The history of “Pi Day”

National Pi Day can be traced back to 1988 and a man named Larry “The Prince of π” Shaw.

Shaw was a physicist who was a longtime employee at the Exploratorium, a science museum in San Francisco, California, and came up with the idea of “π Day” on a 1988 staff retreat, following the death of Exploratorium founder and Nobel Prize nominee Frank Oppenheimer. March 14 was selected because the numerical date (3.14) represents the first three digits of pi. Coincidentally it is Albert Einstein’s birthday.

Related: What is Pi, anyway?

The first π Day celebration simply involved Shaw and his wife handing out slices of fruit pie and tea at 1:59 p.m., which are the three digits following 3.14, however, the holiday quickly gained fame throughout the Bay Area.

Shaw subsequently constructed the “Pi Shrine” at the Exploratorium. The math sanctum was a circular classroom with a circular brass plaque at its center. Every Pi Day celebration at the Exploratorium ended with a flamboyant parade led by Shaw blasting a remix of “Pomp and Circumstance” set to the digits of pi on his boombox, and circling the Pi Shrine exactly 3.14 times. The parade ended with participants singing a rousing rendition of “Happy Birthday” to Albert Einstein.

Shaw passed away in 2017, but the annual Exploratorium party continues and has grown larger each year, and now includes webcasts and a virtual party in Second Life (an online virtual world). Pi Day is celebrated around the world. It did not become a national holiday until 2009 when Congress passed legislation.

Popular ways to celebrate include baking a pie and other circular confectionery treats, constructing a paper pi chain where every 10 digits is a different color, and creating a collage out of circular shapes.

Nerds across the planet also participate in memorization contests. The current world record for memorizing and reciting the most digits of pi was established by Suresh Kumar Sharma of India in 2015 when he recited a mind-boggling 70,030 digits in 17 hours and 14 minutes.

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Charles Betzler

Charles Betzler

Charles Betzler is a contributing writer for Sapulpa Times.