Happy Pi Day!

Happy Pi Day, everyone! March 14 (3.14) at 1:59 (you get the idea) is the peak of Pi Day, a celebration of the Greek letter which represents the irrational number by which the diameter of a circle is multiple in order to obtain the circumference ... but you guys knew that, right?

The sixteenth letter of the Greek alphabet, p, was first used for the familiar value 3.1415"¦ in the publication, "Synopsis Palmariorium Mathesios," authored by William Jones in 1706, though the fact that "the ratio of the circumference to the diameter of a circle is the same for all circles, and that it is slightly more than 3, was known to ancient Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian and Greek geometers." 2006 was the 300th Anniversary of the introduction of the mathematical symbol pi. (Here's more on the history of Pi.)

Be prepared for 3.14.2009 by ordering a mental_floss "Simple as 3.141592..." shirt (men's or women's). Keep reading for more pi facts.

pi2.jpgWhen I was in high school, my math teacher, Ms. Coffield, encouraged us to celebrate Pi Day for extra credit, but it always turned out to be much more. Some students made necklaces, I wrote a poem, and others competed to see who could memorize the most digits. In this video, savant Daniel Tammet discusses with David Letterman how he recited 22,514 digits of pi from memory on Pi Day 2004.

From our Amazing Fact Generator: "In 1897, Indiana tried to pass a bill stating that pi is equal to 3.2 as opposed to its truly infinite value, but it never became law due to an intervention by a Purdue University professor."

Unfortunately, even in 2008, some people are confused about pi. Check out this picture below taken by a student at Georgia Southern (sent to me via my high school math teacher), where someone thought Pi Day was March 13, and that the digits were 3.13 ...
When I was asking for Weekend Links awhile back, Brian from San Francisco sent in this gem regarding pi that I saved until now:

"A work I am continually impressed by is "Poe, E.: Near a Raven," a constrained writing experiment that encodes 740 digits of Pi in a poem evoking Poe's 'The Raven.'" It's pretty cool, and helps illustrate that the concept of pi is all around us!

So today, try and have more fun with pi! Find out if your birthday is in the first 1254543 digits. And if you think you know all there is to know about 3.14, try your hand at this quiz. For those who are huge fans of pi, you can now smell irrational, too.

How many digits of pi do you know? This song may help. Does anyone else celebrate Pi Day? What are some of your activities or memories from it?

Begins and Ends: European Cities
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.


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