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Happy Pi Day

Today is Pi Day, the celebration of the mathematical symbol denoted by the Greek letter π. As everyone may already know, Pi is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. In other words, for any circle, the distance around the edge is a little more than three times the distance across which is approximately 3.14159. For math aficionados, it’s pretty amazing and a great way to capture the imagination of students along with delicious pies!

We recently learned this nerdy holiday started in the Bay area.

“Pi Day was just a wacky tradition at a science museum in the Bay Area,” reported Soumya Karlamangla, for the New York Times’s California Today daily newsletter. We found this fascinating and thought you might too.

According to Karlamangla:

“The Exploratorium, currently at the Embarcadero along San Francisco’s eastern waterfront, was founded in 1969 by the physicist and professor Frank Oppenheimer, who wanted to create a more hands-on way for children to learn about science. (Oppenheimer was the younger brother of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the “father of the atomic bomb” and the subject of this year’s best picture winner at the Oscars.)

Frank Oppenheimer ran the Exploratorium, originally located in the city’s Palace of the Fine Arts, until his death in 1985. Three years later, museum employees found themselves at a staff retreat in Monterey trying to think up ways to continue developing and growing the museum.

That’s when Larry Shaw, a physicist and media specialist at the Exploratorium, felt inspiration strike.

Pi has fascinated mathematicians for thousands of years, not least because it is an irrational number — its digits seem to go on forever without falling into a repeating pattern, a tantalizing glimpse of infinity. It is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, and circles themselves tend to hold some mystery, as perfect shapes with no beginning or end, according to Samuel Sharkland, senior program director at the Exploratorium.

To Shaw, pi seemed like an ideal subject of scientific celebration. It also had a lucky homophone in “pie,” which offered up a tasty way to entice children and adults to learn about math. (Conveniently, pies are typically shaped like circles, too.)

The Exploratorium hosted its first Pi Day on March 14, 1988, with fruit pie for everyone at the museum to enjoy at 1:59 p.m. (Those are the next three digits after 3.14.)

Eventually, the Exploratorium added a celebration of Albert Einstein’s birthday to its annual festivities (he was born on March 14, 1879). Each year, Shaw would lead a parade through the museum with a boombox blaring the digits of pi to the tune of “Pomp and Circumstance,” culminating in walking 3.14 times around a “Pi Shrine” — a brass plaque inscribed with the first 100 digits of pi — while singing “Happy Birthday” to Einstein.

Shaw told SFGate in 2009 that he and other participants regarded the Pi Shrine with the reverence of worshipers at a religious site. “Ours is a mystery religion,” said Shaw, whom the museum staff fondly called the “Prince of Pi.”

“Just like others, we circumambulate the things we respect,” he told the news outlet. Shaw died in 2017.

Though the museum still goes all out to celebrate each year. Pi Day has long since outgrown its association with the Exploratorium. But that’s not something to be lamented, Sharkland told me.

“It just blossomed,” he said. “It’s something we’re proud of.”

So, thank you San Francisco for this deliciously fun way to learn about Pi.

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Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard
Patricia Lombard is the publisher of the Larchmont Buzz. Patty lives with her family in Fremont Place. She has been active in neighborhood issues since moving here in 1989. Her pictorial history, "Larchmont" for Arcadia Press is available at Chevalier's Books.

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