This week in 1897, lawmakers in the state of Indiana almost added a mathematical shortcut to state law, when they came close to passing a bill that would have set the wrong amount for the number pi.

If you’re due for a refresher, pi is a number that’s used in a lot of ways in science and math.

But it’s best known as the ratio you use to calculate the area of a circle or the circumference of the circle.

Pi is an irrational number, meaning that it goes on forever and its decimal places never repeat.

So, in a manner of speaking, we don’t know the entire value of pi because we haven’t been able to calculate it (though we’ve gotten several billion decimal places closer).

As a fraction pi is expressed as 22/7, or often students working without calculators will abbreviate pi as about 3.14.

And it’s fine to abbreviate the number as long as you’re pretty close.

Back in the late 19th Century, physician and math hobbyist Edwin J. Goodwin came to the Indiana Statehouse claiming that he had solved a long-running mathematical conundrum known as squaring the circle.

It’s sort of complicated to explain, but the key point is that mathematicians have proven that this is not something you can actually do with math.

Goodwin claimed otherwise.

And, according to an account from Purdue University, he proposed that if Indiana formally approved his formula, he would allow the state’s schools to use it for free, while people everywhere else would have to pay him royalties.

That’s probably why the Indiana House passed the bill unanimously: they thought they were getting a good deal for their state.

But the problem was that his formula only worked if the value of pi was set at 3.2… which it is not.

One of the newspapers reported later that “this is the strangest bill that has ever passed an Indiana Assembly.”

The bill might have actually become law if not for a visit to the state capitol by Purdue University math professor C.A. Waldo.

He was lobbying lawmakers for Purdue’s state funding when a legislator offered to introduce him to the genius that had figured out how to square the circle.

Waldo said, no thanks, I already know enough crazy people.

When he learned about the pi bill, he started explaining to state senators just how off the mark it was, and so rather than passing the bill as the House had done, they mocked it for about a half hour before postponing any further action on it.

Thanks to Professor Waldo, the value of pi in Indiana today remains pi.

I guess it’s good that, on this particular day, they knew where Waldo was.

If you’ve ever said to yourself, what I need is a website that combines real time radio messages from airports with ambient music, have we got a site for you.

Listen To The Clouds lets you choose radio traffic from dozens of airports around the world, and plays them alongside ambient music tracks.

It’s meant to be on in the background while you’re working or chilling out.

But it’s probably not that useful if you’re piloting a plane.

Feb. 5, 1897: Indiana Pols Forced to Eat Humble Pi (Wired)


It would be cool if we had a backer on Patreon who gave pi dollars a month

Photo by maja kuzmanovic via Flickr/Creative Commons