Friday, August 6, 2010

Why? Because we can

Technology enables us to do some amazing things.

Sometimes we do these things because we need to, sometimes it's simply because we want to.

Take the humble mobile phone for example. Most of us need to use this device in order to maximise our efficiency when working. Not being tied to a land-line enables many people to coordinate their appointments and schedule their day while on the run.

We also use mobile phones because we like to. When we've got a few minutes to spare we can take the chance to check and see what's on TV tonight or maybe ring a friend for an overdue chat.

Most people have the same need/want relationship with their computers. These days we need them to do important tasks such as paying bills by internet banking or sending and receiving important emails. We also like to use them to play games or browse entertaining material online.

Another "want to" application for the humble computer has just been demonstrated by a 54-year-old Japanese engineer who decided to break the world's record for the precision to which the value of pi has been calculated.

Very few people have any actual application for calculating pi to this level of accuracy but Shigeru Kondo obviously thought this was a worthy challenge and set about doing so, for no other reason than to prove that he could.

Prior to Mr Kondo's record-breaking attempt, the value of pi had only been calculated to 2.7 trillion decimal places. Now we know its value to 5 trillion places.

Just how long is a number containing 5 trillion decimal places?

Well, if it were printed out in a single line of 12-point fixed-pitch type, it would be (according to my possibly flawed calculations) some 20 million kilometres in length.

Perhaps because of this, Mr Kondo hasn't printed out his result but it is instead stored on the 20 hard drives of his custom-assembled Windows-based PC.

While I suspect we must question just why anyone would take it upon themselves to perform such a remarkable -- yet seemingly pointless task, perhaps the greater achievement this reflects is the fact that we can.

It is really quite mind-boggling when you think that the power to achieve this incredible feat is now easily within the grasp of anyone who really wants to do it.

Sometimes, technological challenges are just like climbing Mount Everest. Why do we do it? Because we can.

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