When Indiana lawmakers almost changed pi

Posted on Mar 29 2013 in General

statehouse3When I typically encounter “pi” there’s always an “e” at the end — and crust, filling and a pan are part of the equation. Of course, I know the mathematic definition of pi is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter.

March 14 is the worldwide celebration of pi — the math symbol, not the food. Since pi is calculated as approximately 3.14159 (the number actually goes on endlessly), what better day to acknowledge its importance than on 3/14?

Politicians have affirmed pi’s place as the world’s most famous transcendental number: the U.S. Congress recognized Pi Day in 2009. But 112 years earlier, lawmakers in Indiana came very close to actually reassigning the value of pi!

In 1897, Rep. T.I. Record sponsored House Bill 246, “an act introducing a new mathematical truth.” Amateur mathematician Edwin J. Goodwin claimed he’d been able to square a circle and, to make his mathematical formula plausible, pi needed to have an exact value of 3.2. Record and the other representatives were receptive to Goodwin’s “pi-deas.” The bill surprisingly went through three reads before being passed by the Indiana House and sent to the Senate.

Indiana’s senators were on their way to changing the course of mathematics when C.A. Waldo, a Purdue math professor visiting the Statehouse on another matter, intervened. He was shown the bill, then gave the senators a short trigonometry/geometry lesson on this mathematical constant. The lawmakers got the message, ate a large portion of “humble pie,” and Indiana’s pi bill thankfully died.

To this day, squaring a circle is mathematically impossible. Pi’s value continues to be calculated — and calculated some more — for obsessive types who are entertained by numbers. Its value has been determined over one trillion digits (and growing!) beyond its decimal point.

So, on March 14, in a pre-St. Patrick’s Day celebratory fashion, raise a pint to pi and vow that math formulas be forever kept out of the hallowed halls of government. Now, let’s start calculating: 3.14159265358979323846 …