A little known verse of the Bible reads
And he made a molten sea, ten cubits from the one brim to the other: it was round all about, and his height was five cubits: and a line of thirty cubits did compass it about. (I Kings 7, 23)The same verse can be found in II Chronicles 4, 2. It occurs in a list of specifications for the great temple of Solomon, built around 950 BC and its interest here is that it gives π = 3. Not a very accurate value of course and not even very accurate in its day, for the Egyptian and Mesopotamian values of 25/8 = 3.125 and √10 = 3.162 have been traced to much earlier dates: though in defence of Solomon's craftsmen it should be noted that the item being described seems to have been a very large brass casting, where a high degree of geometrical precision is neither possible nor necessary. There are some interpretations of this which lead to a much better value.
The fact that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle is constant has been known for so long that it is quite untraceable. The earliest values of π including the 'Biblical' value of 3, were almost certainly found by measurement. In the Egyptian Rhind Papyrus, which is dated about 1650 BC, there is good evidence for 4 × (8/9)2 = 3.16 as a value for π.
The first theoretical calculation seems to have been carried out by Archimedes of Syracuse (287-212 BC). He obtained the approximation
Here is Archimedes' argument.
Consider a circle of radius 1, in which we inscribe a regular polygon of 3 × 2n-1 sides, with semiperimeter bn, and superscribe a regular polygon of 3 × 2n-1 sides, with semiperimeter an.
The diagram for the case n = 2 is on the right.
The effect of this procedure is to define an increasing sequence
Using trigonometrical notation, we see that the two semiperimeters are given by
an+1bn = (bn+1)2 . . . (2)
For of course there is no reason in principle why one should not go on. Various people did, including:
|Ptolemy||(c. 150 AD)||3.1416|
|Zu Chongzhi||(430-501 AD)||355/113|
|al-Khwarizmi||(c. 800 )||3.1416|
|al-Kashi||(c. 1430)||14 places|
|Viète||(1540-1603)|| 9 places|
|Van Ceulen||(c. 1600)||35 places|
Al-Khwarizmi lived in Baghdad, and incidentally gave his name to 'algorithm', while the words al jabr in the title of one of his books gave us the word 'algebra'. Al-Kashi lived still further east, in Samarkand, while Zu Chongzhi, one need hardly add, lived in China.
The European Renaissance brought about in due course a whole new mathematical world. Among the first effects of this reawakening was the emergence of mathematical formulae for π. One of the earliest was that of Wallis (1616-1703)
These are both dramatic and astonishing formulae, for the expressions on the right are completely arithmetical in character, while π arises in the first instance from geometry. They show the surprising results that infinite processes can achieve and point the way to the wonderful richness of modern mathematics.
From the point of view of the calculation of π, however, neither is of any use at all. In Gregory's series, for example, to get 4 decimal places correct we require the error to be less than 0.00005 = 1/20000, and so we need about 10000 terms of the series. However, Gregory also showed the more general result
π/6 = (1/√3)(1 - 1/(3.3) + 1/(5.3.3) - 1/(184.108.40.206) + ...
An even better idea is to take the formula
Clearly we shall get very rapid convergence indeed if we can find a formula something like
With a formula like this available the only difficulty in computing π is the sheer boredom of continuing the calculation. Needless to say, a few people were silly enough to devote vast amounts of time and effort to this tedious and wholly useless pursuit. One of them, an Englishman named Shanks, used Machin's formula to calculate π to 707 places, publishing the results of many years of labour in 1873. Shanks has achieved immortality for a very curious reason which we shall explain in a moment.
