Sure, admitted mathematicians everywhere last week, what Tokyo University professor Yasumasa Kanada had just done would not be of much use in the real world, but they were awestruck, just the same. On Dec. 6, Mr. Kanada and his team at Todai’s Information Technology Center announced that they had capped years of work by computing the value of pi — the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, as every schoolchild knows and most of the rest of us had forgotten — to 1.2411 trillion places, trouncing their own world record in the process.
Want to try and visualize that number? Mathematicians offered a couple of analogies: Write it out and it would stretch 500 times around the globe. Print it, and it would fill 1,000 books the size of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The achievement, said one British professor, represented “the mathematical equivalent of setting man on the moon.”
That remark strikes us as the best way of thinking about such an obscurely magnificent feat. Nothing much was attained by the moon shots — a few kilograms of rocks, a handful of experiments, some gorgeous film footage — which may help explain why we haven’t been back since Apollo 17 left exactly 30 years ago today. But as a symbol of human achievement almost for its own sake, they are still the gold standard.
The finicky new pi may not photograph as well, but it has a similarly self-referring symbolic beauty (mathematicians concede that it will help “improve calculation methods”). What both endeavors are really about is our fascination with the idea of infinity. Pi has an infinite number of decimal places. For everyday use, two (3.14) are plenty. Supposedly, anything beyond 1,000 serves no practical purpose. It’s clear that being able to put 1.2411 trillion numbers after the point is just humanity’s way of alerting infinity — as the lunar missions alerted the universe — that we’re coming.
But any way you cut it, this is as fine a slice of pi as we will probably see for some time.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.