Articles for kids about math in everyday life, written by Ivars Peterson for Muse magazine.

June 6, 2007

Poe, E.: Near a Raven

Quick! What are the first nine digits of π, the number known as pi?

You probably know pi as the number you get when you divide a circle's circumference by its diameter. You might even have a calculator that gives you the value of pi to eight or more decimal places: 3.14159265. . . . Remarkably, mathematicians have proved that the digits of pi go on forever, although only about 1 trillion have been calculated so far.

This hasn't stopped people from trying to memorize as many digits of pi as they can. Contests to see who can rattle off the largest number of digits are one feature of National Pi Day, which is celebrated in math classrooms and schools on, naturally, March 14. The current record is about 42,000 digits!

One way to remember at least some of the digits is to turn them into a sentence, where the number of letters in the words corresponds to the digits of pi. For example, the sentence "Can I have a small container of coffee?" gives the first eight digits of pi. Or, if you want just six digits: "Wow, I made a great discovery." Can you come up with a sentence of your own that gives, say, 20 digits of pi?

Mike Keith, a pi fanatic, has composed a poem, "Poe, E.: Near a Raven," that encodes 740 digits of pi (see below). He has also written a short story in which the number of letters in the words gives the first 3835 digits. He says these pi compositions are harder to wrote than compositions that leave out a vowel. His proof? There are two novels that do not use the letter e, but his short story is the longest pi composition in existence.

You could also come up with phrases or sentences to remember the first few digits of other numbers that go on forever. The phrase "I wish I knew" gives you the first four digits of the the square root of two, for example. Who knows? These memory aids may come in handy some day when your calculator dies at a critical moment.

Poe, E.
Near a Raven

Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap—the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber's antedoor.
"This," I whispered quietly, "I ignore."

Perfectly, the intellect remembers: the ghostly fires, a glittering ember.
Inflamed by lightning's outbursts, windows cast penumbras upon this floor.
Sorrowful, as one mistreated, unhappy thoughts I heeded:
That inimitable lesson in elegance—Lenore—
Is delighting, exciting . . . nevermore.

You can find the complete Poe poem at (Mike Keith).

The full text of Edgar Alan Poe's "The Raven" can be found at (Edgar Alan Poe Society of Baltimore).

The "pi" short story, called "Cadaeic Cadenza," is located at (Mike Keith).

Muse, October 2004, p. 17.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You might want to fix the links, as Mr. Keith's works have moved. "Near A Raven" is now at

and "Cadaeic Cadenza" is now at