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How the State of Indiana Almost Killed Pi

Indiana lawmakers nearly passed a law to "square the circle."

By Livability.com on March 14, 2016

indiana pi
Courtesy of Serge Melki under a CC 4.0 license.

Had things gone the way a group of Indiana lawmakers proposed in 1897, one of math's most complicated and celebrated numbers could have been changed forever.

To put it another way: Pi (3.14) was just a vote away from becoming 3.2 in the state of Indiana. 

The Indiana Pi Bill, as it's now known, started when physician Edward J. Goodwin attempted slove the square-the-circle problem. For centuries mathematicians and philosophers have theorized that there could be a way to calculate the area of a circle using only a compass and a straightedge. But year after year this theory was proven invalid, and no one has still been able to calculate the area of a circle using those tools. Goodwin, who spent much of his free time exploring math problems, got the journal American Mathematical Monthly to print an article stating he'd solved the squaring-the-circle problem. Part of Goodwin's solution involved changing the value of pi to 3.2.

Wholly wanting and misleading

Goodwin went on to copyright his proof and convinced members of the Indiana legislature that children were not being taught the correct approach to calculating the area of a circle. And so lawmakers wrote a bill to adopt Goodwin's "new mathematical truth" as law. The bill condemned 3.14 as "wholly wanting and misleading in its practical applications."

The bill was first introduced to the Indiana House of Representatives on January 18, 1897. It passed a series of readings and was brought to the Senate on Feb. 11, 1897. It appeared as if the bill would become law until it came up for a second reading in the Senate on Feb. 12, where it was postponed indefinitely.

Professor C.A. Waldo of Purdue University happened to be at the statehouse and heard debate on the bill, when he decided to challenged Goodwin's theory. It seemed that most legislators didn't really understand the mathematical formulas in the bill. And who can really blame them? The bill contained hard to follow phrases like, "Furthermore, it has revealed the ratio of the chord and arc of ninety degrees, which is as seven to eight, and also the ratio of the diagonal and one side of a square which is as ten to seven, disclosing the fourth important fact, that the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four; and because of these facts and the further fact that the rule in present use fails to work both ways mathematically, it should be discarded…"  

Waldo is credited with opening the eyes of several senators to the fact that Goodwin's new math was bad math.

The bill, thankfully, was never passed.



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