March 14: The History of Pi

This Day in History

Happy Pi Day!

Besides a day to celebrate mathematics and fill your plate up with pie, Pi Day is significant for more reasons than meets the mind. For centuries, mankind was fascinated with the mystery of the circle, which represented unity, completeness, perfection, and fertility.

To many ancient civilizations, the wonders of the circle was a universal interest due to its uniquely metaphoric symbol of life and nature. The most glaring round shape in nature, the sun, was essential to life.

Although the Egyptians and the Babylonians have recorded instances of using mathematics to find the area of a circle, Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse receives the credit for finding the most accurate approximation of pi. In addition to calculating the circumference of a circle, the brilliant Greek also developed the Pythagorean Theorem, discovered the law of levers, and invented formulas for volume and surface area of a sphere. 

vitruvian man by leonardo da vinci

The quest for calculating the perfect circle was further discovered in the 18th Century when a little-known Welsh mathematician named William Jones first used the symbol π to represent pi. Before Jones introduced the name for the irrational number, many used the long Latin name to reference the area o a circle: quantitas in quam cum multiflicetur diameter, proveniet circumferencia (the quantity which, when the diameter is multiplied by it, yields the circumference). Clearly, a shorter name was necessary. Jones chose the Greek symbol called pi because π is the first letter in the Greek word περίμετρος, which means “circumference.”

For the first time in history, the mysteries of the curious puzzle which had stumped scientists and philosophers alike had finally enlightened the modern man.

The first Pi Day was celebrated on March 14, 1988 in San Francisco by scientist Larry Shaw as a way to celebrate mathematics and sweet food. Today as you partake in your feasting of round pie, consider how truly spectacular it is that we now know how to calculate the circumference of a circle, which enables us to discover new technologies even to this day! The sky (or Sun!) is the limit! 

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