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How Indiana tried to define Pi as 3.2 – and almost succeeded

Ah yes, Indiana. My home state. The state where I was born, grew up, and have lived all 35 years of my life.

With exception of Indianapolis, Fort Wayne, the Chicago area, and a pocket near Bloomington (where Indiana University is located), the state is very much pro-Trump. After all, our state legislature tried to let schools teach Creationism, businesses try to refuse service to same-sex couples (because: religion, of course), and a school suspended a beloved counselor for having the audacity to be gay (GASP!). And when the Satanic Temple volunteered their time to clean up litter on the side of a highway, local residents lost their collective shit over it.

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Oh yeah, we’re also responsible for Mike Pence. You’re welcome, America.

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So in a state of religious and conservative chaos, maybe it’s not all that surprising that Indiana’s state legislature once tried to define pi as being 3.2, instead of 3.14.

If that doesn’t make sense to you, that’s okay. It shouldn’t.

In the late 19th Century, a physician named Edward J. Goodwin thought he had this whole “math” thing figured out. He thought he could simplify Pi by ‘squaring a circle’, because why not?

You’d think that even with the Bible referencing Pi (I Kings 7:23 – “[King Solomon] made the Sea of cast metal, circular in shape, measuring ten cubits from rim to rim and five cubits high. It took a line of thirty cubits to measure around it.”), Indiana would leave well enough alone. 

But this is Indiana.

ABC News reports:

Goodwin tried to popularize his theories, with little luck, until 1897, when he convinced the Indiana State Legislature to take up his cause.

Taylor I. Record introduced what became known as Indiana Bill No. 246: “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 royalties whatever on the same.”

The legislation was so little understood by the those considering it, it was initially referred to the House Committee on Canals.

Of course, this wasn’t just about violating one of the most basic principles of geometry (or violating the rules of rounding numbers up/down for that matter). Money was also involved.

Were the world to adopt Goodwin’s copyrighted number, the thinking went, textbook publishers everybody might be forced to pay him royalties — except the state of Indiana, which would receive use of Goodwin’s discovery free of charge.

Perhaps this fiduciary enthusiasm explains why a committee (not the one on canals) favorably reported the bill. It then passed the Indiana House of Representatives on a unanimous vote, though it was unclear whether any of those who endorsed the bill’s passage could explain what on earth it meant.

“An Illinois circle or a circle originating in Ohio will find its proportions modified as soon as it lands on Indiana soil,” snarked one editorial at the time.

But as ABC noted, Purdue mathematics professor Clarence A. Waldo swooped in as the hero we never thought we’d need to save our state from becoming even more of a nationally-recognized laughing stock.

After passing the Indiana House, Waldo was able to intervene and educate members of the Indiana Senate about the ridiculousness of the bill. Imagine living in a society where our legislators took advice from scientists and professionals in their respective fields. How truly marvelous that would be!

Waldo had a chance to meet Goodwin, and his response was truly wonderful. He “declined the courtesy with thanks, remarking that he was acquainted with as many crazy people as he cared to know.” 

Goodwin died five years later, with one obituary saying “the child of his genius still unreceived by the scientific world.” 

And with that, Indiana Bill 246 was tabled. That’s right – it wasn’t defeated. They just didn’t vote on it.

So perhaps, just maybe, some day we’ll get around to defeating it. Or who knows, maybe our legislature today would actually pass it?

On the off chance than any legislators read this, here is Pi to 10,000 digits:

Written by Dan Broadbent

Science Enthusiast. Atheist. Lover of cats.

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