Phone numbers, passwords, pins and numbers of any kind.
Most of us have never been good at memorizing numbers. In recent times, we have become even worse at remembering important numbers, relegating the task to smart phones and in-the-cloud calendars. How many phone numbers, for example, can you call to mind right now?
Many of us wish we could instantly summon up passwords and pin numbers, and are uncomfortable with the security risks involved in storing them in places others might access. Many more might wish to never forget birthdays, or anniversaries.
Enter the Major System. Developed by Stanislaus Mink von Wennsshein over 300 years ago. (Don’t worry, you don’t have to remember his name, yet.) The Major system is a flexible and powerful system for remembering numbers. With a few minutes practice and a bit of creativity, you can commit even long numbers to memory in no time at all.
How the Major System works
The major system is, in essence, a 10 item phonetic alphabet which assigns consonant sounds to each digit from 0 to 9. Vowels are then added to create words. These words are then used to create colorful mental stories. Recalling the memorized number then is simply a matter of translating back from the key words in your story.
The corresponding sounds take only a few minutes to learn, and once mastered, will be useful for the rest of your life. The code is:
There are even mnemonics to remember the mnemonic major code! The easiest is to simply remember the name “Stan Marloshkevip”, which contains all the consonant sounds in order.
The story of Pi
Now, let’s look at how we might go about using the Major system to memorize the first 20 digits of pi.
π, or pi is the ratio of any circle’s circumference to its diameter. It is an irrational number, which means its decimal expression never ends or repeats. Because of this, memorizing pi is a favorite pastime of mnemonists and bored mathematicians and even has its own “field” (Piphilology).
The first twenty digits of pi are 3.1415 92653 58979 32384
As you make your way through the following story, make an effort to put as much energy and detail as you can onto your mental canvas as imagination and visualization are central to effective memorization.
Now, in your mind’s eye, pull back from your body and float up and behind your chair. See yourself sitting at your desk and reading this article. Crash! What was that? You jump from your chair and move cautiously towards your window, straining to hear any sound from behind the blinds. You part the blinds, then yell out in surprise! Hurtling towards you, like a boulder in an Indiana Jones movie, is a giant YAM (3). You make a dash for the door as the giant Yam comes crashing through your wall and sprint towards your bedroom in an effort to be clear of the wave of Yammy doom. “This must be some kind of nightmare!” you whisper to yourself. “It isn’t.” comes a voice from your wardrobe. You pull open the door to reveal a TURTLE (1415), who has converted your closet into a workshop and is carving a wooden BENCH (926). “Do me a favor,” the turtle grumbles. “Go get me something to eat.” You are so stunned that you do not even think to refuse, and head out of the bathroom and towards the kitchen. As you get closer, you think you see your mother, in her familiar kitchen apron. Thank goodness! you think to yourself. As you get closer however, you realize it is not your mother, but is, in fact, a LLAMA (53). It is such a wonderful specimen of a Llama that you begin to wonder how you might ever have been confused, until you notice that the Llama has been baking, and pulls from the oven a beautiful large LOAF (58) of bread. You edge past the Llama, nodding appreciatively as it motions to its work, and seek a moments quiet in your tool shed in your garden. No sooner do you seal yourself inside your shed, than does the strange mix of mud and smoke assault your nostrils. You turn to the source of the smell and shake your head in dismay. Languishing in your wheelbarrow is a PIG (97) smoking an OPIUM (93) pipe. You pinch yourself. What on earth is going on?! You leave the shed and collapse under a tree. You aren’t sure whether to laugh or cry, and before you have a chance, a hand reaches out from inside the tree. It is the gentle hand of a NYMPH (238), a nature deity from Greek mythology. “Here, let me give you something to help ease a troubled mind.” The nymph raises a pair of scissors to her head and cuts you a lock of her beautiful HAIR (4). As you take the lock from her hand, you feel much calmer, and also realize that you now know the first twenty digits of pi. How curious.
Now for the hard part (not really!). Close your eyes and replay the story in your mind. As you go, translate the key word back into numbers using the major system, and Voila!
With a little ingenuity, you will find all sorts of uses for the Major system. Aside from its obvious use in memorizing numbers, I also use the Major system to generate passwords. Simply take a word that you will remember, and translate it into its major number. You can turn your name into a pin code you will never forget!
This recent xkcd comic relates in some interesting ways to the issue of remembering passwords and the art of memory as a whole – check it out: http://xkcd.com/936/
Another elegant way of remembering the first 20 digits of Pi is this poem:
I wish I could determine pi
Eureka, cried the great inventor
Christmas pudding, Christmas pie
Is the problem’s very center.
The number of letters in each word represents the corresponding digits.