February 5 – Pi, schmi

Today’s Factismal: In 1879, the Indiana State House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill making pi equal to 3.2, 4.0, or 3.23 (you had your choice).

Perhaps the most maligned number in all of history is pi (also written as π). When the Babylonians first proposed that the ratio of the diameter of a circle to its circumference was a constant, they didn’t know the trouble that they would cause. The Greeks fought over whether it was a rational number that could be calculated by the ratio of two other numbers(e.g., 142/45) or an irrational number that could only be approximated (e.g., by throwing needles on the floor); during a long sea voyage, one sect even threw a member overboard when he proved that pi had to be irrational.

And the confusion continued to the modern day. Every year, there are people who try to demonstrate that pi is really a rational number just because it offends them that it might be irrational. And every once in a while, those people manage to get someone to listen.

That’s what happened in Indiana in 1879. A physician by the name of Ed Goodwin who had a love/hate relationship with pi made friends with T.I. Record who was state representative. Goodwin persuaded his friend to introduce a bill into the Indiana House of Representatives that would “revolutionize mathematics”, which was putting it mildly. Record managed to bring the bill to his committee, which happened to be the Committee on Swamp Lands. The other legislators decided that they weren’t the right group to debate it and sent the bill over to the Committee on Education which amazingly gave it a “do pass” recommendation. (Obviously, there was a need for more education in the Committee on Education.) It went to the full House, which passed it unanimously.

The next step in turning the bill into a law was getting it passed by the State Senate. The senators put the bill in the Committee on Temperance, which again gave it a “do pass” recommendation. The bill was then read out on the floor of the State Senate where a professor of mathematics from Purdue University just happened to be sitting in the gallery, listening to the arguments. The professor went to the office of his State Senator and explained what a bunch of idiots they would look like if they passed the bill. The senator then passed the word to his colleagues, and the bill was allowed to die quietly on the floor without ever being brought up for a vote.

While pi is irrational, you don’t have to be. You can take part in a mathematics experiment by growing sunflowers and counting the seeds in order to prove an idea by Alan Turing, one of the great mathematicians of the last century.

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