Pi Day! Mathematician-Related Historic Sites

I’m no mathematician (in fact, geometry ranked highly in my shortlist of most-hated classes in high school), but I do know that 3.14 is a very significant number.  And since 2009, March 14th has been officially recognized as Pi Day (or Pi Approximation Day, if you want to get specific) by the U.S. Congress.  While many people celebrate with the other great pie, one with a flaky crust and sweet fruity filling, why not celebrate instead by checking out our list of historic sites associated with pi’s discoverers?

Archimedes: Syracuse, Italy – Archimedes was born between 290 and 280 BC in Syracuse. Not the Onondaga county seat in New York, but the one on the Italian island of Sicily. Archimedes came up with new ways to approximate the value of pi. While there are no historic sites specifically related to Archimedes, you can visit plenty of places that will give you a good idea of what Archimedes’s Syracuse was like. The Neapolis Archaeological Park contains structures dating from the fifth century BC up to medieval times, including a Greek theatre from the time Archimedes lived in the city.

The Greek Theatre at Neapolis Archaeological Park. Photo: Claus Moser via RiedsItaly.com

Zu Chongzhi: Nanjing, China – Zu Chongzhi lived from AD 429-500. He worked on a variety of things in the field of mathematics, including work with calendars. As for his relationship with pi, he derived the most accurate approximation of pi which then was used for the next 900 years. Like with Archimedes, there are no specific Zu Chongzhi historic sites. His hometown of Jiankang no longer exists as an independent town, it is now part of Nanjing. Luckily, there are a few remnants of fifth century Jiankang that still remain.  The Yangshan Quarry is designated as a historic site (and has a children’s amusement park!), and one of Nanjing’s most important Buddhist temples, Qixia Temple, was founded in 489. While none of the original structures exist, there are many man-made caves that date from the fifth century.

Grottoes at Qixia Temple, unknown date. Photo: Kerk L. Philipps via OrientalArchitecture.com

Ludolph van Ceulen: Leiden, the Netherlands – German-born Ludolph van Cuelen (1540-1610) was both a mathematician and fencing teacher.  He was the first mathematics professor at Leiden University.  He also was the first to calculate pi to 35 digits (the “Ludolphine number”).  He was buried at the Gothic Pieterskerk (St. Peter’s Church) in Leiden, with the 35 digits of pi inscribed on his tombstone.  The original stone was lost, but a new one was erected in 2000.  Though now an event space and not a church, the Pieterskerk is still open to visitors.

The Pieterskerk. Photo: bk.tudelft.nl

William Jones and John Machin: London, England – William Jones is the man we can thank for the use of π to represent 3.14.  The Welsh mathematician lived from 1675-1749.  In 1711, he was appointed a fellow of the Royal Society of London (whose president at that time was none other than Isaac Newton). Englishman and  fellow Royal Society member John Machin (1686-1751) computed pi to 100 decimal places. At the time, the Royal Society met in rooms at Crane Court, one of which was designed by famed architect Christopher Wren.  Today Crane Court still exists but is quite different from its 18th century counterpart. However, the alley’s mathematical past is marked by a lamp in the shape of a model of the solar system.

The entrance to Crane Court, complete with a solar-system-shaped lamp. Photo: The Londonist

Leonhard Euler: Berlin, Prussia and St. Petersburg, Russia – While it was William Jones who introduced the symbol π, it was Euler who made it popular. Euler (1707-1783) was born in Switzerland but spent most of his life in Berlin and St. Petersburg.  In Berlin he was a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Sciences, which moved to its current location in 1752.  Today the Academy functions under the name “Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences and Humanities.”  Euler returned to St. Petersburg in 1771 and lived there until his death.  On the 250th anniversary of his death, he was reburied at the Alexander Nevsky Monastery.  The monastery features Baroque churches, a Neoclassical cathedral, and several recently erected monuments.

Entrance to the Alexander Nevsky Monastery. Photo: Saint-Petersburg.com

Of course, there are so many more mathematicians involved with the development of pi who we could mention.  But we won’t keep you here all day—or for 371 days, which is how long it took a computer to calculate pi to the ten trillionth digit.

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One Response to Pi Day! Mathematician-Related Historic Sites

  1. Pingback: Ginger-Carrot Dressing {Daring Kitchen} | The Wordy Baker

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