How Indiana tried to redefine pi

As might be expected, the attempt involved politicians

How Indiana tried to redefine pi
Max Pixel (CC0)

The spirit of Pi Day has captured my attention today, as I am sure it has for many of you. And nothing had done that more so than an essay recounting a late 19th Century attempt by Indiana legislators to put a stop to all those messy, meandering digits that follow 3.14 and officially declare the value of pi henceforth to be precisely 3.2.

You can read all about it on a Purdue University website:

Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin, M.D., a physician in the community of Solitude, Posey County, Indiana, was one of a long line of mathematical hobbyists to try to square the circle.  Dr. Goodwin thought he had succeeded, and, apparently a loyal Hoosier, decided that the State of Indiana should be the first beneficiary of this "new mathematical truth."

In 1897, Dr. Goodwin wrote a bill incorporating his new ideas, and persuaded his State Representative to introduce it.  Taylor I. Record was the Representative from Posey County to the Indiana General Assembly.  Representative Record was a farmer, timber and lumber merchant.  The session of 1897 was in his first and only term in the legislature.  During the debate on the bill, he was quoted as saying he knew nothing of it, but introduced it at the request of Dr. Goodwin. Representative Record submitted the bill, House Bill 246, on January 18, 1897. 

Had the expected gales of laughter ensued, we wouldn't be recounting this tale. No one laughed, though, at least not among the lawmakers, at least not at first. The bill sailed through preliminary hearings and votes.

Now in steps our hero.  On February 5, the head of the Purdue University Mathematics Department, Professor Clarence Abiathar Waldo, was in the Statehouse lobbying for the University's budget appropriation.  Professor Waldo had been an instructor of mathematics (and Latin) at several seminaries, institutes and colleges in the Midwest for more than 20 years.  He was the author of a book titled Manual of Descriptive Geometry.

He was astonished to find the General Assembly debating mathematical legislation.  Naturally, he listened in.  Naturally, he was horrified.  He heard a Representative speak for the bill:

The case is perfectly simple.  If we pass this bill which establishes a new and correct value of pi, the author offers our state without cost the use of his discovery and its free publication in our school textbooks, while everyone else must pay him a royalty.

It's always about the money, of course.

And here's my favorite line:

After the debate, a Representative offered to introduce him to Dr. Goodwin.  Professor Waldo replied that he was already acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know. 

Long story short: The press caught on, ridicule ensued, and cooler mathematical heads prevailed ... but not before Dr. Goodwin and Rep. Record had created a tale for the ages.

Now some of you may be wondering if maybe this story is the love child of Pi Day and April Fool's Day. I wondered, too.

However, there is a Wikipedia page that insists it happened. And does not have if flagged.

However, Snopes does put the kibosh on the story that the Alabama legislature actually did redefine pi - down to an even 3.0. From Snopes:

This wonderful bit of creative writing began circulating on the Internet in April 1998. Written by Mark Boslough as an April Fool's parody on legislative and school board attacks on evolution in New Mexico, the author took real statements from New Mexican legislators and school board members supporting creationism and recast them into a fictional account detailing how Alabama legislators had passed a law calling for the value of pi to be set to the "Biblical value" of 3.0.

The Internet took care of the rest and pretty soon Boslough's parody was being passed around as actual news.

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