Easy as Pi: Memorizing digits of Pi for recreation and extra credit

Mar. 14, 1:59 p.m.: the most wonderful time of the year for mathletes and number-enthusiasts everywhere.

Pi, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, takes center stage on this day as its calendar date (3/14) mimics the famed first three digits, 3.14. This math class staple extends far, far beyond the famous trio, however: irrational number Pi contains an infinite number of non-repeating digits. So far, mathematicians assisted by technology have calculated over 10 trillion digits in the never-ending sequence. Memorizing every one of those digits defies human logic.

And yet, it didn’t stop junior Sam Jamison and sophomore Jenna Veenstra from trying.

In a school record-breaking feat, the two AP calculus students memorized Pi to the 314th and 315th digit, respectively.

“I wanted to beat the school record, which was 272, and then I heard Sam Jamison got up to 314 in his math class, and I was at the 280th digit around 5th hour on Friday of that same day. It was just a work day during that class period, so I crammed in the last 35 digits,” Veenstra said.

Such numerical dedication took root after subtle urgings from math teacher Richard Strike, a proponent of Pi Day. “It starts as an extra points incentive — for every 10 decimals, they can earn a point (up to 10 maximum). Any digits memorized after 100 are for personal pride.” Besides the two record breakers, several of Strike’s students rose to his challenge and memorized over 100 digits, celebrating their achievement in class on the Friday before Spring Break as the actual Pi Day fell in the middle of the school vacation.

Embracing and redefining “personal pride,” Veenstra began the daunting process of memorizing nothing but numbers, experiencing a surge of intellectual strength near the end of the week-long challenge. “Monday through Thursday I memorized 62 digits, and then from Thursday to Friday I was able to memorize the remaining 250.”

Cramming in so many numerical sequences in 24 hours didn’t daunt the ambitious sophomore, who found clever tips and tricks to keeping dozens upon dozens of digits locked away in memory. “I’d memorize 10 at a time and then repeat it and repeat it, adding on more numbers after every set, just repeating them in my mind everywhere I went,” recalled Veenstra. One such memorization location was during the band pops concert, where the flute player mentally rehearsed throughout other ensembles’ sets. “I make a pattern in the way I say them, remembering them either by the tone or by sticking them in groups of three and four and saying those chunks of numbers.”

Certain chunks of digits proved easier to file away than others, easing the strain of memorization slightly. “My favorite string of digits was 2535 because they’re the last four digits of my phone number, so they were the easiest to remember.”

Veenstra decided to call it quits after reaching the 315th number because the final chunk of three was just that — numbers three, one and five.

Success to this degree doesn’t come without controversy, however. In order to prove their accomplishment, Jamison and Veenstra recited the hundreds of digits to their classmates. Jamison breezed through the challenge, arriving at the 314th digit with ease. Veenstra, however, faltered around the 180th digit and couldn’t continue the verbal recitation. Starting back from the beginning, she furiously recounted the digits on the whiteboard and hit a mental roadblock once more around the same numerical location. As record-breaking glory seemed to disintegrate behind strings of unspoken numbers, Veenstra was granted a reprieve after school when Strike encouraged her to recite the daunting list once last time; she succeeded, edging past Jamison’s short-lived record by a mere digit.

Thankfully, the underclassmen have one more year at the high school, one more Pi Day, one more opportunity to smash their already smashing record. Perhaps a grudge match between the two digit deviants will rock the math wing, forcing the loser to taste a heaping bite of humble pi.

Who said math is boring?

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