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Pi Day: Celebrating the Importance of Mathematics

UAlbany Math and Actuarial Club board members Sam Axtell (president), Joseph Gannon (vice president), and Theres Plano (treasurer).

ALBANY, N.Y. (March 14, 2016) -- For members of the UAlbany Math and Actuarial Club, Pi Day is a perfect opportunity for students to gather for a fun competition while enjoying a slice of pie.

The number Pi -- also represented as the Greek letter π -- is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, or the ratio of the area of the circle to the square of its radius. For math enthusiasts, March 14 (or 3.14 – Pi’s approximation) offers the perfect day to celebrate the importance of mathematics in everyday life.

"I believe math is all around us. Building structures, class schedules, and daily finances are all examples of applied mathematics,” said Sam Axtell, president of the club and a senior at UAlbany. “To go further, studying math enhances problem solving capabilities and cognitive processes to help us make quick decisions in our everyday life."

Axtell, who is an actuarial science major, caught the math bug while a student at Valley Central High School in Montgomery, N.Y. "My teachers were able to portray concepts in a way that made it easy for every student, while still expecting nothing but our best efforts," he said.

Axtell chose UAlbany because he knew the University offered a wide variety of student involvement options and career advancement opportunities. It also helped that his older brother Zach was a senior here as Sam entered his freshman year.

Now as he prepares to graduate himself, Sam helps pass on the math bug to incoming students through events such as Pi Day.

The history of Pi

Professor of Mathematics Cristian Lenart, a 2014 winner of the SUNY Chancellor's Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities, is an ideal person to illustrate the significance of Pi Day.

Cristian Lenart
Professor of Mathematics Cristian Lenart (Photo Mark Schmidt)

Lenart has taught several generations of undergraduate and graduate students during his 17 years at UAlbany. Funded by the National Science Foundation since 2004, his research is concerned with the development of new computational models, based on combinatorial structures, for various problems in algebra, geometry, and topology.

Q: What is Pi and when or how was it first discovered?

The number Pi is the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, or the ratio of the area of the circle to the square of its radius. The earliest documented appearances of Pi date from around 1900 BC; they come from Egypt and Babylonia, and both approximate Pi with about 1a percent accuracy. Archimedes (287–212 BC) was the first to estimate Pi rigorously by inscribing circles in regular polygons. Around AD 265, the Chinese mathematician Liu Hui provided a simple and rigorous algorithm to calculate Pi to any degree of accuracy.

Q: How was the ‘number’ used by mathematicians?

The original application of Pi was to calculations of lengths, areas, and volumes of geometric objects such as circles, ellipses, spheres, cones, tori etc., but Pi makes an appearance in many other areas of mathematics, such as complex numbers (obtained by introducing the square root of negative 1) and functions of a complex variable, probability and statistics (for instance, in relation to the normal distribution), chaos theory, etc.

Q: Is the number Pi still relevant to mathematics today?

The calculations mentioned above (length, area, volume, and mass) are important in engineering, physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Although not a physical constant, Pi appears routinely in equations (in physics and astronomy) describing fundamental principles of the Universe, due in no small part to the relationship between the Universe and the nature of the circle.

Q: How did you get into the study of mathematics?

I started solving math Olympiad problems in fifth grade, and I realized right away that this was the subject for me. Later I won several first prizes in the National Mathematics Olympiad in my native country, Romania, and I was also part of the national team for the International Olympiad.

Like other colleagues of mine, I pursue mathematics because I find it fascinating. When studying certain structures which model various aspects of reality, we are often puzzled by related phenomena, properties, or relationships; but after a while, we find an insightful explanation (which sometimes requires a whole new theory), and everything makes perfect sense.

Q: How do you see mathematics playing a role outside of the classroom?

Mathematics plays a crucial role in essentially all sciences, and beyond. Indeed, mathematics and the arts (music, dance, poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture etc.) have had a long historical relationship. For instance, in my Transformation Geometry class, I tell my students that all 17 types of symmetries of wallpaper patterns were known to the Moors, in the decoration of the Alhambra palace.

The very active area of machine learning (which gives computers the ability to learn without being explicitly programmed) is based on probability/statistics and optimization. Another classical area, topology, has found a new application in describing the "shape" of data sets. Computational biology (or bioinformatics) also uses models and techniques from diverse areas of mathematics. My own research has applications to theoretical physics, for instance, to computing the energy function in a statistical model for the interaction of atoms or particles.

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