SITE VISIT: Pieces of Pi

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Science  26 Mar 1999:
Vol. 283, Issue 5410, pp. 1975
DOI: 10.1126/science.283.5410.1975a

Any way you slice it, pi is a cool number. It's irrational, so its digits go on forever with no repeating pattern, inspiring some geeky fun. The current record holder for the most pi memorized is Hiroyuki Goto, who recited 42,000 digits in something like 9 hours. Yet there's a serious side, too—heroic computations of the digits of pi on supercomputers are revealing a great deal about number theory and how to do efficient calculations. Whether your interest is serious or silly, the Pi Pages at Simon Fraser University probably can help you find what you need to know about pi.

The site offers links to current computational champions, info about how to compute lots of digits of pi quickly, and articles linked to computational software. There's even a Java applet that recites the digits of pi in any one of 22 languages and dialects, including Cockney and Dr. Seuss.

Visitors can join an Internet project called PiHex, where they download software that borrows little chunks of their desktop computer's time to figure out the Nth digit of pi in hexadecimal (base-16) numbers. Participants then e-mail their pi pieces back. Right now, PiHex is working on the 250 trillionth digit. But why this fascination with computing pi? One reason is that it is one math concept almost everybody has heard of. “You can climb a lot of mountains much harder than Everest,” says mathematician Jon Borwein, who oversees the Pi Pages, “but you'll never get your name in the papers.”

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