Web Exclusives: On the Campus...

April 20, 2005:

Pi, wine, and 30 minutes of shut-eye

By Jordan Paul Amadio ’05

Dozens of custard pies had been scarfed down; it was time for serious matters.

In the lounge of Fine Hall, there was an anticipatory silence. A redhead from Philadelphia climbed onto the tabletop. Knees wobbling, but determined, she began to chant:

“Three point one four one five nine two six five three…”

Her singsong mantra rolled on for nearly two minutes. Abruptly, after a fateful “five,” it stopped. The throng cheered. Purely from memory, in what she would later refer to as a “personal culmination,” Liz Landau ’06 had recited the first 158 decimals of pi.

Among the rectilinear architecture of Princeton’s math-physics complex, where theorems and theories take on personalities all their own, March 14 is a hallowed date. For one, it’s Albert Einstein’s birthday. It’s also Pi Day (3-14, get it?), when math lovers gather to fete their favorite transcendental constant.

This year, because Pi Day fell during spring break, the Math Club and the Society of Physics Students put their brains together and derived an alternative plan. A week and a half later, at 3:14 p.m., they hosted a Belated Pi Day festival: a pie-eating contest, a student lecture on the irrationality of pi, and — the headline event — a pi-off in which contestants vied to recite as many decimals of pi as they could remember.

Landau, who majors in the unlikely field of anthropology, gushed: “There is something beautiful and aesthetically pleasing about the digits of pi.” Enthusiasm pays. At the end of the day, Landau’s 158-digit accomplishment was enough to win her second-place bragging rights. (The top finisher, a senior in the physics department, polished off an easy 200.)

Notable guests were in attendance, too. Professor John Conway, famous for inventing the esoteric “surreal numbers,” giddily joined in on the pi recitation contest—though he admitted that his personal memorization record, 1,111 digits, was a thing of the past. Rhodes Scholar Lillian Pierce ’02, back for her math Ph.D. at Princeton, showed up in a homemade skirt with the digits of pi embroidered around the hem. Nobelist John Nash *50, wearing his trademark red hi-top sneakers, ambled in long enough to snag a slice of blueberry soft-crust.

Emboldened by this year’s success, Math Club President Jian Shen ’07 hopes to make Pi Day a tradition.

“For us,” he said, “it’s a useful social event.”


To some, bureaucratic magnanimity is an oxymoron. But try telling that to chronic crammers, who recently relished a bit of good news: 8:30 a.m. final exams have been abolished! Starting this term, says the registrar, the earliest exams will be slotted for 9 a.m. — allowing a half-hour grace period that, during crunch time, could be crucial.

“Half an hour in the morning can make a huge difference: time for one more five-minute snooze, time to make sure you have the extra pencil, and time to grab a cup of coffee,” said Alli Berliner ’06, an English major who harbors painful memories of an 8:30 biology exam.

Electrical engineering major Jamie Jeanne ’05, a veteran of morning tests who thinks the new policy is “a step in the right direction,” said that early exam times were inconsistent with University class schedules.

“We have almost no classes that early in the day, so why should we have exams that early?” he asked.

Not all are happy with the change. One Machiavellian early-riser told The Daily Princetonian that 8:30 exams had been “a chance to outperform those who sleep in.” For Jeanne, such institutionalized disparities between morning glories and night owls are unfair. “The later in the morning the exam is, the more fair it will be,” he said.

Another senior, Jessica Cui ’05, simply chuckled at the Registrar’s decision: “I’m not a morning person, so they would definitely get my vote.”


If physicists ever uncover a Conservation Law for the college lifestyle, it will be this: more leeway in the morning equals more fun at night.

Princeton’s newest nocturnal diversion, international wine tasting, promises to infuse certain Thursday evenings with a dose of high culture. What’s more — this part, undergraduates find hard to believe — Nassau Hall is footing part of the tab.

The University is sponsoring a four-part “Wines of the World” series, in which students of legal age can sample wines, learn how to judge them, and realize just how much history is contained in a grape. U-Councilor Xiuhui Lim ’05 spearheaded the program to “encourage responsible drinking and to create a social alternative to the eating clubs.”

The first two sessions, each limited to 25 participants and covering the major wines of Germany, Spain, and France, sold out within minutes. The final two will cover Italy and South America.

In the future, said Lim, the events may grow to accommodate demand.

Nishani Siriwardane ’05, who attended the first two tastings and discovered her latent affinity for the French Bordeaux “Pichon Baron 1989,” snapped up tickets because she saw a unique opportunity.

“I’ve always liked wine,” she said. “This just seemed like an incredible chance to learn more about it.”

Still, the boldest bouquet may be yet to come. Factions lobbying for the re-establishment of an undergrad-friendly campus bar are hoping to ride on the success of the wine tastings. Optimists expect to spur a levelheaded attitude toward student alcohol consumption that will sweeten the campus bar idea to administrators.

Proposals from the Undergraduate Student Government are in the early stages.

“I have not spoken to anyone who is against the idea,” said Lim. “It’s too early to tell, but it’s looking good."

Jordan Paul Amadio ’05 can be reached at jamadio@princeton.edu.

Editor’s note: The conspicuous omission of the “pi-off” winner’s name is a product of modesty. Amadio, the author, is the senior physics major who “polished off an easy 200” to take the top prize, a feat he says he accomplished by memorizing five decimals at a time while procrastinating on his senior thesis research.