How Many Decimals of Pi Do We Really Need?

Marc Rayman, director and chief engineer for NASA’s Dawn mission, explaining why NASA uses 3.141592653589793 (“only” 15 decimal places) for its most accurate calculations:

The most distant spacecraft from Earth is Voyager 1. It is about 12.5 billion miles away. Let’s say we have a circle with a radius of exactly that size (or 25 billion miles in diameter) and we want to calculate the circumference, which is pi times the radius times 2. Using pi rounded to the 15th decimal, as I gave above, that comes out to a little more than 78 billion miles. We don’t need to be concerned here with exactly what the value is (you can multiply it out if you like) but rather what the error in the value is by not using more digits of pi. In other words, by cutting pi off at the 15th decimal point, we would calculate a circumference for that circle that is very slightly off. It turns out that our calculated circumference of the 25 billion mile diameter circle would be wrong by 1.5 inches. Think about that. We have a circle more than 78 billion miles around, and our calculation of that distance would be off by perhaps less than the length of your little finger.

For a radius the size of the visible universe, you’d need only 39 or 40 decimal places to be accurate to within the size of a hydrogen atom. Fascinating. (Via Kottke.)

Friday, 18 March 2016