Memorizing Pi: Construction Contracts and Visual Thinking Adventures in “Piphilology”

By Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq. / Attorney & Architect

[Author’s Note:  The following is not a chapter of the regular “Visual Thinker’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating Construction Contract Essentials.” This is more of a side trip, a little backstory about visual thinking and visual memory as relates to certain amazing accomplishments in the sport of memorizing the unending, non-repeating numbers of Pi.  Readers who would like to read The Visual Thinker’s Guide in its current evolving state, can do so in downloadable PDF form by clicking HERE.]


Pi, as we learned in school, is an irrational number, a mathematical constant used to calculate the circumference and area of a circle.  As an irrational number, the numbers to the right of its decimal point never repeat and never end, though Pi is often approximated as 3.14159.  The current record for calculating Pi’s unending and nonrepeating digits is ten trillion.

There is a hobby, a sport and a competition for everything – and so it is with Pi.  Piphilology is the practice of memorizing the digits to the right of Pi’s decimal point in sequence, with the current verifiable world record at 67,890.  It seems that a Mr. Chao Lu of China took the time – had the time – to memorize and repeat the first 67,890 digits of Pi without error.  Actually, as the story goes, he was aiming for 100,000 numbers, but after over 24 hours of reciting Pi’s digits in sequence, he got a little loopy and slipped at a mere 67,890.

The Visual Thinker’s Guide to Understanding and Communicating Construction Contract Essentials, currently being published on this website in installments, uses visual mnemonics, visual thinking and visual communication to develop a deep understanding and effortless recall of construction contracts, with the AIA B101 (2007) Owner-Architect’s Agreement as the demonstrator.  On one level, construction contracts can be considered just numerically organized text.  Of course, they’re much more than that, but the first step in visually understanding the provisions of their articles, sections and paragraphs is to visually memorize their numerical organizational system.

Piphilology, of course, is about memorizing numbers – specifically Pi’s.

So it should be no surprise that some Piphilologists rely on the same visual memory techniques taught in The Visual Thinker’s Guide to commit hundreds and sometimes thousands of Pi’s digits to memory.  By comparison, visually memorizing an AIA contract’s numerical organizational system – including the hefty A201 General Conditions – wouldn’t even be a warm-up exercise for a moderately skilled Piphilologist.

But many Piphilologists don’t rely on visual thinking at all.  One of the most popular techniques for memorizing Pi uses a “piem,” a portmanteau of Pi and poem, in which the numbers of Pi are converted to words and assembled into a long poem.  Piems are good for memorizing the digits of Pi – if you’re good at memorizing epic poems, which most people aren’t.  There’s a reason a sport for memorizing Pi exists, but not one for memorizing the Iliad and the Odyssey.

To many visual thinkers . . . . . . numbers may seem just too abstract for easy recall.  And so they are – by themselves.  But with visual mnemonics, it’s not the numeric symbol that’s being memorized, it’s a visual association with that number, or grouping of numbers, with non-numeric images that our picture-loving brains can easily assimilate and recall.  As it turns out, humans have been grappling with this issue for some time.


Mnemonics of the Ancients and Not-So-Ancient

Though largely ignored today by the public educational system, memory development systems are nothing new – some of them date to the Classical Greeks of 2,500 years ago and the colorful poet Simonides’ (556-468 BC) Method of Loci, or Memory Palace, as it’s now called, in which the things to be remembered are associated with familiar physical surroundings, like the rooms of a house.  But unless Chao Lu’s house had 67,890 rooms, it’s likely he used a different technique.  But the Method of Loci is easy to learn and well suited for more finite memory work, like memorizing speeches or public presentations.

More recently, a renewed interest in memory development in the 1800s produced abundant literature on the subject, some of it still accessible.  Many of the 1800s memory development systems are taught in prose styles that reflect their authors’ impressive erudition and love of language; their hovering about ideas with no great urgency to deliver readers to their conclusion, the destination second to a pleasant, though languorous journey.

One of my favorite mnemonicists of the mid-19th century, self-described “Professor of Phreno-Memnotechny,” Pliny Miles, published two rhetorically flourished works under the titles: “Phreno-Memnotechny, Or, Art of Acquiring Memory, Applied To History, Geography, Biography, Political Statistics, Latitudes and Longitudes, Remarkable Battles, The Tariff Act, Sentiments of Flowers, Extended Nomenclatures, Names, Sovereigns, Etc.” in 1845, and in 1850, “Memnotechny, Or The Art of Memory, Theoretical and Practical with a Mnemonic Dictionary,” both of which conjure up wonderful images of frock-coated, mechanically monocled professorial Steampunkery, with the venerable mutton chopped  Professor Miles lecturing earnest young scholars about the astounding advances in modern mnemonics and the bright promise of the future – if everyone just had super-developed memories.

