International “geek” holiday, Pi Day, started at San Francisco’s Exploratorium.
Creator Larry Shaw, physicist, tells how.
From San Francisco to New York, in museums, universities, classrooms and in the privacy of one’s own home, people are celebrating Pi.
It’s the anniversary of the celebration of Pi Day, an international holiday born at San Francisco’s Exploratorium. The number is Pi, 3.1415926535…ad infinitum. It’s today’s date and the number you get when you divide the circumference of a circle by its diameter, and it cannot be expressed as a fraction. It continues forever.
In an era when math and mathematicians have become sexy again, it’s worth recounting how Pi Day came to be and why it is that people still go to the Exploratorium and gather around the Pi Shrine to perform pi-related rites and eat ritual food – be it apple pie or pizza pie – in honor of this special number. People sing Pi Day songs, bead a pi string (a physical manifestation of the never ending value of pi), and circumnavigate a pi shrine. Pi Day celebrations culminate, appropriately enough, on March 14 at 1:59pm. That’s the third month, the fourteenth day, at 1:59pm, corresponding to the first 6-digits of Pi. And as an added bonus, 3/14 is also Einstein’s birthday.
The original Pi guy is Larry Shaw, a physicist with streaming white hair, a white beard and a transcendent glow. It was 1987, Shaw was thinking a lot about the concept of rotation into another dimension – the sorts of things he was actually paid to do. Pi represents the relationship between one dimension to another in the sense of the linear dimension and the plane; or the relation of the linear dimension and the sphere. So for Shaw, Pi was in the air and definitely on his mind. He and his colleagues were talking about a Pi Shrine or a Pi Day, something to make the concept of rotation noteworthy. And so it all came together.
For the first Pi Day, they installed a Pi Shrine (a small brass plate engraved with pi to a hundred digits) at the exact center of a circular Exploratorium classroom, a spot that also corresponds to the center-line of the museum’s building. And they walked around the shrine because as Shaw notes, “People go around things to show respect to them in many cultures and religions.” And they ate pie.
It wasn’t until 1989 at the 3rd Pi Day, that the overlap with Einstein’s birthday was uncovered by Shaw’s daughter Sara. She was writing a report on Einstein and told her dad that Pi Day – 3/14 – was also Einstein’s birthday. Voila. With all that mathematical kismet going for it, Pi Day gradually took on an international life of its own.
Today the public comes to circumambulate the Pi shrine approximately 3.14 times. And, bonus! We eat pie.