Over 20 years ago an urban legend made its way in the annals of the internet that Alabama legally redefined pi as 3 to please religious groups. This never happened but in this age of misinformation and seemingly increasing scientific literacy problems it probably wouldn’t surprise some if this happened. After all, The Onion and The Babylon Bee seem to have more of a place in reality than in years past. Indeed, something like that urban legend nearly happened 124 years ago.
For over two millennia mathematicians had attempted to “square the circle”, or finding a square with an exact same area as a circle and thus producing a rational value for pi. By the late 1700s most mathematicians had given up on it. The French Academy of Science declared it impossible in 1775 and the Royal Society of Great Britain had followed suit the next year. In 1882, mathematician Ferdinand von Lindemann proved that it was a transcendental irrational number (meaning its digits never repeat) and thus squaring the circle was impossible. This didn’t stop Hoosier physician and amateur mathematician Edward J. Goodwin from giving it a shot.
In 1894, Goodwin had come to believe that he had outdone Archimedes on crafting a formula for the area of a circle and had accomplished the squaring of the circle, which would result in pi being through incorrect rounding 3.2 and also increased the area of the circle by 21%. As a resident of Indiana, he thought that his state ought to be first to benefit from his work and ought to have the unique privilege of doing so for free. In 1897, Goodwin persuaded Representative Taylor I. Record to introduce the bill he wrote to the General Assembly which would have provided the new formula in textbooks without paying royalties, thus making his formula for the area of a circle and therefore the value of pi being 3.2 be regarded as legal fact in Indiana rather than the approximation of 3.14. The measure was initially met with confusion and it was originally proposed to go to the Finance Committee but instead it went to the Committee on Education. A representative speaking in favor stated, “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” (Klein).
The bill shockingly passed unanimously on February 6th, but by the time it had made its way to the Senate, mathematics Professor C.A. Waldo of Purdue University, who was at the capitol that day to ask for funding for the Academy of Sciences, had gotten wind of this and intervened. Although he had brushed up senators on geometry, the measure almost passed the Senate. After a senator pointed out that the legislature could not define mathematical truth, the bill was postponed indefinitely. Waldo later reflected, “My state did not further this monstrosity, and it was probably the Indiana Academy of Science alone which prevented it” (Smith). This story, hilarious as it is, demonstrates the limitations of politics to decide what is right and true, for it is good fortune that Waldo was there to stop it.
P.S.: The next entry on my series for populist parties will be the next post. I have some more research and writing I’d like to do before posting.
Alabama’s Slice of Pi. (1998, October 28). Snopes.
Goins, E.H. In Celebration of Pi Day: The History of the Indiana Pi Bill. Purdue University Department of Mathematics.
Klein, P. When big government tried to change the value of pi to 3.2. Washington Examiner.
Smith, K.N. (2018, February 5). Indiana’s State Legislature Once Tried To Legislate The Value of Pi. Forbes Magazine.