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Stephanie Salter

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.”

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Stephanie Salter
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