Pi Day's history is rooted in the Bay Area, thanks to Exploratorium curator Larry Shaw

Published 11:19 am PDT, Thursday, March 14, 2019

It takes a visionary to see the possibilities of an ancient ratio, a date in March and all forms of pie (dessert, pizza and otherwise), but Bay Area local Larry Shaw saw the potential in pi.

Shaw, the technical curator at the Exploratorium for 33 years, is known as the first to come up with the connection between the number pi (3.14…) and March 14, now known as Pi Day. As Exploratorium lore would recount, it was at a staff retreat back in 1988 when Shaw first came up with the idea to take the endless 3.14 figure, eventually turning into an internationally celebrated, math- and pie-centric holiday.

“With teaching,” Shaw said, “you’re looking for any kind of hook you can get — especially with kids.”

It also didn’t hurt that March 14 is Albert Einstein’s birthday, to give the holiday some extra oomph.

The first celebration of Pi Day had a sweet start. At that inaugural holiday, Shaw and his wife, Catherine, hosted a table at the Exploratorium loaded with fruit pies and a tea urn, as the museum recounts on its site — a pairing that was both perfect and became a tradition intertwined with Pi Day ever since.

Shaw, a physicist, remained at the head of Pi Day celebrations while he worked at the Exploratorium, even after he retired and continued to volunteer at the museum. Shaw could often be seen leading a parade of visitors on Pi Day, each given a designated digit of pi, walking at the head of the group wearing his signature red cap with the numbers of pi on it. Shaw would be head of that parade for 38 years, eventually earning the nickname “Prince of Pi” from his co-workers.

The day has since evolved from its humble, locally-held roots at the Exploration. March 14 became recognized by Congress as National Pi Day as of 2009, and has continued to become more of a cultural phenomenon as the years pass. Pies are known to sell out on March 14, while pizza shops have also gotten in on the act, with many offering discounted slices (generally themed around the 3.14 figure).

For Shaw, the most magical (and best) part of Pi Day was that math became accessible and fun for the average person.

“He loved to help people realize they are capable, and that they can get involved in areas of human thought that they thought were closed to them,” Catherine told the Chronicle, after Shaw’s death in 2017. “That’s what the Exploratorium stands for, too.”

Happy Pi Day.

San Francisco Chronicle writer Steve Rubenstein contributed to this story.

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Pi-Day-s-history-is-rooted-in-the-Bay-Area-13688884.php.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *