March 14, 2014

Pi Day!

It's Pi Day! March 13 (3/14) is celebrated around the world as the day for venerating the mathematical ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. Remember that nugget from your early education? It's (sort of) 3.14 (if you want to calculate it yourself, see some methods here). While various organizations suggest ways to honor the irrational number, including baking Pi pies, there is at least one law and humanities link to Pi.

Now, I have heard at least two different stories purporting to be the truth here (some suggesting that the Indiana legislature was involved and some that it was the Kentucky legislature that tried to redefine the value of Pi). Here's what I have tracked down. In 1897, an Indiana physician and amateur (really amateur) mathetician named Edward J. Goodwin thought he had succeeded in squaring the circle and also demonstrated that the value of Pi was actually effectively 3.2. Now, squaring the circle is a mathematical impossibility, as Ferdinand von Lindemann showed in 1882. However, Dr. Goodwin thought he had done it, and copyrighted his proof. Further, he really wanted children to be educated to understand his great discovery (despite his desire to collect royalties on his proof), so he decided that he would ask the state of Indiana to accept the truth of his discovery. Thus, the state wouldn't have to pay royalties, which would probably have been prohibitive.

He got the attention of some Indiana legislators who introduced House Bill 246 (the Indiana Pi Bill)  during the 1897 session. Then the fun began. The debate on the floor over the advisibility of accepting a set value for Pi got national attention. It also caught the attention of a math professor, Clarence Abiathar Waldo, at Purdue University, who proceeded to educate some of the members of the Indiana Senate on the basics of math, which they seemed to have forgotten. They were successful in putting off a vote on the bill, enthusiasm for it faded away, and as a result, Pi in Indiana does not have an official value of 3.2.

More here from Mental Floss Magazine, here from a personal page by Mark Brader at the University of Michigan.  Read the text of the bill here. 

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