In one of my previous posts, I asked for help interpreting a rather bizarre dream imagining a new plotline for a National Treasure movie. These movies often involve deciphering secret codes, and so did my post. My [day]dream was actually an aid to help me remember 40 digits of the irrational, transcendental constant of Leonhard Euler, e.
Here is the dream again with numeric annotations in brackets:
I don’t know whether it’s because we just read a case about the War of 1812, but I dreamed a sort of screenplay that begins with a tight close up with two identical faces of Andrew Jackson [1828,1828 (Jackson was first elected in 1828)]. As the camera pulls back, we see that the Jacksons are struggling to break free from being inside a cramped triangle [459045 (interior angles of an isosceles right triangle)]. To make matters worse, we see that their bodies are jerking about because they are holding between them an electrified neon equation that is blinking “2+3=5” . The equation is encased in some kind of phosphorescent circle [360 (degrees)]. They aren’t willing to drop the circle, because on closer inspection one can make out a miniature Andrew Jackson  who is trapped inside the circle. Then out of nowhere an airplane  swoops in and hooks the top of the triangle so that the Jacksons and the rest of the triangle’s contents are suddenly dangling in midair behind the aircraft. Cut to the cockpit interior and we encounter the demented mastermind who mutters moo-ha-ha while strangely flipping odd cards 1, 3, 5 from a deck [this is a bigger leap, but I remember 135 for the actual cards; 26 for half the cards in a deck; and 62 for the flipping]. When suddenly Nicholas Cage bursts into the cockpit. He looks around and sees a 7 x 7 pallet of containers [4977 (49=7x7)]. Cage opens up a container takes out a big bottle of ketchup [57 (Heinz 57)] and squirts ketchup on the demented mastermind, saving the day. In my dream, I called the incomplete movie, “National Treasure, 2.7.”
So when I tell myself the story, I can write down: 2.
The back story on this escapade is a homework assignment that my daughter Anna brought home the other day. I initially was annoyed that her teacher had asked her to memorize 40 digits of e. But then I noticed that the review sheet subtly had spaces between certain sequences so that you could see that 1828 sequence was repeated and was followed by 459045. I remembered the claim from the uber-cool National Geographic TV show Brain Games, that it is easier to remember dramatic stories than unrelated objects. After about two minutes, Anna and I had concocted the crazy National Treasure narrative.
Instead of being annoyed by Anna’s assignment, I’m now kind of excited by it. Not because it’s valuable to memorize e, but because the process of memorization can teach us something about the brain. While it seems daunting (if not impossible) to remember an abstract sequence of numbers, it’s kind of hard not to remember the bizarre elements of my Andrew Jackson narrative. You can teach yourself 40 digits in less than 5 minutes.
As a crude test of this sticky story hypothesis, I came back to my contracts class about a week later and offered my students a chance to win 20 bucks if they could write down the 40-digits from memory. Eight out of about 75 volunteered to try and passed the test.
I randomly selected a winner from the 8 and happily handed over a twenty dollar bill – which fittingly bears the image of Andrew Jackson.
If you want instead to memorize pi, you might start by learning the sentence:
“How I need a drink, alcoholic of course, after the tough lectures involving quantum mechanics.”
It’s an alternative approach developed by Sasha Volokh to remember the first 15 digits of pi. Count the number of letters in each word, and you get 3.14159265358979.