Tag Archives: pi

Making Pi, Transcending Pi, and Cookies

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch– and happy Pi Day!

What does pi look like? The first 10,000 digits of pi, each digit 0 through 9 assigned a different color.

You probably know some pretty cool things about the number pi. Perhaps you know that pi has quite a lot to do with circles. Maybe you know that the decimal expansion for pi goes on and on, forever and ever, without repeating. Maybe you know that it’s very likely that any string of numbers– your birthday, phone number, all the birthdays of everyone you know listed in a row, followed by all their phone numbers, ANYTHING– can be found in the decimal expansion of pi.

But did you know that pi can be approximated by dropping needles on a piece of paper? Well, it can! If you drop a needle again and again on a lined piece of paper, and the needle is the same length as the distance between the lines, the probably that the needle lands on a line is two divided by pi. This experiment is called Buffon’s needle, after the French naturalist Buffon.

If the angle the needle makes with the lines is in the gray area (like the red needle’s angle is), it will cross the line. If the angle isn’t, it won’t. The possible angles trace out a circle. The closer the center of the needle (or center of the circle) is to the line, the larger the gray area– and the higher the probability of the needle hitting the line.

This may seem strange to you– but if you think about how the needle hitting a line has a lot to do with the distance between the middle of the needle and the nearest line and the angle it makes with the lines, maybe you’ll start to think about circles… and then you’ll get a clue about the connection between this experiment and pi. Working out this probability exactly requires some pretty advanced mathematics. (Feeling ambitious? Read about the calculation here.) But, you can get some great experimental results using this Buffon’s needle applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

Click on the picture to try the applet.

I had the applet drop 500 needles. Then, the applet used the fact that the probability of the needle hitting a line should be two divided by pi and the probability it measured to calculate an approximation for pi. It got… well, you can see in the picture. Pretty close, right?

Here’s another thing you might not know: pi is a transcendental number. Sounds trippy– but, like some other famous numbers with letter names, like e, pi can never be the solution to an algebraic equation involving whole numbers. That means that no matter what equation you give me– no matter how large the exponent, how many negatives you toss in, how many times you multiply or divide by a whole number– pi will never, ever be a solution. Maybe this doesn’t sound amazing to you. If not, check out this video from Numberphile about transcendental numbers. Numbers like pi and e don’t do mathematical things we’re used to numbers doing… and it’s pretty weird.

Still curious about transcendental numbers? Here’s a page listing the fifteen most famous transcendental numbers. My favorite? Definitely the fifth, Liouville’s number, which has a 1 in each consecutive factorial numbered place.

Escher cookies 1Finally, maybe you don’t like pi. Maybe you like cookies instead. Lucky for you, you can do many mathematical things with cookies, too. Like make cookie tessellations! This mathematical artist and baker made cookie cutters in the shapes of tiles from Escher tessellations and used them to make mathematical cookie puzzles. Beautiful, and certainly delicious.

If you happen to have a 3D printer, you can make your own Escher cookie cutters. Here’s a link to print out the lizard cutter. If you don’t have a 3D printer, you could try printing out a 2D image of an Escher tessellation and tracing a tile onto a sheet of paper. Cut out the tile, roll out your dough, and slice around the outside of the tile to make your cookies. If you do it right, you shouldn’t have to waste any dough…

Here’s hoping you eat some pi or cookies on pi day! Bon appetit!

Maths Ninja, Folding Fractals, and Pi Fun

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

ninjaFirst up, have you ever been stuck on a gnarly math problem and wished that a math ninja would swoop in and solve the problem before it knew what hit it?  Have you ever wished that you had a math dojo who would impart wisdom to you in cryptic but, ultimately, extremely timely and useful ways?  Well, meet Colin Beverige, a math (or, as he would say, maths) tutor from England who writes a fun blog called Flying Colours Maths.  On his blog, he publishes a weekly series called, “Secrets of the Mathematical Ninja,” in which the mathematical ninja (maybe Colin himself?  He’s too stealthy to tell)  imparts nuggets of sneaky wisdom to help you take down your staunchest math opponent.

colin_bridgeFor example, you probably know the trick for multiplying by 9 using your fingers – but did you know that there’s a simple trick for dividing by 9, too?  Ever wondered how to express thirteenths as decimals, in your head?  (Probably not, but maybe you’re wondering now!)  Want to know how to simplify fractions like a ninja?  Well, the mathematical ninja has the answers – and some cute stories, too.  Check it out!

A picture of the Julia set.

A picture of a Julia set.

Next, I find fractals fascinating, but – I’ll admit it – I don’t know much about them.  I do know a little about the number line and graphing, though.  And that was enough to learn a lot more about fractals from this excellent post on the blog Hackery, Math, and Design by Steven Wittens.  In the post How to Fold a Julia Fractal, Steven describes how the key to understanding fractals is understanding complex numbers, which are the numbers we get when we combine our normal numbers with imaginary numbers.

complex multiplicationNow, I think imaginary numbers are some of the most interesting numbers in mathematics – not only because they have the enticing name “imaginary,” but because they do really cool things and have some fascinating history behind them.  Steven does a really great job of telling their history and showing the cool things they do in this post.  One of the awesome things that imaginary numbers do is rotate.  Normal numbers can be drawn on a line – and multiplying by a negative number can be thought of as changing directions along the number line.  Steven uses pictures and videos to show how multiplying by an imaginary number can be thought of as rotating around a point on a plane.

here comes the julia set

A Julia set in the making.

