The Boston Globe – 3/25/2008
By Reeves Wiedeman
At 3:14 p.m., on 3/14, Pi Day celebrations at Harvard got off to a quick start.
Josh Gottlieb, a graduate student in economics, recited 102 digits of the patternless mathematical value, while freshman Francoise Greer rattled off 228. Shawn Peasley, whose only affiliation with Harvard is as an applicant, had driven 18 hours from Kentucky for the event and set the bar at 461.
But the 75 or so people gathered in the Harvard math department lounge rather than at a Cambridge bar for happy hour were there to see someone else.
“I’m James Niles-Joyal … or J-Dog,” the event’s celebrity announces as he steps up to take his turn.
Niles-Joyal claims to have memorized 13,141 digits of pi – the number, typically shortened to 3.141, that represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. This day, he is attempting to set the Harvard record by reciting a rather poetic number he has never reached without making a mistake: 3,141.
“I’m gonna take a minute to calm myself,” Niles-Joyal, a Boston College senior, says before starting. “I don’t want to misspeak, which has been a tendency of mine.” Last year his rookie bid in public pi reciting was stopped short at the 612th digit when he said 9 when he meant 6.
It was at a football game two years ago that Bob Joyal first found out his son planned to memorize pi. Having trouble sleeping the night before, Niles-Joyal had started memorizing a random number up to around 40 digits. When he woke up that morning, he remembered every one. Realizing a gift he hadn’t perceived before, Niles-Joyal decided to find an application for it. He settled on memorizing pi, a number whose seemingly random digits have long fascinated mathematicians.
To start, Niles-Joyal would pick a handful of digits at a time, eventually getting to the point where he could memorize 100 digits in 10 minutes. As time went on, he was able to memorize much larger sections.
“Most people have a digit span of around seven digits,” said Elizabeth Kensinger, a BC assistant professor in psychology who has spoken with Niles-Joyal about his memory. “What happened with James is a snowballing effect. You learn how to chunk the first 10, then 10 of those 10, then over time those sets of 100 into larger groups.”
One minute and 54 seconds into his recitation, a cellphone goes off. It is silenced immediately. Niles-Joyal has several mannerisms that get him through these distractions. Between digits 65 and 66, he sticks two fingers from his left hand (never his right) against his temple. He sips from his Dasani water bottle with regularity. His eyebrows often twitch while he recites, and his eyes alternate from being closed to staring blankly to darting around the room.
The crowd moves as little as possible. One girl knits to pass the time. Two Harvard students chatter on the side, drawing irate looks from other observers. Niles-Joyal’s parents sit separately, following their son’s progress on their own sheets with the digits listed. Bob shows little emotion as he follows along from a couch behind the semi-circle of onlookers surrounding his son, while Katherine Niles-Joyal sits nervously in the front row – she had spent 53 minutes the night before listening to Niles-Joyal recite all 3,141 digits.
When memorizing numbers, Niles-Joyal, 22, does not simply repeat the digits over and over. Instead, the Ashburnham native sees shapes, emotions, and contours in the otherwise nondescript, non-repeating set of numbers. A series of digits can evoke a “white glow” in his brain, while other sets might look wealthy, or dull, or happy.
“I don’t think what he’s doing is completely different. All of us do unconsciously use pneumonics to remember,” Kensinger said. “We know someone’s name is Steve because they remind us of another Steve.”
Niles-Joyal maintains a Word document listing the digits of pi that is a whirl of bolds and colors and underlines. Green numbers indicate an “interjection,” one of several vocabulary terms Niles-Joyal has applied to his pursuit, while reds indicate numbers that fit in a group of three, his primary memory device.
There is no one strategy for memorizing pi. Gottlieb, the first competitor at Harvard this day, was spurred to memorize the first 40 digits in middle school because “middle school is boring.” Peasley, who drove from Kentucky, learned his digits verbally, which created some awkward situations. Reciting to himself while standing in line at a Subway sandwich shop, one of the employees promised him a free sub if he could recite 100 digits (he left hungry).
