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MEET THE STUDENT ASKING THE QUESTION

student
Asked by: Jared Finsel
School: Maine-Endwell Middle School
Grade: 6
Teacher: Mr. Wagstaff
Hobbies/Interests:

Soccer, playing video games


Career Interest: Scientist



MEET THE SCIENTIST

faculty
Answered by: Lucas Sabalka
Title: Riley Assistant Professor
Department: Mathematical Sciences
About Scientist:

Research area: Geometric group theory
Family: Spouse and 3 cats
Interests/hobbies: The environment, cards, movies, and Do-It-Yourself projects

 


ASK A SCIENTIST

Date: 01-12-2012

Question: What is the square root of pi?

Answer:

Before we talk about √π, let's talk about π itself. Over three thousand years ago, many cultures discoved that the fraction of the circumference of a circle to its diameter was always the same, regardless of the size of the circle. That fraction is called π.

The definition is easy enough to say, but how do we write π down? An ancient proglem is to write down π as a decimal. To estimate π, you could draw a large circle, measure the circumference and diameter of the circle and take their ratio. If you were extremely careful, you could write down a couple of decimals of π.

But getting even three or four decimals by measuring is difficult. Instead, using some deep mathematics (an area called calculus), scientists have derived formulas to help them write down π. The first person to find such a formulas was the famous Greek scientist Archimedes (also known for running through the streets naked yelling "Eureka!"). Over 2200 years ago, Archimedes used his formula to get the first four digist of π. Until 1600, mathematicians could only find the first 26 digits: 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288. Today, with better formulas and using supercomputers, we know 10,000,000,000,000 digits of π!

But even knowing ten trillion digits is still just an approximation. You could spend your entire life writing down π, but you could never finish, because π cannot be written with finitely many decimals. In fact, most numbers are just like π: they are impossible to write down completely.

So what is √π? Well, it is the only positive number which, when multiplied by itself, makes π. I can tell that √π is approximately 1.7724538509. But I cannot tell you exactly what √π is because, just like π, it cannot be written with finitely many decimals.

In fact, √π is important for another reason. For thousands of years, mathematicians have tried to "square the circle," which means to draw a square with area equal to π, using just a compass and straightedge. A square with area π has side lengths √π. Many people tried and failed to square the circle. It wasn't until 1882 that mathematicians proved that squaring the circle is impossible. That didn't stop a cooky amateur mathematician named Edwin Goodwin to write Indiana House Bill #246, which was a law declaring his 'proof' that the circle could be squared was correct. As part of that bill, Indiana tried to declare that π is officiall either 4 or 3.2! Fortunately, even though the Indiana House passed the bill, the Senate realized that no one could legislate mathematical truth, and killed the Indiana π Bill.

Ask a Scientist appears Thursdays. Questions are answered by faculty at Binghamton University.  Teachers in the greater Binghamton area who wish to participate in the program are asked to write to Ask A Scientist, c/o Binghamton University, Office of Communications and Marketing, PO Box 6000, Binghamton, NY 13902-6000 or e-mail scientist@binghamton.edu. Check out the Ask a Scientist Web site at askascientist.binghamton.edu. To submit a question, download the submission form(.pdf, 460kb).

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Last Updated: 6/22/10