Legislating the value of pi

Legislating the value of \pi

There is a persistent myth that the state legislature of Indiana (some say Iowa, others Idaho) once passed a law declaring the correct value of \pi to be —well, sometimes people say 3, sometimes 3 \frac{1}{9}

Anyway, the myth is false.

However, something uncomfortably close nearly happened. The actual value concerned is unclear: the document in question seems to imply at least nine different values, all of them wrong. The law was not passed: it was “indefinitely postponed”, and apparently still is. The law concerned was House Bill 246 of the Indiana State Legislature for 1897, and it empowered the State of Indiana to make sole use of a “new mathematical truth” at no cost. This Bill was passed — there was no reason to do otherwise, since it did not oblige the State to do anything. In fact, the vote was unanimous.

The new truth, however, was rather complicated, and incorrect, attempt to ‘square the circle’ — that is, to construct geometrically. An Indianapolis newspaper published an article pointing out that squaring the circle is impossible. By the time the Bill went to Senate for confirmation, the politicians — even though most of them new nothing about \pi — had sensed that there were difficulties. (The efforts of Professor C.A. Waldo of the Indiana Academy of Sciences, a mathematician who happened to be visiting the House when the Bill was debated probably helped concentrate their minds.) They did not debate the validity of the mathematics; they decided that the matter was not suitable for legislation. So, they postponed the bill…even after so many years, it remains that way.

The mathematics involved was almost certainly the brainchild of Edwin J. Goodwin, a doctor who dabbled in mathematics. He lived in the village of Solitude in Posey County, Indiana, and at various times claimed to have trisected the angle and duplicated the  cube — two other famous and equally impossible feats — as well as squaring the circle. At any rate, the legislature of Indiana did not consciously attempt to give \pi an incorrect value by law — although there is a persuasive argument that passing the Bill would have ‘enacted’ Goodwin’s approach, implying its accuracy in law, though perhaps not in mathematics. It’s a delicate legal point.

More later,

Nalin Pithwa

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