexander -- can determine beautiful and curious
stuff, O! Smart, gorgeous me! Descartes himself knew wonderful ways that could
ascertain it too! Revered, glorious -- a wicked dude! Behold an unending
number: pi! Thinkers' ceaseless agonizing produces little, if anything! For
this constant, it stops not -- just as e, I suppose. Vainly, ancient geometers
computed it -- a task undoable. Legendre, Adrien Marie: 'I say pi rational is
not!' Adrien proved this theorem. Therefore, all doubters have made errors.
(Everybody that's Greek.) Today, counting is as bad a problem as years ago,
maybe centuries even. Moreover, I do consider that variable x, y, z, wouldn't
much avail. Is constant like i? No, buffoon!"
By counting the number of letters in each word, and considering the end of each
sentence to represent a zero, one can easily reconstruct the value of pi to 167
digits after the decimal point:
3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164
0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 8214808651 3282306647 0938446095 5058223172
5359408128 4811174502 8410270.
"This mnemonic makes remembering digits as easy as pi," Volokh explains. Volokh
owns a pair of French socks with the first few dozen digits of pi on them, but
they are of little help, as they stop being correct after the seventh digit.
Will the mnemonic be useful? "No," Volokh concedes. "All you ever need to know
is 3.14 -- only two digits after the decimal point." But, Volokh points out,
it's no more useless than, say, Shakespeare or the Mona Lisa. "To say that math
has to be useful is like saying that the English language is only good for
Volokh graduated from UCLA in 1993 with a B.S. in mathematics/economics and a
B.A. in English/world literature. He developed the system with David Tazartes,
a pharmacology student at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and Steven
LaCombe, a writer living in Seattle.
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