I was never much good at maths. In fact, to this day, I will never come to terms with 10 minutes of nightmare that I went through during a maths test. I was about 10 at the time, but I remember every single moment of having to admit to the whole class that I was useless with numbers. The problem to be solved concerned a little old lady buying a piece of furniture and paying for it in installments. All the necessary facts and figures were given to us, and we just had to calculate how long it would take her to pay off that damned cupboard that still haunts me today. I came up with an answer: 108 years.
It’s not the fact that I got the answer wrong that has lived on with me for ever, it’s the fact that the teacher let the whole class know of my stupidity, whilst she was distributing the test papers a few days later. Looking back of course, I haven’t yet understood how I didn’t realise that my answer was so blatantly wrong.
Since those dark days, I have got on with my life, of course, and have encountered more important things than stories about little old ladies buying antiques. But from time to time, I have this weird feeling – as others do, I suspect – that my life is not going anywhere of significant importance. In fact, like most people’s lives, I began with nothing and will end up – if I’m lucky – with precisely nothing. My life will have completed a circle, ending up precisely where it once began. But the question I ask myself is how big this circle really is, because the way I see it, the bigger the circle of life you complete, the richer your life will have been. This brings me nicely back to the one subject I really hated at school – maths.
In order to calculate the circumference of a circle, we must use a ratio that is probably the best-known ratio given to mankind. If you draw a circle whose radius (that’s half the diameter) is equal to 1, the distance half-way around the circle will be approximately 3.14. In other words, the circumference of the circle will be 3.14 times twice the radius, or 3.14 times the diameter. Nearly everybody knows that the value 3.14 is referred to as π, the Greek letter “pi.”
Simple, isn’t it? Well, not quite, because π is rather like my maths was at school and stiil is today – irrational. You can calculate the precise value of π as much as you want to, you won’t get anywhere, and you will certainly not find anything like a pattern in your answer. It’s a number that just goes on and on…and on and on…In fact, it is so irrational that it has its very own celebration day, March 14th.
Emma Haruka Iwao is a 34-year-old software engineer at Google. She claims to have been useless at maths, but fascinated by Π since she was 12 years old. Useless at maths she may be, but she has just broken the world record for calculating the value of Π to 31.4 trillion figures. Take it from me, that’s a hell of a lot of numbers after the decimal point. She used a programme called Y-cruncher, “the first scalable multi-threaded Pi-benchmark for multi-core systems – “ whatever that means.
It goes without saying that she didn’t write the answer to her calculations on a couple of notepads, but hired 25 of Google’s cloud-based virtual machines for 121 days, using 170 terabytes of data.
But before we get too excited over this latest milestone in universal science, let me tell you that Iwao’s calculations have no intrinsic value whatsoever, apart from showing us how much data Google can store. Space giants Nasa use only the first 15 digits of Π for its rockets, and a measly 40 digits will allow you to measure the circumference of the Milky Way with photonic precision, if that’s what you want to do in your spare time. But worst of all, it won’t help me one iota in my quest to find out how much time that little old lady really needed to buy that bloody cupboard.