Friday, April 22, 2011

Legislated Pi

I mentioned the other day (here) meeting a lawyer once who could not believe in the indestructibility of matter. Today I chanced across an amusing but true story in Jan Gullberg’s Mathematics from the Birth of Numbers. The story concerns the value of π, which is 3.141593…. That number times the radius of a circle multiplied by itself produces the area of a circle. The dots behind the digits indicate an irrational number. It never terminates and does not have a repeating pattern of decimals. It’s an awkward number—was so especially before electronic calculators came into use—yet used in all manner of ways in math. It was also of great interest for those who thought that they could gain fame and glory by squaring the circle.

Well, the story has it that a physician in Indiana, around about 1896, concluded that simplifying π to the value of 3.2 could greatly benefit humanity in all manner of ways. Indeed he thought that he might make money from this idea. With that in mind he found an influential person in Indiana’s state legislature who introduced a bill defining π as having the value of 3.2 hereafter. The state house passed the bill 67 to 0. As luck would have it, a professor of mathematics just happened to be present at the legislature when the Senate was about to begin its debate on this bill. In a pause of the debate, he succeeded in persuading several senators that the bill was nonsense. The upshot was that the debate was postponed “until a later date.” The legislature of Indiana has not since returned to the subject.

My author generously omits all names in this account, except the name of the state; however, humility is indicated for each and every one of us, no matter where we live. There is truth in saying that we get the legislatures we deserve.

3 comments:

  1. Given the general contempt of the current majority in the U.S. House of Representatives towards other matters of science, I shouldn't be surprised to see this issue soon revived at the federal level.

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  2. We do live in interesting times. But I am beginning to get the feeling that "times" have always been interesting... Has any human lived an entire life during peaceful, tranquil, times in which rationality and thoughtfulness prevailed? I wonder. Perhaps, only those whose lives have been particularly short...

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  3. A quick check of Snopes.com gave up the name of the Legislator, Taylor I. Record.

    That led to a full account of the incident, for the Record (haha):
    http://www.agecon.purdue.edu/crd/localgov/second%20level%20pages/indiana_pi_story.htm

    Incidently, he managed to copyright the original "formula" as 5 divided by 4, or 3.2.

    Silly, everyone knows to estimate pi you divide 22 by 7.

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