How to Memorize Pi if You’re a Word Person
By Arika Okrent
Pi Day is always on March 14 (3/14), but this year it’s extra special because we get two more digits because of the year (3/14/15). The day offers something for the math-lover, of course, but also for the baked-goods lover (Bake a pi pie!), the music lover (Sing some Pi Day carols!), and the parade lover (March in a pi-rade!) What about the word lover?
Pi enthusiasts have performed amazing feats of memorization, reciting the number to thousands of digits. World record holder Chao Lu has recited it to 67,890 digits without an error. But memorizing pi doesn’t have to be done through numbers—it can also be done through words. This sentence "How I wish I could calculate pi" gives you pi to seven places. Just count the number of letters in each word—3, 1, 4, 1, 5…—and you get 3.141592.
Here are some other pi sentences from the Pi Wordplay page at Wolfram Mathworld.
May I have a large container of coffee? (3.1415926) How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics. (3.14159265358979)
You can take that one a step further:
How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics, and if the lectures were boring or tiring, then any odd thinking was on quartic equations again. (3.1415926535897932384626433832795)
But why stop there? Sasha Volokh of the Volokh Conspiracy composed a passage that takes pi out to 167 digits. Mike Keith’s Cadaeic Cadenza takes it out to nearly 4000 digits (the last line is “I end, whispering ad infinitums").
The technique can work in other languages too. If you prefer French, there’s this:
Moi, j'aime a faire connaitre un nombre utile aux sages. (3.1415926535) “Me, I like to teach a number useful to wise ones.”
Pi writing, also known as Pilish, is a neat trick, but it can be hard to come up with 7, 8, and 9 letter words that fit just right into a valid sentence. There are other techniques that allow more freedom of expression on the language side. Akira Haraguchi has recited pi to 100,000 digits (his feat has not yet been recognized by Guinness), and he did it by taking advantage of the structure of Japanese words, which can be broken down into strings of a limited set of syllables. The first 15 digits of pi can be captured in a four-word, fifteen-syllable sentence:
Saishi ikokuni mukosan kowakunaku. “The wife and children have gone abroad; the husband is not scared.”
Haraguchi’s system is particularly useful and flexible because he doesn’t assign a single syllable to each numeral. Japanese has a limited but large set of syllables, about 100. He takes advantage of all of them by assigning each of the numerals 0-9 to a whole group of syllables. For example, 1 can be a, i, u, e, hi, bi, pi, an, ah, hy, hyan, bya, or byan. This way, a far larger number of words can be converted into strings of numerals. According to a 2006 article about him in The Japan Times, Haraguchi was able to memorize so much by creating “a myriad of stories and poems, including a story about the legendary 12th-century hero Minamoto no Yoshitsune and his sidekick Benkei, who was a Buddhist monk.” Not that that makes it easy. He still had to internalize his system through years of practice, and he had to remember the stories. Still, it shows there are all kinds of ways to explore the infinite mysteries of pi, and that word lovers need not be left out of the fun.