Vol. 2, Issue 26, June 29, 2004
Mathematicians Stunned when Computer Reaches Final Digit of Pi
A team of Japanese researchers at a leading national university has upended the entire scientific world by unexpectedly calculating the value of pi to 1.3511 trillion places, which is apparently the final digit in this number previously thought to be infinite.
"We don't understand," said visibly panicked project team member Makoto Kudo. "We were just trying to set a new world record for most digits calculated. We had no idea it would run out. Honestly!"
Researchers at Tokyo University, led by Professor Yasumasa Kanada, calculated the value for pi with a Hitachi supercomputer for over 500 hours in April. They were seeking to break their own world record. The Hitachi supercomputer is capable of 2 trillion calculations per second.
"We just wanted to get to 1.5 trillion places," said Kudo. "We intended no harm."
Pi is a number expressing the ratio of the circumference of a perfect circle to its diameter. As there are no perfect circles or spheres in nature (since matter is composed of atoms and is therefore not smooth) the continued extension of pi has long been seen as a harmless exercise of computer power. However, its symbolic value to the scientific world is profound.
"Probably no symbol in mathematics has evoked as much mystery, romanticism, misconception, and human interest as the number pi," said David Blatner, author of The Joy of Pi. "It is the ultimate limitless vista serving as inspiration to mathematicians the world over. With our world so rudely circumscribed, how are we to continue? What point is there in going on if even pi has a limit?"
Kanada's team has volunteered to continue building on pi by generating random numbers, but the mathematical community seems to feel it wouldn't be the same. Some refuse to accept the findings, although Kanada's team has run the calculation three times.
"We thoroughly condemn the slanderous allegation that pi has a limit," said Rolf Umbridge of the Ancient and Honorable Society of Pi Watchers. "We are so incensed by the very notion that we hereby officially censure the University of Tokyo. Dr. Kanada, you are dead to me, sir!"
Most, however, do not blame Kanada or his team, acknowledging that someone would have discovered that pi is finite sooner or later.
"Pi showed me the power of numbers," said UCLA graduate student in mathematics Alan Prentiss wistfully. "It was that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk exorcizes the evil energy entity from the ship's computer by commanding the computer to calculate the value of pi, which used up all the computer's memory. I was just a kid, but I thought - wow, math can be used to fight evil. But now I realize that was just a fantasy, a sham: the computer would have finished the job, and the Enterprise would have been lost. It's profoundly disillusioning."