Brad Zupp has built a memory palace in his mind out of places he has gone, people he has met and TV shows he has watched — like shows about Sherlock Holmes, who is known for using a similar tactic to solve crimes.
In one room, there’s Tony Soprano, throwing a bouquet of flowers like he has just been married, the Greenwich man said.
“But instead of a bouquet of flowers, it’s a shoe or a boot, and he’s doing that in a coffee shop in Los Angeles I was at last summer,” said Zupp, 48.
It’s an ancient practice dating to 2500 B.C., Zupp said, but one that helps him remember the first 10,000 digits of pi in 5-digit segments. He spent about 40 hours memorizing the digits and the 2,000 combinations in an attempt to break a World Pi Federation record Wednesday at the Suny Empire State College campus in Saratoga Springs — one that ultimately fell short after three tries, the maximum allowed by the federation in one day.
“It took about 11 hours to memorize the 10,000 digits — that was the easy part,” he said.
He used the Tony Soprano story to remember the digits 39856, which stumped him in the second round. He remembered them easily when they were used again, at random, in the third after sharing the mnemonic device with the media.
“There’s a saying, “Don’t wish it were easier. Wish you were better,’” Zupp said after conceding in the third round when he realized he had misstated one of the digit combinations as time ran out. “Maybe we can try it again in the fall if I’m stupid enough to immerse my time in this.”
Shortly after trying to top the record, which he streamed live on Facebook, Zupp had his spirits lifted by a Facebook message from the current record-holder, Kevin Horsley, of South Africa, saying, “Congratulations on your efforts. I don’t think people realize how tough it really is.”
“On one hand, I feel great because I did really well,” he said. “I knew most of them. I made two errors on this last time. On the other hand, I feel disappointed because I worked hard to nail the record, and I didn’t get the record.”
To beat the record, Zupp needed to not only memorize the first 10,000 digits of pi, but also be able to recite the five digits that come before and after the 50 five-digit combinations selected randomly and called out at random by three judges in less than 16 minutes and 28 seconds. To make that time, he needed to recite the two five-digit combinations that surround the selected digits at a rate of three per minute, “and a couple minutes, I need to do four,” he said. “It’s daunting.”
Before his first attempt at around 9:30 a.m., he said, “I’m as ready as I can be.
“I did it yesterday perfectly in training,” he said. “Whether I can do it in front of the press and the public is another story altogether.”
The record attempt, which was sponsored by the Academy for Lifelong Learning of Saratoga Springs, was originally scheduled for Pi Day (3/14) but was postpoined due by the major snowstorm.
Pi, shown by the Greek letter π, is the math symbol used to represent a constant, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, which is approximately 3.14159 but has been calculated to more than one trillion decimal digits, according to www.piday.org.
Zupp — who gives memory presentations to elementary schools and corporations for a living — said he tried to beat the record because he wanted to show that people are “more amazing mentally” than they realize. In an age when there are mobile apps for translating languages and finding a destination, he said, it’s important not to become too reliant on technology.
“We’re risking our minds,” he said. “I think it’s a dangerous path if we rely too much on our devices instead of our minds.”
He said it’s fun to create the “crazy images” required to memorize the thousands of digits so acutely.
“It also challenges my mind, and I see my memory improving when I’m working harder in a challenge like this than when I’m just reading or vegging,” he said. “My big suggestion to people is to challenge their minds daily. Get a vocabulary-word-a-day calendar. Pick up a foreign language book and learn a different language. Learn one word a day. It keeps our minds fresh.”
His wife, Beth Lawrence, offered assistance and support Wednesday, instructing the judges on how to select the digits at random and serving pie — a natural dessert for any Pi Day event — following the three attempts.
“First and foremost, I’m proud of him,” she said. “And it’s just a great demonstration for how even as we are getting older, we can improve our memory and our brain power.”
Zupp said he ran his first marathon last fall, in Narragansett, Rhode Island, and that was much harder than training for the record attempt. He said was thinking about training for a second marathon this summer, but might opt instead to train for another go at the Pi record.
“I would like to nail the record,” he said. “The record is really close.”
Or he could do both.
“I have all 10,000 digits in 10 different audiofiles on my phone, so if I really wanted to punish myself ... I could play the digits of pi while I did my long runs on the weekends. I’m not sure I have that in me.”