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Something interesting has happened on (just about) every day of the year, and Daily TWiP provides the proof. An offshoot of my local events column The Week in Preview (affectionately known as TWiP), Daily TWiP was published April 2008-Aug. 2011 and is still giving readers reasons to celebrate.

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Daily TWiP – Feb. 5, 1897: The Indiana General Assembly unanimously votes to change the value of pi

You’d think that since pi is by definition a mathematical constant, it would be left alone to go about its business of representing the value of the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. Today (Feb. 5) in 1897, however, Indiana’s General Assembly found itself faced with a confusing bit of legislation courtesy of a crank mathematician looking to make a quick buck by essentially redefining the value of pi.

House Bill 246 was introduced Jan. 18, 1897, by Representative Taylor I. Record at the behest of one of his constituents, a physician by the name of Edwin J. Goodwin. Goodwin believed he had succeeded in squaring the circle, which would result in pi having a new, easier-to-work-with value of 3.2.

Being a good Hoosier, Goodwin offered his home state the opportunity to use his revolutionary mathematical concepts in the educational system free of charge, providing they passed these concepts into law. Everyone else in the world would be required to pay him a royalty.

You can read the full text of the bill here. None of the legislators (including Record) fully understood the bill, which was loaded with jargon-heavy statements that contradicted one another as well as the basic laws of geometry.

After the bill had been reviewed by the House Committee on Canals (apparently the legislators thought it had something to do with land surveyance) and the House Education Committee, the House passed the bill 67 to 0 on Feb. 5, 1897, by the recommendation of the Education Committee.

Had it not been for mathematics professor Clarence A. Waldo of Purdue University, the bill might have passed the Senate as well. He was at the statehouse to lobby for the university’s budget appropriation and fortuitously overheard the mathematical back-and-forth in the House, where one representative advocated passing the bill on the basis that the state would save money by not having to pay royalties on the new value of pi.

Waldo lost no time in approaching the Senate and carefully explaining the bill to them in painstaking detail. When the bill went before the Senate about a week later, the senators were in a much better position to handle it.

The Senate voted to table the bill indefinitely, not because they disagreed with Goodwin’s findings – even after Waldo’s coaching, most of them admitted they still didn’t understand the bill – but because they didn’t believe mathematical constants were an appropriate subject for legislation.

Senator Hubbell was quoted in the Indianapolis Journal as saying, “The Senate might as well try to legislate water to run up hill as to establish mathematical truth by law.”

And that, pretty much, was that. The bill hasn’t come up on the Senate agenda since.

– Teresa Santoski


Originally published Feb. 5, 2010

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