Faculty & Staff Achievements

A Pi Day of the Century, Every Year

Van Cott’s Pi Day Article Lands her an MAA Award

by Daniel Morgan, College of Arts and Sciences

Every year, we get a Pi Day on March 14 (3/14), but not every year do we get a Pi Day of the century; that is, when the date matches the first five digits of pi. The last one of those happened on 3/14/15, and we won’t see another again until 2115. But imagine a reality in which pi didn’t equal approximately 3.14159 and Pi Day didn’t have to fall only on March 14.

According to USF Mathematics Professor Cornelia Van Cott, that would indeed happen if we changed the way in which the distance between two points is measured — say, if it was measured not in a straight line, as the crow flies, but grid-like, as a taxi drives through a city.

Although not a new idea, it is unfamiliar to many mathematicians, and thus, what started as a colloquium talk at Wellesley College in 2014 became an award-winning article.

Each year, the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) recognizes an author for excellent writing for an undergraduate audience with the Trevor Evans Award and $1,000. Van Cott’s article, “A Pi Day of the Century Every Year,” is 2017’s recipient.

In the awards booklet for MAA MathFest 2017, Van Cott’s article is praised as very well-written, with a pace and level of accessibility not only for undergraduates but also more mature mathematicians.

“I wanted to inspire the imagination of budding mathematicians by considering something that is often taken for granted: how to measure the distance between two points,” Van Cott said. “So what I did with the article is investigate the domino effect of changes that ensue if distance is measured differently — changes culminating in the (perhaps surprising) discovery that, under these circumstances, the value of pi would change.”

Which, under the premise of her article, would mean more Pi Days for Pi Day enthusiasts (and more banana cream pie for certain other enthusiasts).