You are on page 1of 3

THE HISTORY OF

In the long history of the number , there have been many twists and turns, many
inconsistencies that reflect the condition of the human race as a whole. Through each major
period of world history and in each regional area, the state of intellectual thought, the state of
mathematics, and hence the state of , has been dictated by the same socio-economic and
geographic forces as every other aspect of civilization. The following is a brief history,
organized by period and region, of the development of our understanding of the number .
In ancient times, was discovered independently by the first civilizations to begin
agriculture. Their new sedentary life style first freed up time for mathematical pondering, and
the need for permanent shelter necessitated the development of basic engineering skills,
which in many instances required a knowledge of the relationship between the square and the
circle (usually satisfied by finding a reasonable approximation of ). Although there are no
surviving records of individual mathematicians from this period, historians today know the
values used by some ancient cultures. Here is a sampling of some cultures and the values that
they used: Babylonians - 3 1/8, Egyptians - (16/9)^2, Chinese - 3, Hebrews - 3 (implied in the
Bible, I Kings vii, 23).
The first record of an individual mathematician taking on the problem of (often called
"squaring the circle," and involving the search for a way to cleanly relate either the area or
the circumference of a circle to that of a square) occurred in ancient Greece in the 400's B.C.
(this attempt was made by Anaxagoras). Based on this fact, it is not surprising that the Greek
culture was the first to truly delve into the possibilities of abstract mathematics. The part of
the Greek culture centered in Athens made great leaps in the area of geometry, the first
branch of mathematics to be thoroughly explored. Antiphon, an Athenian philosopher, first
stated the principle of exhaustion (click on Antiphon for more info). Hippias of Elis created a
curve called the quadratrix, which actually allowed the theoretical squaring of the circle,
though it was not practical.
In the late Greek period (300's-200's B.C.), after Alexander the Great had spread Greek
culture from the western borders of India to the Nile Valley of Egypt, Alexandria, Egypt
became the intellectual center of the world. Among the many scholars who worked at the
University there, by far the most influential to the history of was Euclid. Through the
publishing of Elements, he provided countless future mathematicians with the tools with
which to attack the problem. The other great thinker of this time, Archimedes, studied in
Alexandria but lived his life on the island of Sicily. It was Archimedes who approximated his
value of to about 22/7, which is still a common value today.
Archimedes was killed in 212 B.C. in the Roman conquest of Syracuse. In the years after his
death, the Roman Empire gradually gained control of the known world. Despite their other
achievements, the Romans are not known for their mathematical achievements. The dark
period after the fall of Rome was even worse for . Little new was discovered about until
well into the decline of the Middle Ages, more than a thousand years after Archimedes' death.
(For an example of at least one mediaeval mathematician, see Fibonacci.)

While activity stagnated in Europe, the situation in other parts of the world was quite
different. The Mayan civilization, situated on the Yucatan Peninsula in Central America, was
quite advanced for its time. The Mayans were top-notch astronomers, developing a very
accurate calendar. In order to do this, it would have been necessary for them to have a fairly
good value for . Though no one knows for sure (nearly all Mayan literature was burned
during the Spanish conquest of Mexico), most historians agree that the Mayan value was
indeed more accurate than that of the Europeans. The Chinese in the 5th century calculated
to an accuracy not surpassed by Europe until the 1500's. The Chinese, as well as the Hindus,
arrived at in roughly the same method as the Europeans until well into the Renaissance,
when Europe finally began to pull ahead.
During the Renaissance period, activity in Europe began to finally get moving again. Two
factors fueled this acceleration: the increasing importance of mathematics for use in
navigation, and the infiltration of Arabic numerals, including the zero (indirectly introduced
from India) and decimal notation (yes, the great mathematicians of antiquity made all of their
discoveries without our standard digits of 0-9!). Leonardo Da Vinci and Nicolas Copernicus
made minimal contributions to the endeavor, but Franois Vite actually made significant
improvements to Archimedes' methods. The efforts of Snellius, Gregory, and J ohn Machin
eventually culminated in algebraic formulas for that allowed rapid calculation, leading to
ever more accurate values of during this period.
In the 1700's the invention of calculus by Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz rapidly accelerated
the calculation and theorization of . Using advanced mathematics, Leonhard Euler found a
formula for that is the fastest to date. In the late 1700's Lambert (Swiss) and Legendre
(French) independently proved that is irrational. Although Legendre predicted that is also
transcendental, this was not proven until 1882 when Lindemann published a thirteen-page
paper proving the validity of Legendre's statement. Also in the 18th century, George Louis
Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, discovered an experimental method for calculating . Pierre
Simon Laplace, one of the founders of probability theory, followed up on this in the next
century. Click here to learn more about Buffon's and Laplace's method.
Starting in 1949 with the ENIAC computer, digital systems have been calculating to
incredible accuracy throughout the second half of the twentieth century. Whereas ENIAC
was able to calculate 2,037 digits, the record as of the date of this article is 206,158,430,000
digits, calculated by researchers at the University of Tokyo. It is highly probable that this
record will be broken, and there is little chance that the search for ever more accurate values
of will ever come to an end.

Uses of

Uses of
on the elementary level is no more than a means of finding area and circumference. In
geometry and elementary math, we are taught that is used to find area by multiplying the
radius squared times . Thus comes the formula:

Take the following problem:
You have a circle whose radius is equal to 3 cm. What is the area?
To solve this problem, you would take what you know (r=3) and plug it into your formula. So
you have:

You get A=9 or approximately 28.27.
is also used on the elementary level to find the circumference of a circle, or the perimeter of
a circle. We know the following formulas:

These problems are calculated very similarly to the problem above. Find the circumference of
the circle above.
This is completed very simply. You again take what you know (r=3) and plug it into your
formula. So you now have

or C=6. This is approximately 18.85.