Competitors do a number on a brainy weekend festival
Author Lauren Zumbach Illustration Peter Oumanski
PRINCETON, N.J. – “Would you like to know my theory?” the sockless man with the gray mane and German accent asks his fellow passengers. “If I sit on a park bench with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. If I sit on a hot stove for a minute, it feels like an hour.” Beat. “It’s all relative!”
Nobody on the train seems surprised at being accosted by an Albert Einstein lookalike on their morning commute. After all, Princeton’s Geek Freak Weekend is under way, and there are Einstein lookalikes everywhere you turn.
The highlight of Geek Freak Weekend is a contest in which people vie to rattle off from memory the most digits in the value of pi. One of this year’s contenders is 14-year-old Juliette van Schaik, who takes the stage and begins a monologue that could, in theory, go on forever.
Each of the pi reciters has a style. Some speak rhythmically, some adopt a more free-form approach, and some simply mutter.
Van Schaik spouts her numbers confidently into a mike she’s clutching with nails painted specially for the occasion: blue with a white pi symbol on the ring finger.
After uttering 4,300 digits, van Schaik officially becomes the ninth-best pi reciter in North America. That’s enough to earn her a small bow from reigning champion Marc Umile, who has 15,000-plus digits to his name.
“By senior year,” van Schaik says, pointing at her departing hero, “I’m going to beat that guy.”