- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 11, 2007

This is a story about love. About inscrutable complexity and remarkable simplicity, about the promise of forever. It is about obsession and devotion, and grand gestures and 4,000-word love letters.

It is about a curious group of people with an almost religious zeal for a mind-numbing string of numbers. Actually one number, made up of a chain that is known so far to be more than 1 trillion digits.

They are the acolytes of the church of pi.

And once a year many of them gather to talk about pi, rhapsodize about it, eat pi-themed foods (actual pie, sure, but so much more), have pi recitation contests and, just maybe, feel a little less sheepish about their unusual passion.

That day falls on Wednesday this year: March 14. Or 3.14. Obviously.

The question is why, of course. And if you ask the fans of pi why, a startling number of them will come back with the same question: “Why climb Mount Everest?” Because it’s there.

But then they start talking about some very simple ideas. Like the beauty of a number that seems to go on forever and yet has no discernible pattern to it. Or about the valor of the memorization gymnastics, challenging oneself always to know more.

Marc Umile said he picked up a book on curiosities of math and read about pi’s seemingly infinite, random string.

An obsession was born. In 2004, Mr. Umile read the digits of pi into a tape recorder. He listened to the tape constantly. This went on for two years. What he created was thought to be a U.S. record for pi memorization: 12,887 digits.

Akira Haraguchi, a 60-year-old mental health counselor in Japan, puts it: “What I am aiming at is not just memorizing figures. I am thrilled by seeking a story in pi.”

He said that one day last fall after accurately reciting pi to 100,000 decimal places. It took him 16 hours. He does not hold the Guinness world record, only because he has not submitted the required documentation to Guinness. But he has his story.

(The world record belongs to Chao Lu, a Chinese chemistry student, who rattled off 67,890 digits over 24 hours in 2005.)

A brief math refresher: Pi a simple concept, the relationship between a circle’s circumference and diameter: Multiply the diameter by pi 3.14159, to use a crude approximation and you get the circumference.

Supercomputers have computed pi to more than 1 trillion decimal places, looking always for a pattern to unlock its mystery. And for centuries the number has fascinated mathematicians.

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