‘And other hilarious tales of math and memory’
Me, I’ve never been such a great shakes at memorizing stuff. I mean, I can rattle off a bit of verse. (My go-to poem: ‘Listen my children and you shall hear…of the midnight ride of Paul Revere’. Impressed?) And I am of the generation that was pressed to learn (by heart) the preamble to the Constitution (a practice I highly recommend to any and all presidential candidates). But. Memorizing pi? I’m not so sure I even knew what ‘pi’ meant when I was a kid.
Pi comes to mind because yesterday was March 14. Which is, in some circles, known as Pi Day. That’s because ‘pi’, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter (yes, I had to look that up), is commonly given as 3.14. And March 14 is commonly given as 3.14. Get it?
Anyway. Pi Day is sort of a Big Deal. And not just among the Pocket-Protector Set. Pi Day got amazing coverage, not only in The New Yorker, but on Facebook. Yesterday, in fact, it seemed that posts about Pi Day outnumbered those about Donald or Bernie or Hillary. (Um, well maybe I’m just mathematically wishfully thinking here.)
The other thing about ‘pi’, the thing that gets everyone all atingle — well, maybe not everyone — is that pi is infinite. Again, according to my handy online source, mathisfun.com (hmmm, if you have to say something is fun, then is it?), pi is equal to 3.14159265358979323846. And that’s just for starters. See, the digits go on forever, and without repeating. This is like catnip to Math Nerds. Every year on 3.14, they get all excited and try to outdo each other reciting pi to as many places as they can. Seriously. Contests are held. Records are broken. Egos are threatened!
Well. I bring this up because The Child was (and is) one of those Math Nerds. A very cute Math Nerd, but still. Also, she can memorize like crazy. Even as a Wee Thing, she would astound my Father’s Coffee Buddies (who gathered daily at the Carlyle MacDonald’s) with her prowess at matching State Capitals with their respective States. (‘Yes, Montpelier is the Capital of Vermont’. ‘No, Bismarck is not the capital of South Dakota. It’s Pierre.‘) I mean, this was when The Child was, like, four.
All right, so I’m bragging. I’m a Mom, so sue me. And I’ll warn you: It’s going to get worse. If you want, you can skip the rest of this post and read the one from last week instead, which has no bragging in it whatsoever. (It’s about radio commercials and sushi.)
See, The Child used to enter those Pi Day contests. Not only that, she used to win them. Routinely. Stuyvesant High School got so tired of her winning (her record was pi to 430 places, I kid you not) that in her senior year they didn’t even hold the contest. They just had her go around to the math classes and do her Pi Thing.
Now, before you snort your coffee or choke on your sandwich (depending on when you’re reading this), you should know that, in the annals of pi recitation, that’s no biggie. The record, which I just looked up, is pi to 70,000 digits. Set by some guy named Rajveer Meena. But, hey, I don’t know Rajveer. I don’t even know Rajveer’s Mom, so I’ll continue to be impressed by 430.
They held these Pi Contests at The Child’s college, too. (They even served pizza. A kind of pi(e). Hilarious, those Math Kids.) But by then she’d gotten lazy. Or wised up, depending on how you look at it. Now she only memorized enough places of pi to actually beat her competition. So, in this video, her title was defended successfully by rattling off ‘only’ 224-some pi places, beating some Poor Soul Named Brennan by a couple of digits:
Pretty scary, huh? Well, I promised ‘hilarity’, so let me finish this post by ‘splaining the title. See, my dad (he of the Coffee Buddy betting ring) used to tell this Pi Joke. It seems that this Hillbilly Boy (sorry; I don’t know the PC term for ‘hillbilly’) was in math class, geometry specifically. The lesson that day was on how to determine the area of a circle. Here’s the formula, the way it looked when the teacher wrote it on the board:
But when the teacher said the formula out loud: ‘pi r squared’, the Boy said, ‘No, teacher. Pie are round. Cornbread are square.’
I know, I know. But that joke cracked my dad up every time.
New York City. March 2016