Thursday, March 15, 2012

This Week in Review

Daylight Savings Time:

At 2 a.m. on, Sunday, March 11, 2012, most U.S. residents set their clocks ahead one hour for the beginning of Daylight Saving Time. However, not all states observed the time change. Residents of Arizona, Hawaii and U.S. territories Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands remained on their normal schedules. About 75 countries and territories have at least one location that observes Daylight Saving Time, according to Alternately, 164 don't observe the change at all.

Benjamin Franklin has been credited with the idea of Daylight Saving Time, but Britain and Germany began using the concept in World War I to conserve energy, according to the Washington Post. The United States utilized Daylight Saving Time briefly during the war, but the concept was not widely accepted in the states until after the Second World War. In 1966, a piece of federal legislation called the Uniform Time Act stated that clocks should be set forward on the last Sunday in April and set back on the last Sunday in October. The law was amended in 1986 to start daylight saving time on the first Sunday in April, although the new system did not go into effect until 1987. The end date remained unchanged until 2006.

Today, Daylight Saving Time begins on the second Sunday in March and ends on the first Sunday in November. The time change precedes the first day of spring and the vernal equinox, which is set to take place at 1:14 a.m. EDT on Tuesday, March 20. Not a fan of Daylight Saving Time? Not to worry; you can resume your normal schedule come November 4.

Pi Day in America!!!

Why should anyone celebrate a mathematical constant that allows you to compute the area inside a circle? As unlikely as it may seem, the number pi has been paramount to the development of modern life. As far back as the ancient civilizations of Babylon and Egypt, people required approximations of pi to manage the flooding of the Tigris, Euphrates and Nile Rivers as well as for astronomy and for surveying and building ziggurats and pyramids. The ancient Greeks were the first to study pi for its pure mathematical value. Today pi is important in applied mathematics such as Fourier analysis and image reconstruction; it is used in engineering, science, and medicine and is also studied for its own value in number theory.

The first time a day was dedicated to pi was on March 14, 1989 at the Exploratorium, a museum of science, art, and human perception in San Francisco. The idea was the brainchild of Larry Shaw, a physicist at the center. Now 4,000 years after people first discovered how useful pi could be, we celebrate International Pi Day. The date is derived from the first 3 digits of pi--3.14--using the American dating system. 2015 will be a big year for pi since we will celebrate pi to 4 correct decimal places, 3.1415. Public interest in pi reached a zenith when in 2009 the U.S. House of Representatives formally declared March 14 National Pi Day, in House Resolution number 224. The Bill begins:

"Whereas the Greek letter (pi) is the symbol for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter..."

After many more "whereases," it resolves...

"That the House of Representatives supports the designation of a Pi Day and its celebration around the world."

Pi has been featured in popular culture such as in the title of a Kate Bush song, in the movies The Matrix, and Pi, and in the 2001 novel Life of Pi by Yann Martel. Pi has even inspired the invention of a new literary form called 'piems.' The challenge is to write a poem where the length of each word is the same as the number in the pie sequence. For example, the first eight decimal places of pi can be recalled with the phrase: "How I need a drink, alcoholic of course" (to represent 3.1415926). Many more can be found here: If you prefer numbers to words, try memorizing pi. The current Guinness World Record for remembering pi is well in excess of 60,000 digits. Memorizers typically add 10 or 15 digits a day to their totals.

Meanwhile, the "mathemagicians" of the world continue to outperform each other, calculating pi to ever more decimal and hexadecimal (base 16) places. The current world record is ten trillion (10,000,000,000,000) decimal digits. It was set in October of last year by Japanese systems engineer Shigeru Kondo, using an $18,000 homemade computer running software developed by American graduate student Alex Yee. Within the next ten years, a quadrillion digits will probably have been computed. While pi's wells never run dry, we cannot currently prove that the decimal expansion of pi has infinitely many eights, let alone that it is normal (has equally many ones, twos, threes, etc). Jonathan M. Borwein, a Scottish mathematician who holds an appointment as Laureate Professor of Mathematics at the University of Newcastle, Australia, has recently completed a research paper with his colleagues analyzing roughly 16 trillion bits (binary digits) and has concluded that it is almost certainly normal. Over the years, we may discover something startling about pi. That was part of the punch line in Carl Sagan's novel Contact, in which he suggested that alien life forms encoded messages to the human race in the numerical value of pi.

"Beware the Ides of March"

March 15 is a day of which to be weary. In Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, a soothsayer warns our protagonist of the Ides of March. Nevertheless, Caesar dismisses his words as well as a dream his wife has about his statue flowing with a fountain of flood, supplying a macabre bath for Roman citizens. He goes to work anyways and is subsequently murdered (stabbed 23 times) by members of the Roman Senate. Do literary characters ever heed good advice or pay attention to bad omens? Probably not; otherwise, we'd have no dramatic irony.

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