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The Case of the Vanishing 1, and the Brain Science that Solved It

by Rebecca Melsky February 02, 2022 3 min read 22 Comments

A couple days after the photoshoot for the 13,230 Pi Digits collection, our photographer sent Rebecca this photo: 

"Do you notice something weird about this?" she asked. 

Rebecca looked.  Nothing was weird. It was an awesome "pocket" calculator! With raised rubbery keys just like a real calculator! It was calculating Pi! What could be weird? What could - oh wait. 

The very first "1" in "3.1415926535" was missing. Eva spent over 50 hours hand-writing the first 13,230 digits of pi for the print on the body of the shirt and had 100 customers proofread them, and somehow the very first 1 on the calculator is missing???

How did that happen?!  And more to the point - how did we not notice??

There were approximately a million times that we should have noticed (rough estimate). 

Eva didn't catch it when she made the design. This is what the Adobe Illustrator file looked like:

Rebecca and Eva both missed it when the sample came back from the factory. Here's the strikeoff: 

Our production supervisor missed it when looking at all the photos of the samples. Rebecca missed it when she ironed the shirts for the photo shoot. Her friend, an editor at a magazine, missed it when Rebecca showed her the shirts while she was ironing. No one at the photoshoot caught it, including Rebecca, the photographer, and the family modeling it. Rebecca didn't see it when she placed these pens in this pocket - which, considering the height of the model and Rebecca, was directly at her eye level.

NO ONE NOTICED. NO ONE! 

So what happened?!  How did no one see it?

Eva and Rebecca turned to two of their very smart friends who study brain science. Eva's college roommate is now a professor of psychology and suggested that we may have missed it in part because we were so busy focusing our attention on other things (like posing models at the photo shoot, getting the wrinkles out of the shirts, making sure the colors were correct in the printing) : "There is a very well-known phenomenon called inattentional blindness. Basically, sometimes we don't notice things in plain sight because our attention is focused elsewhere." 

Rebecca's college roommate is now an MD, PhD neurologist, and she suggested that we may also have missed it in part because a digit was missing, not incorrect. She said, "It's much easier to catch a mistake - like if you'd typed out 3.2415 - than to notice something that is missing because your brain fills in the missing information; it's called filling in. The visual cortex has had to develop ways to process information that is incomplete because you're constantly interacting with incomplete information in the world. Your brain needs to understand that a chair is still a chair even if you're looking at it from a new perspective and can't see the whole thing." 

Darn it, brains!  After editing 13,230 digits of pi to make the fabric for the shirt, the poor little pocket calculator fell victim to our brains' ability to make sense of the world around us by "seeing" things that SHOULD be in a particular place even if they're not actually there.

Rather than waste all of these (otherwise absolutely excellent and so cool) shirts, we're shipping a black permanent marker with every order, so you can fill in the vanishing 1 yourself. Here's Rebecca's son fixing his shirt: 

Or you can leave it blank and conduct your own experiment: Will anyone notice that the 1 is missing or will their brains fill it in just like ours did?

Whatever you choose to do - wear your new Pi Digits Calculator shirt (adult and kid sizes available!) with pride, knowing mistakes have scientific explanations that give us the chance to think about how we think!

*******

UPDATE: We have been alerted to yet another mistake on the calculator. The 4 and 6 are in the wrong spots. Sigh. 

Rebecca Melsky
Rebecca Melsky

Rebecca Melsky is a co-founder of Princess Awesome and its Chief Executive Officer. She and her husband are raising three kids in Washington, DC.


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Keri
Keri

February 04, 2022

I still plan to purchase this – I love it!

I may try to cut a matching 1 on my cricut and heat press on. Leaving the 4 & 6 as is.

Emmy
Emmy

February 03, 2022

The 6 and the 4 on the calculator are swapped too.

Julie
Julie

February 03, 2022

Will you make this shirt (correct or not) in adult sizes? My husband and I would both love to wear them!

Nancy Foote
Nancy Foote

February 03, 2022

It’s cute. It’s fun. It’s real life. If it bothers somebody too much, they can pass on buying a shirt. I’ll get one for my granddaughter because it has mistakes and you were honest enough to admit it! I love the transparency and fun!

Lisa
Lisa

February 03, 2022

Maybe your graphics person has that dyslexia where numbers jump around? It happens. Next time have a perfectionist child do the proofreading…my son would have caught both of the mistakes back when he was in 3rd and 4th grade and decided to memorize Pi to 50 places without telling me. I think the Sharpie is a cute idea… pretend like you did that on purpose so the kids can “fill in the correct number.” Fun!

Michelle
Michelle

February 02, 2022

I love the story and for just the missing 1, the marker was a clever idea (even with fading I think children would love to be in charge of fixing their shirt periodically). It might be impractical but since other digits are swapped, I wish you could print an iron on patch to fix the issue! They eventually wear off too, but it would fix all the number issues and you could sell them separately too (first one comes free with the shirt but others could be purchased if that one wears off). I respect that this may not be possible, but I thought I’d put it here in case.

Meg
Meg

February 02, 2022

I so dearly love this story. I tell my students and my own kids that math is all about making mistakes and learning from them. This is amazing. We’re excited to add both the shirt and the dresses to our wardrobes!!

Mary Beth
Mary Beth

February 02, 2022

I didn’t mean to cause more drama. I appreciate the directness. I think this is a creative solution and a great learning opportunity. I just wanted to put the expectation out there that it will need to be refreshed occasionally.

Princess Awesome
Princess Awesome

February 02, 2022

We know a permanent marker is not a perfect solution. And it doesn’t fix the 4 and 6 situation. Sending the shirts back to the factory to be completely redone is not an option. It would cost probably more to try to fix them in this way than it cost to make them in the first place, and we do not have the funds to scrap the entire batch of shirts and make new ones (nor is there any way to do that and have them done in time for Pi Day, not to mention the environmental).The truth is we messed up. Yes, maybe there’s a good scientific explanation for why, but we did. So the options for us were to not sell them, sell them as-is, or send a permanent marker that, while imperfect, does accomplish the job of adding a 1. Trust me, I promise we are more upset about this mistake than you are! The slight good news is the calculator is only on the shirts, so the issue doesn’t affect the dresses at all!

Roy
Roy

February 02, 2022

1. Sharpie does make a laundry marker, which works better on fabric than a regular Sharpie. It’s not what Rebecca’s son is using in the photo, however.

2. Maybe the 4 and 6 aren’t in the wrong spots. Perhaps the numbers were written in boustrophedon, but without reversing the numbers themselves. :)

Amber Kerr
Amber Kerr

February 02, 2022

Yeah, I have to agree with Mary Beth – Sharpie is not a great solution. The number style won’t match, the ink might bleed, and indeed, it will fade (I can say confidently, having written my kids’ names with Sharpie inside many of their jackets). Is it possible to re-make the dresses using different pockets? Pay your manufacturer to un-stitch the existing pockets and stitch on correct ones?

Mary Beth
Mary Beth

February 02, 2022

I hate to make it worse, but Sharpie will eventually fade with washing. :(

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