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Physicist, Educator, Founder of Pi Day

Larry Shaw ’61

The sympol π, as every Reedie knows, represents a fundamental geometrical constant—the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter—whose precise value is elusive, but which famously begins 3.14159 . . .

The unknowable depth of pi is an apt metaphor for Larry Shaw, physicist, artist, educator, and inventor of Pi Day.

In 1988, Larry was working as a technical curator for the Exploratorium, a San Francisco museum, when he came up with the idea of honoring the influential constant with an annual party. The Exploratorium celebrated its first Pi Day on March 14 at 1:59.

Since then, Pi Day has become an international phenomenon, with math lovers everywhere marking the occasion with pie, pizza, and various kinds of Euclidean tomfoolery. Perhaps not coincidentally, March 14 was also Albert Einstein’s birthday.

“He was honored that it became such a holiday,” says his wife of 54 years, Catherine. “It was a greater honor when the Exploratorium decided not to charge admission on Pi Day.”

Larry believed the best part of Pi Day was its ability to make math seem accessible and fun to folks who may have suffered through it during their school days. Pi may be an irrational number, but Larry’s celebration of it was rational, civil, and orderly.

For 38 years, he donned his red cap emblazoned with the magic digits and led a parade of museumgoers, each of them holding a sign bearing one of the digits of pi. They would march in strict order, with 3 in front, the decimal point next, and then 141592653489 . . . Of course the number of sign carriers was exhausted long before the infinite digits of pi.

Born in Washington, DC, Larry moved with his family to the Bay Area as a toddler. After graduating from Pleasant Hill High School, he earned a degree in physics from Reed, writing his thesis on negative wire corona with Prof. Jean Delord [physics 1950–88].

He married Catherine Adams in 1963, and the next spring they traveled to Yucatan aboard a 250cc East German Zundapp motorcycle. After a succession of broken chains and flat tires, they put the bike on a moving van and hitchhiked back home.

After Reed, Larry worked as a physicist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and UC Berkeley before joining the Exploratorium as technical curator. "Chief Magician" would have been more descriptive. He specialized in helping artists-in-residence at the Exploratorium turn wild ideas into actual exhibits, and helped design a lighthearted series of hexagons on which visitors would step, bounce, and dance to create abstract music. Exploratorium staff members often commented on the importance of Larry’s mentorship to their professional development, and on his cheerful, welcoming, demeanor when they first started at the museum.

“He loved to help people realize they are capable, and that they can get involved in areas of human thought that they thought were closed to them,” Catherine said. When he retired from the museum after 33 years, the director said to him, “You are the Exploratorium.”

In retirement, Larry pursued his passion for art and photography. He also volunteered his time as an audio engineer for nonprofits. He was an ardent Buddhist, who rose each day before the rest of the family for his extensive Buddhist practice. He visited, studied, and practiced at Buddhist sites in the U.S., Tibet, China, Nepal, and Japan, served several terms as president of the Buddhist Temple of Marin, and was always willing and able to help all in need and to share his knowledge and insights. Larry is survived by his wife, Catherine; his two daughters, Tara Shaw and Sara Shaw; and his siblings, Robert Shaw and Winifred Kershaw.

Appeared in Reed magazine: March 2018

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