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

    February 02, 2022 3 min read

    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.


    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. 

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