Here is a summary of how the improvement went:
|1699:||Sharp used Gregory's result to get 71 correct digits|
|1701:||Machin used an improvement to get 100 digits and the following used his methods:|
|1719:||de Lagny found 112 correct digits|
|1789:||Vega got 126 places and in 1794 got 136|
|1841:||Rutherford calculated 152 digits and in 1853 got 440|
|1873:||Shanks calculated 707 places of which 527 were correct|
Shanks knew that π was irrational since this had been proved in 1761 by Lambert. Shortly after Shanks' calculation it was shown by Lindemann that π is transcendental, that is, π is not the solution of any polynomial equation with integer coefficients. In fact this result of Lindemann showed that 'squaring the circle' is impossible. The transcendentality of π implies that there is no ruler and compass construction to construct a square equal in area to a given circle.
Very soon after Shanks' calculation a curious statistical freak was noticed by De Morgan, who found that in the last of 707 digits there was a suspicious shortage of 7's. He mentions this in his Budget of Paradoxes of 1872 and a curiosity it remained until 1945 when Ferguson discovered that Shanks had made an error in the 528th place, after which all his digits were wrong. In 1949 a computer was used to calculate π to 2000 places. In this and all subsequent computer expansions the number of 7's does not differ significantly from its expectation, and indeed the sequence of digits has so far passed all statistical tests for randomness.
We should say a little of how the notation π arose. Oughtred in 1647 used the symbol d/π for the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference. David Gregory (1697) used π/r for the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its radius. The first to use π with its present meaning was an Welsh mathematician William Jones in 1706 when he states "3.14159 andc. = π". Euler adopted the symbol in 1737 and it quickly became a standard notation.
We conclude with one further statistical curiosity about the calculation of π, namely Buffon's needle experiment. If we have a uniform grid of parallel lines, unit distance apart and if we drop a needle of length k < 1 on the grid, the probability that the needle falls across a line is 2k/π. Various people have tried to calculate π by throwing needles. The most remarkable result was that of Lazzerini (1901), who made 34080 tosses and got
Still on the theme of phoney experiments, Gridgeman, in a paper which pours scorn on Lazzerini and others, created some amusement by using a needle of carefully chosen length k = 0.7857, throwing it twice, and hitting a line once. His estimate for π was thus given by
It is almost unbelievable that a definition of π was used, at least as an excuse, for a racial attack on the eminent mathematician Edmund Landau in 1934. Landau had defined π in this textbook published in Göttingen in that year by the, now fairly usual, method of saying that π/2 is the value of x between 1 and 2 for which cos x vanishes. This unleashed an academic dispute which was to end in Landau's dismissal from his chair at Göttingen. Bieberbach, an eminent number theorist who disgraced himself by his racist views, explains the reasons for Landau's dismissal:-
Thus the valiant rejection by the Göttingen student body which a great mathematician, Edmund Landau, has experienced is due in the final analysis to the fact that the un-German style of this man in his research and teaching is unbearable to German feelings. A people who have perceived how members of another race are working to impose ideas foreign to its own must refuse teachers of an alien culture.G H Hardy replied immediately to Bieberbach in a published note about the consequences of this un-German definition of π
There are many of us, many Englishmen and many Germans, who said things during the War which we scarcely meant and are sorry to remember now. Anxiety for one's own position, dread of falling behind the rising torrent of folly, determination at all cost not to be outdone, may be natural if not particularly heroic excuses. Professor Bieberbach's reputation excludes such explanations of his utterances, and I find myself driven to the more uncharitable conclusion that he really believes them true.Not only in Germany did π present problems. In the USA the value of π gave rise to heated political debate. In the State of Indiana in 1897 the House of Representatives unanimously passed a Bill introducing a new mathematical truth.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of Indiana: It has been found that a circular area is to the square on a line equal to the quadrant of the circumference, as the area of an equilateral rectangle is to the square of one side.The Senate of Indiana showed a little more sense and postponed indefinitely the adoption of the Act!
(Section I, House Bill No. 246, 1897)
Open questions about the number π
As a postscript, here is a mnemonic for the decimal expansion of π. Each successive digit is the number of letters in the corresponding word.
Article by: J J O'Connor and E F Robertson
MacTutor History of Mathematics