of PI–A Biography of the World’s
Most Mysterious Number by Alfred S. Posamentier
“Can I read
that when you’ve finished?” my
husband asked, after circling around me in my recliner as I read this book this
past weekend. Normally, my book reviewing assignments don’t interest
him in the slightest.
This was obviously different. Perhaps
it was only to be expected, as my husband had been on the Stuyvesant
High School math team, and read math teaser and games volumes
with the same enjoyment that most of us reserve for summer beach
If there is anything that adults remember from their earliest studies of mathematics
in school, it is the Greek letter Pi (p) used in connection with the famous formula
for the area of a circle- pr². However,
what most people don’t know is that this ubiquitous number has an extraordinary
significance in mathematics and a very interesting history about how it was discovered
as well as its value more accurately known through the ages. Would you believe
that we now know Pi to 1.24 trillion decimal places?
This book, specifically geared toward
the general readership and “clearly
appropriate for teachers involved in mathematics instruction in all grade levels,” is
written in a very informal and comfortable style with this readership in mind.
For example, for the uninitiated, many mathematical terms are defined as they
come up through an extensive footnote system.
It’s certainly an impressive piece of scholarship. The authors cover everything
from the history of Pi in the ancient world to the most recent efforts by Tokyo
University’s professor Yasumasa Kanada’s December 2002 effort to
calculate Pi (familiar to most of us as the value of 3.14) to 1.24 trillion decimal
places. There are discussions about Pi’s value in the Bible, how the Chinese
studied it, even an entertaining section about the various mnemonics, poems,
dramas, and jokes that various cultures have developed to remember Pi.
As a non-mathematician, I found the
chapters dealing with the applications of Pi–in the starting positions at a track meet, for example, how to allocate
fair shares of a pizza, or even how the Chinese symbol for yin/yang owes much
to the calculation of Pi–particularly fascinating.
There is something for everyone in
this book and everyone should read this book because it will
be, for some, a revelation that mathematics can be fun and beautiful-
something they may not have realized during earlier encounters. Math teachers
will find a host of ideas to enrich their instruction since Pi, as you know,
comes up everywhere. The book is highly recommended and should provide a major
step towards increasing the popularity of mathematics.#
Alfred S. Posamentier is Dean, School of Education, City College, N.Y. and
holds a Ph.D. in Mathematics.