Thirty-five years after the birth of Pi Day, the math community is circling around demanding more diversity in the field.
Each year, NASA and scientific institutions around the world launch math-themed activities to encourage children and adults alike to celebrate Pi Day — March 14 (March 14) in the United States, since the irrational number pi is associated with beginning with the digits 3.14.
There’s no shortage of math marketing this year as NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory launched its annual Pi Day Challenge (opens in new tab) for students to experiment with math and space, highlighting brand-name missions such as the life-hunting Perseverance rover on Mars and the soon-to-be-launched Psyche spacecraft, targeting a metal asteroid.
However, as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) representation continues to lag, recent initiatives also seek to improve prospects for prospective students by sparking their interest in science early and providing the financial and logistical support needed to get started to continue their post-secondary education during their studies.
Related: Dear ET: Math on Voyager’s Golden Record tells a story
Circles were important to numerous ancient cultures, as evidenced by the Buddhist Dharma Wheel, indigenous circles, Asian mandalas, and Stone Age astronomical monuments like Stonehenge. Pi, or the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, has been known for at least 4,000 years; Circles themselves are in many ways key to space science (some of which include orbits, solar and lunar eclipse calculations, or craters on the Moon and Mars).
The ancient Babylonians and Egyptians used pi, although the Greek mathematician Archimedes of Syracuse (287–212 BC) and the Chinese astronomer Zu Chongzhi (429–501 AD) were the first recorded people to use pi, according to the Exploratorium calculated (opens in new tab) Museum in San Francisco. (The Exploratorium also hosted the first Pi Day celebration in 1988.)
Today’s Pi Day is recognized in both the US and European dating systems, although overseas Pi Day falls on July 22 (22/7 in the day/month system, since 22 divides by 7 approximately equal to pi). Coincidentally, Albert Einstein’s birthday falls on US Pi Day. Princeton University, where Einstein is known to have held non-faculty post for 22 years, holds an annual Einstein lookalike contest (opens in new tab) on Pi Day alongside circular celebrations. Pi Day also falls within Women’s History Month, a US celebration that lasts through March and just after the United Nations-supported International Women’s Day on March 8th.
Related: International Women’s Day: Female astronauts keep leaving Earth
(opens in new tab)
Pi Day is celebrated as International Mathematics Day (opens in new tab), but the event is not without controversy. As the mathematician Alissa S. Crans wrote (opens in new tab) in Scientific American in 2022: “There is so much more for math, more than a single number, no matter how many digits you can recite from memory.”
For example, NASA’s so-called “Hidden Figures” were black women mathematicians who calculated orbits in the 1960s that were key to early space and lunar exploration. They have only been publicly honored in the last decade or so; Last month, for example, NASA and the International Astronomical Union named a prominent landmark on the moon after black mathematician Melba Mouton.
With non-male and diverse representation still lacking in scientific fields, grassroots efforts have sprung up around Pi Day to remind people to prioritize diversity in math and science fields. One example is #DressForSTEM, launched in 2016 by female meteorologists.
Each year, this group wears purple to highlight the need to bring more types of people into science. That’s because women’s STEM representation was just 27% in 2019, even though women make up 48% of the workforce, according to the US Census Office (opens in new tab) reported in 2021. (Genders other than male and female are not discussed in the analysis.) Black and Hispanic workers remain underrepresented in STEM, as well as other minorities, the Pew Research Center added (opens in new tab) in a post in the same year.
Happy #PiDay! You know what that means… #DressForSTEM We’re wearing purple today to support women in STEM and encourage the next generation of girls to follow their science dreams. The sky is the limit! pic.twitter.com/Yrjr0N0FDaMarch 14, 2022
Increasing diversity in STEM fields requires greater representation in education, particularly at the college and university levels, Pew officials added. There are numerous initiatives to increase diversity, although they are still quite new and will take decades to bear fruit.
Ohio’s Center of Science and Industry (COSI) launched a Learning Lunchbox program in 2020, initially aimed at bringing food and science kits to students affected by the early pandemic in Columbus, where half of the Minority residents and 20% live in poverty, according to 2020-21 US Census Bureau statistics (opens in new tab). The program quickly evolved into national and then international domains as it caught the attention of NASA and the Office of the Vice President (OVP).
Related: Vice President Kamala Harris calls for the diversification of the US space forces
(opens in new tab)
Last September, the OVP also backed a push by numerous space companies (led by Blue Origin, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman) to bring more diversity to the space workforce, hiring beyond the Ivy League and the old high-level engineering schools. Sources include historically black colleges and universities, tribal colleges and universities, minority service facilities, community colleges and trade/trade schools, White House officials said at the time.
In recognition of various barriers to diversity, NASA has adopted a diversity and inclusion approach (opens in new tab) along with numerous other space and science-related organizations around the world. Math enthusiasts can easily understand the statistics of underrepresentation.
NASA understands that, too, agency chief Bill Nelson said during his annual State of NASA address (opens in new tab) last week. “We also understand that diversity drives innovation, and we are committed to strengthening our agency by prioritizing diversity, equity, inclusion and accessibility,” he said during Friday’s (March 10) speech.
The agency is incorporating this focus into its strategic plans, Nelson noted, particularly as it plans its manned lunar orbit mission Artemis 2 in 2024 and other missions in the Artemis program. Saying that NASA’s workforce should reflect the people of the United States, Nelson said the agency will “continue to make history and enable the Artemis generation to make this important work their own.”
Elizabeth Howell is co-author of “why am i taller (opens in new tab)?” (ECW Press, 2022; starring Canadian astronaut Dave Williams), a book on space medicine. Follow her on Twitter @howellspace (opens in new tab). Follow us on Twitter @spacedotcom (opens in new tab) or Facebook (opens in new tab).