How I need a drink

Now is probably as  good a time as any to remind the world of my press release from 16 years ago. The item ended up appearing in The Scientist and was mentioned in Ivars Peterson’s MathTrek, and a quote made into David Blatner’s The Joy of Pi. I vaguely recall there may be a mistake somewhere in the mnemonic, but figuring out whether that’s so is left as an exercise to the reader.

Mathematics Buff Develops New Way To Remember Value of Pi
Mnemonic gives 167 digits of famous geometric constant

MARCH 4, 1996 — LOS ANGELES, Calif. “How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics.” The slogan of mathematics fraternities? The tormented cry of the disgruntled physics student? Not quite. It’s the standard way scientists remember the value of pi, one of the most important constants in all of mathematics. Count the number of letters in each word, and you get 3.14159265358979.

Now, Alexander Volokh, a writer and amateur mathematician living in Los Angeles, has developed a system for easily remembering the first 167 digits of pi, which he says may change the way mathematics students worldwide remember their favorite number.

Pi is approximately equal to 3.14 and represents the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter. “For almost as long as mathematicians have been studying pi, they’ve been making up mnemonics, or cute ways of remembering its digits,” Volokh explains. “Unfortunately, the 32nd digit after the decimal point is a zero, which has usually nipped this method in the bud. Even mathematicians don’t know any words with no letters in them.” But Volokh claims to have solved this problem by using many sentences, with the end of each sentence representing a zero.

Volokh’s mnemonic goes as follows:

“How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics; but we did estimate some digits by making very bad, not accurate, but so greatly efficient tools! In quaintly valuable ways, a dedicated student — I, Volokh, Alexander — can determine beautiful and curious stuff, O! Smart, gorgeous me! Descartes himself knew wonderful ways that could ascertain it too! Revered, glorious — a wicked dude! Behold an unending number: pi! Thinkers’ ceaseless agonizing produces little, if anything! For this constant, it stops not — just as e, I suppose. Vainly, ancient geometers computed it — a task undoable. Legendre, Adrien Marie: ‘I say pi rational is not!’ Adrien proved this theorem. Therefore, all doubters have made errors. (Everybody that’s Greek.) Today, counting is as bad a problem as years ago, maybe centuries even. Moreover, I do consider that variable x, y, z, wouldn’t much avail. Is constant like i? No, buffoon!”

By counting the number of letters in each word, and considering the end of each sentence to represent a zero, one can easily reconstruct the value of pi to 167 digits after the decimal point:

3.1415926535 8979323846 2643383279 5028841971 6939937510 5820974944 5923078164 0628620899 8628034825 3421170679 8214808651 3282306647 0938446095 5058223172 5359408128 4811174502 8410270.

“This mnemonic makes remembering digits as easy as pi,” Volokh explains. Volokh owns a pair of French socks with the first few dozen digits of pi on them, but they are of little help, as they stop being correct after the seventh digit.

Will the mnemonic be useful? “No,” Volokh concedes. “All you ever need to know is 3.14 — only two digits after the decimal point.” But, Volokh points out, it’s no more useless than, say, Shakespeare or the Mona Lisa. “To say that math has to be useful is like saying that the English language is only good for ordering pizza.”

Volokh graduated from UCLA in 1993 with a B.S. in mathematics/economics and a B.A. in English/world literature. He developed the system with David Tazartes . . . and Steven LaCombe . . . .

UPDATE: Clayton Cramer shows how this mnemonic actually is useful, if you’re in Boise.