Colliding balls approximate pi
Found via G+, a new physical experiment that approximates , like Buffon’s needle problem: The Pi Machine.
Roughly, the amazing discovery of Gregory Galperin is this: When a ball of mass collides with one of ball , propelling it towards a wall, the number of collisions (assuming standard physics idealisms) is , so by taking , we can get the first digits of . Note that this number of collisions is an entirely determinstic quantity; there’s no probability is involved!
Here’s a video demonstrating the fact for (the blue ball is the heavier one):
The NYT post says how this discovery came about:
Dr. Galperin’s approach was also geometric but very different (using an unfolding geodesic), building on prior related insights. Dr. Galperin, who studied under well-known Russian mathematician Andrei Kolmogorov, had recently written (with Yakov Sinai) extensively on ball collisions, realized just before a talk in 1995 that a plot of the ball positions of a pair of colliding balls could be used to determine pi. (When he mentioned this insight in the talk, no one in the audience believed him.) This finding was ultimately published as “Playing Pool With Pi” in a 2003 issue of Regular and Chaotic Dynamics.
The paper, Playing Pool With π (The number π from a billiard point of view) is very readable. The post has, despite a “solution” section, essentially no explanation, but the two comments by Dave in the comments section explain it clearly. And a reader sent in a cleaned-up version of that too: here, by Benjamin Wearn who teaches physics at Fieldston School.
Now someone needs to make a simulation / animation graphing the two balls in phase space of momentum. :-)
Or maybe someone has done it already?