It’s hard to believe that 20 years have passed since physicist and “Prince of Pi” Larry Shaw launched Pi Day at the San Francisco Exploratorium, parading around a Pi Shrine and eating fruit and pizza pies.
The Greek letter symbolizing the ratio of a circle’s circumference to diameter—or 3.1415926535….ad infinitum—takes place every 14 March (or in some circles, 3/14, or 3.14. Get it?). It’s also, coincidentally, Albert Einstein’s birthday—a fact discovered by Shaw’s then 14-year-old daughter. Way too much mathematical serendipity to ignore.
Since then, everyone’s favorite irrational number has spawned irreverent celebrations around the globe. College engineering societies have picked up the tradition with pi and pie-related activities—throwing pies at professors, writing poetry (care to try a “pi-ku”?), or, in the case of one overzealous enthusiast, tattooing the symbol for pi on her hip. MIT is said to mail out its acceptance letters on Pi Day. And there’s now a Pi Day celebration in Second Life, a virtual world where participants assume identities as computerized avatars. IEEE student branches have also gotten into the act.
Over at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., not even impending winter term finals can mess with Pi Day. “It’s hard to organize because it coincides with the end of the quarter,” says Ian Wong, a senior EE major and chair of the IEEE student branch. Still, this year no fewer than three Pi Day celebrations took place—thrown the week before finals by the IEEE student branch, the Association Computing Machines student chapter, the Asian American Sib Program, and the computer science department.
The IEEE/ACM chapters sponsored a study break of Domino’s pizzas and Marie Callender's pies in the Packard EE Building at Stanford, where nearly 100 students polished off 20 pizzas and pies in 30 minutes. Google footed the US $300 bill through its student ambassador program, which promotes its brand by giving stipends for study breaks. It just so happens that an IEEE student member, Tracy Chou, and an ACM member were Google ambassadors and saw to it that the tab went to Google.
“The EE major can be a bit rough, so I've really grown to enjoy the IEEE because of the social scene,” says Chou, in her third year of a five-year EE bachelor’s/computer-science masters program. “There is a tremendous amount of camaraderie among IEEE officers and EE majors in my year. I don't mind hanging out in Packard even when I don't need to be in lab.”
Students at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts celebrate by auctioning off chances to throw pies made of whipped cream at electrical engineering professors, teaching assistants, and senior tutors. The money goes toward a local soup kitchen called Mustard Seed. Last year, the organizers scored a coup when the university’s new provost, a former EE professor, participated, helping them raise $628—“or 200 times pi,” notes Briana Morey, a senior EE and computer engineering major who chairs the school’s IEEE student branch.
Though conflicting campus events forced the cancellation of this year’s celebration, Morey vows that the seven-plus year tradition will carry on next year.
“It’s the main event run by the IEEE’s student organization,” she says. “Afterward, everyone hangs out and eats pizza.”
Missed Pi Day? Not to worry. Make it up next year by also honoring Square Root Day—celebrated on dates where both the day and the month are the square root of the last two digits of the current year. The last Square Root Day was 2 February 2004 (2/2/04), while the next is 3 March 2009 (3/3/09). The food of choice? Root vegetables cut into squares. (Yes, they are likely to be harder to get down than pizza pies cut into slices.)