Pi Day: Celebrate Math With Deliciousness On March 14 [REPORT]

By iScienceTimes Staff Reporter on March 14, 2013 6:41 PM EDT

Pi Day comes but once a year. The day, one of the few holidays that recognizes a number rather than a person, was officially recognized by the U.S. House of Representatives in 2009, but it's been around a lot longer than that. The reason that March 14 is Pi Day should be obvious: in the U.S., March 14 is abbreviated 3/14, and the first three digits of Pi are 3.14.

Pi Day, which goes back to at least 1988, recognizes and celebrates an important mathematical constant, and one that is very widely known. Pi, or ╥,  is a real number equal to the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Not as impressive as George Washington, perhaps, but an important number nevertheless. Pi is something of a novelty, at least at the age when most Americans first learn about it in grade school; as an irrational number, it can't be expressed as a fraction of two integers. Expressed as a decimal, pi is an infinite string of digits - it never ends and never repeats.

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Pi Day, of course, was not the beginning of pi. The number itself is vastly older than 1988. It has borne the name pi since the early 1700s, when Leonhard Euler popularized the symbol, possibly as an abbreviation for 'periphery' (i.e., circumference). The name caught on, and the symbol is now far more closely associated with the number than with the Greek letter it derives from.

Pi Day has many traditions, most based on its American pronunciation; the number rhymes with "pie," which I will define even though you know what it is. Pie, a baked pastry usually containing fruit filling of some kind, is almost universally a round pastry. As a result, the number pi defines the ratio between the circumference and diameter of the pastry pie, assuming that the pie is itself a perfect circle. Of course, perfect circles don't exist, and can't, but pi is still a good approximation of that ratio, just as pie is a good approximation of delicious.

This pie features an infinitesimal number of the total digits of pi. (Image: Creative Commons)
This pie features an infinitesimal number of the total digits of pi. (Image: Creative Commons)

Thus, Pi Day rituals in the U.S. often involve pies, a joke lost on the rest of the world. In Greek (Ancient and Modern), for instance, the letter pi is pronounced like the English letter 'p'. And the word for pie is "πίτα" (pita). It doesn't work quite as well. Luckily, Pi Day is primarily an American holiday anyway; the holiday most likely started in San Francisco, and even in other English countries, differences in date notation eliminate the similarity between 3.14 and March 14. British citizens express that date as 14/3, not 3/14. And 14/3 is not a special number.

So Pi Day will remain American, and largely an amusement for grade school students and physics and math majors, who take the opportunity to calculate pi out to great lengths of digits, or to memorize as much of it as they can. But ignore the holiday at your peril: the U.S. House of Representatives did formally acknowledge Pi Day in 2009. According to their resolution, H.RES.224:

"Whereas the Greek letter (Pi) is the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter; [...]
Whereas mathematics and science can be... fun and interesting [...]

Whereas Pi can be approximated as 3.14, and thus March 14... is an appropriate day for 'National Pi Day': Now, therefore, be it

Resolved, That the House of Representatives--

(1) supports the designation of a 'Pi Day' and its celebration around the world.
(2) recognizes the continuing importance of National Science Foundation's math and science education programs; and
(3) encourages schools and educators to observe the day with appropriate activities that teach students about Pi and engage them about the study of mathematics.

Pi Day has never tasted so sweet.

 

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