Today’s story is a very interesting one and possibly, one of the few stories on this science blog so strongly related to politics. March 14 is when most of the die-hard mathematics fans (and science fans in general) celebrate the most famous number in science: pi.
We all know what pi is, don’t we? If you ask around, most people know how to imagine this number: it is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, which is an excellent way to think about it. Why is this number so irrational, I can’t really tell, but then that is the magic of irrational numbers.
What do I mean by irrational? An irrational number is a number that can be written as a ratio of two integers. Pi has more decimals than we computed with our best computers. It seems that no matter how far we go, we can’t reach the end of it, and more interesting, figures don’t really repeat themselves (well, not one after another, as you can guess because there are only 10 figures).
Now, this is not really science-fiction, but the mathematical explanations go deeper than I want to go in this article (and you need to be quite familiar with mathematical language and concepts to understand them).
So, what’s with this politics thing I mentioned before? Well, in 1896, a mathematics amateur named Edwin Goodwin (physician as a primary qualification) believed that he had found a better approximation of the number pi: 3.2. He had constructed a circle with a circumference of 32 and a diameter of 10, and inscribed a square having sides of length 7, as you can see in the image below:
Now Goodwin kind of misunderstood the idea of “squaring the circle,” and he literally squared it. He thought that he should literally inscribe the circle in a square, and so he did. Besides that, as a fun fact, Archimedes already did that some 2000 years before. Things are not that easy, though, as circles cannot be approximated as polygons that easily. There is one funny comic circulating online:
What Goodwin did next was propose his new result to one state representative, Taylor Record, and he made some interesting side proposals to him (or maybe they can be seen as side-effects, really), stating that the changing of the value of pi could come with some material advantages too, which probably caught Record’s attention. He said that the result and method could appear for free in Indiana textbooks, while it would get Indiana some royalties as it concerns other states. Who would say no to that? (even though his approximation was totally wrong)
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In 1897, on January 18, Taylor Record introduced the idea to the Indiana State Legislature. It is now known as Bill No. 246, and it was described as: “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.”. Sounds good, ey? Although I do not even agree with charging for mathematical truths, as science should be available for everyone.
The financial part in all this was probably what made all of the people for whom it was made available to, and I mean, all of them, vote in favor of this hazardous bill. I say that because, from the reports I’ve read, nobody really understood what the bill was stating, actually, but it seemed like a good thing. The bill was initially voted for unanimously, as the rest of the country was making fun of it, with jokes such as this: “An Illinois circle or a circle originating in Ohio will find its proportions modified as soon as it lands on Indiana soil.”
As the Senate took up the case of the bill, interestingly enough, a real mathematician was around, and what followed was a complete shock to the bewildered scientist. He was by no means expecting a discussion on his topic of knowledge, mathematics, but as he saw the bill, he stood against it with arguments solid enough. This intervention secured the bill’s vanishing for good. Still, an interesting story to tell is how Indiana once felt the need to change pi to.. 3.2. What a terror to scientists. Have a good one, folks.