Celebrating Math with Pi Day

Are your students doing anything special for Pi Day?

Back when we were homeschooling, my kids and I always felt stir-crazy after two months with no significant break. We needed a day off — and what better way could we spend it than to play math all afternoon?

I love any excuse to celebrate math!

Pi Day is March 14. If you write dates in the month/date format, then 3/14 at 1:59 is about as close as the calendar can get to 3.14159etc.

(Otherwise, you can celebrate Pi Approximation Day on July 22, or 22/7.)

Unfortunately, most of the activities on teacher blogs and Pinterest focus on the pi/pie wordplay or on memorizing the digits. With a bit of digging, however, I found a few puzzles that let us sink our metaphorical teeth into real mathematical meat.

What’s the Big Deal? Why Pi?

In math, symmetry is beautiful, and the most completely symmetric object in the (Euclidean) mathematical plane is the circle. No matter how you turn it, expand it, or shrink it, the circle remains essentially the same.

Every circle you can imagine is the exact image of every other circle there is.

This is not true of other shapes. A rectangle may be short or tall. An ellipse may be fat or slim. A triangle may be squat, or stand upright, or lean off at a drunken angle. But circles are all the same, except for magnification. A circle three inches across is a perfect, point-for-point copy of a circle three miles across, or three millimeters.

What makes a circle so special and beautiful? Any child will tell you, what makes a circle is its roundness. Perfectly smooth and plump, but not too fat.

The definition of a circle is “all the points at a certain distance from the center.” Can you see why this definition forces absolute symmetry, with no pointy sides or bumped-out curves?

One way to express that perfect roundness in numbers is to compare it to the distance across. How many times would you have to walk back and forth across the middle of the circle to make the same distance as one trip around?

The ratio is the same for every circle, no matter which direction you walk.

That’s pi!

Puzzles with Pi

For all ages:

Sarah Carter created this fun variation on the classic Four 4s puzzle for Pi Day:

Using only the digits 3, 1, 4 once in each calculation, how many numbers can you make?

You can use any math you know: add, subtract, multiply, square roots, factorials, etc. You can concatenate the digits, putting them together to make a two-digit or three-digit number.

For older students:

1. Imagine the Earth as a perfect sphere with a long rope tightly wrapped around the equator. Then increase the length of the rope by 10 feet, and magically lift it off the Earth to float above the equator. Will an ant be able to squeeze under the rope without touching it? What about a cat? A person?

2. If you ride a bicycle over a puddle of water, the wheels will leave wet marks on the road. Obviously, each wheel leaves a periodic pattern. How the two patterns are related? Do they overlap? Does their relative position depend on the length of the puddle? The bicycle? The size of the wheels?

3. Draw a semicircle. Along its diameter draw smaller semicircles (not necessarily the same size) that touch each other. Because there are no spaces in between, the sum of the diameters of the small semicircles must equal the diameter of the large one. What about their perimeter, the sum of their arc lengths?

4. Choose any smallish number N. How can you cut a circular shape into N parts of equal area with lines of equal lengths, using only a straight-edge and compass? Hint: The lines don’t have to be straight.

[Solutions at Alexander Bogomolny’s Pi Page. Scroll down to “Extras.”]

It can be of no practical use to know that Pi is irrational, but if we can know, it surely would be intolerable not to know.

— Edward Titchmarsh