Have a difficult time remembering your phone number? Without peeking, what’s your license plate?
Can you imagine trying to remember an 11,000-digit number that would print out 76-feet long?
Salem’s Gaurav Raja did just that – when he was only 15!
Now 17, Raja looks and acts like a typical teenager as he answers the door at his parents’ South Salem home. He is casual in attitude and attire: barefoot, short black hair, wire-rimmed glasses, blue jean shorts and a dark blue t-shirt that proclaims in faded white letters
Here i am
Now what were your other 2 wishes?
Fairly typical, except he graduated from Salem High School a year or two ahead of schedule, with a grade-point-average well above 4.0, and he starts his first year at Virginia Tech as a sophomore. And by the way, he just happened to set a North American record – and achieve a top 10 world ranking – by memorizing and reciting 10,980 digits of the Greek numeral known as pi.
To start from the top, a refresher course: What is pi?
In mathematics, pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter. The symbol for pi is π. The ratio is the same for all circles and is approximately 3.14159. Ancient civilizations knew about pi and calculated it fairly closely—by approximately 2000 BCE the Babylonians put it at 3.125, the Egyptians later estimated it at 3.16 and the Greeks approximated pi to 31/7. The exact value of pi cannot be computed, although it has been calculated beyond 200,000,000,000 digits using modern computers.
Gaurav Raja Fast Facts
Born: July 10, 1990 in Mumbai, India.
Parents: Dr. Jogesh Raja and Mrs. Seema Raja
Bio: Lived in India until age 5, moved to Salem with his family in 1995. Attended GW Carver Elementary until third grade and then Falling Spring Elementary for two years when his family relocated to Covington, VA. Moved back to Salem after 5th grade and attended Andrew Lewis Middle School and Salem High School. Graduated from Salem High as a “Distinguished Scholar” at age 16.
Salem’s “Pi Guy” says one surprising highlight of his accomplishment
was appearing on the “Today” show.
Extracurricular: Member of the Salem High School academic team for four years and was co-captain his senior year. Ran track in 9th and 11th grade. Member of the Spanish Honor Society and club president his senior year. Participates in local Indian cultural activities and performed in a dance at this year’s Local Colors Festival in Roanoke.
Down time: Plays soccer, table tennis, video games and enjoys “hanging out with friends”. Also writes computer programs, particularly games, just for fun.
Future Focus: Plans to double-major in computer science and mathematics at Virginia Tech, aspires to a masters’ degree in computer science and hopes to pursue a career in software development, particularly in the field of video game design and creation.
Early clues of a special future: Took algebra at Clifton Forge Middle school while still a fifth-grade student at Falling Spring Elementary. Skipped sixth grade. GPA throughout high school was above 4.0.
Why on earth would a seemingly normal high-school student want to memorize nearly 11,000 digits of any number? Was it a way to win a weekend with Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan? Or a high-dollar spot on some trumped-up billionaire’s TV show?
No, none of the above. The short answer: Pizza!
“The initial motivation to memorize pi was a small contest held by my computer science teacher, Dr. Gooding,” recalls Raja. “with the promise of a free pie of any type (I chose that to mean pizza pie) given to the winner.
“In 9th grade I participated in this contest, memorizing about 200 or so digits in the weekend before pi day (March 14).”
The following year Raja started training a bit ahead of time and recited more than 1,400 digits. When Raja learned of a world ranking list for memorizing the digits of pi he decided to go for the North American record, which was at that time 10,625 digits. On his third attempt, on June 12, 2006, he broke the record by reciting 10,980 digits. The feat also ranked him ninth in the world.
In addition to putting his mind to work memorizing the digits of pi, Raja also designed the program he used to help memorize the sequence. Even though he is through with the pi quest he is still using the skills in other ways.
“I created a program to help me memorize the capitals of all the countries in the world for academic team competitions,” he says, “and I started on a program to memorize all the Nobel Prize winners. Also, I work at a software company in Blacksburg called t2i2 on their educational software, most particularly, their “General Chemistry DVD-ROM”, which contains lectures, practice problems, and more. It is replacing college textbooks for freshman chemistry across the nation and even internationally.”
Even if we don’t aspire to memorize pi or any other 76-foot-long sequence of numbers or words, we can appreciate and learn something from Raja’s dedication and perseverance.
And if he can manage 10,980 digits of pi, we can hopefully find a way to remember our phone numbers—and maybe even keep track of our car keys.
Q & A: Talking about Pi
Memorizing 200 digits of pi in one weekend, as a freshman, just to win a pizza, is quite an accomplishment. What motivated you to pursue the North American record?
The next year (as a sophomore), I started memorizing earlier in hopes of reaching 1,000 digits, and I ended up reciting 1,415 digits. It was then that we found the Pi World Ranking List (www.pi-world-ranking-list.com) which ranked individuals who had memorized pi. I decided I wanted to set the new North American record on that list, a record set almost 30 years ago.
How did you prepare for such a quest?
I broke it down into sets of 100s, which I broke further into 3 or 4 digit segments. I’d practice the sets 100 at a time, using a program I wrote that checked me as I typed them, until I’d learned them solidly. At times I would learn 100 digits a day, but at other times, when I was busy with other things, I’d often only practice once a week or so. Near the end, it became impossible to practice the entire train of digits every day, so I would practice only the last 1,000 or so, and once a week, practice the entire thing. Ultimately, it came down to simply practicing over and over again until I’d learned the digits
How long did it take you to break the record?
After three tries my junior year, I finally broke the record with 10,980 digits on June 12th (2006).
Looking back, how do you assess the importance of your achievement?
Memorizing pi was a goal I set out for myself and achieved. I feel proud that I managed to stick with the goal, even though at times it became difficult to find time to practice.
Classmates sat outside the door for hours when you went for the record and you received a lot of media attention for the record. Have you enjoyed the buzz that came with the record?
The publicity has been quite amazing; I really didn’t think that it would be this big of a deal. The trip to New York to be on the “Today” show was incredibly fun and unexpected. Ironically, the day I was on the show, our school’s Oracle (yearbook) and Delphi (literary arts magazine) staffs were on a field trip to the city, and were visiting the “Today” show, so I was able to meet up with all of them. It’s been interesting to see the reactions people get since then when they recognize that I’m “the kid who memorized pi”…
Any downside to the publicity?
Sometimes it’s been frustrating, especially when people insist on calling me things like “pi guy”, etc. etc., but for the most part, it’s flattering that they hold me in such high regard.