In the hands of lesser scholars, however, the mnemonic journey becomes too tedious to ever reach its end, or the memory system itself is just too obtuse and convoluted to master – probably even for the time – such as the awkwardly-titled “Mnemonics, Applied To The Acquisition Of Knowledge: Or, The Art Of Memory In Parts,” by the Pike brothers in 1848.  I would sooner submit to a 19th century dental procedure than grapple again with that tedious tome.

But absorbing the semi-forgotten writings and wisdom of the not-so-ancient mnemonicists in their original language – the elegant and the clunky – is a geekily fascinating subject, one I intend to root around in for a while.  I’ve concluded that there must have been more than a few lettered charlatans in the 19th century peddling mnemonic patent medicine to the unsuspecting, with just enough genuine memory masters around to give the art some credibility.  And real treasure lies hidden in the old words – though visible it may be only while peering through the elaborately adjustable, black lacquered harness of multi-lensed brass monoculators.       

Miles dubbed his technique Phreno-Memnotechny – a terrific sounding term that I hereby appropriate in his honor.  But its provenance dates to well before Industrial Revolution’s scientific advances that also inspired the lesser-known mind, body and spirit self-improvement movements of the 19th century.  Phreno-Memnotechny is really just an evolution of the Major System, whose earliest use is credited to French mathematician Pierre Hérigone (1580–1643), which transforms numbers into words phonetically and then into images to be visually memorized.  Over the centuries, the system was further developed, forgotten, rediscovered, and then simplified and popularized in the late 20th century by Harry Lorayne in The Memory Book – where I found it one day as a bored 19-year old Air Force Airman Second Class, wandering about the dusty stacks of my base library.

Phreno-Memnotechny and the Major System are the real deals, no snake oil – and no poems involved.  And for visual learners, they’re quick and easy to master.  Or, as Pliny Miles said more elegantly in Phreno-Memnotechny (1845):  “To become fluent in Phreno-Memnotechny, requires but little time; depending on the industry and tact of the learner.

The Visual Thinker series uses, among other techniques, the Major System for visually memorizing construction contracts.  Though since I’m pretty sure neither Simonides nor Pliny Miles ever drafted and negotiated AIA Owner-Architect Agreements, I’ve customized their memory systems a little for 21st century visual thinking design and construction professionals.


Back Now to Piphilology 

Having never applied Phreno-Memnotechny or the Major System – or any other memory system – to memorizing Pi, I decided to see if I could cut it as an amateur Piphilologist.

Using the Major System, I found that memorizing the first 100 digits to the right of Pi’s decimal point, as with many things memory-related, is surprisingly easy – once you know the right technique and have the time.  Being longer on the former than the latter these days, I’ve set a modest goal of memorizing the first 1,000 digits of Pi by memorizing 10 to 20 digits a day, more or less, for the next couple months.  Of course, to champion Piphilologists like Lu Chan with his 67,890 Pi digits, my achieving this 1,000-digit benchmark goal will prove only that I’m about as bright as the average Bassett Hound.  But I’m okay with that, Bassett Hounds are smarter than they look.  Sort of.

The Major System works perfectly for visual thinkers who aspire to become Piphilologists – or just to understand construction contracts visually.  In the world of memory development, numbers are just numbers – until transformed into images.

But why would anyone want to become an amateur Piphilologist?  Well, aside from winning beer bets with strangers at a local pub, probably the best reason is just to develop the mind, and prove that, late-night infomercials notwithstanding, declines in memory may not be inevitable functions of age – like prostate exams.

Or to advance professionally.  The whole purpose of The Visual Thinker’s Guide is to teach a set of cognitive skills – specifically visual memory and visual communication – that allow design and construction professionals to outperform their competition in a perpetually strained economy and highly competitive business market.

However, I admit that of all the possible super-powers to possess, being able to rattle off the first 10,000 digits of Pi in a single bound probably won’t save Earth from Galactus’s next craving for a mid-day nosh, or even one of Loki’s unpleasant drive-bys.  But it might be able to bore them long enough to gain the upper hand.

Until then, to get you started, here are the first 50 digits of Pi: 3.14159265358979323846264338327950288419716939937510.

To budding Piphilologists, Steampunk Phreno-Memnotechnologists and mnemonically-inclined Bassett Hounds everywhere, I salute you.

Copyright 2012 Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq.


Gary L. Cole AIA, Esq. is Chicago-based Illinois and Florida-licensed attorney and Illinois-licensed architect. He practices design & construction law, real estate law, historic preservation law, accessibility law, is an arbitrator with the American Arbitration Association’s Construction Division, is a Certified Mediator, and is a consultant and an expert witness in civil construction, historic preservation and federal accessibility litigation. He can be contacted at



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