Opinion: Columnists

When big government tried to change the value of pi to 3.2

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Opinion,Philip Klein,Columnists,Big Government,Science

March 14 is known as international Pi Day (3/14), which honors the mathematical ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter. Most people will remember from school that pi is roughly 3.14 (nerds might remember it as 3.141592653589, plus many more digits). But did you know that big government lawmakers once tried to change the value of pi to 3.2?

What's infamously known as the "Indiana pi bill" was proposed by lawmakers in the Hoosier State in 1897 and actually involves a bizarre case of crony capitalism.

As the local government information website at Purdue University explains, it all started with Edwin J. Goodwin, a doctor from Solitude, Ind., who was convinced that he had come up with a way to square the circle. He had copyrighted his brilliant idea and planned to charge royalties to people around the world to use it. But he made an offer his local representative couldn't refuse. If Indiana would pass a bill enshrining his new mathematical constant into law, Goodwin proposed, he'd allow the state to use it and teach it in its schools for free.

Indiana House Bill No. 246 (which you can read here) opened with the preamble: "A Bill for an act introducing a new mathematical truth and offered as a contribution to education to be used only by the State of Indiana free of cost by paying any royalties whatever on the same, provided it is accepted and adopted by the official action of the Legislature of 1897."

Section 2 of the bill established the "fact" that "the ratio of the diameter and circumference is as five-fourths to four." That ratio would translate pi to 3.2 (to try this at home, divide 4 by 1.25).

Despite the fact that lawmakers didn't really understand what was in the bill, it cleared committee and passed the House unanimously, 67 to 0. As one representative reportedly said during floor debate: "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."

Before it could pass the senate, the head of the Purdue University math department, Clarence Abiathar Waldo, had caught wind of the legislation and lobbied senators against it. Though the bill cleared committee, it was widely mocked on the Senate floor, and the chamber moved to indefinitely postpone its consideration.

And pi lived happily ever after.

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