Buffon's Needles

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Problem Description

Here is a classic problem which describes how to estimate Pi by dropping needles on a grid of parallel lines and counting what fraction cross a line.  .

Background & Techniques

I wrote the basic version of this program a couple of years ago.  It ran and I believed the results, but never felt that I really understood the math behind it.   I ran across it in my "Future Projects" file recently and decided to understand it or throw it out.  As any teacher will tell you,  the best way to test if you understand a topic is to explain it to someone else, so here goes.

There are many Java Applets illustrating the dropping process and some sites that explain why it works but even as a math major my pulse still jumps a little and I flashback to college Calculus when I see that Integral symbol.   So here's my presentation and explanation without an integral in sight (well, just one).

It stands to reason that if you drop a bunch of 1" needles on a sheet of paper that has lines 1" inch part, some will cross a line and some will not.  Whether or not it crosses depends on two things, the angle of the needle in relation to the lines and where some reference point (like one end or the middle) is located.  Here's a diagram with 1000 simulated dropped needles, of which 636 cross a line.  And that 636 out of 1,000 is somehow related to Pi.  




We'll look at more experimental results later, but first here's an analytical approach.  A diagram of at a single needle  the same length as the spacing  between lines might look like this.  Let's call the spacing and needle length N and make the  leftmost end the point of reference.   Half the time the other end would be higher than the left end  and half the time it would be lower.  The same analysis would apply to either case.  Here we'll analyze the probability of crossing for the first case.  If q (theta) is the angle of the needle to relative to the grid lines, then by the definition of the sine function,  the right needle end is N sine (q) above the left end.  Let Y be the distance from the line to the left needle end.  Then the needle crosses the line if Y is less than N sine(q) Y can vary from 0 to N and q can vary from 0 to Pi.    If we plot Y vs. q then the crossing cases are all points in the area under the N sine(q) curve.  For (uniformly distributed)  random Y and q, the probability of the needle crossing is exactly the area under the curve divided by the total area inside of the plot rectangle.  The area of the rectangle is NPi and the area under the curve is the definite integral of N sine(q) from 0 to Pi  which a trigonometry book (or web page) will tell you is N(-(cos(Pi)-(-cos(0)) =N( - ( -1 ) - ( -1 )) = 2N.  So the probability, p,  of needles crossing grid lines when the needle length and spacing are identical is  p = 2N / (NPi) = 2 / Pi = 0.6636, roughly 2/3.   Or, if we have an estimate of  p, we can solve for Pi and get Pi = 2 / p.   That's what this and most all other program versions of the problem do. 

By the way, a much simpler application of the same concept throws darts at a square with an inscribed circle.  If the square is 2r on a side, the probability of hitting the circle is circle area divided by square area:   p = Pir2 /   4r2 =  Pi / 4.   Or given our estimate for p,   Pi=4p=4(circle hits / total darts thrown).    I thought that sounded familiar.  Just found my version of this program  posted several years ago.

I didn't (or maybe couldn't) calculate the analytical case when needle length is not equal to spacing,  The adjustment I found elsewhere makes sense - if the spacing were increased to twice needle length, the number of crossings would logically be cut in half.  If needle length were then doubled, the number of crossings would double - so to get numbers comparable to the "length = spacing" case we need to multiply the observed numbers by the spacing/needle length ratio.  There's a complication in cases where the needle length exceeds the spacing since a needle may cross two or more lines.    I allowed needle lengths up to twice spacing and counted all crossings in my program, and results seem accurate.     

We can look a histograms or crossings vs. needle angle to see how crossings are distributed by angle.  Here's the one for 1000 needles case.   For 636 crossings, this case produced an estimate for Pi of 2/(0.636)=3.144  (This is a lot  better than the  results from most 1000 needle trials, but I wanted a nice looking histogram.)

It looks reasonable - samples with angles near 0 and 180 degrees have few crossings, those near 90 degrees have the most crossings.  Because of the width of my chart and small number of samples, I rolled 28 degrees worth of samples into each rectangle.   I scaled the data to run from 0 to 1 in height and overlaid the sine function - the red curve on the chart.    What if we do the same thing with  more needles?  Below  are typical 100,000 and 1,000,000  needle histograms.  Rectangle width for these cases was reduced to 1 pixel.


Crossings vs. angle, 100,000 needles Crossings vs. angle, 1,000,000 needles 

By the time we get to a million points, estimates are usually accurate to three decimals.  The program will run 100 million needles in a few seconds, but accuracy increases quite slowly.   

Now, if you think you understand all of this, try to explain it some someone else!

Running/Exploring the Program 

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Suggestions for Further Explorations



Original Date:  April 27, 2005 

Modified: July 29, 2017

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