Pi Day winner talks digits, memorization

by | Mar 19, 2015

Freshman Omar Ismail covers his eyes to concentrate on reciting pi, a number with an infinite decimal representation best known by its first three digits (3.14).
Freshman Omar Ismail covers his eyes to concentrate on reciting pi, a number with an infinite decimal representation best known by its first three digits (3.14). His 2,020 digit recitation won him the annual Pi Day contest at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Freshman Omar Ismail covers his eyes to concentrate on reciting pi, a number with an infinite decimal representation best known by its first three digits (3.14). His 2,020 digit recitation won him the annual Pi Day contest at UMSL. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Last Friday, freshman Omar Ismail was quite the spectacle on campus. He stood in the Pilot House covering his eyes and shouting out numbers to a crowd of people.

What was he doing? Reciting 2,020 digits of pi, a number with an infinite decimal representation and best known by its first three digits (3.14). He did so to win the annual pi recitation contest held at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and was spotlighted on Eye on UMSL. The contest is part of the Math Club’s celebration of Pi Day (3/14), but events were held one day early since the official day fell on a weekend this year.

It was a prime opportunity for Ismail, a computer science major and math minor at UMSL, who graduated from Ritenour High School. That day he reached 2,020 digits, but he does know up to 2,100 digits. Hear from the pi expert himself on his fantastic feat and just how he goes about his memorization.

When did you start memorizing pi?
I started memorizing pi last year, so I could have another talent and something for me to do whenever I’m bored.

Do you have a certain method to memorize pi?
The way I memorize it is sometimes breaking it up and memorizing the patterns. For example, sometimes I memorize two digits. I hit the number 95, which is the year I was born, 13, the year I graduated high school, 63, JFK’s Assassination, 58, NASA established in 1958, 89, the year when the Berlin Wall was torn down, and other two digit values. On the other hand, when I see the numbers 48184, I memorize this pattern in my head or 090, another pattern. I did not use any formula to help me recite pi.

Why cover your eyes during the recitation?
I covered my eyes and ears, so that I could concentrate. It makes things easier. I see the picture in my head, and it’s like following a pattern. I was a little bit nervous when I would think, “What’s the next history event or pattern?”

Why did you choose to memorize pi of all things?
I like pi because math is one of my favorite subjects, and I found that I can use pi for memorization. Also, I looked up the Guinness World Record holder, who knows 67,890 digits. Hopefully, I can achieve my No. 1 goal in life, which is to set the brand new Guinness World Record of 75,000 digits.
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