Pi Try: Greenwich Man Goes For World Record

Mar 29, 2017

The number pi goes far beyond 3.14. In fact, the mathematical constant has an infinite number of digits after its decimal. On Wednesday morning a Greenwich man made an attempt to set a new world record for memorizing the first 10,000 digits of pi. WAMC’s Southern Adirondack Bureau Chief Lucas Willard was there to see if he reached the record.

In math, the Greek letter pi represents the ratio of a circle’s circumference to the diameter. If you think back to geometry class, you’ll remember that the number as 3.14. But Brad Zupp, a memory athlete from Greenwich, New York, claims to have memorized 10,000 digits of pi.

On Wednesday morning Zupp sat at a table at Empire State College in Saratoga Springs with two judges and a timer, seeking to beat a world record at the Matrix Memorization of Pi.

“OK, seemed like a good idea at the time,” says Zupp.

In this method, the judges call out a set of 5 digits, somewhere in the 10,000. To succeed, Zupp has to correctly name the five numbers that come before and after the set. He has to do that 50 times. The world record was set in 2013 by a guy named Kevin Horsley, from South Africa.

After taking a deep breath and with cameras rolling for the World Pi Federation, Zupp begins his first trial.

“Let’s do trial number one for real, in three, two one…go.”

Zupp has a bit of a stumble out of the gate on his first set.

“Six, six, three, six five…five, five, seven, one…that’s wrong. The following is correct. The proceeding is two, eight, four, zero, two. Next.”

Eyes closed, the room silent except for the sound of recited numbers, Zupp responds to each set called out by the judges. But his first attempt of the day isn’t a perfect run. He stops the clock after the world record ticks by, 16 minutes, 28 seconds. 

“I don’t know it, so let’s stop there. Thank you, that was trial one,” Zupp sighs.

The number Zupp gets stuck on is 39856.

“39856 is Tony Soprano throwing boots over his head, like a bridal bouquet, and 22453 is a nun giving a piggyback ride to a lamb,” says Zupp to the judges.

Wait, what?

“I’ve created a memory palace, like you’ve heard on Sherlock Holmes,” says Zupp.

Zupp uses a system where he translates the numbers into images in his head. They sort of tell a little story, using familiar places and his favorite characters. When put in sequence, it makes the sets easier to remember.

“Basically I start outside my house in Greenwich. Right at the foot of our driveway there is a bridge. And at that bridge is 14159:  a monster kicking lipstick into a little creek. Right up the road from that is our neighbors’ house. And at our neighbors’ house is guy from a TV show called ‘Rounders;’ he is pulling the mailbox back and bending it backwards. That’s 26535.”

Zupp likes to talk, but after explaining his technique he takes a quick break, sucks on a packet of energy gel, and tries again. But he doesn’t make it on the second pass. Then it’s time for the third try.

“Six, six…one, one…pass. I’m actually gonna stop it there. I’m distracted. I think I made a mistake earlier. And I’m past time anyway. So thank you very much to the judges and all the volunteers for being here. Sorry I didn’t pull it off this time. There’s a saying: ‘Don’t wish it were easier, wish you were better.’ So I guess that’s where we’re at,” said Zupp to claps from his supporters.

As the cameras and microphones are switched off, Zupp’s wife, Beth Lawrence, gives encouragement.

“I totally know he can do it. I absolutely, positively know he can do this,” says Lawrence.

Zupp and Beth train together, going over thousands of numbers over hours and hours.

Zupp is disappointed but not defeated. His next goal is to run his second marathon.   The first step in his own “7 Simple Ways to Improve Your Memory” is to “get and stay physically fit.”

The hours of training for the marathon might also give him a chance to go over the numbers at the same time.

“So if I really wanted to punish myself, I guess would be the word, I could play the digits of pi while I did my long runs on the weekends. I’m not sure I have it in me,” laughs Zupp.

Of course, even though it’s about two weeks after pi day, slices of pie are served as the attempt breaks up. And it’s not all bad. Zupp even gets a Facebook message of encouragement from the record holder, Kevin Horsley, himself.