While world record holders may have memorized more than 70,000 digits of pi, a JPL engineer explains why you really only need a tiny fraction of that for most calculations – even at NASA.
Update: October 24, 2022 – This article, originally written in 2016, has been updated to reflect the latest values for NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft, which continues to venture farther into interstellar space. The author, Marc Rayman, has ventured on too, from the chief engineer for NASA’s Dawn mission, which concluded successfully in 2018, to the chief engineer for mission operations and science at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
We received this question from a fan on Facebook who wondered how many decimals of the never-ending mathematical constant pi (π) NASA-JPL scientists and engineers use when making calculations:
“Does JPL only use 3.14 for its pi calculations? Or do you use more decimals, like say [360 or even more]?”
Here’s JPL’s Chief Engineer for Mission Operations and Science, Marc Rayman, with the answer:
Thank you for your question! This isn't the first time I've heard a question like this. In fact, it was posed many years ago by a sixth-grade science and space enthusiast who was later fortunate enough to earn a doctorate in physics and become involved in space exploration. His name was Marc Rayman.
To start, let me answer your question directly. For JPL's highest accuracy calculations, which are for interplanetary navigation, we use 3.141592653589793. Let's look at this a little more closely to understand why we don't use more decimal places. I think we can even see that there are no physically realistic calculations scientists ever perform for which it is necessary to include nearly as many decimal points as you asked about. Consider these examples:
- The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. As of this writing, it’s about 14.7 billion miles (23.6 billion kilometers) away. Let’s be generous and call that 15 billion miles (24 billion kilometers). Now say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size, 30 billion miles (48 billion kilometers) in diameter, and we want to calculate the circumference, which is pi times the radius times 2. Using pi rounded to the 15th decimal, as I gave above, that comes out to a little more than 94 billion miles (more than 150 billion kilometers). We don't need to be concerned here with exactly what the value is (you can multiply it out if you like) but rather what the error in the value is by not using more digits of pi. In other words, by cutting pi off at the 15th decimal point, we would calculate a circumference for that circle that is very slightly off. It turns out that our calculated circumference of the 30-billion-mile (48-billion-kilometer) diameter circle would be wrong by less than half an inch (about one centimeter). Think about that. We have a circle more than 94 billion miles (more than 150 billion kilometers) around, and our calculation of that distance would be off by no more than the width of your little finger.
- We can bring this closer to home by looking at our planet, Earth. It is more than 7,900 miles (12,700 kilometers) in diameter at the equator. The circumference is roughly 24,900 miles (40,100 kilometers). That's how far you would travel if you circumnavigated the globe – and didn't worry about hills, valleys, and obstacles like buildings, ocean waves, etc. How far off would your odometer be if you used the limited version of pi above? The discrepancy would be the size of a molecule. There are many different kinds of molecules, of course, so they span a wide range of sizes, but I hope this gives you an idea. Another way to view this is that your error by not using more digits of pi would be more than 30,000 times thinner than a hair!
- Let's go to the largest size there is: the known universe. The radius of the universe is about 46 billion light years. Now let me ask (and answer!) a different question: How many digits of pi would we need to calculate the circumference of a circle with a radius of 46 billion light years to an accuracy equal to the diameter of a hydrogen atom, the simplest atom? It turns out that 37 decimal places (38 digits, including the number 3 to the left of the decimal point) would be quite sufficient. Think about how fantastically vast the universe is. It’s certainly far beyond what you can see with your eyes even on the darkest, most beautiful night of sparkling stars. It’s yet farther beyond the extraordinary vision of the James Webb Space Telescope. And the vastness of the universe is truly far, far, far beyond what we can even conceive. Now think about how incredibly tiny a single atom is. Isn’t it amazing that we wouldn’t need to use many digits of pi at all to cover that entire unbelievable range?
Pi is an intriguing number with interesting mathematical properties. It’s fun to think about its truly endless sequence of digits, and it may be surprising how often it appears in the equations scientists and engineers use. But there are no questions – prosaic or esoteric – in humankind’s noble efforts to explore or comprehend the marvels of the cosmos, from the unimaginably smallest scales to the inconceivably largest, that could require very many of those digits.
Hear more from Marc in his inspiring TEDx talk, “If It Isn’t Impossible, It Isn’t Worth Trying” and in his Dawn Journal, where he wrote frequent updates about the Dawn mission’s extraordinary extraterrestrial expedition to the protoplanet Vesta and dwarf planet Ceres.
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