Pi has been known for almost 4000 years—but even if we calculated the number of seconds in those 4000 years and calculated pi to that number of places, we would still only be approximating its actual value. Here’s a brief history of finding pi.
The ancient Babylonians calculated the area of a circle by taking 3 times the square of its radius, which gave a value of pi = 3. One Babylonian tablet (ca. 1900-1680 BC) indicates a value of 3.125 for pi, which is a closer approximation.
The Rhind Papyrus (ca.1650 BC) gives us insight into the mathematics of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians calculated the area of a circle by a formula that gave the approximate value of 3.1605 for pi.
The first calculation of pi was done by Archimedes of Syracuse (288-212 BC), one of the greatest mathematicians of the ancient world. Archimedes approximated the area of a circle by using the Pythagorean Theorem to find the areas of two regular polygons: the polygon inscribed within the circle and the polygon within which the circle was circumscribed. Since the actual area of the circle lies between the areas of the inscribed and circumscribed polygons, the areas of the polygons gave upper and lower bounds for the area of the circle. For figure go to the link (https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Archimedes_pi.svg). Archimedes knew that he had not found the value of pi but only an approximation within those limits. In this way, Archimedes showed that pi is between 3 1/7 and 3 10/71.
A similar approach was used by Zu Chongzhi (429-501), a brilliant Chinese mathematician and astronomer. Zu Chongzhi would not have been familiar with Archimedes’ method—but because his book has been lost, little is known of his work. He calculated the value of the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter to be 355/113. To compute this accuracy for pi, he must have started with an inscribed regular 24,576-gonand performed lengthy calculations involving hundreds of square roots carried out to 9 decimal places.
Mathematicians began using the Greek letter π in the 1700s. Introduced by William Jones in 1706, use of the symbol was popularized by Leonhard Euler, who adopted it in 1737.
An eighteenth-century French mathematician named Georges Buffon devised a way to calculate pi based on probability. You can try it yourself at the Exploratorium’s Pi Toss exhibit.
Contributions of Indian mathematicians are also noteworthy.
The Indian astronomer Aryabhatta used a value of 3.1416 in his Āryabhaṭīya (499 AD). Astronomical calculations in the Shatapatha Brahmana (ca. 4th century BC) use a fractional approximation of 339/108 ≈ 3.139 (an accuracy of 9×10−4). Other Indian sources by about 150 BC treat π as √10 ≈ 3.1622.The first written description of an infinite series that could be used to compute π was laid out in Sanskrit verse by Indian astronomer Nilakantha Somayaji in his Tantrasamgraha, around 1500 AD. The series are presented without proof, but proofs are presented in a later Indian work, Yuktibhāṣā, from around 1530 AD. Nilakantha attributes the series to an earlier Indian mathematician, Madhava of Sangamagrama, who lived c. 1350 – c. 1425. Several infinite series are described, including series for sine, tangent, and cosine, which are now referred to as the Madhava series or Gregory–Leibniz series.Madhava used infinite series to estimate π to 11 digits around 1400, but that value was improved on around 1430 by the Persian mathematician Jamshīd al-Kāshī, using a polygonal algorithm.
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