Uncle Pi

Radio is the companion of the early riser, and I’m usually up around 5AM. I often tune in to NHK’s morning broadcasts as I’m going through my morning kitchen routine, making coffee and toast. I’m not that excited to listen in – to be honest, there’s simply nothing else to do that early.

Most of the people who listen to NHK before 5AM are – as you probably can imagine – old. The announcers speak the way you would talk to a senior citizen, and the letters from listeners are mostly from old people. They don’t play modern bands like Matchbox 20, opting for the more somber sounds of recordings like the Ota City Youth Choir’s performance of Rentaro Taki’s “Flowers.”

A recent morning broadcast included a reading of a letter by a man in his 60’s. One day, this guy decided he was going to memorize as many digits of the number pi as possible. So far he’d gotten up to 600 decimal places. He rattles them off every morning. It’s his way of keeping his brain in shape. It takes all kinds, doesn’t it?

Now this is just me speculating, but his family can’t be all that impressed by this feat. If you shout the first 600 digits of pie every morning, you’re going to annoy the people around you, even if they’re your loved ones. It certainly is an accomplishment, but it has absolutely no real world practicality.

I know there used to be some research lab that was transmitting an infinitely repeating encoded sequence of digits of pi into outer space, but I’m not sure if they’re still at it. The point was to contact intelligent life if it existed out there. The thinking goes that the relationship between a circle and its diameter is a universal constant, and no matter what an alien culture might be like, they’d have discovered the same value of pi if they’d progressed far enough. A civilization’s development could be measured by their understanding of pi.

A Tralfamadorian on a distant planet could successfully decode the message: “It appears there are some lifeforms in that solar system over there that can comprehend pi.” (My influence for these aliens is classic sci-fi movies). “Wait one moment, this is not good… they have reached 600 decimal places. They are not very far from destructive H-Bomb technology.” The outcome wouldn’t be pretty.

Why do I have to be up at 5AM worrying about Tralfamadorians? It’s because of people like Uncle Pi, isn’t it? And the damn NHK.