Grab a few balls and get calculating pi

Pi Day, which occurs every 14 March – or 3/14, in the US date format – celebrates the world’s favourite mathematical constant. This year, why not try an experiment to calculate its value? All you will need is a cardboard tube and a series of balls, each 100 times lighter than the next. You have those lying around the house, right?

This experiment was first formulated by mathematician Gregory Galperin in 2001. It works because of a mathematical trick involving the masses of a pair of balls and the law of conservation of energy.

First, take the tube and place one end up against a wall. Place two balls of equal mass in the tube. Let’s say that the ball closer to the wall is red, and the other is blue.

Next, bounce the blue ball off the red ball. If you have rolled the blue ball hard enough, there should be three collisions: the blue ball hits the red one, the red ball hits the wall, and the red ball bounces back to hit the blue ball once more. Not-so-coincidentally, three is also the first digit of pi.

To calculate pi a little bit more precisely, replace the red ball with one that is 100 times less massive than the blue ball – a ping pong ball might work, so we will call this the white ball.

When you perform the experiment again, you will find that the blue ball hits the white ball, the white ball hits the wall and then the white ball continues to bounce back and forth between the blue ball and the wall as it slows down. If you count the bounces, you’ll find that there are 31 collisions. That gives you the first two digits of pi: 3.1.

Galperin calculated that if you continue the same way, you will keep getting more digits of pi. If you replace the white ball with another one that is 10,000 times less massive than the blue ball, you will find that there are 314 collisions, and so on. If you have enough balls, you can count as many digits of pi as you like.

For more such insights, log into www.international-maths-challenge.com.

*Credit for article given to **Leah Crane***