Belle Vernon seventh-grader memorizes first 1,087 digits of pi
Brian Shivak knows pi.
In fact, the seventh-grader at Belle Vernon Area Middle School recently astounded teachers and classmates by memorizing the first 1,087 digits of the mathematical constant most know as 3.14.
Brian, the 12-year-old son of Brian Sr. and Sarah Shivak of Webster, was honored Monday during a pep rally designed to prepare students for this week's Pennsylvania System of School Assessment tests.
“For the past two weeks or so, I studied about 200 (numbers) each day and kept on repeating certain numbers until I remembered over 1,000 of them,” Shivak said. “I break them down by hundreds. For me, it's like a photographic memory. When I write it down, I just remember. I don't like doing it any other way.”
As part of an annual contest conducted by math teacher David Mills to celebrate “Pi Day” on March 14 — named as such because the calendar date is same as the first three digits of pi — math students in seventh and eighth grades were challenged to write as many consecutive digits as they could remember within a limited time frame.
Last week, Mills handed out a worksheet to all seventh and eighth grade students listing the first 1,000 numbers of pi as a tongue-in-cheek challenge. Mills admits he did so never thinking anyone would come close to memorizing all the numbers, let alone surpass the amount.
“I gave out a sheet with 1,000 numbers,” Mills said. “As it turns out, the sheet only had 1,000 numbers. Only.”
It took Shivak some time to get warmed up. He wrote 120 digits of pi in his first attempt.
To provide a visual example, that number is: 3.141592653589793238462643383279502884197169399375105820974944592307816406286208998628034825342117067982148086513282306647.
On his second try, Shivak mustered 321 digits. On his third and fourth attempts, he reached 518 correct digits.
“He messed up in the same spot both times, but he had many digits right after the mistake at 518,” Mills said. “Then he fixed the problem. He came to me and asked do you have any more digits of pi? So I gave him a sheet and the numbers ran front and back in 10-point font.
“I certainly don't think I could do it and it's a little embarrassing because I'm the math teacher.”
Not to be outdone, Shivak spent all of homeroom and some of first period Friday writing the thousand-plus numbers flawlessly. Shivak, who spent the better part of two weeks digesting digits, said, “Every three days or so, you need to take a break. It hurts your brain.”
“I was always good at mathematics and I'm pretty good at memorizing patterns,” Shivak said. “I just have a photographic memory. If I get stuck, I just guess it. I surprised myself, really, because I didn't think I'd be able to do it, but I guess I did it.”
By comparison, last year's top winner was able to write down 167 digits without a mistake. Mills said nobody in the contest's three years of existence has come close to touching 500 numbers, let alone 1,000.
“I didn't want everyone to know until we announced it at the pep rally on Monday, and everyone's mouths dropped open,” Mills said of Shivak's accomplishment, for which his fellow students provided a spirited ovation. “I've had a hard time putting this into a category. It's phenomenal. … He's certainly raised the bar. ”
Pi, which is used to determine the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter, holds a mystical quality. The decimals in pi flow on into infinity and never settle into a permanent repeating pattern.
“It's like I tell the kids, somewhere in pi is your phone number, in order. Somewhere in pi is your Social Security number, in order,” Mills said. “It's amazing because there are only 10 digits that exist — 0 through 9. In the first six billion digits of pi there are close to 600,000 (of each number).”
According to the website www.pi-world-ranking-list.com, Chao Lu of China hold the world record for listing 67,890 digits of pi in the span of 24 hours and four minutes.
“Holy cow! He's really smart, I guess,” Shivak said when informed of the record. “I think it's just an intelligence level. The more you have, the more numbers you can remember. I would say it's like a focus-based thing. That's all I've thought about for the past two weeks ... get as many digits as I could.”
Shivak said he's not satisfied and will work towards a goal of reaching 2,000 digits.
“I hope this opens a door for me,” Shivak said, shyly. “When there's a pi contest next year, I'm going to try and get even more.”
Mills offers the winner in each grade a fruit pie of their choice. Shivak received a lemon meringue pie donated from Eat ‘n' Park in Rostraver Township.
Mills said Shivak's triumph has taught him a lesson as an educator.
“From this, I've learned to never underestimate your students and their abilities and to never put them in a box,” Mills said. “Teachers teach to a level of what they think the student can achieve and with something like this, you're simply blown away. I have learned never to put a cap on my expectations of them.”
Rick Bruni Jr. is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724-684-2635.