Seven minutes into Niles-Joyal’s recitation, several students move to sit at a table behind the crowd where 25 pies sit for the upcoming pie-eating contest.
“I beat last year,” Niles-Joyal tells the crowd after hitting the 613th digit at 7:42, showing the first hint of a smile since he started reciting.
Less than a minute later, he hits a snag at digit 662. He pauses for 20 seconds, taking a sip from his bottle, repeats the prior four digits to get himself back in rhythm, then speeds off as if nothing happened, his voice playfully dancing through a series of six straight nines.
Counting himself out
On July 22, 2007, Niles-Joyal says he memorized 1,491 digits, his highest total in a single day. That brought him to 13,141 digits, more than enough for his planned attempt to top what was then the North American recitation record of 12,887 digits later that summer. (He didn’t compete, and that record has since been broken.) But July 22, 2007, was also the day he quit pi.
“I was done with pi,” says Niles-Joyal. “I was exhausted.”
Niles-Joyal had too much on his mind for pi. In his final year of college, he was thinking about careers, possibly law school. He finished a screenplay. His father was diagnosed with cancer again.
“That was kind of a reality check,” says Niles-Joyal. “I’d rather spend time at home with him than spend hours in my room learning digits. I’d rather talk with him, talk as a family, watch a movie, play a card game.”
It was only on March 4, just 10 days before Pi Day, that he decided to give another shot at reciting a big number.
“I wanted closure,” he said.
Seventeen minutes into the recitation, one of the three Pi Day judges following along on a sheet of digits takes a seat – only 20 or so of the original 75 onlookers remain standing. Niles-Joyal is almost a third of the way to his goal, and the wear is beginning to show. At 20:50, he strokes his chin as he contemplates the next sequence. Before digit 1,701, he takes another sip of water. A minute later he leans back, staring at the ceiling before closing his eyes tight. This pause is his longest yet. Niles-Joyal points his finger on the plastic table in front of him, as if to stab it, then clenches his left hand into a tight fist.
“Is the last thing I said `556′?” Niles-Joyal asks. His memory is correct. “OK … 556209921 …” He continues on as though nothing has happened.
The tao of pi
A music major, Niles-Joyal plans to work with Kensinger as well as a Harvard psychology graduate student working on the relationship between math and music to examine what applications his memory might have in other aspects of life. In particular, Kensinger sees potential for helping those with memory deficits (car accident victims, seniors) who might be able to take advantage of the strategies Niles-Joyal employs. “I’m fascinated by what applications of my memory there are,” he says. “I want to see if it can be applied to anything beyond this.”
It has now been over half an hour. Niles-Joyal sways in his chair, getting into a rhythm as he hits the 2,500 mark, bursting out a dozen numbers in one of his quickest sequences yet. Seconds later, he slows down, with purpose.
“3 … 1 … 4,” he announces, a dramatic pause between each digit of the first three digits that started his now 40-minute recitation.
He enjoys being a showman. When the emcee announces the start of the contest, Niles-Joyal asks if he can go last.
“We’ll give you the drama,” says Gottlieb, who’s reciting third, right before him.
Niles-Joyal hopes to compose film scores eventually, and screenplays. For now, he’s passed over the idea of law school and is looking for a finance job after graduation – something where he can turn his number memorization skills to immediate benefit.
Niles-Joyal begins to sway, wiping his hand smoothly, rhythmically across the table. Left, right, left, right.
“4 … 9 … 7 … 4 … 4 … 2 …” he says. “I think I’m done.”
Fifty minutes, 10 seconds, and 3,141 digits.
“He’s like a black belt in pi,” one student says.
Katherine flies through the crowd to hug her son. Peasley, the runner-up with 461, asks for a picture with Niles-Joyal. Bret Benesh, a math professor who served as one of the judges, presents Niles-Joyal with a $50 gift certificate for taking the top prize.
After half an hour basking in newfound glory, Niles-Joyal heads to MIT for its Pi Day, where he had been planning to make a second attempt at 3,141 digits. Having reached his goal already, however, he decides there is “nothing more pi could do for me today.” The record at MIT’s event: 150 digits.