The Julia set fractal is generated by taking complex number points and applying a function to them that squares each point and adds some number to it.  The fractal is the set of points that don’t get infinitely larger and larger as the function is applied again and again.  Steven shows how this works in a series of images.  You can watch the complex plane twist around on itself to make the cool curves and figures of the Julia set fractal.

Steven’s blog has many more interesting posts.  Check out another of my favorites, To Infinity… and Beyond! for an exploration of another fascinating, but confusing, topic – infinity.

Finally, a Pi Day doesn’t go by without the mathematicians and mathematical artists of the world putting out some new Pi Day videos!  Pi Day was last Thursday (3/14, of course).  Here’s a video from Numberphile in which Matt Parker calculates pi using pies!

In this video, also from Numberphile, shows how you only need 39 digits of pi to make really, really accurate measurements for the circumference of the observable universe:

Finally, it wouldn’t be Pi Day without a pi video from Vi Hart.  Here’s her contribution for this year:

Bon appetit!

Dots-and-Boxes, Choppy Waves, and Psi Day

Welcome to this week’s Math Munch!

And happy Psi Day! But more on that later.


Click to play Dots-and-Boxes!

Recently I got to thinking about the game Dots-and-Boxes. You may already know how to play; when I was growing up, I can only remember tic-tac-toe and hangman as being more common paper and pencil games. If you know how to play, maybe you’d like to try a quick game against a computer opponent? Or maybe you could play a low-tech round with a friend? If you don’t know how to play or need a refresher, here’s a quick video lesson:

In 1946, a first grader in Ohio learned these very same rules. His name was Elwyn Berlekamp, and he went on to become a mathematician and an expert about Dots-and-Boxes. He’s now retired from being a professor at UC Berkeley, but he continues to be very active in mathematical endeavors, as I learned this week when I interviewed him.

Elwyn Berlekamp

Elwyn Berlekamp

In his book The Dots and Boxes Game: Sophisticated Child’s Play, Elwyn shares: “Ever since [I learned Dots-and-Boxes], I have enjoyed recurrent spurts of fascination with this game. During several of these burst of interest, my playing proficiency broke through to a new and higher plateau. This phenomenon seems to be common among humans trying to master any of a wide variety of skills. In Dots-and-Boxes, however, each advance can be associated with a new mathematical insight!”

Elwyn's booklet about Dots-and-Boxes

Elwyn’s booklet about

In his career, Elywen has studied many mathematical games, as well as ideas in coding. He has worked in finance and has been involved in mathematical outreach and community building, including involvement with Gathering for Gardner (previously).

Elywn generously took the time to answer some questions about Dots-and-Boxes and about his career as a mathematician. Thanks, Elywn! Again, you should totally check out our Q&A session. I especially enjoyed hearing about Elwyn’s mathematical heros and his closing recommendations to young people.

As I poked around the web for Dots-and-Boxes resources, I enjoyed listening to the commentary of Phil Carmody (aka “FatPhil”) on this high-level game of Dots-and-Boxes. It was a part of a tournament held on a great games website called Little Golem where mathematical game enthusiasts from around the world can challenge each other in tournaments.

What's the best move?A Sam Loyd Dots-and-Boxes Puzzle

What’s the best move?
A Dots-and-Boxes puzzle by Sam Loyd.

And before I move on, here are two Dots-and-Boxes puzzles for you to try out. The first asks you to use the fewest lines to saturate or “max out” a Dots-and-Boxes board without making any boxes. The second is by the famous puzzler Sam Loyd (previously). Can you help find the winning move in The Boxer’s Puzzle?

Next up, check out these fantastic “waves” traced out by “circling” these shapes:

Click the picture to see the animation!

Lucas Vieira—who goes by LucasVB—is 27 years old and is from Brazil. He makes some amazing mathematical illustrations, many of them to illustrate articles on Wikipedia. He’s been sharing them on his Tumblr for just over a month. I’ll let his images and animations speak for themselves—here are a few to get you started!

A colored-by-arc-length Archimedean spiral.

A colored-by-arc-length Archimedean spiral.


A sphere-like degenerate torus.

A Koch cube.

A Koch cube.

There’s a great write-up about Lucas over at The Daily Dot, which includes this choice quote from him: “I think this sort of animated illustration should be mandatory in every math class. Hopefully, they will be some day.” I couldn’t agree more. Also, Lucas mentioned to me that one of his big influences in making mathematical imagery has always been Paul Nylander. More on Paul in a future post!

Psi is the 23rd letter in the Greek alphabet.

Psi is the 23rd letter in the Greek alphabet.

Finally, today—March 11—is Psi Day! Psi is an irrational number that begins 3.35988… And since March is the 3rd month and today is .35988… of the way through it–11 out of 31 days—it’s the perfect day to celebrate this wonderful number!

What’s psi you ask? It’s the Reciprocal Fibonacci Constant. If you take the reciprocals of the Fibonnaci numbers and add them add up—all infinity of them—psi is what you get.


Psi was proven irrational not too long ago—in 1989! The ancient irrational number phi—the golden ratio—is about 1.61, so maybe Phi Day should be January 6. Or perhaps the 8th of May—8/5—for our European readers. And e Day—after Euler’s number—is of course celebrated on February 7.

That seems like a pretty good list at the moment, but maybe you can think of other irrational constants that would be fun to have a “Day” for!

And finally, I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d love to see a psi or Fibonacci-themed “Gangham Style” video. Get it?

Bon appetit!


EDIT (3/14/13): Today is Pi Day! I sure wish I had thought of that when I was making my list of irrational number Days…