Oh my, memorizing so many digits of pi

May 19, 2004, midnight | By Yicong Liu | 16 years, 8 months ago

Three, he begins, fading into a trance, eyes squinting in intense concentration as he chants in a heavy, steady rhythm. Three point one four one five. He stands in front of an awestruck audience in room 346 while the numbers roll off his tongue effortlessly and quickly, nine two six five three five eight. They build into a steady, continuous stream, nine seven nine three two three… In less than five minutes, he has recited the first 800 digits of pi from memory.

On March 17 sophomore Ryan Ly made his first official successful recitation of the digits of this irrational number in front of his classmates and teachers. For the last few years, Ly has developed a unique hobby in memorizing pi, and now is not only the champion at Blair, but would also rank eighth nationally and 27th internationally once he submits his recitation for official records.

Why pi?

Pi, defined mathematically as the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter, is a classic number used to challenge memorization because it has an infinite number of digits and lacks any sort of pattern in its sequence.

Ly's hobby stems from sixth grade when he won a contest for successfully memorizing and reciting 123 digits of pi, topping each of his classmates by at least 100 digits. Realizing his own potential, Ly began memorizing further into the sequence, driven by hopes of ultimately achieving an 800 mark and earning a title in the world-ranking.

All the pieces of pi

Math teacher Paul Grossman, who witnessed Ly's official recitation, describes his amazement at such a feat. "He rattled off 800 like he was saying his cell phone number," he says. "We all sat there with our mouths open."

Eight hundred digits can be difficult to swallow, but pi is more easily digested in slices, a technique known as chunking, or grouping numbers to facilitate memorization, according to AP Psychology teacher Julia Smrek.

Ly says he follows this process as well, pointing to the blocks dividing up the digits on his sheet. He looks for palindromes, repeated numbers, sequences that rhyme or any other patterns that suit him. To commit the numbers into long term memory, Ly recites pi to himself for several nights in place of counting sheep.

Sophomore Rachel Kirsch, who recited 400 digits on the same day as Ly and would rank 31st internationally, says the memorization is neither particularly difficult nor immensely time-consuming. Kirsch spends only about five minutes per 10 digits; to reach 400 digits then, she explains, would take a cumulative effort under four hours.

Nonetheless, memorizing several hundred digits of pi is not as easy as pie: It is much more challenging than memorizing language "because language lends itself to picture images and meaning," says Smrek.

Both Kirsch and Ly agree that in the end, successfully memorizing so many digits really comes down to perseverance. "I believe anyone can memorize 30 digits of pi given they are of reasonable intelligence," says Kirsch. "Once you get to 30, it starts getting fun, but people usually don't believe me–they think I'm ‘special.'"

For the love of pi

Despite having memorized 800 digits of pi, Ly is still far from the current world record of 42,195 digits held by Hiroyuki Goto of Japan since 1995.

Ly doesn't mind though. Contending for Guinness-book fame is not his top priority, and his sharpened memory skills as the result of extensive practice with pi-digits have given him an edge for in academic classes. "Mr. Bunday asked us to memorize the first 30 elements of the periodic table," he says. "He gave us two weeks, but I finished in two days."

Kirsch, however, admits minor side effects of memorizing so many strings of extraneous numbers. She often finds herself thinking, "Oh my God, these digits are in pi," when she recognizes familiar sequences still fresh in her mind from the night before in everything from clock digits to room numbers at school. And rather than drawing cartoon characters during a tedious class, Kirsch can be found scribbling the digits of pi, which she explains "make for convenient doodles."

For next pi day, March 14, 2005, Ly has still more plans for expanding his pi-digits. He points to his printed copy of pi and to the solid line, an indication of his goal for next year: the 1000th digit.

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Yicong Liu. Yicong Liu is a junior in the magnet program at Blair high school. She enjoys the many (I mean many) wonderful things in life, but mostly the fundamentals: food, sleep and fun. During the hectic school week, Yicong can be found staring at her computer … More »

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