by Karen Tracy
Think middle school geometry. Think Pi. It’s the numerical expression that represents the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, extending into infinity as a non-repeating decimal. Most folks can recall that it begins with 3.14. But for the purposes of this story, imagine a random string of 529-plus numbers – in no recognizable order – following that 4.
That’s what a remarkable trio of boys from SCH Middle School have recited by memory to land in the school’s annual Pi Contest Hall of Fame. What’s more, that trio of boys all come from the very same family. Meet Pi wonders Charlie, Phil and Michael Wrede, holding firm at the top of the list of winners for the last seven years.
Phil, now an SCH senior, is top dog among the band of brothers with 635 digits to his credit, earning the title in 2014 as a seventh-grader.
Michael is next, now a sophomore at Tufts University, with 607 digits. He was also the first student to break the 600-digit barrier in 2012, almost doubling the previous record holder and setting the new gold standard for those to follow.
And last year, Charlie, now in ninth grade, kept the family streak going by claiming third place after logging an impressive 532 digits.
How does this happen? Ask SCH math teacher Andrew Wolf, who modestly owns the number one spot in the Hall of Fame with 704 digits of Pi, which he recited over a period stretching close to 10 minutes.
The Pi contest started in 2006 as a random challenge for Wolf’s math class at the time. “How many numbers can you memorize in 10 minutes?” he asked. After seeing light bulbs go off and the competitive juices flow, he launched a proper contest and opened it up to the whole middle school. He begins the month leading up to the day –always March 14 (3/14), of course – by handing out a sheet printed with the 300 digits that follow 3.14.
“The longer sheet, with 1,000 digits, is reserved for those who stand a chance to exceed 300. I don’t want to scare them off right away,” Wolf said.
Wolf has now worked with legions of middle school boys, listening to them ramble off digits in order to climb up onto the leaderboard he keeps on the whiteboard in his classroom. Then, as boys deem themselves ready, they approach Wolf, ready to recite.
“It’s fascinating,” he said, as he watches them squirm and twist and struggle in the throes of reciting. “I really try to keep a poker face once they are underway. If they realize they need to back up, I let them. I don’t want to reveal anything with my expression.”
Wolf said that kids memorize in different ways, grouping or seeing patterns to help them remember, often using strings of 10 digits, like those of a phone number, and they don’t all use the same grouping method.
“You’ll see the boys pause while they access the different parts of their brain where they’ve stored the numbers,” he said. “And then, suddenly, they find that compartment and start spitting out a bunch of digits.”
Wolf recalls fondly the 2015 Pi Contest; it was a special year in the world of numbers. It was the year when the next two digits after 3.14, i.e. 15, provided a special occasion for the number-hungry devotees of Pi Day. On March 14, 2015 (3/14/15), the Upper School Service Council organized a 5K run that year, with a foot race whose length was the closest approximation to 3.1415 miles, and they scheduled the race to begin at exactly 9:26 a.m., which are the next three digits in the infinite series.
With a bemused smile, Wolf recalls a highlight of the event.
“It was raining that year, and we were on the track, just getting ready to hit the starting gun for the 5K, when then fifth-grader Zach Schapiro came running up to me,” he said. “With an umbrella over his head, at exactly 9:26, he starts reciting, going all out in the pouring rain. He went on to complete 515 digits. Now that was a memorable year.”
Whether a celebration of a freakish capacity for memorization or a glimpse at the next Isaac Newton, the Pi Contest lingers with middle school boys and its participants. In fact, Phil recently delivered his senior speech (an SCH rite of passage) by rattling off the next 50 digits after 3.14 in rapid fire order. And, five years after Michael participated in the contest, he dedicated one of his college application essays to the experience.
He said, “a passion can be turned into anything you want it to be. As long as that passion drives you and brings you happiness, it’s worth it. Pi is an insignificant number and plays no major role in my life, yet I will never forget its story, nor will I forget the numbers that started it all, 3.1415926535…”
Karen Tracy is the Director of Communications at SCH Academy.