News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Opinion

March 16, 2010

STEPHANIE SALTER: Rounding off pi to 3.20: It seemed like a good idea at the time

TERRE HAUTE — Last Sunday was National Pi Day, so a fellow Purdue alumni pal forwarded a great rendition of one of my favorite Indiana stories: When the state Legislature nearly passed a law rounding off the mathematical number, pi, to 3.2.

Reading the account — on agecon.purdue.edu — was not only entertaining, but also it reminded me how little has changed in politics since 1897. That is a good thing to keep in mind when we find ourselves getting all nostalgic about how civilized and enlightened our elected representatives supposedly used to be.

Pi, for those who don’t know or forgot, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter of the circle. Any circle. Since about 1900 B.C., mathematicians and scientists have pretty much agreed you have to use pi to figure out the area of a circle. Ptolemy (90-168 A.D.) seems to get credit for first pinning pi at 3.1416 … and infinitesimally counting. Infinitesimally because pi is what’s known as an “irrational number”; it never ends.

Obviously, a number like 3.14 etc., which is key in a zillion math and engineering tasks, strikes a lot of non-math/science folks as unwieldy. But what can you do? Geniuses have tried to calculate circles without pi, but all have failed. It is what it is. Even in pre-calculator days, people learned to deal with it.

Except for a few weeks in Indiana in 1897.

The story begins in Posey County, where a medical doctor whose hobby was mathematics believed he had done something many math geeks had dreamed of doing — “square the circle,” meaning he could determine the area of a circle the same way we determine the area of a square, by using right angles and no pi of 3.14 etc.

The doctor, Edwin J. Goodwin, said all you had to do was use a finite 3.20 “pi” to figure a circle like a square. He was way off base with this, but he also was apparently quite impressive. So much so that he convinced his state rep — a man with the wonderful name of Taylor I. Record — to sponsor a bill in the General Assembly that would make Indiana the first state to adopt the “new mathematical truth” of a 3.20 pi and squaring the circle.

Best of all, Goodwin generously offered to hand over his truth “as a contribution to education” so Indiana could reap for free the knowledge that everyone else in the world would have to pay Goodwin for when the world caught up.

According to the Purdue ag economics site, Record was a farmer and timber dealer. A first (and only) termer in the Assembly, he did not pretend to understand a thing about Goodwin’s new mathematical truth. He just assumed the doctor knew what he was talking about.

Record had lots of company. The state Superintendent of Public Instruction declared that Goodwin had accomplished what had eluded mathematicians for millennia. Making its way from the Committee on Canals (and Swamps) through the Committee on Education, H.B. 246 sailed through the Indiana House by a vote of 67-0.

As the Purdue site notes, Hoosier journalists of the day weren’t any better versed in mathematical constants than were Rep. Record and his colleagues. Most newspapers just reported the language of the bill and the vote. One, however, the Indianapolis Journal, must have had an engineer or math whiz on staff. The paper called H.B. 246 “the strangest bill that has ever passed an Indiana Assembly.”

Text Only | Photo Reprints
Opinion
Latest News
TribStar.com Poll
AP Video
Raw: Massive Dust Storm Covers Phoenix Raw: Bolivian Dancers Attempt to Break Record Raw: Shipwrecked Concordia Completes Last Voyage Raw: Israel, Palestine Supporters Rally in US Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Raw: Palestinians and Israeli Soldiers Clash 12-hour Cease-fire in Gaza Fighting Begins Israel, Hamas Trade Fire Despite Truce in Gaza 13 Struck by Lightning on Calif. Beach Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Italy's Nibali Set to Win First Tour De France Kangaroo Goes Missing in Oklahoma Raw: Violent Clashes Between Libyan Militias Virginia Governor Tours Tornado Aftermath Kerry: No Deal Yet on 7-Day Gaza Truce Judge Faces Heat Over Offer to Help Migrant Kids Cumberbatch Brings 'Penguins' to Comic-Con Raw: Air Algerie Flight 5017 Wreckage Video Shows Smiling American Bomber in Syria Israeli American Reservist Torn Over Return
NDN Video
GMA: Dog passes out from excitment to see owner Robin Wright Can Dance! (WATCH) She's Back! See Paris Hilton's New Carl's Jr. Ad Morgan Freeman Sucks Down Helium on 'Tonight Show' Raw: Sea Turtle Hatchlings Emerge From Nest Baseball Hall of Famers Inducted Big Weekend For Atlanta Braves In Cooperstown - @TheBuzzeronFox Chapter Two: Becoming a first-time director What's Got Jack Black Freaking Out at Comic-Con? Doctors Remove 232 Teeth From Teen's Mouth Bradley Cooper Explains His Voice in 'Guardians of the Galaxy' Deja vu: Another NYPD officer choke-holding a suspect 'Fifty Shades of Grey': Watch the Super Sexy First Trailer Now! Reports: Ravens RB Ray Rice Suspended For 1st 2 Games Of The Season Air Algerie plane with 119 on board missing over Mali Diamond Stone, Malik Newman, Josh Jackson and others showcase talent Free Arturo - The World's Saddest Polar Bear A Look Back at Batman On Film Through The Years LeBron James -- Dropped $2k On Cupcake Apology ... Proceeds To Benefit Charity Snoop Dogg Says He Smoked Weed at the White House
Parade
Magazine

Click HERE to read all your Parade favorites including Hollywood Wire, Celebrity interviews and photo galleries, Food recipes and cooking tips, Games and lots more.
  • -

     

    March 12, 2010

activity