Happy Pi Day!

Published: Saturday 14th Mar 2015

Written by: Ginnie James

Today is Pi day. I can’t say I have ever come across it before and I must say that my first thought when I heard the story on the news was ‘apple’ rather than ‘Greek mathematical symbol’ but the origins of commonly used words fascinate me and now it seems I can say the same with maths symbols. Most people would instantly recognise π if they came across it in a math book but how many know that the chap who decided to attribute the letter to the number concept was a self-taught mathematician from Anglesey! I can’t ever see myself getting obsessed with one particular number and joining the pi following and maths was never my strong point in school but even I know that pi is 3.14 something something and so on even if I couldn’t explain clearly how to use it properly in a sum.

William Jones (born 1674) recognised that as this important figure that represented the exact proportion between diameter and circumference could never be precisely expressed it needed its own symbol. He settled on π when his book ‘Synopsis palmariorum mathesos’ was published in 1706 and although it took a couple of hundred years it was eventually adopted throughout the entire scientific and mathematic community.

Starting his education in a charity school it seems that the mathematical ability of William was pronounced from an early age and the local squire organised for an apprenticeship with a merchants accountant in London. It must have been a completely alien world to the boy from Anglesey but he grasped the opportunity with both hands and before he was thirty his book on the mathematics involved in nautical navigation had been published.

His ‘Synopsis’ followed four years later and his star just continued to rise, even becoming vice-resident of the Royal Society during Sir Isaac Newton’s term as president. One of William’s children, a son born when William was 71, inherited his father’s intellect but became a renowned language expert with his work remaining important within modern linguistic theory. Not that I am an expert by any means in any academic field but I do wonder in what directions my daughters interests will develop.

My husband and I had our first proper parents evening this week with our little one having been in school nearly a year and with a good body of work behind her. The feedback was all very positive I am pleased to say but I was quite surprised to hear that she was advancing particularly quickly in maths. I can foresee problems occurring in the not too far future if help is required with maths homework, but even if I can’t be much assistance with demystifying intricate sums at least I will be able to tell her that the use of that little symbol came from the ordered mind of a fellow countryman. I am sure that will go down really well!

Ginnie James
Ginnie James



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