Pi Queen holds throne

Harbor Day School eighth-grader Jamie Searles recited 2,009 digits of the never-ending decimal Pi Friday morning, defending her crown as the school’s Pi Queen and nearly doubling her last year’s stunning total of 1,111 digits.

For five years now, Jamie has held the “Pi Queen” title, and this year’s victory — which seemed to most like a foregone conclusion — was the end of an era at the school.

In her final performance, Jamie, a soft-spoken, bashful local celebrity, sat in a chair with her knees together and her feet apart, hands wedged between her thighs, reciting digits in multiples of five while alternately looking at the floor and gazing off into space.

Occasionally she would stumble or gulp, even reciting a few incorrect digits a couple of times and drawing gasps from the two women monitoring her progress, but she quickly caught herself and corrected the wrong numbers unprompted.

“I was nervous this year because I didn’t prepare as much as past years,” Jamie said.

She heaved a sigh of relief after reciting the 2,009th number, not realizing how close she came to losing her crown in the final year.

No more than a half hour before Jamie’s performance, a fifth-grader, in his first appearance in the competition, had recited 1,584 digits out of the blue, stunning his teacher.

So while Jamie’s long and celebrated reign at the top of the pack came to an end, a new star was born: Benjamin Most. He started studying in October, memorizing sets of 10 numbers every night, for the event when he found he had a natural aptitude for it.

“Kids that have no interest in math at all are jumping on the bandwagon. Now all the way down to kindergarten we have kids trying to memorize numbers. They’re all inspired by Jamie,” said teacher Meggen Stockstill.

In the seven years that the event has taken place at Harbor Day, it has grown from a small diversion to a schoolwide celebration where all of the kids get involved.

A dozen adults watched Jamie’s last performance, including the school’s head of school, Doug Phelps.

Phelps is captivated by the strategies the kids use to memorize and recite hundreds of digits. The phenomenon seems almost more musical than mathematical, with numbers rolling off students’ tongues in precisely rhythmic patterns, often five at a time.

“You can see how much they enjoy this,” Phelps said. “It’s not like the pressure cooker. You can tell they’re having fun.”

Jamie’s fame began when her older sister, then in sixth grade, brought Jamie, then in second grade, to class with her to recite the numbers she had memorized. That first year, Jamie hit 61, beating her sister and impressing all of the older students.

The fact that Jamie is still at it six years later, putting up incredible numbers each year, speaks to the power of winning the adulation of one’s elders. She said that the pride that her schoolmates and teachers had in her as she was charting new territory each year compelled her to continue.

“It’s sort of like my thing so I feel like I have to do it,” Jamie said.

SLICES OF TRIVIA

 Math enthusiasts worldwide celebrate Pi Day on March 14. Pi Approximation Day is observed July 22, also thought of as 22/7.

 At the 762nd point in the Pi sequence, known as the Feynman Point, six nines occur consecutively. This point is named after the late physicist Richard Feynman.

 Pi is the sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet.

 Daniel Tammet, a high-functioning autistic savant, recited 22,514 digits of Pi on March 14, 2004. Later, on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” the Briton likened the five-hour feat to running a marathon inside his head.


Reporter ALAN BLANK may be reached at (714) 966-4623 or at alan.blank@latimes.com.

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