Monday, September 25, 2006

How I want a drink, alcoholic of course . . .

Some of you will recognize the title of this post as the beginning of a handy mnemonic for memorizing the first few digits of pi. Counting the letters in each word, you get 31415926... The whole thing is "How I want a drink, alcoholic of course, after the heavy lectures involving quantum mechanics." This gives pi to fifteen significant figures, which is good enough for all everyday occasions and can impress small children (of a certain sort).

It turns out that Wikipedia -- amazing, maddening Wikipedia -- has a cool page devoted to a list of mnemonics. And on that page I found a link to the most amazing pi-mnemonic that I have ever heard of. Not only does it encode pi, it is also a parody of Poe's "The Raven". It begins

Poe, E.
Near a Raven

Midnights so dreary, tired and weary.
Silently pondering volumes extolling all by-now obsolete lore.
During my rather long nap - the weirdest tap!
An ominous vibrating sound disturbing my chamber's antedoor.
"This", I whispered quietly, "I ignore".

And on and on for 740 places. I am simply in awe. Why isn't this -- surely a work of staggering genius (of a certain sort) -- much better known? Or maybe it is, and I just haven't been paying attention.

Also on the Wikipedia page are a number of other scientific mnemonics, including a couple for the sequence of stellar spectral types: O, B, A, F, G, K, M. The most well-known one is "Oh Be A Fine Girl, Kiss Me!" (Ladies may change "Girl" to "Guy" if they wish.) Another one that I like much better was invented by a student in one of our astronomy classes, and is not mentioned by Wikipedia. It runs, "Only Bad Astronomers Forget Generally Known Mnemonics."

Meanwhile, all such efforts, however witty, shrink to nothing beside this ditty:
So he sitteth, observing always, perching ominously on these doorways.
Squatting on the stony bust so untroubled, O therefore.
Suffering stark raven's conversings, so I am condemned, subserving,
To a nightmare cursed, containing miseries galore.
Thus henceforth, I'll rise (from a darkness, a grave) -- nevermore!