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Swiss researchers use a supercomputer to calculate Pi to 62.8T places — What’s the point?

Swiss researchers said on Monday they had calculated the mathematical constant pi to a new world-record level of exactitude.

The constant π is represented in this mosaic outside the Mathematics Building at the Technical University of Berlin. Image - HolgerMotzKau, CC SA 3.,0
The constant π is represented in this mosaic outside the Mathematics Building at the Technical University of Berlin. Image - HolgerMotzKau, CC SA 3.,0

Swiss researchers with the Graubuenden University of Applied Sciences said on Monday they had calculated the mathematical constant pi to a new world-record level of exactitude, hitting 62.8 trillion figures using a supercomputer. The final 10 digits it came up with? 7817924264.

According to the AFP, “The calculation took 108 days and nine hours” using a supercomputer, the Graubuenden University of Applied Sciences said in a statement. The Guinness Book of Records has not yet certified the Swiss calculation.

If you think the supercomputer’s achievement is remarkable, on March 15, 2015,  Rajveer Meena, at the VIT University in Vellore, India, recited Pi to 70,000 decimal places out loud and blind-folded, over the course of almost 10 hours, according to Guinness World Records.

March 14 (3.14) is Alfred Einstein’s birthday. Quite often, a Pi pie is made in honor of the occasion. Image – Robert Couse-Baker from Sacramento, California, CC SA 2.0.

Why do this, and does anyone care?

Most of us may remember our school days and memorizing the value of Pi – 3.1416. We learned that Pi is defined as the ratio between a circle’s circumference and its diameter. The circumference of a circle is 2πr, where r is the circle’s radius.

Pi is what is known as a transcendental, irrational number: one with an infinite number of decimal places, and one that can’t be expressed as a fraction of two whole numbers. The first 10 digits of pi are 3.141592653.

However, knowing more digits of pi isn’t all that important for mathematics. But calculating the value of pi to high precision has long been used as a benchmark to test the processing power of computers.

According to The Guardian, Jan de Gier, a professor of mathematics and statistics at the University of Melbourne, says being able to approximate pi with some precision is important because the mathematical constant has many different practical applications.

“Knowing pi to some approximation is incredibly important because it appears everywhere, from the general relativity of Einstein to corrections in your GPS to all sorts of engineering problems involving electronics,” de Gier says.

In math, pi pops up everywhere. “You can’t escape it,” says David Harvey, an associate professor at the University of New South Wales.

Nokia-5610-XpressMusic MP3-Player Image –
, CC SA 3.0.

Practical application using Pi

Harvey says Pi is also crucial to something in mathematics called Fourier Transforms. The Fourier Transform is a tool that breaks a waveform (a function or signal) into an alternate representation, characterized by sine and cosines. 

“When you’re playing an MP3 file or watching Blu-ray media, it’s using Fourier transforms all the time to compress the data,” Harvey explained. Fourier analysis is also used in medical imaging technology, and to break down the components of sunlight into spectral lines.

But, says Harvey, there’s a big difference between calculating pi to 10 decimal places and approximating it to 62.8tn digits. “I can’t imagine any real-life physical application where you would need any more than 15 decimal places,” he says.

So, why do we go to such extraordinary lengths to calculate Pi to unimaginable decimal places?

“There are lots of other numbers you could try to calculate: e, the natural logarithm base, you could calculate the square root of 2. Why do you do pi? You do pi because everyone else has been doing pi,” Harvey says. “That’s the particular mountain everyone’s decided to climb.”

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We are deeply saddened to announce the passing of our dear friend Karen Graham, who served as Editor-at-Large at Digital Journal. She was 78 years old. Karen's view of what is happening in our world was colored by her love of history and how the past influences events taking place today. Her belief in humankind's part in the care of the planet and our environment has led her to focus on the need for action in dealing with climate change. It was said by Geoffrey C. Ward, "Journalism is merely history's first draft." Everyone who writes about what is happening today is indeed, writing a small part of our history.

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