TERRE HAUTE — Last Sunday was National Pi Day, so a fellow Purdue alumni pal forwarded a great rendition of one of my favorite Indiana stories: When the state Legislature nearly passed a law rounding off the mathematical number, pi, to 3.2.
Reading the account — on agecon.purdue.edu — was not only entertaining, but also it reminded me how little has changed in politics since 1897. That is a good thing to keep in mind when we find ourselves getting all nostalgic about how civilized and enlightened our elected representatives supposedly used to be.
Pi, for those who don’t know or forgot, is the ratio of the circumference of a circle to the diameter of the circle. Any circle. Since about 1900 B.C., mathematicians and scientists have pretty much agreed you have to use pi to figure out the area of a circle. Ptolemy (90-168 A.D.) seems to get credit for first pinning pi at 3.1416 … and infinitesimally counting. Infinitesimally because pi is what’s known as an “irrational number”; it never ends.
Obviously, a number like 3.14 etc., which is key in a zillion math and engineering tasks, strikes a lot of non-math/science folks as unwieldy. But what can you do? Geniuses have tried to calculate circles without pi, but all have failed. It is what it is. Even in pre-calculator days, people learned to deal with it.
Except for a few weeks in Indiana in 1897.
The story begins in Posey County, where a medical doctor whose hobby was mathematics believed he had done something many math geeks had dreamed of doing — “square the circle,” meaning he could determine the area of a circle the same way we determine the area of a square, by using right angles and no pi of 3.14 etc.
The doctor, Edwin J. Goodwin, said all you had to do was use a finite 3.20 “pi” to figure a circle like a square. He was way off base with this, but he also was apparently quite impressive. So much so that he convinced his state rep — a man with the wonderful name of Taylor I. Record — to sponsor a bill in the General Assembly that would make Indiana the first state to adopt the “new mathematical truth” of a 3.20 pi and squaring the circle.
Best of all, Goodwin generously offered to hand over his truth “as a contribution to education” so Indiana could reap for free the knowledge that everyone else in the world would have to pay Goodwin for when the world caught up.
According to the Purdue ag economics site, Record was a farmer and timber dealer. A first (and only) termer in the Assembly, he did not pretend to understand a thing about Goodwin’s new mathematical truth. He just assumed the doctor knew what he was talking about.
Record had lots of company. The state Superintendent of Public Instruction declared that Goodwin had accomplished what had eluded mathematicians for millennia. Making its way from the Committee on Canals (and Swamps) through the Committee on Education, H.B. 246 sailed through the Indiana House by a vote of 67-0.
As the Purdue site notes, Hoosier journalists of the day weren’t any better versed in mathematical constants than were Rep. Record and his colleagues. Most newspapers just reported the language of the bill and the vote. One, however, the Indianapolis Journal, must have had an engineer or math whiz on staff. The paper called H.B. 246 “the strangest bill that has ever passed an Indiana Assembly.”
The next step was the Indiana Senate, where Goodwin’s new mathematical truth would be judged and condemned by another man with a fabulous name, Clarence Abiathar Waldo.
Professor Waldo headed the math department at Purdue and also was skilled in twisting political arms for money, aka “lobbying.” He was visiting the General Assembly to keep tabs on Purdue’s state appropriations on Feb. 5, when the Senate got the 3.20 pi bill from Posey County.
Waldo’s opinion of the new mathematical truth? Offered a chance to meet Dr. Edwin J. Goodwin to discuss the bill, “Professor Waldo replied that he was already acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know,” says the account on agecon.purdue.edu.
Waldo went to work trying to educate the Senate members about pi and the impossibility of squaring the circle. Days passed, the bill cleared the Committee on Temperance (go figure) and made it to the full chamber for debate.
By then, though, “leading newspapers of Chicago and the East” had gotten wind of Indiana’s pending vote and heaped great scorn on the Assembly. Added to Waldo’s detailed debriefing, the new information was enough to derail the 3.20 pi express.
Many senators took to the floor on Feb. 12 to speak against the pi bill, behaving as though the idea had been absurd all along. But the telling observation came, again, from the Indianapolis Journal, which reported:
“… no one who spoke against it intimated that there was anything wrong with the theories it advances. All of the senators who spoke on the bill admitted that they were ignorant of the merits of the proposition. It was simply regarded as not being a subject for legislation.”
A motion to indefinitely postpone consideration of the bill was passed, and the new mathematical truth died in Indiana.
Other than hearing a bunch of politicians publicly admit they’re ignorant about a subject before them, it isn’t hard to imagine current Assembly members traveling far down a legislative road they had no business setting out upon in the first place. Say, with an issue like property tax caps.
Most experts in the field insist caps are highly complicated and should be implemented with care, but the majority in the Assembly keeps insisting caps are as “easy” to understand “as 1-2-3,” and all we need to do is vote them into our state Constitution in November.
Where’s Waldo? We need him again.
Stephanie Salter can be reached at (812) 231-4229 or firstname.lastname@example.org.