Pi guy

Paul Hearding, a local math tutor who lives in Rico, recited 16,106 digits of pi Saturday in unofficially breaking the U.S. record. (Courtesy photo)

“Calculating Infinity,” the 1999 debut album of New Jersey metalcore band the Dillinger Escape Plan, wasn’t just a massive hit in the underground, it spawned a brand new subgenre — mathcore. With its complex arrangements and spastic time changes, mathcore isn’t for everyone (it sounds like jazz on speed, with electric guitars instead of brass instruments), but fans point to the genius behind creating such a varied sound. You either get it, or you don’t. Kind of like math. Despite its revered place in alternative music, the album didn’t actually calculate infinity, or even attempt to, actually. But local Paul Hearding may be able to.

A math tutor, the 33-year-old recently broke the U.S. record for reciting memorized digits of pi, an infinite decimal. He remembered 16,106 digits in 7 hours and 19 minutes Saturday night, unofficially besting the previous mark of 15,314, which has stood for 13 years. He submitted his results via priority mail to the World Pi Rankings (yes, that’s an actual thing) Monday and hopes to get the formal congratulations within six to 10 business days. Due to space and sanity, the number will not be typed out in its entirety for this article.

Hearding said reciting digits of pi is a popular practice in the math world, but he was never really into it, until he stumbled upon an article about a bakery near Yale University that was giving away a free pie to anyone who could remember 314 digits of pi.

“At that point, I knew about 10 digits, and I thought, ‘This is absurd. Who would remember 314 digits of pi?’ and here I am (a year later),” he said. “My stance had previously been like this is kind of strange, and now I’ve ended up becoming the U.S. champion.”

He remembered the first 500 digits in a day during a power outage at his Rico residence and then crammed the next 500 numbers into his cranium by sheer memory. At that point, he started studying memorization techniques and developed a system that may sound even more confusing than “Calculating Infinity” to some.

“One of the big things I did was start assigning people to a two-digit system. Each number had a couple of letters that went with it. For example, 0 was S and 6 was J, so 06 would be SJ, and I associated that with Steve Jobs. Five was L, so 50 was LS, and I associated that with Luke Skywalker. Like if I had Steve Jobs, Luke Skywalker, then the second person would add a description. So if I thought of Steve Jobs holding a light saber it would be 0650.”

Hearding used the person-action-object system, but added a verb, adjective and noun to the sequence, which allowed him to remember 10-digit chunks. The attempt, which required at least three witnesses and a notary, took place at a private residence in Aldasoro. Several of his students were also there.

Other than saying the numbers out loud, Hearding also typed them into a spreadsheet so everyone could follow along without anyone interrupting him.

“16,000 digits is so much. I never was just going all the way through. I would do smaller chunks, maybe 1,000 here and 1,000 there,” he said. “ … I still don’t know if I fully understand how many digits that is. It must be pretty bizarre to watch someone regurgitate numbers like that.”

Mary Hearding, his wife, said she was never a math fan until she met Paul, who showed her a different way to look at things. 

“He's crazy about math, but he is also a great communicator and a better person,” she said. “He makes people love math, or at least, genuinely find beauty in it. I certainly feel like I can see new beauty in it.”

The inherent absurdity of trying to remember infinity also makes it worthy endeavor in an ironic way.  

“There are moments of social clarity when I become acutely aware of how wack it is that my husband is memorizing thousands of digits of a number for fun, but that's what's so great about it, and about him,” Mary Hearding said. “I mean, why not? Life is short. Have fun with it, even if the rewards of your experimentation are not immediately obvious.”

Paul Hearding thanks his high school calculus teacher for introducing him to math and all its power.

“I’ve always found math fascinating. It’s a logical system. There’s really a lot of higher-level thinking that goes on. I’ve just always been taken by it,” he said, adding that it’s “the art of thinking, and everybody needs to know how to think.”

The world record for reciting pi is 70,030 set by Suresh Kumar Sharma of India in 2015 in 17 hours and 14 minutes, according to the official Pi World Ranking List. If Paul Hearding’s record stands, he will be No. 14 on the list.

Other than working locally and studying for a Ph.D. in math from the University of Delaware, where he also earned his masters (his bachelor’s degree is from the University of Maryland, for the record), he’s busy refining his memorization techniques and remembering more numbers. It hasn’t even been a week since his U.S. record attempt and he’s already up to 17,000 numbers, explaining that in the 35-40 minute drive from Rico to Telluride he can recall about 2,000 digits. He estimated it took hundreds of hours to prepare for the recent record and it will take another year of the same before he’s ready to tackle the world. 

“I’m like 54,000 away,” he said. “It’s like incomprehensible.”