They said it couldn’t be done. They said there was no way you could memorize 100 thousand digits of pi using a mnemonic technique of your own invention; namely, an epic poem based on a series of portmanteaus made from Led Zeppelin songs and books of the Bible.
Well, they were wrong. Way wrong. After a decade of study, a decade of near-solitary confinement, a decade of smashing up morphemes from Houses of the Holy and the Holy Book, you stand at the brink. You’re about to become a Guinness Book of World Records superstar, along with the fastest man and the largest woman.
Memorizing pi is a serious record, you tell people. It even has a name: pipilology. This ain’t no pogo stick jumping, or high-speed balloon dog making.
The Guinness world records man came in the night before and is now sitting in your living room. He’s drinking tea and he has a special Guinness jacket, you notice. That’s nice. Any job where they give you a jacket is a good job.
“You can start any time, Mr. Gravestone,” he says, pressing the record button on an old-time tape recorder.
“Without further ado,” you say. He nods and sips his tea.
“Let’s see,” you say, clearing your throat. “3.14…um….eleven or something?”
You glance up and the Guinness guy shakes his head furiously. You clench your fists and stomp your foot. Damn.
“Can I try again?”
“Technically, you get three tries,” he says. “With something like this, I’m sure it’s better to mess up at the beginning than at the end.”
You squinch your eyes tight and start playing Going to California in your head, substituting the words with Deuteronomy, Chapter 6, then transposing those words with numbers.
“5.71…7…Q…is that right?”
“It starts with a three.”
“Sorry,” you say, “three. Of course. Now I’m all flustered.”
You flap your hands in front of you and exhale a few times. You smile at the world records man. He doesn’t smile back.
“Are you ready to sit there for 26 hours or so while I rattle off 100 thousand numbers?” you ask, winking. “Are you ever going to take a break or something?”
“Let’s just play it by ear.”
“OK, then,” you say, taking a deep breath, “S-H-E-P…”
“That’s it,” he says, interrupting you, “those aren’t even numbers.” He stands up with his clipboard, and punches the stop button on the tape recorder.
“But I’m spelling the word, ‘shepherd,’” you cry. “It’s very difficult to spell. Most people forget the H.”
He sighs. “This is highly unorthodox.” He seems a bit angry.
“Four,” you say.
“I’m starting with the 100 thousand digits of pi.”
“It starts with a three!”
“Right. I’m just nervous,” you say. And then, “four.”
“Pi begins with a three!”
He’s looking at you, expectantly. You look back, Black Country Woman and Leviticus, Chapter 9, creating a strange cacophony in your brain.
“Hey, hey, mama, what’s the matter here,” you say, out-loud, the first line from Black Country Woman. Then, for the entire day – morning, noon and night – you recite the digits of pi, without error. You even pause for a few hours so the Guinness guy can take a nap. While he’s napping, you try on his jacket.
It’s around 11 pm as you finish up.
“…3,4,9,8,2,0,4,8,8,3,9, and…um,” you say, straining for the 100 thousandth decimal place. Is it a 7 or an 8?
The last line from Sick Again, “Ooh, baby, that’s right,” (the last song on Physical Graffiti), and Amen, the last word of the King James Bible, recede from your head like a dust devil. A dust devil full of numbers.
You just can’t remember.
“No, eight, you’re wrong,” the Guinness guy says, standing and stretching. “That’s 999,999. Not bad, but not a world record. Better luck next time.”
Ed. note: The foregoing only serves to illustrate how hard it is to break world records. Unless you have an incredible memory and an obsessive personality, you probably won’t memorize pi to 100 thousand places.