For approximately π seconds, it seems like Evan Daniel Smith is lost. His dark eyebrows point down towards the almost empty page in front of him while he murmurs to himself. His narrowed eyes focus intently on the sequence of twelve tiny numbers he has etched in black ink: 972177528347. These seemingly random digits have been read aloud to him – a life raft in a sea of numbers. All he knows is this sequence could be anywhere in the first 10,000 digits of pi. Smith taps his pen. The page stares back at him, blankly.
“Oh, wait wait wait – OK,” he says, voice rising as if a land mass has been spotted on the horizon. He whispers the last of the sequence – 8347 – to himself, before asking for the next five digits. He begins nodding, as if ink was magically returning to a faded map in front of him.
“The next digit is 1, right?” He asks, having already committed it to the page. And just like that, he’s sailing. “5574,” he declares, “857242454150659” – he keeps going for another thirty or so digits before asking if he should stop. Looking up from the canvas with the hint of a smile on his face, Smith speaks softly.
“I guess you get the point.”
Smith, 30, is an artist – not a mathematician. He is sitting at a table inside Cathouse FUNeral, an art gallery in Williamsburg where his work is on display in a new exhibition, “For the Love of Agnes and Barney,” starting today – which just so happens to be Pi Day (3/14). Smith has spent the last six years memorizing the first 10,000 digits of pi.
There is some precedent for this. In 1979, Pennsylvania schoolteacher David Fiore became the first person to ever break the 10,000 digit mark in the burgeoning field of piphilology – the practice of memorizing pi. Today, the world record is 67,890 digits. Though that astronomical number commands his respect, Smith is eager to distinguish himself from the world of competitive memorization. What makes Smith unique is what he does with the numbers.
“For me, the real impetus for this project is that link between art and pi, and between art and mathematics,” he explains. “To me it’s much more meaningful activity if you’re looking to memorize it with the mindset that you want to learn from the random numbers.” He pauses for a moment, as if recalling the many lessons the numbers have taught him. “I would never give up that connection.”
The art that Smith has created since beginning his obsession with pi – what he calls his Pi Paintings ¬– take on many forms. On the wall behind him, for example, he has painted the first 5,000 digits of pi onto a broken drum cymbal. Another painting portrays a large nude woman from behind with tiny digits of pi branded on her flesh.
Gregory Chudnovsky, the mathematician known for his record-breaking computations of pi using a supercomputer that he and his brother David constructed in their Manhattan apartment from mail order parts, finds Smith’s memorization effort remarkable for what it says about pi itself. “Your ability to memorize shows complexity,” he says. “Whatever is easier to memorize will show that the complexity is lower – that there is some kind of system, even if we cannot possibly express it.” For Chudnovsky, though, any interesting or unique wrinkles that might emerge in the first 10,000 digits are simply flattened by the sheer magnitude of pi. “If you move forward a billion digits, it’s a tiny little statistical irregularity which is immediately erased.”
Chudnovsky should know: the gold standard algorithm for computing pi is named after the two brothers. The world record of 12.1 trillion digits set in late December of last year used the Chudnovksy algorithm, first published in 1989. 10,000 digits, when all is said and done, is barely a drop in the ocean. Gregory Chudnovksy sounds almost hardened by pi. “It should be as hard as anything else you can imagine,” he explains.
David Dixon, the owner of Cathouse FUNeral – which used to be a funeral home – was essential in giving Smith a venue to display
his art. Dixon encouraged Smith to do a live “Piformance” of his unique talent at the opening of a show in November of last year. Smith, quiet and unassuming, fully embraced the task – methodically writing out pi on a yellow legal pad while a video camera projected his progress onto the wall beside him. Whether practicing at home or performing in a gallery, Smith has totally immersed himself in this sea of digits – even when it has had some negative consequences.
“There were a few weeks where I was very focused on learning a thousand digits a week,” he recounts. “And I was driving all the time, and because driving is so boring I had the bright idea of keeping a printout of pi next to me in the passenger’s seat to glance at every now and then.”
“There should be a law against that!” shouts Dixon, laughing.
“There should!” replies Smith. “Because I got into a very minor car accident the first time I tried it,” he laughs. “It was nothing major, but after that I sort of felt like it was natural to take a break for a while.” Dixon tells Smith a story about trying to memorize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot while working as a bike messenger and asks Smith if he ever contemplated learning poetry instead of pi.
“Clearly there are great similarities between numbers and words,” says Smith. “But I’m a little worried that if I were to really start with that, it’d be a whole other direction that I’d be involved with.” They both chuckle. Dixon, for what it’s worth, then says that he can’t even remember the first line of Prufrock.
Having grown up on Long Island with an interest in mathematics but a great talent for art, Smith received no formal mathematical instruction beyond high school – choosing instead to study painting at the Rhode Island School of Design. He will still pick up a math textbook every now and then, but the process of learning pi came about more organically. “I set about memorizing pi just for the sheer beauty of the numbers themselves and out of curiosity about what that might mean,” he explains. “And very quickly I found that pi reminded me in a very fundamental and earth shattering way of art.”
Smith describes completing that first pi painting as a moving experience. “It was the physical manifestation of a connection that I’d felt internally for some time. By the time I started the next few, I was already hooked.”
Chudnovsky, now 61, admires Smith’s process of memorization for what it might teach us about the supercomputer inside all of us. “Our brain is a very peculiar type of computer,” he explains. Mapping the memorization process of someone like Smith could actually have implications for future technology: the development of neurocomputers is still in its infancy, but our brain works very efficiently at making particular connections – Smith’s as much as anyone’s. “Perhaps we’ll be able to figure it out and use it,” says Chudnovsky.
Returning to the canvas and the string of digits that he had correctly located within pi, Smith embraces all of the imperfections. With a stick of charcoal, he draws out the four digits – 8347 – that he had been repeating quietly and which formed the key to unlocking his location. In charcoal, he exaggerates each number’s features to accurately convey how they “look” inside his head. The eight, he says, is “sort of imposing but also amorphous in this context.” The three is “small and insignificant.” The four is “this very languid number,” while the seven is “sharp.” Together, the four and the seven are rough – rocky, even.
“In no way when I talk about those numbers being rocky do I mean that as a bad thing,” he clarifies. “They’re very nice.”
Smith has a habit of talking about numbers with a familiarity that is infectious; like they’re members of a loud, sometimes difficult extended family. Where Chudnovsky sees a counting game in pi’s digits (“No, no!” he says when asked if he finds the number beautiful), Smith sees art itself. Thinking about whether or not a beautiful sequence of numbers is easier to memorize, he seems torn. “It’s funny, because sometimes a sequence that’s completely unpleasant and murky will be easier,” he says. He reads out one of his least favorite strings of numbers – 230145 – and makes a face. “Eugh!”
“Still, it’s hard not to like some of the numbers,” he says, looking back at the canvas, “even when they’re being difficult.” With that, he takes his stick of charcoal and begins to smooth out the edges of a couple of fives and zeros, over and over and over again.