February 02, 2007|By Tom Avril | Tom Avril,McClatchy-Tribune

Remember pi? Most of us learned the 3.14 part.

Marc Umile has gone oh-so-much farther.

Earlier this month, Umile was certified as the North American record-holder for memorizing digits of the mathematical constant. The Upper Darby, Pa., resident spewed out 12,887 digits, to be exact - a feat that took him 3 hours and 40 minutes.

For those whose math skills are a little fuzzy, that's the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter.

It begins with 3.14159265 and never stops, never repeating the same pattern - a string of digits that has captivated numbers buffs and those looking for a deeper mystical meaning.

"I was really proud of him that he did it," said his wife, Maryann. "I can't remember a phone number."

Umile, 40, wrote the numbers out by hand, a thousand at a time, then recorded them in his voice on a portable tape player.

Then, he listened - and listened. During his commute. During his lunch break. While walking down the street.

After 2 1/2 years, two worn-out tape players and more than 100 batteries, it sank in.

He professes not to be a math whiz. A filing clerk for a company that handles Medicare bills, he never studied trigonometry and did not attend college. Yet it is clear he has a passion for numbers and puzzles, not to mention a relentless determination and the ability to ignore those who thought he was a little strange.

But why pi?

Because it's there. Because he wanted to explore the limits of the mind. And because he wanted to hit one for the home team.

While surfing the Internet one day in 2004, he found the world-record list and saw that it was dominated by Asians and Europeans. He decided the United States needed another representative.

"It seems like in the eastern part of the world, they really have their stuff together," Umile said. "I want to help us catch up."

Umile set the record last month at the law office of Montgomery McCracken, where attorney C. Scott Meyer was one of three witnesses. He did not recite the numbers out loud, but typed them into the computer, 1,000 at a time, after which the witnesses verified their accuracy by using a spreadsheet. Then he did the next thousand.

"It's just an amazing accomplishment," said Philadelphia real estate agent Warren Nelson, another of the witnesses.

The necessary forms were mailed to Germany and the performance was certified by Jan van Koningsveld, himself a top competitor in international contests of mental gymnastics, who maintains a Web site that lists pi record-holders for each continent and for the world.

Umile is far short of the world record of 43,000 that van Koningsveld has on his list, held by Krishan Chahal of India. He's even farther from the 67,890 digits listed by the Guinness World Records, a feat accomplished in China.

But he does hold the world record for memorizing 905 digits of "e" - another key mathematical constant - which he recited on the same day as pi. And three months earlier, he notched another world record by doing the first 5,544 digits of the square root of two.

The ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter has been a source of fascination for thousands of years; a rough approximation is even in the Bible.

It is not clear who was the first to stumble upon this relationship. An Egyptian scribe wrote about it in 1650 B.C., according to The Joy of Pi, a 1997 book by Seattle author David Blatner.

The ancient Greeks later estimated a value for pi by using polygons to approximate the outline of a circle. Archimedes found that when he inscribed a 96-sided shape in a circle, its perimeter was 3 10/71 (roughly 3.141) times the diameter. He then drew a second 96-sided shape outside the circle, calculating a value of 3 1/7 (roughly 3.143) - reasoning that a value for pi lay between the two.

Today, pi is calculated to many billions of digits using computers, though Blatner says the added digits have little practical application.

Umile grew up in Roxborough, Pa., where his mother still lives. He has not told her about his numerical accomplishments, saying she'll find out when she reads this article.

"I don't think she would be a bit surprised," he said. "She knows I have a good memory for details."

Memorizing pi was about more than details, however. It required a systematic approach.

Umile wrote out the digits in groups of two, three, four, six, like the stanzas in a poem. Then he said them out loud rhythmically, in almost a singsong tone of voice.

"Something you can almost dance to," he said. "I would listen to it endless amounts of time until I would hear it in my sleep. The more I went, the more I knew this was possible."

He failed in his initial attempt at the record, Dec. 2 at the Masonic Temple on Broad Street in Philadelphia, where he is a member. Several of his fellow Masons urged him to try again, and Dec. 16 he did it.

Once he hit 11,000, surpassing the old North American record of 10,980, Umile just kept going.

"I felt like I just landed on the moon," he said. "Quite a victory."