The Lighter Side of the Law – An Ode to Pi
March 25, 2013
Although there’s no math on the LSAT (a fact for which many a prospective law student has thanked her lucky stars), today’s post has a mathematical bent: in honour of the recently celebrated Pi Day (3/14), we’re going to look at the lighter side of the law – specifically, one Indiana politician’s attempt to round off pi.
Before we get to the truth of the story, let’s debunk the common myth: no one actually tried to pass a law rounding pi off to an even (or odd) 3. There was an April Fool’s hoax which gathered almost War of the Worldsian fervour before it was quashed, but no such bill was ever introduced in any modern legislature.
However, that doesn’t mean that no one has ever tried any pi shenanigans (pinanigans?). While the Indiana Pi Bill (the popular name for bill #246 of the 1897 sitting of the Indiana General Assembly) didn’t specifically legislate a value for pi (in fact, it never mentioned the world’s tastiest transcendental number by name), it did attempt to “square the circle” – overlooking that such action had been proven impossible a mere 15 years earlier.
So, how did this geometrical travesty occur? An Indiana doctor and amateur mathematician (emphasis on the “amateur”), Edwin J. Goodwin, convinced an Indiana Representative that Goodwin had discovered a correct way to square a circle, and that by passing the law Indiana would blaze new mathematical ground, make life considerably simpler for future generations of middle school students and, as an added benefit, make the Representative famous for taking the initiative.
How was disaster nearly averted? After the Bill made the preliminary rounds and was well on its way to becoming a law it serendipitously ended up in the hands of an actual mathematician, who quickly recognized it’s blatant falsity.
What are the takeaways from this near debacle?
1) Support the separation of Math and State;
2) Every legislature should keep a real mathematician on hand, just in case;
3) Everybody loves pi, even if some of people misunderstand it; and