For many people, March 14 will seem just like any other spring day – or in the case of the northeast, a winter day. But to those of us who may be more math inclined, March 14 marks “Pi Day,” a celebration of the very useful number known as pi. Pi (also shown as the symbol π) is often abbreviated as 3.14, hence why Pi Day is celebrated on 3/14.
Pi is used to derive characteristics of a sphere or circle, like the surface area or circumference. In fact, scientists and engineers at NASA use pi constantly to learn about the moons, planets, and stars, as well as to track the orbits of satellites and spacecraft.
This is why NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is celebrating Pi Day with the fifth annual “Pi in the Sky” illustrated math challenge, which features pi-related space problems that you can solve at home. These math problems illustrate how pi can be used to learn about many different features of the universe, such as earthquakes on Mars, helium rain on Jupiter, and planets orbiting other stars.
“All of the problems in the ‘Pi in the Sky’ challenge are real problems that JPL scientists and engineers solve using pi,” says Ota Lutz, a senior education specialist at JPL who helped create the Pi Day Challenge.
These math problems are geared towards students in grades 5 through 12, and JPL offers additional resources for teachers and educators who plan on using the problem sets in the classroom. But that doesn’t mean that adults can’t try their hand at these problems as well. The new problem sets were posted online on March 9, and the solutions will be posted on March 15. Challenge problems from the previous years can be found online as well.
“The Pi in the Sky problems give people a little glimpse into what goes on at JPL,” explains Lutz. “And that’s empowering, because it shows people that they can understand some of the magic that goes into space exploration.”