The Whole Pi

March 15, 2012

Eva Gusnowski

March 14, or “National Pi Day” is a day that celebrates the mysteries of mathematics. In a way I find it kind of soothing that math can’t find a complete answer to everything, just like the rest of the scientific fields.  So take that.

π…so deceivingly simple. The fact that this symbol extends to infinity for all we know is beyond my non-math oriented brain. I think I can remember only about 10 of the digits after “3”…15 on a good day. But that’s nothing compared to Chao Lu, the Pi-reciting world record holder.


science in seconds, chao lu, pi

In 2005, Chao Lu recited 67 890 correct Pi digits in sequence in 24 hours and 4 seconds, without pee or pie breaks. He made a mistake on the 67 891st digit, stopping the recitation on his way to 100 000 digits. That’s a lot of numbers like whoa.

Dr. Karl Ericsson and colleagues studied memory and memorization techniques in a 2009 study, including the method used by Chao Lu. What they found is that really good memorizers have a recall capacity of over 15 digits when given the numbers one at a time, yet Chao Lu was in the “normal range” (around 10), along with us common folk. But when given a matrix to memorize all at once, Chao Lu repeatedly performed well above average.

The way Chao Lu achieved this, and his remarkable Pi regurgitation, was to associate digit combinations with words. From these words, he generated a story, making the numbers much easier to recall. But in order to memorize all of the Pi digits, he prepared for an estimated 1300 hours, staring at numbers and turning them into stories.

Worth the time? Maybe. But I’d much rather have the kind of Pi that comes with vanilla ice cream rather than hours of extra work. But hey, maybe that’s just me. And I’m certainly not in the Guinness Book of World Records. (…yet).




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